Skip to main content

Spotlight blogs celebrate excellence in our Learning Innovation Network. This Spotlight is written by Amy Huhtala, an instructional coach at Canyon Springs High School in Idaho during the 2022-2023 school year. Find out how the team at Canyon Springs uses competency-based education to foster collaboration among staff and offer engaging academic opportunities for students.

On the teachers’ first day back to school at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, Canyon Springs Alternative High School Principal Christine McMillen shared the following quote:

Prior to this school year,we followed the same traditional model as most other high schools: teachers only collaborated with other teachers in the same subject area. Additionally, there was very little collective teacher efficacy because every teacher was siloed into the subject area they are certified to teach.

The 2022-2023 school year was our opportunity to break down these old systems of organizing learning and try something new. Teachers knew that transitioning from a traditional model to a competency-based model would be a heavy lift, but they didn’t know what they didn’t know. The first few months of implementation were very challenging, but teachers stuck with it. It turns out that one of the keys to their success was, in fact, being willing to do something they’d never done: creating cross-curricular discussions led by various content teachers.

Early Implementation

Year after year, stakeholder surveys have revealed that students know that the staff at Canyon Springs cares about them. Building on this strength, our team built a support structure where every student had an assigned adult to serve as guide, called a mentor. The mentor’s primary responsibility is to help their mentees graduate.  This created a shift in the primary objective for classroom teachers because they weren’t just responsible for students successfully completing their course, they were asked to mentor and guide students through all coursework. Even though Canyon Springs started out the year with a Building 21 Framework and new expectations, teachers still had to work really hard to break out of the traditional model. Teachers were encouraged to be innovative; but they were in a position of teaching their students how to navigate the new model while they were still learning about the new model themselves. 

 After facilitating an orientation course about this transition to a competency-based model, mentors and teachers jumped right into the work of trying to figure out how to be an effective content teacher within a structure that didn’t provide the obvious structure of a traditional bell schedule. Some teachers created online websites that guided students through their course. This type of structure felt really similar to online learning for many students and they became very reluctant to make progress through their coursework. Teachers were committed to finding something that would work and this curiosity and willingness led them to question how they could provide an opportunity for students to learn and show skills assessed within the competencies.

Trial Run

ELA and Social Studies teachers began to notice the potential of cross-curricular planning.  After they met with me to brainstorm possible experiences for students to earn both English and social studies competencies, they chose a set of discussion (English) and analysis (social studies) skills to create a Socratic seminar experience.  Bailee Dunstan, English teacher, said, “It was fun to come together with the history department to talk about different ways to do things.

The team promoted the experience to students by being explicit about which competencies they could earn in two-sessions. Students signed up for a morning session where the social studies content would be covered and then an afternoon session to participate in the actual discussion. The topic they chose was a current world event involving women in Syria protesting for their rights. 

Dunstan said she learned a lot from that first experience. She said, “We had 45 students show up to the first session, which was awesome, but we did have to regroup on the fly so that we could provide the experience to that many students.”

More Opportunities for Collaboration

After witnessing the success with social studies and English, the health teacher, Ivy Hommel, reached out to Dunstan to collaborate with her on a similar experience.  Hommel said, “For ELA and health, the framework evolved. We realized from the first try that a Socratic seminar format doesn’t work for that many students, so we tried a more informal discussion around the topic of healthy relationships in which we gave every student the same amount of pennies. Every time they spoke up in the discussion, they used one of their pennies.” This helped students understand how much they needed to talk and share their thoughts to earn a competency.

Dunstan explained that the process evolved even more when they tried a modified  philosophical chair discussion protocol for their next topic of substance abuse. This process involved students sitting across from each other in two lines. They discussed with their first partner the questions posed by the teacher; then students on one side of the line moved down one to talk to a different student about a new question. This process was repeated until students had discussed every question. Dunstan credits this protocol with being the most successful for our students. She said, “This change helped students be accountable for discussing every single question. In addition, it worked better for our student population to speak one on one with a peer instead of aloud to a whole big group. It was more effective in building discussion skills in every student.”

Hommel agreed. She said, We had great participation and conversations reached the level of complexity that we were looking for. Students were challenging each other and helping each other dig deeper into their thoughts and opinions about these different topics.” In addition, Hommel believes that the opportunity showed students how they can earn competencies faster and learn from each other at the same time. Students gained collaboration skills that are not typically provided for most students at this age. “Students enjoyed earning ELA competencies without having to write an essay or read a book. Both of those skills can be intimidating to students, so providing them with sources and a topic that is engaging and directly affects their lives created a high level of engagement,” she said.

Reflections and Next Steps

Now that some teacher leaders have a grasp on the type of formats that work for cross-curricular discussions, many are looking forward to building on that success by creating more opportunities for teachers to work together. English teacher Justin Hand said, “It’s really valuable to see how other teachers are instructing and assessing their content. There is a depth to our collaborative conversations due to diversity of thought and that helps increase our collective teacher efficacy.” 

Another added benefit that Hand described was the power of students seeing adults and teachers working together. In a traditional setting, students spend so much time with one content teacher, so the collaboration happens behind the scenes. In this model, students see teachers working with other teachers every single day. Hand reflected, “There is an opportunity for a culture shift when students see teachers modeling collaboration right in front of them. The positive vibes from having a cohesive, collaborative faculty in all aspects of the school could be a game changer.”

Hommel agrees, “I think that we only scratched the surface for cross-curricular experiences. The more that students are involved with this competency-based system, the more that they are going to be able to advocate for cross-curricular experiences. I think our next step is to help students find areas in one assignment that can pertain to other classes and advocate for themselves and their own education to earn those competencies.”

The journey of transitioning to a competency-based model is an ongoing one, filled with continuous learning and growth. The dedication and resilience of the teachers at Canyon Springs High School have paved the way for a transformative educational experience, where students are not only gaining subject knowledge but also developing crucial skills for success in the 21st century. As they continue to innovate and collaborate, the possibilities for enhancing our students’ learning and fostering a collaborative culture are limitless. Alex Flemmer, social studies teacher, said it best, “The discussion experiences gave us a glimpse of the impact CBE can have on student learning and showed us how we can work together to build authentic learning experiences that will benefit our students beyond graduation.”

Are you interested in finding out about the collaborative discussion skills students demonstrated at Canyon Springs? You can find the ELA.6 Engage In Discussion competencies here.

If you’d like to request a free consultation with Building 21 to see how we can help you foster cross-curricular collaboration, please reach out to us here.


Amy Huhtala was an instructional coach at Canyon Springs High School in Caldwell, Idaho for the 2022-23 school year. She is passionate about literacy instruction, differentiated student learning, and student achievement. You can reach her via email at

Join the discussion One Comment

  • John High says:

    I had the pleasure of reading the article on the Canyons Springs Spotlight, and I must say I was thoroughly impressed with the innovative approach you are implementing at The dedication to personalized and competency-based learning is commendable, and I can see the positive impact it has on both students and educators. Your staffs work and early preparation have paid off. As mentioned, while it is a long journey, the steps identified in your post and the flexibility and scaffolding for students will go a long way. Thanks for the insights, enjoyed this read.

Leave a Reply

Always stay up-to-date. Join our Newsletter.