Worksheets? We Talking about Worksheets

A few days ago, I had an Allen Iverson moment on Twitter:

1. Take any normal worksheet with review questions.

2. Cut the sheet into slips.

3. Hide those slips in plastic eggs.

4. Toss the eggs in a trash can.

5. Stop wasting your time and your students’ time with worksheets.

— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) March 22, 2019

Iverson, among many other athletic and pop culture accomplishments, is notorious for this rant:

“We sitting in here — I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”

What resonates with me, after I posted the retweet above, is that Iverson was almost entirely misunderstood, and received a fair among of negative feedback and is often still misrepresented by his outburst.

Once I realized that my critical list had gained a momentum of its own—many people responding positively to my intent, but a few creeping into viewing my Tweet as a burn—I noticed that some people found the Tweet to be unprofessional in tone and misread my point as somehow being against students having fun or oversimplifying the problem with worksheets.

To attempt to set the record straight, and try to calm the piling on that I did not intend, I posted a thread navigating the misunderstandings and concerns about my tone and points.

For the record, I am firmly against worksheets (although what that label means needs some interrogation, I admit), and for authentic (even fun) engagement by students with whole and real learning and artifacts of learning. But that is really complicated.

A former student and then early-career teacher, who has now left teaching, had a disturbing experience with why this position of mine is complicated. She taught in a school grounded in project-based learning (PBL). Her course was also team-taught.

As an English teacher, however, she was frustrated that she was required to prepare lessons and activities for students that were a series of different projects; notable in that requirement is that reading and writing were excluded from being the only sorts of projects students could complete.

She found herself in the sort of dilemma Lou LaBrant rejected in 1931, in one of the earliest rounds of PBL mis-attributed to John Dewey:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant’s anger lead her to this conclusion:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

When I saw the original Tweet about hiding worksheets cut into strips inside Easter eggs, I immediately thought of my former student and LaBrant.

I am certain that I could create a Jeopardy!-style game to engage students in, for example, grammar activities. I think the game itself and student engagement could likely be exciting, and anyone observing that lesson would be fairly impressed with the energy.

I may even concede that students could learn grammar during the activity—although I am skeptical of the likelihood that a one-shot activity would produce genuine and deep understanding.

Here, however, let me return to LaBrant, who wrote in 1947: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127).

While the Jeopardy!-style game may be successful in being fun and engaging students, I am certain that whatever grammar students may learn, we remain faced with the same reality LaBrant confronted 80-plus years ago: Isolated grammar instruction does not transfer into student practice as writers.

Therefore, we must evaluate the Jeopardy!-style grammar game based on our instructional purposes. If we are teaching grammar-for-grammar’s sake, the game may be a valid instructional strategy (compared to completing grammar worksheets, for example).

But if our goal is writing instruction, even though the game is fun and engaging, it is a waste of instructional time better spent by students drafting, conferencing, and engaging in explicit instruction covering grammar, usage, and mechanics in the context of their original writing.

For those who see the teaching of English as more than writing and reading, we may be compelled to find engaging and fun ways to bring students to literature as well.

What if I designed a Thoreau-like nature walk for students to commune with nature and come to a better understanding of American transcendentalism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?

Again, this nature walk to an outside observer may appear to be very engaging and even fun for the students. But hiking in nature is not the domain of literature study; mining text for meaning, however, is what literature study entails.

Crouching in the woods or wading into a pond, like Thoreau, may help students with appreciating nature, but it is time better spent reading, discussing, and critically unpacking the essays written by Emerson and Thoreau, while also contrasting those texts with others written by their contemporaries, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Once again, as LaBrant argued throughout her career, writing is learned by writing, and reading is learned by reading.

Let me circle back, now, briefly, to the worksheet.

The decade’s long appeal of PBL comes, I think, from a realization that worksheets, workbooks, and static, silent students are elements of traditional schooling most of us want to avoid.

When I think “worksheet,” I am reminded of my early days of teaching high school English and being compelled to teach context clues because our students scored low on that subset of reading skills during state testing.

As part of our mandated test-prep, we were issued workbooks with worksheets dedicated to isolated reading skills. The context clues worksheet identified four or five types of context clues and then tested students with dozens of sample sentences requiring students to identify the type of context clue strategy needed to define the unknown vocabulary.

To be honest, this approach could likely raise student test scores since the worksheets were designed to prepare students for test-reading; the worksheets and tests involve the same sort of mechanical and inauthentic process and test a manufactured set of content designated as “context clues.”

Here’s the problem: Writers don’t write implementing context clues; writers just use words to form sentences and paragraphs. Context clues strategies work on worksheets and tests, but not so much in real-world reading.

Vocabulary acquisition is incredibly important for literacy development, but most people have the how of that acquisition backward: Students don’t need words (or context clues strategies) crammed into them so they can read better; reading more and more makes them better readers, in part, because that is how we acquire more words.

My concern and caution, then, are much broader than the worksheet since both worksheets and PBL (seemingly antithetical to each other) can be flawed practice if we are not careful to match our instructional strategies to our intended learning outcomes and artifacts of learning.

At first blush, this may seem tedious, even dull, but teaching English is mostly about reading and writing. These are often engaging and fun, but some times they are also challenging and rewarding even as they are tedious.

None the less, let’s not lose sight of what we are doing in the name of fun when that pursuit, in fact, avoids the real work that we should attend to and seeks as well to insure that students are engaged and, yes, often having fun.