More than keeping the doors open

Clark Fork Junior/Senior High School ‘did something crazy,’ and it’s been crazy successful

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff Writer

It’s a Tuesday morning at Clark Fork Junior/Senior High School and K.C. MacDonald’s seventh grade social studies class is learning about how early peoples made it to the Americas.

There’s no lecture today, no worksheets and no assigned reading. Some students sit in groups, talking about the unit’s vocabulary words. Others sit alone, headphones in, doing independent research. There are outlines on notebook paper, flashcards of key terms, PowerPoint slides with photos and Word documents of every format across the desks and computer screens around the room.

Members of the CFHS Great Outdoors track Kobi Dooley, Max Icardo (graduated) and Toben Pincher prepare to ride the zip line at Lutherhaven on a track day trip in May 2017.

MacDonald’s students are all on Unit One, but in different stages. Some are past the vocabulary and onto the broader concepts. Some are spending extra time with the teacher to better understand the terms. Some are retaking quizzes they failed to master with an ‘A’ or ‘B’ the first time.

And that’s the key word here: “master.”

In the mastery learning model — as seen in MacDonald’s classroom — students learn at their own pace. Mike Turnlund, another teacher at CFHS, describes mastery as a “student-centric” approach to teaching. While traditional teaching is usually teacher-centric (the teacher lectures, the students take notes, the students test on what the teacher says is correct), mastery is based around student-driven research. Turnlund said his lectures are often optional if students are accelerating through the material, and students check in when they need his guidance.

While traditional teaching and learning assumes students learn at the same pace, mastery doesn’t.

“Fifteen-year-olds are not all on the same level,” Turnlund said. “They call it ‘standardized testing’— well there’s no such thing as a ‘standard student.’”

And mastery isn’t calendar-driven, Turnlund said. Students receive a syllabus for the entire semester when class begins and are expected to master key terms and “I can” statements. For instance, in Macdonald’s seventh grade social studies course, “I can explain how early peoples made it to the Americas.” Students take exams or create projects once they feel they’ve mastered the material in each unit of the syllabus. Students must get an ‘A’ or ‘B’ to pass the course.

CFHS junior Grace Shelton has been taking classes in the mastery format for a couple of years now and said her overall impression of the learning system has been positive. Still, she said she sometimes misses the instructor-centric approach in topics she finds more difficult.

“In some subjects mastery is awesome and in others it is harder to comprehend (materials) with minimal instructor-led lessons,” she said. “In some classes, like math, you rely a lot on the instructor but in others you are more self-taught with the instructor there to answer any questions.”

While Shelton said mastery can be an adjustment depending on the subject, the new teaching approach has worked well for her personal learning in most cases so far.

“I feel that if studies have shown that mastery is better for both students and teachers it would be wrong not to try it out and work out kinks along the way,” Shelton said. “And if it doesn’t create the results we want or need then we have traditional learning to fall back on. (But) so far, mastery has had a positive impression on me.”

Senior Anna Fitchett participated in the Independent Track last year, exploring the possibility of being a teacher with mentor Jenny Shelton.
Courtesy photos.

Turnlund began teaching in mastery style during the 2015-2016 school year as an experiment, but soon, it became clear this was the direction Idaho education was moving. In 2015, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed House Bill 110 to move Idaho toward a mastery education model by 2020. CFHS applied for the Mastery Education Grant in 2016, and now it is one of 19 schools in the Idaho Mastery Education Network, paving the way for other schools to adopt the student-centric approach to teaching and learning. It’s certainly untraditional, but Turnlund said he’s seen incredible results in student comprehension.

“We have a saying around here: ‘You’re either the engine or the caboose,’” Turnlund said. “We want to be the engine. We are embracing it.”

This mentality began a few years ago, Turnlund said, when the teachers and staff at CFHS had to face the very real possibility of the district being forced to shut the school down. In 2014, CFHS had 84 students. Projections said they’d only have 74 the next year.

That’s when Turnlund said school district superintendent Shawn Woodward told him and MacDonald: “Do something crazy.”

And so they did.

Fridays became track days, where student split into groups — outdoor studies, family consumer sciences, health and wellness, technology and more — and did experiential learning.

“Experiential learning is the key — you’re learning by doing,” Turnlund said. “It has been a fabulous success.”

Today, CFHS has 121 students. Turnlund attributes this rise to the school’s willingness to shake up how students learn with both and experience and mastery techniques.

“This has become so much more than just trying to keep the doors open,” Turnlund said.

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