Some elements of school are constant.
Upon returning from lunch early last week, students in Hannah Pfoutz's fifth-grade class sounded a familiar groan: "Ugh. Homework!"
But instead of giving the usual overnight homework assignment, Pfoutz decided to take a different approach to the week's assignments. She gave the students three large assignments, all due on Friday: a science fair project, an essay and a take-home exam on a book. Although she provided some time in class to work on the projects, the students were expected to plan their tasks and work efficiently at home as well.
The strategy was partly experimental, partly necessity: Three snow days this month, combined with two field trips, had depleted in-class time. The students visited the National Air and Space Museum and the Phoebe Hall Knipling Outdoor Laboratory, where they went on a hike, had a campfire cookout and explored the animal lab. Both field trips were beneficial, Pfoutz said, but they came at the expense of precious class time.
Pfoutz, a first-year teacher at Arlington's Drew Model Elementary School, is learning that she has to be an adept juggler to squeeze a lot of material into a short amount of time, especially when unplanned events, such as snow days, thwart even the best-laid plans.
"We're just really behind where I want to be," she said. "If I'd known, I wouldn't have planned my field trips. They were so excited about the snow, but it's so much to make up."
The students will get one day returned to them. Arlington will use Presidents' Day as a snow makeup day. But in the near term, teachers will load up on more homework.
Pfoutz said that as she approaches the midpoint of the school year, she believes that she has gained a much better understanding of how to schedule her class time and how much homework is appropriate to send home with her students.
Describing the early part of the year, she said: "I didn't know the kids as well as I needed to. I know how to pace things now. The reality is, I'm not going to be able to cover everything."
So she sets realistic goals for both herself and her students, focusing heavily on concepts they will need to know for the state Standards of Learning exams at the end of the year.
For some students, a week of work on three projects was their first experience in having to plan their time. Pfoutz gave them unstructured time in class, when they could work on their projects and ask her for help, but did not require that all the students work on the same project at once. She said her students exceeded her expectations, balancing all their demands to complete their assignments.
The reward came Friday -- the last day of school before the 12-day holiday break -- when, after a spelling test, the students got to spend the morning presenting their science projects in a multiclass science fair. They answered questions from other students in the school about their experiments, which included comparing brands of popcorn to find which one pops more kernels, and measuring the distance a baseball is hit by both a wooden and an aluminum bat. In addition to presenting their projects, they also visited the other fifth-grade class and one fourth-grade class to see the projects done by their peers.
With the science fair, a major essay and a book exam under their belts, the students will be able to enjoy the break and come back in 2003 ready to tackle their class opera and the SOL exams.