Finding Synergy at Kuna Middle School

Once in a while, I walk into a “classroom” and freeze. It is so hard to orient myself because there is so little that looks like the traditional school with the teacher in front, students at desks, and tables waiting for direction. I slowed down as we walked through the cafeteria at Kuna Middle School, where fifteen or so students were spread out in groups, talking with a teacher, working on their devices, or reading. And froze when I walked into the large room at Synergy, where fifty or so students were lounging on couches, huddled on the floor, or seated at large tables.

Wonderful sayings aimed at the adolescent were painted everywhere you looked on the walls:

  • It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.  
  • Don’t be upset by the results you DIDN’T get with the work you DIDN’T do.
  • I’M BORED is a useless thing to say. You live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen NONE percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is ENDLESS. It goes on forever inwardly. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? The fact that you’re alive is AMAZING! So you don’t get to say: I’M BORED.

It wasn’t exactly loud…it was humming, humming with the sound of learning. And where was the teacher, anyway? (See videos for a taste of the culture at Synergy.)

Then Kevin Murphy, language arts teacher and one of the four designers of Synergy, walked up, introduced himself, and began to explain the (very well-engineered) magic that is happening at Synergy. The entire Kuna Middle School is moving toward mastery-based learning schoolwide; however, the four co-designers of Synergy, a program within the school, took the idea and ran with it as far as they could go. They started with the Summit Public Schools mastery-based model with four outcomes (cognitive skills, content knowledge, habits of success, and sense of purpose) and three pillars (mentoring, real-world projects, and individual pathways) and then embellished.

  • They collapsed the walls of academic domains into an interdisciplinary approach.
  • They dropped the separate grade levels and created a multi-age approach with students. It was 7th and 8th graders when I visited with 6th grade joining in the fall of 2018.
  • They collapsed the idea of separate classrooms and created two large rooms (one being a bit quieter than the other for those who prefer it).
  • They dropped the idea of separate courses. Instead students work on one overarching problem or theme at a time.
  • They replaced the idea of students as consumers of knowledge and replaced it with self-directed learners building the knowledge and skills to produce solutions to challenging problems.

The pedagogy is nearly entirely based on interdisciplinary problem-based learning designed for early adolescence. The exception is math — they are still struggling with how to fully integrate it into the projects.   Teachers believe that math can be taught through projects but are searching to find ways to fit it in.

Problems that the students are tackling include building a city of the future, facing natural disasters such as earthquakes and cyclones, and then, after destroying their cities, planning how to get people to Mars. Even though they are all in the same rooms, students still work on different projects based on their grade level. In seventh grade they are answering the question “What makes a person great?” using research and citing primary sources and secondary sources. Another seventh grade project is creating a brand for themselves. The eighth graders are the ones creating scale models of a future city. The current project is to move the people of Earth to Mars and create an instruction manual.  (See High-Quality Project-Based Learning for guidance on how to develop fully interdisciplinary projects.)

Getting Started with Summit
By this point, you may be wondering…where do the academics come in? Synergy covers the same district middle school curriculum with the same Idaho State Content Standards. It’s just a very different delivery model. Synergy isn’t using Summit’s projects but it is using Summit’s set of academic (referred to as cognitive) skills, with students drawing upon content in order to engage in creating solutions. And they are using Summit’s information system to track student progress and help students learn how to stay on pace. What students are doing and what they are learning will vary based on the cycle of the project. At the beginning of a project, they are focusing on the content they will need. As they start to plan, they are building on skills they need to become independent learners. As they jump into figuring out solutions, they are drawing increasingly on the cognitive skills and the application of the content.

I had the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Shelby Harris. She explained that her first experience with mastery-based approaches was with the Khan Academy. “I was enjoying differentiating for my kids,” she said. “When I read Sal Khan’s One Room Schoolhouse, I started wondering whether mastery-based learning created an opportunity for more interdisciplinary learning while still staying accountable for covering the standards. I liked the idea of using time more effectively and not sticking kids into content they didn’t need.” She and Murphy and the other two co-designers (Monique Gafford, science, and Amber Obert, history) started having conversations in the hallways about what was possible. These quick visioning sessions turned into longer conversations about how to make it work as the four teachers brainstormed, planned, and visited Summit together. They spent an entire summer trying to figure it out. But when they started to put it into place there were a lot of bumps. Harris said, “It felt like our ideas were just falling apart.”

So they turned to the students for help. Harris explained, “We started talking to the students, asking them about what would be a great way of learning. What do you need? What could we do to make this work better? The first group of kids helped lay the foundation.” But problems remained. Harris explained, “We couldn’t keep up with the kids. They were learning faster than we could produce projects. And we didn’t have an accountability system. We couldn’t keep track of whether students were learning what they needed or if they were racing ahead or starting to slip behind. We couldn’t hold them or ourselves accountable.”

Then they discovered Summit and its information system. Harris enthused, “Summit was a gamechanger.” With support from the Albertson Foundation, some of the team went to visit Summit. They picked the brains of everyone they met. Harris explained that they decided to use the structure and the information system that Summit provides but “we are not married to their content.” Instead of using all the units that came pre-loaded in the LMS, they organize around their interdisciplinary projects with the units selected as needed. Harris explained, “One of the most powerful parts of Summit is that the student tracking system allows students to see how they are doing in terms of progress and pace, and it allows the teachers to know when we should pull the kids in for conversations and when they are doing okay.” Teachers and students can sit down together and look at the student’s progress and what needs to happen next. Harris added, “Summit offers a comprehensive view on how students are doing. The goal-setting and reflection process is a critical step in helping students learn how to think about and manage their behavior and make smart decisions.”  

The Mastery-Based Model
As in other mastery-based (or competency-based) approaches, students have personal pathways in which they work on the skills, content, and habits of success that they need. For some this means backtracking a bit to fill in gaps. For others this means expectations that they will be performing within their zone of proximal development, even if it is higher than their grade level. Teachers are intentionally grouping students so they can continue to work with students until they are successful. This is all tracked in the information management system, making it easy for both students to know where they are and for teachers to organize the learning to meet them where they are.

Some students do need more time. Last year, Synergy had forty-one students who needed summer school, with about a quarter of them taking only two days to wrap everything up. Harris emphasized, “The percent of students taking summer school is not an indicator of a problem. It is an indicator of teachers and students being accountable.” The district paid the teachers hourly, so they set office hours for students to come in and meet with them. However, the problem is that many students do not have internet at home. Harris also mentioned that she is worried that some students are failing in order to come to summer school. “We have strong relationships with our students,” she said. “Understandably, some of them want to see us during the summer. They want a safe place to go.”

Synergy is using the 8-level rubric scale used by Summit. Harris commented, “Students want to go higher and hit level 6 or sophomore year in high school. They want to strive above their grade levels. We want students to feel that they can build their knowledge and skills to the highest level when they are in Synergy.” Summit and Synergy balance skill and content. At Synergy they expect students to learn the skills at 4 or 5 (exceeding) and demonstrate mastery of content at 4.

It’s important to note: Idaho educators don’t worry about students getting to high school completion too soon. They have a fabulous policy that allows students in high school to take online courses to work toward college credits, which is paid for by the state.

Harris said that the Summit system is very user-friendly. They have also been very helpful in listening to their ideas about how to make it work for their approach. They’ve been able to make sure the problem-based learning is linked back to the cognitive skills and content. There has been a constant remodeling process. The only big problem is that Summit has required the use of traditional grading, which undercuts the focus on learning.(I have heard that that policy may be changing.) The Administrator of Curriculum & Assessment, Cathy Beals, added, “A big challenge for the district is to figure out how to provide the technology infrastructure for all the schools.” They had recently purchased Schoology (at the time, Summit wasn’t as strong a platform as it is now), but it wasn’t meeting their needs in terms of tracking student progress. (I’ve heard this before from other districts. Schoology  is an effective LMS but it is very course-based and difficult for the interdisciplinary approaches. It also hasn’t figured out the personalized pathway or how to provide feedback to help students understand how much effort they need to stay on pace and tracking student progress…yet.)

Personalizing for Students and Teachers
One of the challenges in visiting this type of personalized classroom, where students are all engaged and are likely to have a device in their hand or nearby, is being able to tell what they are actually doing. I mentioned this to Harris, and she started calling out to a group of five students who were sitting in a circle of comfy arm chairs. One was reviewing content for an upcoming project, two were working on producing the manual about how to get to Mars, one was reviewing content because they hadn’t yet been successful in demonstrating mastery, and one was “trying to find something to work on.” Harris asked if he needed help and he said he was fine and would figure it out.  

She also mentioned that the students who were “trainwrecks” needed more attention and structure. I flinched at the word until she called out to the students in the room, “Raise your hand if you are a trainwreck,” and fifteen or more of the students lifted their heads from their work and raised their hands. Harris explained to me, “Our entire culture is that you are okay with making mistakes because it means you are trying. We are teaching kids to become self-directed learners and that means they need to build all the habits of success. No one learns them all overnight. It’s okay to be a wreck. It’s okay to forget or make mistakes. The only thing that isn’t okay is to fall down and not get up. Everyone gets up, and if we need to, we will help people get up.” Thus students who are “trainwrecks” are often found working more closely with a teacher nearby.  

Harris noted that one of the things they’ve had to organize around is that each of the team members has different style in classroom management (the term classroom still applies even though they’re often working with students in a corner of a room rather than a separate classroom). Some want it structured and calm. Others are energetic, with the “room almost vibrating.” Harris explained, “Students learn to code switch. They get to know us and how our approaches vary. They understand that the relationships between teachers and students are unique.”

I visited Kuna Middle School in 2018.  You can find the original article  at CompetencyWorks. This article has been slightly modified.

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