SED alum, principal pilots Individualized Homework Framework in Norwell

Patrick Lenz (SED’16), Principal of the William Gould Vinal Elementary School

As Principal of the William Gould Vinal Elementary School in Norwell, Patrick Lenz (SED’16) says that a large part of his job is fostering positive connections between students’ homes and school. Homework, he says, plays a crucial role in this connection.

Though he acknowledges its downfalls—citing research that suggests there is no correlation between homework and achievement at the elementary level— Mr. Lenz maintains that homework is essential. He thinks, though, that there’s a better way to approach it.

“It’s been trendy recently to say, ‘let’s get rid of homework at the elementary level,’ but I believe it can still be a strong tool,” Mr. Lenz said. “It’s been in our school system for 75 years and, especially in a district like Norwell where we have a very involved parent community, homework can be a great window for families into what we do in school.”

Traditionally, though, he said that homework hasn’t always mirrored what actually happens in a typical school day.

“So much of what we do in the classroom is personalized and individualized and historically homework hasn’t really reflected those practices,” he explained. “When I walk around my building, teachers aren’t engaging students in worksheets. They’re developing critical thinkers and problem solvers.”

Mr. Lenz, a classroom teacher for 11 years, struggled himself with making homework consistently effective and efficient, especially at the elementary level. This disconnect was at the forefront of his mind when he began taking classes at the South Shore Educational Collaborative (SSEC), started by School of Education Associate Professor Don Beaudette.

“The whole idea is to offer high-quality Boston University graduate level courses to working professionals who otherwise might not be able to come to BU for coursework,” Dr. Beaudette said of the Collaborative. “It really harkens back to SED’s mission of service in terms of having programs away from campus that allow us to improve the profession, and that helps professionals to achieve their goals in becoming school leaders.”

At the time an Assistant Principal for Curriculum at two Norwell Public Schools, Mr. Lenz took advantage of the SSEC being right around the corner from his full-time job. He bounced ideas off of his cohort on the concept of individualized homework. He conducted research, and in particular found resonance with a book by University of Missouri Professor Cathy Vatterott.

“She proposed fundamental characteristics of effective homework which are purpose, efficiency, ownership, and competence,” Mr. Lenz explained. “I believe in those strongly, and what we added to our framework and to the characteristics of effective homework is having it be goal-oriented.”

“By ensuring that the homework is goal-oriented and reflects these fundamental characteristics, we’re keying into what students are interested in and motivated by, and using that as a way to teach content.” -Patrick Lenz (SED’16)

Mr. Lenz went on to earn his Ed.M. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies from SED, and to become Principal of the Vinal School, where he has since successfully piloted his individualized homework framework. He, along with Dr. Vatterott, recently published an article in Educational Leadership magazine about what he and his teachers found during their pilot year in 2015/2016.

Their article offers examples of some of the homework assignments that students have designed with support of their parents and teachers—“for instance,” Dr. Vatterott writes, “one of Robin Thibodeau’s 2nd graders wanted to do her homework as she waited for her brother’s tae kwon do class to finish. She saw trophies and got an idea to use them as the foundation for her addition and subtraction problems.”

Their article details the incredibly positive reactions that students, their families, and the five teachers who agreed to pilot the framework have had to this new form of homework. Mr. Lenz and his teachers learned a lot, too, by trial and error.

“It takes a lot of proactive education of parents and ensuring that they understand what we’re trying to do,” Mr. Lenz said, adding that the held an informational session in the fall which was attended by at least 60 parents. “They raised a lot of great questions because this concept of homework is a lot different from what they experienced in school.”

Mr. Lenz and son Logan, 5, in front of the Vinal School.

Mr. Lenz and his teachers also learned that their students often struggled with setting goals, which is what he refers to as a 21st century skill.

“It’s an important learning goal, so we kept that in mind as we try to set students up for success in the beginning of this year. We’re a responsive classroom school, so we spend the first six weeks of school getting to know the students we’re teaching, getting to know their families, and keying in on what intrinsically motivates our students.”

He added that during this time, students outline their “hopes and dreams,” which become a model by which they can set goals. This process will then become familiar to the students as they work with their teachers to create academic goals, and design homework assignments to achieve them.

“It’s really all about fostering a love of learning and applying the same fundamental characteristic that research tells us are the best approach to teaching and learning, and applying them to homework as well.”

His teachers are enthusiastically on board—20 teachers at the Vinal School are currently piloting the framework, including Tracy Simmons (SED’96).

“[Students] are motivated and interested to complete what is assigned,” Ms. Simmons told Dr. Vatterott in regards to the new style of homework. “It is meaningful to them, so they do it—it’s as simple as that!”

Lisa Randall