Brianna Falvey has a simple rule for her fourth-graders at Colvin Elementary School:
Do your homework.
Do it every night, no exceptions. Turn it in the next day.
That simple directive has turned into a tide of excitement at the school in Planeview, one of Wichita’s poorest, where nearly 98 percent of students are low-income but where Falvey has challenged them to a collective goal she’s convinced they can achieve:
All the students in her class – every single one – will complete their homework for 100 consecutive days.
“Most news that comes from this neighborhood is negative,” Falvey said. “What is going on in my fourth-grade class is far from negative. … If you believe in students and tell them you believe in them, it’s amazing what they can do.”
Falvey and Natalie May, a special education teacher who works alongside her most days, said the goal initially started smaller.
“Let’s see if everybody can do their homework for 10 straight days,” Falvey told the students. “If you make it to 10, you’ll get a special treat.”
Treat? All right! Didn’t matter what it was. Falvey didn’t even know what it would be. The students were on board nonetheless.
A banner outside the classroom door says, “Everyone in Miss Falvey’s class has completed homework __ days in a row.”
Every day that everyone in the class turns in homework, they increase the number by one and post it on the banner outside. If one child forgets his assignment, the banner goes back to zero and the class has to start again. That has happened a couple of times this year.
“You don’t want that person to be you,” said student Braydon Ingram. “So you do your homework because your friends are counting on you.”
Theories vary among educators on the role and the importance of homework, particularly among students who live in poverty. You can’t expect them to finish homework, one theory goes, because many of the students get little or no support from their parents. Some live in difficult circumstances. Some don’t have electricity. Many of the kids’ parents don’t speak English.
All that’s true, Falvey said. But she gives them homework anyway – one math assignment and one reading, each one geared to each student’s ability level. She also gives them her cellphone number – and May’s number as well – and tells them to call if they have questions or run into a problem while doing their homework.
Both teachers say they get at least a couple of calls every night.
Michelle Martinez-Arroyo called Falvey this week because she couldn’t pronounce a word in her reading assignment and didn’t know what it meant. Falvey had Michelle spell it over the phone.
The word was “batter.”
“I explained what it was, like cake batter,” Falvey said. “Some things you just assume kids know – words like ‘stir’ – you can’t assume that.”
But Michelle learned the new word that evening and finished her homework, as she has every other day so far this school year. On Tuesday, the class hit 16 days in a row.
Falvey, in her second year at Colvin, said she has tried the collective homework approach with previous classes in Wichita and in upstate New York, where she used to live. The all-time record is 26 days.
What makes her think this class can hit 100?
“Because there are two adults in the room that are so adamant about their teamwork and their effort,” she said.
May, who also is helping the students write and produce movies to show off their creativity, agrees.
“There’s a whole ‘We’re in this together’ thing going on,” May said. “It’s like a family, the way they’re encouraging each other and counting on each other. I know they can do it.”
If they hit the mark, Falvey has promised a reward unlike the cookies, cakes or other treats they get for each 10-day achievement.
“I’m going to dye my hair orange and wear a prom dress,” she said, shaking her head and chuckling. “That’s what they came up with. … But hey, if they make it, I’ll do it.”
Laiden Vanarsdale said he used to dread homework. Now that he’s part of the fourth-grade “100 Days of Homework” quest, he doesn’t mind it so much.
“Homework is important,” he said, “because it helps you practice your skills so you can graduate and go to college and get a job you really like.”
And besides, added Christina Gardea, you don’t want to be heard complaining about homework in Miss Falvey’s class.
“If you whine about the homework and she hears you,” Christina whispered, “you get twice as much.”