Confronting the Unknown–Completing the IB HL English Exam

By Ralph Lelii, English department

Over 230 of our students will be sitting IB/AP examinations this year. On May 5, sixty-six students will sit the English A1 HL examination at 8:00 a.m., within the soon to be halcyon halls of Alumni Gym. When they gather there, the exam papers lying expectantly on the tables, the students are armed only with the sanctity of their own minds, a pen, the paper stock, and a single question. I always ask them before starting to take a deep collective breath. In that fierce inhalation swirl the commingled odorant molecules of decades of alumni sweat, testosterone, estrogen, garlic breadsticks, and donuts, a rich effluvia that smells—well, it smells just like VICTORY.

Because my love for the ideals of the IB is so deeply planted in me, I want to write briefly about this one examination, what I think it represents, and to briefly address one difference of opinion that colleagues have sometimes had over the years regarding these external assessments. More importantly, I hope to make the process more transparent so that the entire community has some sense of these exams, since it is one part of the particular education we offer here at GS to the families who consciously seek it.

One part of the examination is considered a literary commentary. The only direction the students receive is written simply at the top of the exam paper. It says, “Write a commentary on this passage.” The students have two hours to organize and successfully execute a coherent essay on a poem or prose passage they have never before seen. They are assessed for clarity, conciseness, awareness of literary technique and the reasons for its usage, mood, tone, and precision of understanding. They must construct this themselves, out of the mental tools they have strengthened during their four years at George School. While the English teachers might be closest to the particular skill set at hand senior year, there is no way to make discrete assumptions about the cognitive origins of their responses. The task draws on all of their intellectual faculties, culled from the many academic courses they have logged, and the poems are demanding. Here is one example from the 2011 November examination:

“Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines”

by Dylan Thomas

Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides;
And, broken ghosts with glowworms in their heads,
The things of light
File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.

A candle in the thighs
Warms youth and seed and burns the seeds of age;
Where no seed stirs,
The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars,
Bright as a fig;
Where no wax is, the candle shows its hairs.

Dawn breaks behind the eyes;
From poles of skull and toe the windy blood
Slides like a sea;
Nor fenced, nor staked, the gushers of the sky
Spout to the rod
Divining in a smile the oil of tears.

Night in the sockets rounds,
Like some pitch moon, the limit of the globes;
Day lights the bone;
Where no cold is, the skinning gales unpin
The winter’s robes;
The film of spring is hanging from the lids.

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics die,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

The task of confronting a text in the silence of one’s own mind, wrestling with it courageously, and then rendering a coherent vision is as noble an intellectual undertaking as I can imagine, one that has been at the heart of the academic life since the time of Socrates. I know that there is sometimes an aversion to the idea of teaching to a test, but I think that any teacher must, if they plan an assessment, another word for “test”, teach in a coherent enough way so that their students can be equipped to succeed in that assessment. To do otherwise, to make them mutually exclusive or unrelated, would seem pedagogically unethical. The question is not so much about teaching to a test, but teaching to whose test and why. Ah, therein lies the rub.

This English examination requires a certain set of intellectual skills. One must be able to organize his/her ideas, analyze the use of language, both its denotative certainties and its figurative oddities. They must be able to use transitions between and within paragraphs, and they must be able to discern meanings with a good deal of intuitive dexterity. What I love about this skill set is that it seems to me at the heart of virtually every profession. A lawyer reads a brief, or a precedent, deconstructs its meanings, and then sets forth a new direction for a client. An engineer is set a problem about a defective nuclear reactor valve and must review the existing specifications, analyze the shortcomings and history, and reconstruct a new solution. A psychotherapist reads the client as text, and brings to bear an understanding of her depression in the light of theory, context, history, biology and beliefs before setting forth a treatment plan, itself likely a synthesis of myriad theoretical perspectives.

This examination, I believe, allows young men and young women to confront the unknown, to look inward before synthesizing years of reading, listening and discerning in many academic disciplines in order to set forth a lengthy set of ideas on something they have never before confronted. As an examiner in English for the IB, I am not given a list of things they must include in the commentary. Rather, we assess the papers on their clarity, breadth of understanding, precision, dexterous use of the text, and linguistic and syntactical precision. It is challenging, it is scary, and yes, it is stressful for students, but I believe it is stressful in the same way that a lineman is stressed as he looks into the face of an opposing player moments before a snap, or as actors are stressed waiting silently in the wings for their entrance, or perhaps as we ourselves are stressed when we try something new in class. We are risking failure but also claiming whatever results from the challenge. In my understanding, this kind of stress flexes the heart, and aids in the definitions we give ourselves about ourselves.

Each May, when I stand in that gym with Jack Starmer, the modern, breathing analog of Honest Abe, I feel so proud of this academic community. We are so privileged to have the time, the affluence, and the will and inclination to set before our charges work of genuine intellectual depth, and it stretches across thirty-six areas of knowledge in the IB and twenty-two in the AP. We do so many things well here, and our students are very courageous in accepting these challenges, far more than I was at their age. I hope each year to write about the specific challenges of the examinations across all of our disciplines here.

I have always loved this quotation from Charles Darwin, because it seems to me the foundation for what we do here each day, what makes it possible for us to thrive and endure. He writes in his seminal work On The Origin of Species, “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we can control and direct our thoughts in ways that help insure not only our survival, but our freedom.”

If you have read this far, I thank you for letting me indulge my enthusiasm for these remarkable young people, who after all, will shortly take their respective parts in the oldest story of all, the story of our replacement.

1 Comment

Filed under Faculty and Staff

One response to “Confronting the Unknown–Completing the IB HL English Exam

  1. Beautifully written, Ralph. Thanks for your teachings, your believing in us over the years and your commitment to us. I think you’re spot on – the skill set I learned in your class (and developed in the overall IB curriculum) carries over into each new facet of my professional adult life.

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