Education, Lessons Learned In Combat

The Value(?) of Worksheets

I used to pat myself on the back when I would make the worksheets I subjected my students to rather than use the pre-made blackline masters I’d find in the backs of my Scholastic teacher’s guides. This was years after the mimeograph held its odiferous reign in copy rooms across the country, and years before either Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers existed, thank God. I say “thank God” because– if we’re being perfectly honest here–who knows what kind of font and/or clipart sorcery would have lured me to use the worksheets one finds on those sites? Back when Comic Sans was my only option for making my worksheets seem “fun,” I would have positively died for a free DOTS or SKRITCH SKRATCH or–OMG!– TOOTSIE WOOTSIE font.



And that perception of fun–of Hey kids, this doesn’t seem like boring work at all, here, does it?–was very important when creating my beloved worksheets, because inherently I knew that my worksheets were boring, were lame, were–well, looking back, they were demonstrative of terrible practice. Despite the mentorship of some amazing educators, once I was actually hired and given my very own classroom I spent way too much time during those first few years in effect playing school rather than teaching in any authentic, meaningful way. (You can see exhibits A, B, C, and D here; I won’t subject you to them again.)

What’s so terrible about worksheets, you ask? Surely you have students who enjoy filling them out, as I did as a student. Here’s a pro tip: the students who enjoy filling them out almost always do so because they’re easy and are a quick and dirty way to get a star sticker. The students who don’t enjoy filling them out either don’t because 1) they’re too easy, and to hell with your star stickers; 2) they’re confusing, or 3) they’re totes lame. Both types of students deserve better.

I defy you to argue successfully that this isn't lame.
I defy you to argue successfully that this isn’t lame.

Once I began to see the light about worksheets, I began to see them–quite literally– everywhere. Thanks to both Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers, worksheets began to flood the educational market, as they are easily Jpeg-able and–again–fonts. But the truth is, I have trouble identifying a worksheet that wouldn’t be bested a hundred times over by something more authentic, more engaging, and more meaningful to both teachers and students.

For example, the following math worksheet asks students to use the domino-like illustrations to practice counting and adding spots. The obvious question to ask is, why not use real dominoes? Observing students as they work in pairs to add the sides of real dominoes might not only offer a chance to assess the addition and the collaboration skills of students, it might also provide some interesting information about the students who would, perhaps, prefer to use the dominoes to stack one on top of one another or to see how far they can be flung across the carpet. Which would perhaps lead a teacher to reflect on the lack of authenticity of such an activity in the first place, right? (I don’t know, I’m not a math teacher.)



The next worksheet (below) is one I would have typically created on my own as a new teacher, complete with kitschy clipart. It asks students to practice a valuable skill–writing opening sentences that would potentially “hook” a reader. However, instead of using this sheet, it would be so much more valuable for students to play with opening lines in their writer’s notebooks, where they would potentially have copied some mentor opening lines they have drawn from their own reading and where they could more easily access these “hooks” to begin a new draft in their notebook. 5364db8d60b3a959f7ee90fead5a78dd


Don’t get me wrong–as I have easily admitted, I created, assigned, and even graded (cringe) my fair share of worksheets. I know how much easier it is to send a worksheet home as practice* than it is to cheerfully encourage your students’ families to head to the local Walgreens to purchase a set of dominoes. One is not a “bad” teacher because one uses worksheets. However, I mean it when I assert that I would have trouble identifying a worksheet that some other activity could not clobber mercilessly when it comes to accomplishing a learning objective** more effectively. As my new Twitter friend Dr. Mary Howard says of worksheets, “You have to consider value, meaning, and purpose” when deciding whether or not to subject your students to a worksheet. And in my humble opinion, few worksheets possess any of those things.


*More on homework (ick) later.

**More on learning objectives (gah!) later, too.

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