Top of the class: How one Cork primary school replaced homework with little acts of kindness

The pupils of this gaelscoil are doing neither sums nor spelling at home this month, working instead on random acts of kindness. Jess Casey talked to them and their vice principal about the profound benefits of guiding the children to focus on being kind to everyone — including themselves.

Top of the class: How one Cork primary school replaced homework with little acts of kindness

The pupils of this gaelscoil are doing neither sums nor spelling at home this month, working instead on random acts of kindness. Jess Casey talked to them and their vice principal about the profound benefits of guiding the children to focus on being kind to everyone — including themselves.

ONE good deed deserves another, and that’s the case at one West Cork gaelscoil that swapped the books for acts of kindness throughout the month of December.

Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Uí Choileáin ditched formal homework in the weeks leading up to Christmas — instead, pupils were asked to focus on the little things they could do to make the world a nicer place for the people around them.

It’s a simple idea — every evening, the national school pupils could focus on helping their families, neighbours, communities, and friends instead of spending their time on spellings or tables.

In lieu of written homework, the pupils each night undertook random acts of kindness.

These were usually “small but achievable” actions that the pupils thought could really could help make a big difference in somebody’s life, according to school principal Pádraig Ó hEachthairn.

They were then asked to record these daily acts in a special kindness diary, their dialann cineáltais.

Designed by pupils, the bright yellow dialann allowed the children to document their acts of kindness with colourful illustrations and diary entries. Each daily entry was then signed by their parents, much like a traditional school diary.

“We had no written work this month and it’s all just about being nice to one another,” fifth class pupil Tadhg Ó Seighin said.

“I think the project is very important because it encouraged people to be kind to one another and to be kind to people who aren’t treated very nicely.”

And what have they learned about?: “Kindness is about making people’s lives better by changing little things, or doing little nice things to make the world a better place for people,” said first class pupil Andy Ó Tuama, “and it’s all about making this Christmas a special Christmas.”

As well as the acts of kindness — overseen by parents and school just like ordinary homework — the pupils of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin drop kind notes about friends and peers in the kindness bucket. Picture: Larry Cummins
As well as the acts of kindness — overseen by parents and school just like ordinary homework — the pupils of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin drop kind notes about friends and peers in the kindness bucket. Picture: Larry Cummins

According to senior infant Alice Stíobhaird, “it’s just good to be kind because let’s just say I had a toy and someone didn’t have one and they were really sad, and then you give one to them, that might make them happy.”

Isla Ní Chearbhall, who is also in senior infants, said everyone’s family is “really proud” of how kind they have been.

The acts of kindness saw the pupils making lots of calls to their grandparents and to the older people in their lives, helping out at home by cleaning up and helping their siblings.

They also focused on making new friends, pupil Eva Oldham explained.

Making friends is considered kind because if that person doesn’t have any friends, maybe they’re really shy and they won’t be able to go up to you and ask if you could be friends. You should go over to them.

This applies to adults too, she added.

“Everyone should be nice and kind.”

It doesn’t cost much to be kind, according to Eoin Mac Cárthaigh, who is in third class.

“You could do something nice for someone that doesn’t have a load of stuff or you could do something like make dinner for someone,” he suggested.

Sixth-class pupil Sofia Nic Cárthaigh said not having traditional homework this month has been good for the pupils “because sometimes you may not get time to do something that you like, and also you might not get time to do things at home to help or to help with your neighbours.”

Eight-year-old Aoibhe Ní Riagáin told the Irish Examiner that having no homework meant she could chat to her Nana, and help her friends in the same night. She was especially kind to her brother when she put his plate in the dishwasher for him after dinner.

Derry Ó Donnabháin and Sofia Nic Cárthaigh both value the benefits of swapping homework for good deeds. Picture: Larry Cummins
Derry Ó Donnabháin and Sofia Nic Cárthaigh both value the benefits of swapping homework for good deeds. Picture: Larry Cummins

“Last week, I left a nice note for my parents,” said sixth-class pupil Derry Ó Donnabháin.

“I just wrote stuff that I think no one else could say about their parents, thanking them.”

Would he have sent a note like that before this project? “Maybe — it depends because sometimes you’re just not thinking really.”

The project has made him think about people in his life that he is grateful for, he added.

First class pupil Abaigeal Nic an Ghoill said she made a card for her friend who sits next to her and tidied the playroom at home.

Pupils Eoin Mac Cárthaigh and Andy Ó Tuama with their kindness diaries. Picture: Larry Cummins
Pupils Eoin Mac Cárthaigh and Andy Ó Tuama with their kindness diaries. Picture: Larry Cummins

Pupils were also asked to make sure to dedicate one of their acts of kindness to an act of self-care. For some pupils who spoke to the Irish Examiner, this meant sitting down to watch a Christmas movie with their families, or spending time with their friends.

These days were important because, as fourth class pupil Lauren Ní Chathaín explained: “If you focus all your time on being kind to other people, then you might not treat yourself that nicely.”

Along with the kindness diaries that they kept, the pupils were also asked to write notes and observations about their friends and peers to put in the school’s buicéad cineáltais (kindness bucket).

A random selection of these notes were read aloud every Friday at assembly.

Tadhg Ó Seighin and Eva Oldham with their kindness journals. Picture: Larry Cummins
Tadhg Ó Seighin and Eva Oldham with their kindness journals. Picture: Larry Cummins

Each class also worked together to think up unique ways that they could make the Christmas season better for their community through their gníomh cineáltais ranga (class acts of kindness).

Some of these acts of kindness included baking animal cookies for a local animal shelter, making Christmas cards for homeless people, visiting a nursing home, and collecting toys for children seeking asylum.

“The main aim of this project has been to get the message to pupils that kindness is free, and that kindness can be spread without cost,” said Íde Ní Mhuirí, the school’s leas-príomhoide.

“It’s not always about what we don’t have, and what we are looking for. It’s about actually what we have, what we can be grateful for, and how to share that.

Íde Ní Mhuirí, deputy principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin in Cloch na gCoillte in West Cork, and one of her pupils, Lara Ní Dhonnabháin, with her personal dialann cineáltais (kindness diary). Picture: Denis Minihane
Íde Ní Mhuirí, deputy principal of Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin in Cloch na gCoillte in West Cork, and one of her pupils, Lara Ní Dhonnabháin, with her personal dialann cineáltais (kindness diary). Picture: Denis Minihane

"I suppose with Christmas being such a busy time, such a commercial time, we’re just trying to say to them ‘we very much have everything that we need to make us happy here, so let’s try to spread that happiness’.

“The fact that they don’t have the normal homework, it just gives them a bit of time. It’s such a busy month.”

Feedback from parents has been very positive, she added.

“It gives them time out too, from their busy schedule, and it gives them family time together to get back to basics and maybe focus on the simple things that make such a difference.”

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