Board of Ed Member Calls for More Input from Parents Regarding Computer Use at Middle School

Parents should have a say in some curriculum decisions regarding the use of computers in the classroom, rather than mere access to the trusted New Canaan Public Schools educators now making them, according to one member of the Board of Education.

Some parents closely monitor their children’s “screen time” at home and the study of how computer use affects young people is a rapidly developing area, Maria Naughton said during the school board’s regular meeting last week.

“We don’t have a district curriculum committee in the district, which I think we should,” Naughton said during the group’s meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.

“And I would like to know: How will this impact the curriculum for fifth and sixth grade?” said Naughton, who has called for greater parent collaboration in the past. “I have had parents contact me. They are actually worried about the lack of handwriting. They are worried about not being able to access their students’ work. They are worried about a lot of screen time. How are we calculating the amount of screen time for the students?”

The comments came as the board took up approval of an $83,320 donation from the Saxe Parent Teacher Council. Raised to purchase 300 Chromebooks and eight carts for fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies and Language Arts classes, the donation was described as highly generous by all school board members and unanimously accepted. District officials indicated that the gift made up for a reduction to the board’s funding request for the current fiscal year. Those voting in favor of the approval included Naughton, board Chair Dionna Carlson, Vice Chair Sheri West, Hazel Hobbs and Penny Rashin. Jennifer Richardson, the board’s secretary, Katrina Parkhill, Brendan Hayes and Tom Cronin were absent.

Saxe PTC co-presidents Kate Van Dussen and Susan Gelvin were in attendance. Van Dussen said the organization’s board worked with district officials including the director of digital learning and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi in reaching its decision to extend the “one-time and significant gift.” Van Dussen credited the organization’s membership as well as its predecessors, and the Saxe Building Committee which oversaw the renovation and addition there.

School board members and district administrators—chiefly Saxe Middle School Principal Greg Macedo—answered many of the questions posed by Naughton, though no discussion followed from her suggestion regarding a committee that deals with curriculum specifically.

Instead, board members and Luizzi underscored that teachers and faculty are eager to field and respond to any concerns or questions from parents, and seek proactively to open lines of communication through Open Houses and other gatherings.

Macedo said the additional Chromebooks will not alter classroom curriculum so much as improve the delivery of lesson plans already in place.

“We are using the technology to the best of our ability, but instead of sharing a laptop with a peer and being frankly less efficient and less effective, every student now will have their device while we do that lesson plan,” Macedo said.

“So it’s not really changing the impact, it’s improving the access so that frankly it will be more ‘time smart’ for students to be able to access the lesson without having to do some work and then give it to their partner who can then go on and Google classroom and do some work and pass it back. It was really ineffective. But it was a way that we shared the technology for the first marking period so that no one was denied in the fifth and sixth grade. So really it’s a matter of access versus curriculum. I can tell you that we asked the Language Arts coordinator to create some rationale for the PTC executive board in making the grant request since it was such a high dollar amount.”

That rationale included a note that students already are using devices and applications such as Google Docs and Google Classroom to interact with each other and teachers, submit assignments digitally, conduct research and write. The district is looking into whether additional applications may be introduced as students learn how to “close-read on a digital platform”—a different set of skills and strategies than traditional pencil and paper, Macedo said.

Not that pencil-and-paper learning is not also a focus in NCPS classrooms.

Dr. Jill Correnty, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said that “just because the devices are sitting in classrooms does not mean the devices are open for an entire 45-minute block of time.”

“Nor does it mean the devices are open every single day,” Correnty said. “I think they are used when it is appropriate to be used. So you might find them in Social Studies. We have to remember that our Social Studies teachers also teach digital citizenship and teach ethical literacy, so they need to have access to those computers. There is also the researching of the primary and secondary sources. It is giving us access to the story.”

Yet those classrooms also “have lots of classroom books, lots of classroom libraries,” Correnty added.

“Everything is a balance, so we are trying to teach children how to do a close read on a computer as well as how to do a close-read in a book, so it is two different sets of skills that we need to be able to teach them.”

To a question about how parents of fifth- and sixth-grade students may access their children’s work, Macedo noted that all Google Classroom assignments are fully visible to parents and guardians.

West underscored that point, saying that as the parent of a fifth-grader she felt “there is very open communication.”

West said she receives emailed Google shares that include written assignments from her child and urged any parents with questions to bring them directly to teachers and counselors.

“I get it. For parents, technology is a case of rapid acceleration,” West said. “But this is the world that we live in and we need these Chromebooks for our students to compete. So again, thank you, because I think this is essential for the teachers to fully integrate the technology into the classrooms.”

West later added that Facebook is “not the best venue for getting information that you need for your own child’s education.”

Rashin said that, like Naughton, she was interested in screen time as well as the effect of computers on learning and how the devices are best used, and called for district officials to keep the school board apprised as additional research comes out.

Carlson said that “as computers become more integrated into the everyday education of our children and the everyday existence of them outside of the classroom, I am excited that they are getting more exposure and lesson planning and strategies and education about the effective use of those tools.”

“Because we all have different levels of knoweldge that we can pass on to our children, and having people in the district that can help our kids effectively navigate those tools safely and effectively is to our benefit and to our children’s long-term benefit.”

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