SCHOOL COMMITTEE RACE Q&A: Byrnes, Fennelly & Ragsdale Discuss Homework, Snow Days

WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Apple is asking School Committee candidates MJ Byrnes, Jesse Fenelley, and David Ragsdale questions each week leading up to the April 28 Town Election.

This week’s questions focus on homework and related topics.  Below are the candidates’ responses, in their own words:

MJ Byrnes

MJ Byrnes

What are your thoughts on homework? The district currently has a Homework Committee (consisting of Administrators, Teachers, Parents, Students & School Committee members) exploring possible changes to the district’s homework policy.

I feel homework and amount of work should be reasonably consistent across grade levels. Homework, in my mind, should support and enhance student understanding of the lessons being taught within the classroom, while fostering independent learning, responsibility and time management skills for our students. It should not be used as ‘busy’ work.

I do feel we have a pretty solid policy, in that it sets clear expectations and responsibilities for students, parents and teachers. However, I recognize there are some areas of it that may require revisions in order for the policy to be executed consistently and effectively. I am very interested in learning more about the ongoing work and results of the Homework Committee to see how, as a Board, we might better support student learning through this policy, and be able to create more opportunities for teachers to collaborate with one other, which may address some of our biggest concerns.

Without the benefit of their report, are there any changes you would like to see made to the district’s homework policy? 

Without knowing which areas are involved that may be hampering this policy from being effective, it is difficult to determine what changes I’d like to see occur. I do think that inconsistency in home-school communications and the timely updating of classroom websites plays a role in this policy’s lack of complete success. Is it a time management issue with teachers and/or families? A need for more Professional Development to support teachers in their use of technology to support this policy?

With many Districts piloting ‘No homework’ initiatives within their elementary programs, and promoting real life experiences to support lessons being taught within their classrooms (eg. reading menus to practice reading skills or cooking to practice math), which lends itself to more opportunities for quality family time, as well as, offers a creative approach to learning outside of the classroom. Perhaps we could rethink this policy and tailor it to be more creative and beneficial for our students, by customizing this policy to grow with our students at each school transition. This approach may also afford teachers more creative outlets to support student learning and engagement.

What are your thoughts on the “flipped classroom” model?

I’m excited over this new learning model and its possible potential on what it could offer our students. In saying this, I also recognize that it has limitations that may not be realistic for all classrooms and all learners.

I can certainly see the benefits this model could offer to some of our students, especially those who are self motivated, independent learners with strong organizational skills. I like how this model lends itself and supports a student centered, collaborative learning experience. By having students view video lectures prior to the class, it would allow for classroom time to focus on a stronger understanding of the concepts being taught. I think there is a real potential benefit to this new model, and would consider piloting this model at the High School level to see how students might respond to it, as well as, to see how teachers feel about this alternative, and possibly more efficient, approach to teaching!

Some of the concerns I have and would want to have addressed is how this model could/would benefit differentiated learners. Although it offers more time to those who may need it to better learn new concepts, how would it impact those who may require more support to organize themselves, non- self motivated learners or those who may not have technology at home? I also have reservation on the amount of extended ‘screen time’ over time our students would have, and if this would impact students ability to retain new lessons after a long day of school, sports, clubs , jobs… etc.. Would we be limiting our students access to social situations and experiences, which is important to their social and emotional well being and learning, because of the amount of time required on a computer? Would this model drive student achievement or just simply offer a different method of delivering lessons?

It’s definitely an approach I would like to explore further. Although it may not work for all students and teachers, I could see it being offered as another option for student learning, in conjunction with the traditional classroom approach.

It could also lend itself as a potential tool to your next question….

Finally (and this is a reader submitted question), what are your thoughts on the concept of having students complete special at-home assignments on “snow days” and having it count as a “school day?”

I think it’s great to have a ‘snow bag’ to keep skills and concepts fresh in a student’s mind, and reinforcing understanding! It also lends itself to less time in reviewing content during class time, as well. This was a discussion before the Board several years ago as other Districts started piloting this piece. At that time, we were waiting to see the results of these pilots, which was also occurring during a time that technology was starting to be integrated into classrooms. I think this would be a perfect time to revisit this concept, especially since many Districts have been implementing this for the past several years and have created policies surrounding ‘remote and virtual learning’.

Although I support this venture, there are aspects we need to be thoughtful of and take into consideration, such as family dynamics (eg. students who are responsible for taking care of siblings if parents need to work, shoveling, loss of electricity/internet, etc.). I think it’s equally important for kids to be kids and have them be able to enjoy their snow days. As research has shown, play and down-time can also be beneficial to a students learning. I do feel we need to ensure there is a ‘balance’ of learning and relaxation as we look to explore this further.

As for it to count as a “school day”,  I think it could be a future consideration and solution in preventing an extended school year, especially with incorporating technology as a tool into this solution. But, I am guarded, at this juncture, on the broader impact it may have on overall student learning and achievement. It is certainly worth discussing the idea further as winter storms become more frequent and intense in our region. Also, its my understanding that DESE has allowed School Districts to explore this option and has made case by case allowances for some Districts that have had a large amount of ‘snow days’. Until DESE creates specific policy and protocols for Districts to follow, I don’t see the use of ‘snow bags’ replacing school days as an option.

Jesse Fennelly

Jesse Fennelly

What are your thoughts on homework?

I think homework is an important extension of the classroom.  These assignments, when used in the appropriate way, are a valuable tool that allows teachers to reinforce classroom learning and helps students develop independence and solid time management skills.  As the WPS Homework policy states, homework is also important “to communicate with families about what is happening in the classroom. Homework is a shared responsibility among the student, teacher, and family.”  I appreciate this component as homework allows me a glimpse into what my child is learning in the classroom.

The district currently has a Homework Committee (consisting of Administrators, Teachers, Parents, Students & School Committee members) exploring possible changes to the district’s homework policy. Without the benefit of their report, are there any changes you would like to see made to the district’s homework policy? 

After reading the WPS Homework policy, I do not feel there are specific changes that are necessary.  I am sure the Homework committee will carefully review the policy and make recommendations, which I look forward to reading.  At this time I do not believe that there is any need to make changes to what is a smart, well thought out policy.

What are your thoughts on the “flipped classroom” model?

As for the flipped classroom model, my feeling is that there is not enough evidence yet that would prompt me to support this kind of learning.  Technology has the power to bring us together, but that ability also removes the need for interpersonal communication, and I believe this is one of the most important aspects of our educational system.  Schools are where our kids build friendships and relationships, learn about who they are as individuals, and plays a large role in the development of morals and principles that will guide them throughout their adult life.  This development is immensely important and I would need to see significantly more data on success rates before supporting this initiative on a wide scale.  I also have concerns with the impact of the amount of “screen time,” especially on younger students.  This could very likely have negative impacts in the long run that outweigh the positives.

Finally (and this is a reader submitted question), what are your thoughts on the concept of having students complete special at-home assignments on “snow days” and having it count as a “school day?”

Finally, when it comes to so-called “blizzard bags,” where students complete a predetermined amount of school work on snow days and count it as a school day, I am inclined to support the plan.  Before supporting it, however, I would have a few questions: how will the administration to determine the appropriate level of work for each grade level to count it as a school day; are there parents in the district who support this initiative; do the teachers support this kind of alternative learning; and lastly when does the work have to be turned into the teacher in order for the school day to count.  Should these issues be sufficiently worked out then I would be likely to support this initiative, at least on a trial basis.

David Ragsdale

David Ragsdale

What are your thoughts on homework? 

Details and implementation matter a lot in assigning homework, but let’s start with some principles.

Ideally …

Homework should be meaningful and connected to classroom learning.

Homework should be an opportunity to practice skills that have been taught in school.

Homework should be given in reasonable amounts — enough to reinforce the skill being practiced, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming or requires students to sacrifice sleep.

Homework should develop the ability of students to work independently and to be responsible for an assignment and a deadline.

When I was teaching, I would tell my students that the skills we covered in class would only be useful if they practiced them. Learning a skill of any complexity requires practice, whether it’s long division or playing the piano. So homework is important, but it needs to be thoughtful and deliberate in order to be effective. Throwing busywork at students is not a good use of their time, and it’s important that teachers treat students’ time as valuable and not to be wasted.

The district currently has a Homework Committee (consisting of Administrators, Teachers, Parents, Students & School Committee members) exploring possible changes to the district’s homework policy. Without the benefit of their report, are there any changes you would like to see made to the district’s homework policy?

No. I want to see the report before advocating for any specific changes to the homework policy. This report is exactly the kind of detailed information we should have before making a change in policy.

What are your thoughts on the “flipped classroom” model?

For those unfamiliar with the term “flipped classroom,” here’s a very simple description. In the traditional classroom model, new concepts are introduced and taught in class by the teacher, and then students practice what they’ve learned at home (homework). In a flipped classroom, concepts are introduced in “homework,” often in online videos (e.g., Khan Academy videos) and then in school the concepts are explored and practiced under the teacher’s direction and guidance.

I think there can be value in this for specific classes and specific topics. Some math topics, for example, can be effectively introduced in online videos, and some students are more comfortable rewatching a section of a video on their own than asking their teacher to repeat him or herself in class. However, although I think teachers should be encouraged to experiment with a flipped classroom model for certain topics, I would not recommend that Wilmington adopt it as a district policy.

Finally (and this is a reader submitted question), what are your thoughts on the concept of having students complete special at-home assignments on “snow days” and having it count as a “school day?”

I appreciate the goal of reducing the number of snow days that have to be made up, and giving snow days some educational value. Several districts in Massachusetts have experimented with the idea of “blizzard bags” that students take home the day before snowy weather, and it’s common in New Hampshire. However, I don’t think this is something Wilmington should do.

The primary reason is that a school day is supposed to be structured learning time with appropriate oversight and teacher involvement. Most assignments to do at home on snow days are more akin to homework. Also, snow days already are a burden on parents and other caregivers just for the childcare part. I don’t want parents and caregivers having to oversee the kind of substantial work that could count as a school day. A snow day should not require home schooling. Connected to this are equity concerns because the value of such assignments and work could be greatly affected by students’ home situation in a way that doesn’t happen in the classroom.

I think Wilmington should continue with its current policy of building five snow days into the school calendar, and having snow days be snow days.

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