Midnight in the Garden of Knowledge and Red Bull

Falls Church Times Staff

A “Mustang Birthday” marks the tenure of a George Mason High School teacher, and Asheesh Misra spent his first Mustang Birthday — July 31, 2009 — preparing for another year as the school’s International Baccalaureate Program Coordinator.  While the date itself was perhaps just another Friday during the waning days of summer vacation, it was quietly observed with optimism by many parents and students for whom the IB program is the acme of academic opportunities available within the Falls Church City Public School system.

The quip heard through the halls at Mason over the previous years was that the IB Coordinator position was akin to teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry in author J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series.  The analogy was the result of exceptional turnover among incumbents to the position –  just as the Hogwarts students were introduced to a new professor each academic year due to the previous character having been dispatched through some mysterious, sinister plot twist in the preceding book.

While there are without question mysterious, sinister plot twists in the lives of most high school students, the turnover in the IB office was more of an unanticipated consequence related to the departure of veteran IB Coordinator Brian Dickson in 2006 and the retirement of Principal Bob Snee in 2008.  Misra, who has been teaching since 1997, came to Mason from George C. Marshall High School, where he had taught for five years, the last as IB Co-Coordinator.

“Across the board, this is the most professional staff I have worked with in four high schools,” Misra said.  “IB has been such an important part of this school and its traditions,” he continued, acknowledging the fact that in 1981 Mason became the first IB Diploma Program World School in Virginia.

What draws parents and their children, both with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance, to the IB program?  Some have commented that while Advanced Placement courses require academic rigor and offer the possibility of receiving college credit, IB focuses on the whole person, teaching the student how to think, how to learn, and how to recognize connections between details or ideas that appear completely disparate at first blush.

In Misra’s opinion, “IB is the best preparation for 21st century expectations.  I believe IB does the best job of developing critical, creative thinkers that are going to be the leaders of the future.  We’re teaching to a set of advanced intellectual standards versus ‘teaching to the test’,” a phrase Misra views as one of the most misused in education.

Whether armed with a mastery of those advanced intellectual standards or lucky testing talismans passed down through a generation of IB students, 240 Mason juniors and seniors sat for one or more IB exams in 2009.  That was effectively 76% of the entire eleventh and twelfth grades taking a combined total of 684 exams.  IB exams are graded on a scale from 1  to 7, with 4 being the unofficial passing score.  Mason’s 2009 average score was 4.70, the third highest average over the past decade.

Among the 32 seniors who were IB diploma candidates, the average diploma score was 5.25 with 100 percent of the candidates awarded a diploma.  Over the past decade, Mason also achieved a 100 percent diploma success rate in 2008 (31 students) and 2002 (20 students).  The 32 diploma candidates in 2009 reflect the second highest total number of candidates over the same 1999 – 2009 time frame.  If the class of 2011 (Mason’s senior class in waiting) stays on track, they could set the record with 49 diplomas being awarded.

A quick IB tutorial is probably in order.  The reason there are potentially a greater number of students sitting for IB exams than there are IB diplomas awarded is because there are two types of students: diploma candidates and certificate candidates.  Also keep in mind that IB at the high school level is a two-year program.


The IB hexagon provides a graphic synopsis of the program.  The six groups on the outer sides of the graphic represent the overarching courses of study.  Within group three (Individuals and Societies) one finds courses like Information Technology in a Global Society, History of the Americas, and Business and Management. Group six (The Arts) includes Music, Theater Arts, and Visual Arts.

Over the course of the program, a diploma candidate takes six subjects, one from each group on the IB hexagon.  A certificate candidate takes one or more of the IB subjects in accordance with their interests and abilities.  For diploma candidates, three to four of the six subjects are studied at a higher level that requires two years to accommodate the 240 teaching hours per subject.  If a student is not studying a higher level course, he or she is studying at the standard level, which represents about 150 teaching hours.

“IB is not just for the highest achieving students,” Misra said.  “The number-one factor to finishing college in four years is the rigor of the courses taken in high school.  Even if a student struggles with IB, the intellectual investigation helps them develop a skill set more attuned to the requirements of college.”

Back to the hexagon: the inner hexagon represents additional requirements for diploma candidates.  There are three: the Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) program (150 hours to complete); a course entitled Theory of Knowledge (TOK) that is taken over spring semester junior year and fall semester senior year; and an extended essay on a topic related to the student’s course of study.  Misra provides prospective IB students and their families an overview of the program at the Mason website and through an information meeting held at the school each January.  The next IB Night is Thursday, January 14.  Misra also emphasizes that for many potential diploma candidates, course selection in preparation for the IB program begins as early as the eighth grade.

“A majority of the students who have a desire to pursue the IB diploma also have the ability,” is a frequent reminder from Misra.  “Students arrive from the middle school intellectually prepared, although we do need to more coherently articulate the curriculum from the middle school into early high school then onto IB so as to better assist students and parents with their course selection decisions.”

Will Cunningham, who attended his introductory IB meeting in 2006 and graduated in 2009, understands caffeine.  This understanding extends beyond that which is prevalent across society: the morning queue for a hot tea, a coffee with room for cream, or a uniquely-tailored latte that requires two minutes to order and involves defining the number of shots, the source of the milk, the temperature of the beverage, the country of origin for any spice, and a requirement that the sweetener must have been produced by indigenous people with clear consciences whose first contact with European explorers was not earlier than 1727.  But I digress.

Cunningham’s understanding is based on his IB extended essay wherein he documented his experimentation with three different methods for extracting caffeine from roasted coffee beans to determine which technique produced the greatest quantity of caffeine per milliliter of liquid.  In order to qualify for the bilingual IB diploma, Cunningham wrote the essay in Spanish (not his native language).  His understanding is also based on the reality he and many of his peers faced daily: getting through all the schoolwork to earn the grades they needed to further their academic goals often meant living with very little sleep.

Describing his higher level chemistry course, Cunningham recalled, “There were twelve of us.  Everyone was struggling, sleep deprived, and it brought everyone closer.  We basically lived together for the day before a test.  (Caffeine) was the key to keeping the adrenaline going; once that ran out, everyone crashed.”

Mary Dassira, a 2008 Mason graduate, remembers “a lot of nights where I wanted to give up.  I would call friends looking for motivation and support.  Often they’d offer me a free Orangina in the morning if I just kept going.”

The joke in Dassira’s house was that no one ever saw her; she never came down from studying in her tower, the upstairs bedroom where she lived.  “My sister Maggie is in eleventh grade now and in IB and no one sees her either.  She’s got my old bedroom and they’re calling it the curse of that room.”

“I cautioned my mother against Maggie taking IB,” Dassira said.  “The stress — it’s like going through the first two years of college except you’re not ready for it.”

Seth Ensign, who graduated with Dassira in 2008, recalls IB as “a lot of work; it kept me busy.”  He continued, “IB was about picking out the assignments you really had to do, then deciding what you could let slide.  Even with that, I did spend nights working late to stay in the program, but it was totally worth it in the end.  I stayed with it because it actually does a lot to round you out as a person.”

In the spring of 2009, classmates Janine Baumgardner and Will Cunningham decided to investigate the state of IB at Mason.  They wrote in the introduction to their paper, Reflections on the International Baccalaureate Program:As our senior year and the most difficult year of our life—academically and otherwise—came to a close, it seemed fitting for us to more formally explore the perceptions of the people affected by the IB program, including students taking IB classes, teachers instructing those classes, and parents of participating students.  We had heard much of what some would call ‘complaining’ from our classmates—but had limited information about the opinions of our teachers and parents.

They continued:  “We thought that collecting this data was the first step toward making any necessary changes in the program at our school.  Our hope is that this step will encourage members of our community at GMHS to reflect, discuss, and work together to make the IB program here the best it can possibly be.

Baumgardner and Cunningham designed surveys they hosted on the Internet for IB teachers, students, and families.  Their entire paper with survey results is posted here for reference.  One of the results they found interesting was a voluntary response from 48 percent of 70 parents expressing concern over the sleep habits of their children.  Their children’s response identified the IB workload, followed closely by procrastination, as the primary reasons they received less than eight hours sleep each evening, and 73 percent singled out academic requirements as the greatest source of stress in their lives.

All three survey groups also identified a failure to establish a manageable interval between major assignment and internal assessment due dates.  Comments included “too much overlap on project due dates in different classes,” and “there does not seem to be as much coordination among teachers as there could be to avoid deadlines for multiple classes on the same day.

The Reflections paper and survey results are far from a litany of gripes and complaints.  Significant positive feedback was provided, to include: “My son is a more caring and open minded person after participating in the CAS part of the program,” and “Being a part of IB has helped my daughter prove to herself that she can do well and compete with the best.”  Many comments also concluded with echoes of the same sentiment: “Glad he did it, and glad it’s over!

The grumblings and the praise documented by Baumgardner and Cunningham were not new to Misra and his colleagues, as they are continually focused on areas for improvement within the program.  Two details with context help frame the results of the Reflections paper and survey.  The class of 2009’s IB experience spanned the period of instability in the IB Coordinator’s office at Mason – the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” years.  Second, the survey was conducted during the May cycle of exams and assessments, hardly a whimsical, stress-free time in the lives of students, parents, or teachers.

There is also a universal perspective that helps one understand some of what is documented in Reflections. It is a trinity, really.

Coming of Age: life can be exhilarating, depressing, manic, and occasionally incomprehensible to students aged 15 to 18.  “Washed up” – is that clean, laying in the sand, or irrelevant?:  ten individuals can experience the same event and emerge with ten different interpretations.  Who makes time for surveys: statistical variations aside, it is people who feel strongly about something.  Love it!  Hate it!  Exclamation points intended.

Misra collaborates professionally with IB Program Coordinators across the globe, but when he found some research and strategies to help students cope with stress, the source was close to home: Stonewall Jackson High School in Prince William County.  Based on research conducted at the University of South Florida, counselors at Stonewall Jackson HS characterized the stress experienced by IB students, then identified effective and ineffective methods for coping with the distinct realities of being both teenagers and IB students.  Misra and Principal Tyrone Byrd are actively implementing lessons learned from this research supported by decades of expertise already resident within the Mason faculty.

Beginning with the 2009-10 academic year, Misra instituted a Student Advisory Board comprised of five seniors and nine juniors.  They are the voice of their respective classes on program-wide IB issues.  The student board members take the pulse of the IB student body on stress levels across the grades.  Among the faculty, there is also a continued focus on shared planning periods between departments, which are held on Wednesdays after early dismissal.

Another area of careful coordination this year is ensuring students are taking an appropriate number of IB classes, especially at the higher level.  When some Mason IB alumni look back on their IB experience and remember months that were fairly painful, they should acknowledge whether or not some of that pain was self-inflicted.  IB diploma candidates generally take three or four courses at the higher level, but a small minority instead chooses to tackle five or six.  Misra is ensuring the program no longer allows students to overreach as some have in the past.

IB program data points are everywhere in the City of Falls Church.  Sometimes they are anecdotal stories between families on the challenges associated with the program or perhaps how normal and ordinary day-to-day life can be despite the academic rigor.  Other times they are words of wisdom – couched as advice – from seniors to juniors.  And sometimes they are one family’s uncomfortable experience, exaggerated by others, and presented as factual and representative.

If success in IB represents anything, it represents executing an individually tailored academic plan  – mapped out as early as possible in a student’s academic career – and adjusted from year-to-year based on the student’s personal and intellectual development.  If some recent Mason graduates experienced a hiccup in the mapping or execution of their plans, perhaps it was because they were speaking (or not) with four different IB Program Coordinators between 2005 and 2009.  This is why Misra’s Mustang Birthday was so important to so many throughout the community.

So, where are the students interviewed for this article now?  Seth Ensign is at James Madison University in Virginia, majoring in Chemistry.  He began his freshman year with 19 credits based on his performance in the Mason IB program.

“My freshman adviser let me take 21 credits my first term.  That kept me really busy.  Professors would ask me to write a three to five page paper and would give me a week and I would laugh.  We had to do that in the classroom for an English test at Mason.  I can sit with my professors and discuss details from the histories of some countries that AP students can’t even begin to address.  It’s not because I had to take a test on that stuff, it’s because I learned it in class.”

Mary Dassira is an Arts major at Virginia Tech specializing in Computer Graphics.  She arrived as a freshman with 24 credits from the IB program, six of which were unusable based on her arts major.

“As far as art goes, the IB diploma program really prepared me” Dassira said.  “I don’t know that every aspect of the program was worth it, though.  For me, they crammed too much material in that isn’t of much value to me today (in the realm of graphic arts).”

Will Cunningham is a double major in Theoretical Physics and Philosophy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.  RPI awarded him 36 credits after reviewing his Mason transcript.

“I’m glad I had an IB opportunity at George Mason,” Cunningham said.  “It was a life changing experience.  I learned a lot about how to manage life; how much academics is too much and what is really important.  Life is only going to get more complex and challenging and that’s fine; IB has helped prepare me.”

The George Mason High School Class of 2009 IB diplomas will be awarded on Monday, December 21, 2009, at 4 p.m.

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By Scott Taylor
December 13, 2009 


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