This fall I started my third year in IB Literature at Cayman International School in the Cayman Islands. CIS was pretty decent about hiring me for the IB Lit program when I had never taught IB before. They were gambling that with my experience in both internationals schools and English that I would be able to make the transition. They were right, but it has not been easy.

The first thing I needed to do was a survey of the assessments used in IB. I know it is a dreadful commentary on education in the 21st century that this is where you need to begin, but that is the reality and you just have to face it. Assessments don’t just determine where the kids get to go in the fall: Harvard, or Happy Valley College of Advanced Basketweaving. Success in assessments is also a means of assessing your success in teaching the program.

IB assessments are pretty much all external, so as a teacher you need to find out quickly what the program is looking for and how you can deliver on those assessment criteria. In IB Literature nearly 50 percent of that mark comes from two exams at the end of the two year program. Hit those targets and the rest will fall in to place. Miss that target and whatever you did that was valuable will be looked at with a jaundiced eye. One of those exams, what IB calls a ‘Paper 2,’ is based on just four texts. IB doesn’t care if those four texts are plays, poetry, or novels, so long as all four are in the same genre.

I am going to reveal some real literary prejudice here by saying that I would be hard pressed to name four plays – outside of Shakespeare – that I would consider worth studying. And finding thematic similarities would be even more daunting. The same holds true for collections of poetry. Given the constraints of IB Lit, it would mean looking at four poets and 48 to 60 poems. Not for this guy. So novels then. Alright. Now choose four novels that are 100 to 200 pages in length, of enduring literary value, that cover the time from Dickens to DeLillo, that reveal a range of narrative voices, that are on the IB Proscribed List of Authors, that have enough thematic similarity that they will serve for a comparative essay on a Paper 2 exam, and that 17 year-olds would find interesting. I’ll give you a minute.

It took me a month in the first year. I choose Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. It was well worth the time it took to be careful for all four have been instrumental in facilitating comparative essays on the Paper 2. The other exam, the ‘Paper 1,’ is a literary analysis of a sight passage in either prose or poetry. That is something that takes two years of practice in critical literary analysis to get ready for, and text here really doesn’t matter as long as there is a good variety. I try to cover Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, Anouilh, and Schlink, and as wide a variety of poets as I can squeeze in. I am pretty happy with those choices as well.

All of this has to be housed somewhere, and these days that somewhere is Google. For the first two years I used folders in Google Drive to house student work, and Google Sites to post lessons, articles, and study guides. This year I am moving it all to the revamped Google Classroom, which automatically links to Google Calendar and the email addresses of both students and parents. So far the transition has been seamless, and a vast improvement over Sites, which had to be cobbled together with Drive, Calendar, and Google mail in convoluted ways.

So, how am I doing? Well the first year was basically survival. In the final exams my students all scored either an IB Level 4 or Level 5, with the balance slightly in favour of Level 5. But I had inherited these kids from the previous IB teacher and didn’t have enough time in just one year to change them. I was grateful that no one scored a 3 and disappointed that no one scored a 6. By the end of the second year this had improved dramatically. Nearly 80 percent scored a Level 5 or higher in Lit, and no one scored lower than a four. It was the highest percentage of any of the IB subjects at the school.

This is year three. Now I have all of my ducks in a row and things are falling into place the way they should. The kids know what they have to do and so do I. I have moved my novel study up to give the students plenty of time to review for the final exams and have study protocols in place to keep them on task. From an unknown quantity two years ago, I am now regarded as an experienced veteran whose opinion is sought on matters of curriculum development in other grades of English. Student confidence is up, and student writing has improved. I haven’t had an incident of plagiarism in over a year as these protocols are so well established and well-known that the kids don’t even try.

In short, I am a happy camper. The marking load will never decrease, but the preparation load has been reduced to near zero. I have more time to read, to walk to work, to swim at the beach, or even to blog, which I have solely missed. I am writing this now in some of that free time. Next year will be even better, and at the end of that, who knows. Maybe I will ready to finally retire!

October 2017