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A year of personalized learning: Mistakes, moving furniture and making it work

But communicating with each other about where to focus is just the first step, according to Craig Gastauer, the former science teacher who’s now in charge of training Vista’s teachers in personalized learning.

For example, if Kunz’s reinforcement lesson on graphing had allowed students to fill in the x-axis in the way they thought was correct, then compare answers, they would have understood the process more deeply because they would have found the answers on their own, Gastauer said.

From his tiny office in an out-of-the way corner of the campus, Gastauer said that the whole experiment is about trial and error; he ultimately wants to overhaul the school’s grading system, removing letter grades and switching to “competency-based” diplomas that would allow students more flexibility in how to demonstrate they’ve acquired the knowledge necessary to graduate from high school.

“We want to make sure first we have a curriculum that’s inviting to the students where they can work with teachers to co-create parts of the curriculum,” he said.

Teachers have come a long way since the beginning of the last school year, when many said they felt “under the microscope” and fearful they’d be criticized for not adapting quickly enough to the changes, Gastauer said. They felt additional pressure from amped-up media around the XQ grant, which celebrated its 10 “super schools” last September with a flashy national TV event featuring actor Tom Hanks.

War, peace and Chromebooks

Vista’s large freshman class was broken down into “houses” as part of the transformation, creating closer relationships and more interdisciplinary learning.

Vista’s large freshman class was broken down into “houses” as part of the transformation, creating closer relationships and more interdisciplinary learning.

History teacher Caroline Billings embraced the changes. Instead of the traditional global history course she’d taught in the past, in 2017-18 she led a “challenge” class in which freshmen designed self-directed projects based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

On an April morning in Billings’ class, students chatted in groups and surfed the internet on Chromebook laptops, as part of a unit on peace. Later, as a final project, the groups would propose ways to incorporate the study of peace into the 2018-19 history curriculum.

Billings assigned each group of three a different aspect of peace studies to research. One group typed “France” into the Google search bar, another browsed search results for “domestic peace.”

Avery Mortensen, 14, appreciated that Billings started the unit by having students read a critique of teaching peace in history class, and called the class more “student involving” than previous history courses.

Other students struggled with the freedom of toting the personal Chromebook laptops the school gave out. “It’s more like a personal thing when you get distracted on the Chromebook, not the Chromebook itself,” said 15-year-old Emiah Mills.

After Vista High School rolled out personalized learning, its freshman class’s attendance rate was 15 percent higher than the same group’s attendance had been in eighth grade, and its average GPA was 0.2 points higher.

Finding the right balance with the new technology is a focus for teacher training. Gastauer instructs teachers to “plan learning and then ask how can tech enhance. Don’t start with the app.”

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