Before the Chromebooks, Mills had to borrow her grandmother’s computer. Now she gets more done at home, although she admits she also video chats with her friends while working on essays.
Can wellness be taught?
Teachers knew that students would at times struggle with the increased freedom and responsibility of personalized learning, and they were ready with a solution they’d piloted in the academy: “wellness” classes dedicated to helping students cope with social and emotional discomfort.
Wellness teacher Cindy Brooks said the course supports the broader goal of Vista’s personalized learning push “to get those kids that get lost in the shuffle. Try to bring them in.”
Ultimately, wellness class became something of a metaphor for the rollout of personalized learning as a whole, illustrating the challenge of making a concept that worked with a small, self-selecting group succeed on a much larger scale.
Eight teachers volunteered to teach the course and write the curriculum, but they had no idea where to start. “It’s a class that no other place was doing,” said wellness teacher Rick Worthington. They cobbled together curriculum materials meant for guidance counselors and health teachers.
“We’re literally learning as we go along,” Worthington said. “You can know what stress is and what anxiety is, but how do you teach a teenager?”
In the beginning, students were antagonistic. “That’s the worst beginning of a school year I’ve ever had,” Worthington said. The eight teachers were directly encountering aspects of their students’ lives they used to see only from a distance, but had little framework for teaching them coping skills for what came after school.
Because of the relationships and collaborations between the teachers, disciplinary issues are able to get settled a lot faster than they would in a previous year.
Amanda Peace, Vista High School ninth-grade math teacher
The wellness class gave teachers a chance to “step back from the content area of teaching to make that a priority,” former English teacher Cindy Brooks added.
In addition to daily lessons on topics like how to receive a compliment, wellness teachers checked in with students every week about grades and helped mediate conflicts in other classes.
Gradually, students started to look forward to wellness class. “It’s a good break from school work,” said 15-year-old Namrit Ahluwalia. “Regular school days take our mind away from who we actually are.”
At some point in the school year, administrators realized that none of the eight wellness teachers had experience with English Language Learners. ELL specialists like Kim Collier tried to help, but Collier had no experience with the curriculum wellness teachers were creating on the fly.
“We tried to make some adjustments, but the train was moving,” Collier said. This year, Collier will run a training with wellness teachers before school starts to make sure the course is accessible to ELL students.
What changes are ahead?
There will be other adjustments going forward as well. This fall, Vista’s house system will migrate to the 10th grade, and will expand each year until the whole school runs under the new system.
There are still open questions about how the school will shift into its second year. Some freshmen teachers want to follow their current students to the 10th grade. There will also be a new leader: Principal Barela stepped down to be near family in Colorado. He will be replaced by Kyle Ruggles, a former elementary school principal who most recently oversaw academic and behavioral support programs for the Vista school district.
Much of Barela’s vision will remain. And science teacher Blaine Darling says teachers sound different now when speaking about personalized learning. “For the first time, it’s given everyone a common language,” Darling said. “The conversations that are happening are happening outside of staff meetings.”
That’s exactly what Vista is hoping for: a new kind of teaching that will last, long after the grant is spent. It’s why science teacher Gastauer wasn’t upset at criticism of the moving furniture: Already, Vista has introduced a new version with individual desks instead of long tables, and has gotten much better feedback from teachers.
“The focus has always been on our teachers feeling like they’re comfortable,” Barela said, “and making sure the reason we’re doing that is for our students to be able to leave here better off than when they arrived.”
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