“Because of the relationships and collaborations between the teachers,” said freshman math teacher Amanda Peace, “those issues are able to get settled a lot faster than they would in a previous year.”
Yet some teachers also said that the intimacy of the house system — in which freshmen often ended up in three or more classes with the same students — caused friction.
While students in the pilot academy chose to join the close-knit community, last year’s freshmen had no choice. When they had conflicts, they didn’t get time away from each other, so Peace said her team decided to switch several students’ schedules midyear.
But even with such frustrations, the house system kept freshmen who would otherwise be scattered across Vista’s sprawling outdoor campus feeling “like a little family,” said 14-year-old, then-freshman Peyton Kemp.
And having small groups of teachers sharing the same students also paid academic dividends.
“I think the students were a little shocked by the connection between teachers,” freshman science teacher Lexi Kunz said. “They hadn’t seen that before. We would have times when they’re working on one assignment and there’d be a very explicit connection in another class, and I think they went, ‘Oh, this is real, they’re really talking to each other.’ ”
Making changes gradually
Teachers and administrators in the academy also found that for change to stick, it had to come gradually; students and teachers both needed time to adjust.
At the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, freshman history teacher Matt Stuckey, one of the school’s most experienced personalized-learning practitioners, told students that change wouldn’t happen all at once.
“Some days, it’s going to feel like what school felt like last year,” Stuckey told them. “Then there’s going to be times when you're really going to have the independence to show what you’re learning in different ways.’ ”
More student control over learning
Personalized learning encompasses a range of techniques meant to give students more control over what they learn and how they learn it. Much of the momentum has come from foundations with roots in Silicon Valley, whose founders believe that a proliferation of cheap technology allows new possibilities for personalizing education. The idea has also appealed to educators who see benefits in letting students learn at their own pace, after years of standardized testing.
For the first time, [personalized learning’s] given everyone a common language. The conversations that are happening are happening outside of staff meetings.
Blaine Darling, Vista High School science teacher
In Kunz’s windowless freshman physics class on an April school day, a group of about 15 mixed special and general education students squinted up at a projection of a graph.
“I had a lovely conversation with Ms. Peace about graphing,” Kunz explained to her students. Peace teaches in the same house as Kunz, and had noticed that this group of students struggled when choosing increments for labeling the x-axis of a graph.
Kunz devoted the entire lesson to reinforcing the skill. Students worked quietly — a couple listened to music through headphones — and the special education teacher who co-teaches the course walked around spending additional time with some students.
That kind of communication — in which Kunz and Peace tag teamed their teaching of the same concept — is a clear benefit of the house system and of personalized learning’s approach, and simply wouldn’t have happened in previous years, teachers say.
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