Odyssey Middle School seventh-graders Daisy Gooch, from left, Matthew Houlding, Lauren Mayer and Jace Morik work on presentation projects in class. The Camas School District adopted a new policy that limits the amount of homework teachers can assign students, with the idea that it will make classes more lively and discussion-based as students focus the act of learning instead of spend time finishing homework assignments. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)

Posted: June 20, 2017

CAMAS — The Camas School District will be lightening the homework load for students starting in the fall after officials, teachers, parents and students spent a year looking at how to best use homework to serve students.

“Our mission in Camas is seeing each learner and thinking about the experiences each learner has,” Superintendent Jeff Snell said. “We want to amplify each learner’s voice and each teacher’s voice.”

The new policy limits the amount of homework based on grade and aims to make sure any homework assigned is purposeful. It follows a trend of school districts moving away from heavy homework loads. Vancouver Public Schools set a new homework policy in May, eliminating homework for K-3 classrooms staring next year. Evergreen Public Schools teachers are encouraged to replace traditional homework with more fulfilling after-school activities.

Camas developed its new policy through a Homework Committee made up of 30-plus teachers, principals, parents and local citizens. The group first met in March 2016 and held four workshops in the following year to discuss their own thoughts on how homework should be used, what other districts are doing about homework and how to handle homework moving forward.

The committee presented recommendations to the school board, and the board members adopted the new district homework policy on June 12.

The policy set the following limits:

• Elementary school: Homework should normally not exceed 10 minutes per grade level in elementary school, starting with 20 minutes in kindergarten through second grades, and moving up 10 minutes for each successive grade level.

• Middle school: homework should normally not exceed 60 minutes a night.

• High school: homework should not exceed 90 minutes per class per week, although students and parents should note that AP classes and accelerated classes might exceed the allotted time.

Snell said the policy isn’t set in stone, and it’s something the district will continue to revisit in the future to see how it’s working. He also said it’s important to note that students all work at different paces.

“One kid can read a book in 10 minutes, and for another kid it can take a lot longer,” he said. “How do you judge that? What it says in there about what homework is, it’s a practice to explore. That experience a kid is having, if it’s going well beyond 40 minutes, what do we need to adjust? Ultimately, we want kids to love learning. We want homework to be a chance to deepen that love.”

Karl Baumgarten, a sixth-grade math teacher at Skyridge Middle School, took things a bit further this year and nearly eliminated homework for his students. Baumgarten said he was on one extreme end of committee members with giving out little to no homework, and he was pleased there was a range of homework opinions amongst committee members.

“It’s a good direction to make sure we’re being intentional and purposeful with any homework we give,” he said.

If he gives homework, Baumgarten said, he wants to make sure it’s closely aligned with the class work and isn’t just busy work. Previously, Baumgarten flipped the traditional class work/homework model, and had students go home, watch a five-minute video while taking notes and come into school the next day to practice what they learned.

Baumgarten wants to have more in-depth conversations in class about the topics he’s teaching, and wants his students to know their job is just to do quality work.

“If you only get through four problems when your neighbor gets through seven, that’s OK,” Baumgarten tells this students. “Your job is to learn the math. It’s about quality over quantity.”

The policy also calls for less homework to help focus on the whole learner and help reduce stress, which makes Jennifer McMillan happy. McMillan, another member of the committee, is a therapist in Camas with kids at Grass Valley Elementary School and Skyridge. She is also the family services coordinator at Fruit Valley Elementary School in Vancouver Public Schools. In her work, McMillan said homework frequently comes up as a stressor for kids.

“Hard is good for our brains, but we don’t want to stress kids further with homework that is not useful,” she said. “Many of the kids I have worked with struggle with the idea that perfection is the goal, that they have to do everything right.”

McMillan said mistakes should be looked at as opportunities for growth, and trouble comes from creating ideas around success that only focus on the product and not the process, so the grades are more important than the learning.

“It’s important to think about balance, and allowing them to grow in all aspects of life,” McMillan said. “They have to figure out who they are outside of being a student. We have to give them opportunities for that. We have to give them time.”

Read this story in The Columbian.