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Class Consciousness

A Burlington fourth-grade teacher gives homework an alternative spin


Published August 24, 2011 at 4:23 a.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:15 p.m.

Sally Koch Hayes - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Sally Koch Hayes

From her very first day in the classroom, some 12 years ago, Sally Koch Hayes wondered whether there wasn’t a better way to “do” homework. But it wasn’t until last spring that the fourth-grade teacher at C.P. Smith Elementary resolved to try something new.

These days, “differentiated learning” — that is, tailoring assignments to the unique strengths and needs of each student — is all the rage. But Hayes has known for years that students learn in different ways, and that learning outside the classroom can mean more than just reading textbooks or completing math problems.

For example, kids can absorb fractions and multiplication by following a baking recipe. They can improve their reading comprehension by following the instructions to assemble an origami star. And they can work on spelling and grammar by writing a letter, poem, story or song. Earlier this year, Hayes decided to incorporate these kinds of lessons into her students’ daily homework.

The catalyst for Hayes’ initiative was the documentary Race to Nowhere, which she saw in February with her book-club members, many of whom are also teachers. The film, by parent and first-time director Vicki Abeles, chronicles the relentless pressures that American students face as their lives are increasingly overscheduled with classes, homework, tutoring and other résumé-building extracurricular activities.

The filmmaker, whose 12-year-old daughter landed in the emergency room one night with a stress-induced illness, discovered later through interviews that many students experience high levels of stress. Students even younger than her daughter expressed the feeling of being on a treadmill that never slows down — a sentiment, Abeles argues, that manifests in this country’s disturbing rates of teen depression, substance abuse and suicide.

Since its release in 2009, the critically acclaimed film has been screened in countless schools across the country, including some in Vermont. For Hayes, whose own six children range in age from 15 to 25, the movie really hit home. She also knows from personal experience that many of her students leave home at 7:30 a.m. and don’t return until 6 p.m. In fact, most don’t do their “homework” at home, Hayes says, but in “after-care” programs. For many students, especially those with two working parents and low- or moderate-income households, homework can create enormous stress.

“So, I literally walked out of that movie and said, ‘That’s it! I’m changing what I’m doing in the classroom,’” Hayes says.

The following Monday, Hayes outlined her idea to her students, most of whom were “gung-ho to try anything new,” especially where homework was concerned. But Hayes’ real concern was how parents would receive her approach to outside-the-classroom learning.

“Homework is always a hot topic, whether it’s too much or too little,” she says. “Sometimes, for parents, it’s their only connection with their child’s school. And sometimes they assume a teacher is a good teacher or a bad teacher depending upon how much homework they’re giving.”

So, after receiving approval from her principal and discussing the idea with other fourth-grade teachers, Hayes sent a letter home to parents explaining her plan.

Basically, here’s how it works: Students are given a weekly grid and must select at least three daily activities from a “menu” of 10 categories. Those include pleasurable reading (such as books, magazines, recipes, newspapers); physical activities (walking, biking, skating, swimming, playing sports); hobbies (sewing, gardening, photography, caring for pets); art projects (painting, drawing, collage, dioramas); and community service (mowing a neighbor’s lawn, playing a game with an older person, picking up trash).

According to Hayes, many students were excited by the idea of doing community service as a form of homework. For example, after last winter’s record snowstorms, several students chose to help elderly neighbors with the shoveling. In the spring, others organized trash cleanups in their neighborhood.

One student decided he wanted to learn to play chess so he could spend more time with older family members. Another saw this alternative approach to learning as an opportunity to expand her collection of sea glass.

“Part of the impetus for me,” Hayes says, “is Can I give something for the students to do independently that’s a little different from traditional work-sheet homework, that’s meaningful for them and might engage another family member, a parent or a sibling?

Although her homework model offers students more choices than they had before, Hayes cautions that it’s not an “anything-goes” approach. Students with specific weaknesses, such as math or spelling, are still required to focus on those areas several nights each week. Other students who are predisposed to choose certain categories, such as sports or physical activities, are required to try categories they’d normally avoid.

The important thing, Hayes explains, is that students begin to recognize that learning opportunities come in many different forms and don’t always look like “schoolwork.”

“With the other homework, I didn’t have enough time because I was always tired after doing sports,” wrote one fourth grader in a survey Hayes sent home to students and their parents. “But with my new homework, I have learned two more piano songs. And that made me happy to do really well on the piano.”

Although nearly all Hayes’ 24 students greeted the new lessons positively, the same can’t be said of all parents. According to Hayes, three “extremely vocal” parents had very strong objections. One couple questioned whether the assignments were rigorous enough to help their child to keep up with the math and reading progress of other fourth graders. Another parent complained that gardening and playing games don’t constitute “real” homework.

“I definitely understand that some parents felt this was a little too far out there and too unconventional,” Hayes says. Nevertheless, she recalls one couple whose initial reservations faltered. When they met with Hayes, she says, the student’s mother turned to her husband and asked, “Is this about our child, or is this about us?”

“I feel like I totally went out on a limb with this, and it was really scary for me, too,” Hayes admits. But then she shares a survey response written by the parent of a child who had struggled all year. It reads, “I feel lucky that [my child] is blessed to have teachers who understand that there’s more to learning than completing work-sheets and regurgitating information.”

Hayes’ principal, Tom Fleury, is supportive of the experiment.

“The most effective schools are the ones that think outside the box, rather than having to wait for the state or federal government to tell them what to do,” he says. “The route to success for all schools is for us to be very creative and innovative, and … I’m always excited about considering new proposals.”

For her part, Hayes says the alternative homework initiative is still in its infancy and subject to further improvements. But she remains convinced that, even in education, where ranks, grades and percentiles are paramount, there’s a place for unconventional learning.

“If we expect kids to be learning in a very linear way for four to six hours a day … to expose them to other ways of learning outside of school is just as meaningful and powerful,” Hayes says. “It’s not all on paper.”

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