Ok, guys…we’re sorry

We just realized why our students get angry or confused by the way we hand them information.

During our training, Mrs. Harris and Mr. Murphy were talking about our assignment we were supposed to be working on with the mentors here at Summit’s Everest High School.   We were basically doing SDL work.

But in order to get to this assignment, we had to:

  • Click on our current project
  • Click on the link on step 1
  • Read through some materials on that document in order to find the second link, and click that.
  • That link takes you to a playlist of information that’s 7 steps long and a total of 23 links of other reading.

Mrs. Gafford asked the other teachers were in the SDL work so that she could be part of the conversation.  We answered: “We’re talking about number four of item 1 in the first link of step five in the second link of part one of project two!”

And that’s when we realized that we do that to our students, too.




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Well, guess what?  We got ourselves a facebook page!

And that’s not all…we got ourselves a two-week stint with Summit Schools in California learning how to best create projects that appeal to students and push them to create new products, as well as how to best communicate to each student and his/her family how things are going.

Not going to tease or bore with the specifics right now.  Just want you to be with us as we prepare for the coming year.

The longest email we’ve ever sent

Hi there everyone!

Well, here we are at the end of the year!  Time for us mentors to breathe a sigh of relief, and time for your students to do the same, because they’ve not only been through a whirlwind of a year, but because they’ve spent it instructing four seasoned teachers how to do their jobs.

We’ve had a year of ups and downs, of frustrations and successes, and we’ve been sharing the majority of them with you here.  Now that the year’s over we thought we’d address all of you (those families whose students are moving on to high school, those whose students are returning as 8th graders, and those whose students are incoming 7th graders) on some of the hot-button issues we’ve all experienced throughout this past year.

In late April, we solicited parents to gather information about what is and what is not working — from the parent and/or student point-of-view–in the Synergy program.  We’ll try to address and (hopefully) quell all of those concerns below.

In the Beginning…

We were a mess, and we will fully take the blame for an environment in which our students felt lost.  We mistakenly assumed that allowing students to navigate a free-form environment would immediately drive them toward more adult behavior — that they would attend open classes and would participate in self-directed learning without question.

What we forgot, though, was that our students had spent the past 7 or 8 years within classrooms that directed their every move and which ordered their instruction for them.  We didn’t realize that students wouldn’t have the skills to tackle work if we removed those understood supports.

Throughout the year we’ve found ways to enable our students to do so through class calendars that outline which classes are happening when and where, through Self-Directed Learning (SDL) work that is always up-to-date and supports the instruction happening in class and supports the expectations outlined in our projects, and through mentor meetings wherein we carry on conversations with students (and email those recorded conversations) to you, the parent/guardian, so that you are fully aware of what your student needs, and what work needs to be completed.

It is our hope that we are giving your student(s) the skills to mange the world they will soon realize are required in college and beyond.

In the Future…

For the 2015-16 school year, we will continue those practices, and will also implement an online environment that will allow your student(s) to access all of the self-directed work required for the entire year.  It will all be available from the day school starts, and the online environment will allow you to know what self-directed work has been completed, how well your student has mastered that material, and will also contain your student’s self-chosen goals for personal growth.

This online environment is personalized for each student, and is called the Personalized Learning Platform  (PLP).

The Mentors

As many of you have probably realized, we rarely call ourselves “teachers”.  That word implies we know everything, and will impart all knowledge to your students.  In fact, because a good deal of the learning done in Synergy is self-directed, your students are the real teachers.  And besides, your students come to us with a variety of resources and knowledge under their belts, and given that a good portion of our coursework is self-directed, we can only say that we don’t just teach your student(s) information, we usher them through their understandings, and help them develop skills that will help them move on to become successful and productive people.

As such, we hope to have your student(s) for at least two years in the Synergy classroom.  We plan to rotate along with our students during those two years so that every kid has a homeroom support that doesn’t change, and a homeroom mentor that learns the ins-and-outs of your student’s life, and can back him/her up in almost any situation.

What about Grades?

All four mentors on the Synergy team utilize Standards-Based Grading when we assess your students.  For some parents and students, this may be one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in transitioning to our learning environment.  The simplest explanation for our use of this type of grading system is this: we want to ensure your student leaves our learning environment with skills and understandings in History, Language Arts, Math, and Science, and not with the skills of turning in work.

Many of the other teachers at KMS also utilize Standards-Based Grading in their classrooms, and do so for the same reasons, but because we understand that this is one of the key problems many parents have with the structure of our learning environment, we plan to hold several “parent nights” throughout the coming year to help students and parents better understand why we utilize Standards-Based Grading, and how we use it within each of our classrooms.


Last year we told parents that we would be sending weekly feedback on their student’s progress in an effort to keep all parties up-to-date on coursework, questions, and concerns.  We will be the first to admit that we did not hold up our end, and weekly communication soon diminished.

In the coming year, however, we have made communication one of the practices we need to improve upon, and each student’s parent/guardian will receive more regular audio recordings of a conversation between your student and his/her mentor, or more regular emails detailing any concerns.

These conversations will lead to the creation of personal goals as outlined in the PLP.

What about my student’s progress?

One other function of our PLP will track your student’s progress on self-directed learning throughout the entire year.  Your student will be aware of which work is currently being practiced, and will be aware of his/her performance on the standards being assessed by each teacher.  Self-directed work will be immediately distinguishable from project work, and you and your student will be immediately aware of whether his/her work is up-to-date and whether the work is meeting the standards set for each assignment.

Beyond that, we have other implementations that will also keep parents informed about student progress:

  • through our audio-recorded mentor meetings,
  • through needs-based support classes, such as an in-house Khan Academy class to help boost math proficiency, an in-house study skills course to allow students more time to work on SDL and project-based work, and
  • through the way your student will talk with you at home.  The many visitors we’ve had to our classroom have informed us that our students do not speak like “normal” students; our students are more reflective about themselves, their work, and more understanding of the hurdles they must overcome in order to achieve proficiency in their coursework.
    • We’re not bragging about this, we promise.  This is truly the feedback of 20 other groups of exceptional educators who have visited us and our students over the past year.

Nevertheless, because student progress is a deeper issue that can’t easily be explained through an email or a blog post, and we also plan to present information on this topic during one of the parent nights we we will schedule throughout the 2015-16 school year.

What about high school?

At the moment there is no high school implementation of the Synergy program.  Kuna High School still operates within a more traditional method of instruction.

That said, we fully believe that students who move through our program will, after learning to adapt to a flexible calendar and interdisciplinary work, easily adapt to the organized structure of high school.

For more information from one of Kuna High School’s administrators, check out Mrs. Gafford’s blog post titled: “Will My Synergy Student be Ready for High School”

What about the positives?

We’ll let our other parents speak for us

  • “I really appreciate the Mentors’ communication.”
  • “[My daughter] seems to enjoy Synergy.  If she’s happy, I’m happy.”
  • “[My son] seems to like working in the Synergy setting.  He likes how the projects are done”
  • “Things have improved greatly as the year went on,  My student went from wanting to get out of the program to loving it.”
  • “The SDL is good because [my daughter] gets to work alone and do things at her own pace.”
  • “My son is enjoying the learning process, he is learning how to be a more responsible student.“
  • “I am glad they have the chance to “catch up” on learning they may have missed before they move on to high school.  I also like the way the projects make the learning more applicable to the real world. I also like the way the kids are able to go back and fix things as the year goes on.  It gives them an incentive to always keep improving.  Thanks for all you do – this is a great addition to Kuna schools!”
  • “We love this program. I feel like my daughter is excelling in this class and is becoming more responsible and able to work alone without being coached thru everything. I love how positive the teachers are and I’m very excited that she is able to be in this class again in 8th grade. WOOHOO!!! Way to go Synergy!”
  • “The teachers! They are so encouraging, and my child has never enjoyed her teacher as much as she does in synergy. You guys are doing amazing and it’s great to see teachers who honestly care and strive to be better! thank you so much for your hard work and dedication to our kids and this program. I am sure their college professors will thank you 🙂 “
  • “The checklists that you are creating, we have her print them to help her plan better and ensure she’s addressed all items.  We love the connections to current events while still filling all content areas.  I love the recorded conferences to get a sneak peak into her thinking.  The philosophy and amenities within the program itself! She is looking forward to another year!”
  • “Synergy has taught me to trust my kid.  To let him succeed, struggle and occasionally fail.  It’s taught me to trust the Synergy Teacher Team.  I’ve got to believe that if they see red flags or issues, they will contact me.  Having said that, it hasn’t stopped me from touching base occasionally because the “no news is good news” is sometimes just hard for me go with it.  My son seems enjoy the Synergy format (well, as much as he could possibly enjoy school :))  I appreciate the teachers that have taken the initiative to dare to dream about the Synergy way of teaching.  The amount of commitment, time and energy dedicated to making this work for all of the different learning needs of the kids must have been staggering.  Thank you for keeping the faith in your dream!”

Who do I contact if I have a question?

Simple!  Just send an email to synergy@kunaschools.org

Sending a question to that address will reach all four mentors, and one of us will respond as quickly as we can.

If you need to reach a specific mentor, use one of the following addresses

Cheers! And have a great summer!

The Synergy Team


Uhhh, sorry.

Hi there,

We kinda hit this radio silence, and we apologize.  It’s not that there isn’t anything fantastic to be sharing or that we’re not proud of our kids, or anything like that at all.  As a matter of fact, we’ve been so busy SYNERGYing that we haven’t had much of an opportunity (or time) to share out some of the cool things we’ve been doing in class.

We’ll be back to some regularly scheduled writing and share out the end of our year, maybe throw in a couple of teacher reflections, and then what our plans are for the summer and next year (because we do have some pretty cool tricks up our sleeves, and some pretty big plans for our future).



Every morning, we mentors chat with each other about the prior day’s work, and where we need to take the kids next — a bit of pre-processing so that we’re all on the same page, and that we have pinpointed specific students and groups we need to support.

And, of course, there’s a bit of chatter with the kids: the how-ya-dos and the how’s-your-morning-goings (one of our primary goals when we were setting up the program over the summer was that we wanted to make sure we took the time to meet with every kid, every day, and that the most important part of the day was this morning routine).

KMS has three bells that ring each morning, signifying the start of school: one at 7:45 to allow students into the building.  They have ten minutes until the second bell at 7:55, which pushes students to start heading to class.  And the third bell at 8:00 marks the beginning of class.

This morning we were going over our normal chatting routine, and hanging out with the students who wanted to chill before school began.  And then we noticed something really odd: across all of our rooms, we saw projects out, kids isolated in spaces and rooms, and work taking place.  BEFORE THAT FINAL BELL.

I don’t know if you (as a parent, or as a former student) remember school, but I’m sure that those who are current teachers, current parents, or current students would be happy to tell you that those few minutes before school starts are important personal time, meant specifically for hanging out with friends, listening to music, getting breakfast, and needing to make a sudden, last-minute “emergency trip” to the bathroom, the locker, or elsewhere.  As a matter of fact, even most teachers have a bit of a plan in place for the beginning of each class period to force students into their rooms: “The Bell Ringer”, which is designed to give the students a test and grade on previously practiced material.  If the students miss this test, the score is recorded and it hurts the kid’s grade; if the students is tardy, the tardy is marked, parents get a phone call, and discipline is put in place.

But it didn’t happen here today.  Today was magical.  Today, in the middle of our before-school conversation, I turned to Gafford and said: “These kids really amaze me sometimes.”  Our unspoken expectations for the day — the ones we normally spell out for students — were happening.  Check out the video above to see what I’m talking about.  Before the bell, those kids have organized themselves into groups.  They have collected their physical materials for that groupwork.  They are checking their calendars to see where they need to be.  They are checking in to class.  They are chatting about their own expectations for their own groups.

They were leading their education.  Completely Self-Directed Learning.

As a matter of fact, none of the mentors said one word to the students today about our expectations, or what they needed to be doing.  They kids did it themselves.

My statement to Gafford that the kids really amaze me sometimes, was preceded by an unspoken understanding of what was happening around us.  All she said to me was: “I was thinking the same thing.”



We’ve Come So Far

Our students are in week eight of a 10 week Future City Project. They’ve learned and learned, and now it is time to put it all together. We spent 80 minutes today having our students rotate through the four of us and listen to directions about for their final products. As we put it together, I was worried for the kids. It’s A LOT of work! We will be devoting about a week and a half to team/project time with minimal “class” time. It’s A LOT of work! As the students rotated through, I expected them to become increasingly stressed, increasingly frustrated, and near tears because that’s what they’ve done in the past. We’ve given them a small project, maybe two weeks long, and they have FREAKED out! Not today. Today they were calm, they had carefully thought-out questions. They sat and absorbed and engaged in the conversation about what is expected of them.

Surely they just didn’t understand the magnitude of the whole thing, I thought. They are seven days from spring break and just exhausted and not really listening because they should be seriously stressing right now.

I was wrong.

When we finished with our “round-robin” whirlwind instruction session, the students had time to meet up with their team and process/stress/plan/cry/whatever they had to do to get to a place where they could begin. The four of us sat and processed our morning as they dug in. We waited for them to start whining and bombarding us with the usual: “Where do we start?” , “Where are the directions?”, “What did you say?”, “I’m sick/tired/hungry/have to go to the bathroom/need to call home”, but it didn’t come.

They sat and talked with their teammates and started to plan. They delegated work. They set up checklists and timelines. They WORKED! It was amazing and exciting and everything that we had dreamed for this program.

I said something to Kennidy, an 8th grader, and her team. Who knows now what it was? Some kind of check-in question that we ask a million of in a day. She said, with a calm, happy smile, “We’re on slide six. We only have to do 49! We’re getting there!!”, and her team dove into a conversation about how many slides they would have to do each day to stay on track.

To an outsider, this wouldn’t seem miraculous, but to me, it was everything. Five months ago these kids would have been FALLING APART at the mere suggestion that they could dream to accomplish this task AT ALL, let alone in eight days. They would have started whining at the first mention of a project, sat and stared blankly at their screens with no idea of how to shake the overwhelming burden that had just been put on them, argued with their team about which direction to head, and found any excuse to get out of the classroom as quickly as possible. Today, that didn’t happen. They worked. It happened. We’re finally there, and I couldn’t be happier.


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Aha moment!

One of the greatest moments in a teachers career is when we get to witness our student’s aha moments.  This week our 8th graders are listening to the high school teachers explaining the various pathway options that the high school has to offer.  At the end of the day yesterday, one of my students made several comments that were music to my ears.

Student: (poses a statement that ends as a question) “Everything they are talking about is pretty much what we have been learning about all this year in SYNERGY?”

Me: “Yes”

Student Aha Moment: Wait! So, everything we have been doing is getting us ready for high school?

Me: (big smile on my face) Yep!

The conversation continued, but I loved that the connections were made.