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I saw a video a few months ago that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. In the video, a high school student named  Jeff Bliss stood up in the middle of class and basically expressed his frustration to the teacher in the room:

 

Okay, now let’s get something out of the way: Yes, this student was disrupting class and his behavior is disrespectful. I will acknowledge that. On the other hand, we don’t know exactly what happened before the camera was turned on. Based on what he says in the video, my guess is that Bliss had just voiced some kind of concern, the teacher told him to quit complaining, and at that point, I guess he’d had enough.

What I have gleaned about Jeff Bliss from the internet is that at the time of the video, he was an 18-year-old sophomore. So apparently, at some point, he had not been successful in school. For some people, this takes away his credibility. For me, it makes him an even better source of information about why school isn’t working for some students.

Disruptive behavior aside, the content of Bliss’s outburst tells me that his teacher’s primary mode of instruction is through packets. This was what got me. This is what made me watch this video six, seven, eight times over. Because I just believe him.

I believe him because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen classrooms where teachers deliver instruction overwhelmingly through worksheets, or packets of worksheets. I have seen my own kids’ schoolwork come home, and I have asked friends, other parents with school-age kids, and colleagues who consult in lots of schools, and nearly all of them tell me that a lot of our students’ instructional time is being spent hunched over some kind of worksheet.

That’s a problem.

I want to spend some time looking at this problem from all sides: What distinguishes a “busywork” worksheet from something that delivers real value, why teaching with worksheets is usually not the best choice for learning, the reasons teachers default to worksheet teaching, and what other learning experiences would be better for our students.

Not all Worksheets are Created Equal

Let’s start by agreeing on some terms.

First we need to define what we mean by “worksheet.” Technically, a worksheet is anything printed on copier paper and given to students to write on. And since you can print just about anything on a piece of paper, we really can’t say that worksheets per se are good or bad. That would be like saying “books” or “movies” are good or bad. It’s a medium. A delivery system.

And there are plenty of instructionally rich things you can do with a worksheet: A graphic organizer is a wonderful tool for research, pre-writing, and notetaking. An excerpt from a primary source can be printed on a worksheet for close study and annotation. Worksheets can be used for analyzing data (like this collection from Maria Andersen), as scaffolds for notetaking, as tools for reflection, or as formative assessments. They can also be used as recording tools alongside more active experiences: data sheets for labs, planning sheets for group projects, and so on.

In my experience, when people criticize worksheets, they are referring to a specific type of worksheet, what I will call a busysheet, the kind where students are either doing work that’s fairly low-level recall stuff–filling in blanks with words, choosing from multiple-choice questions, labeling things–or work that has no educational value at all, like word searches, word scrambles, or coloring stuff in cases where coloring adds no extra layer of understanding.

Sometimes the difference between a busysheet and a quality learning tool is obvious, and other times it’s a judgment call. After talking to lots of educators about how they use worksheets in their classrooms, I think it’s most accurate to say that every worksheet falls somewhere on a continuum: Some worksheets are clearly nothing but busysheets, while others, like note-taking sheets or data collection tools, directly support student learning; I’ll call these powersheets. I think a lot of worksheets fall somewhere between the two. Because there is such a range, the only person who can really make the call is you.

Packets, to be clear, are simply a bunch of worksheets stapled together. They could contain a lot of powersheets, but when a student refers to them as frickin’ packets, it’s highly likely that they are mostly made up of busysheets.

Possible Busysheets in Disguise

Some formats have come along recently that have the potential to deliver the same kind of work we find in busysheets, only they don’t always look like it. While each of these certainly could offer instructional value, they could also be just another way to keep kids still:

The Problem with “Busysheet Teaching”

“Busysheet teaching” is when we use busysheets in place of other, better forms of instruction. This type of teaching might take the form of bell-ringers, homework, early finisher work, classroom centers, or even the main learning activity during regular class time.

So what’s wrong with teaching this way?

It’s disconnected from anything meaningful.
Busysheets isolate skills so much that students have trouble connecting them to real life. When a student sees little value in an activity, he is not truly engaged. Take this reading worksheet, which has students read a short passage about Maya Angelou, then answer four fill-in-the-blank questions about the passage.

This type of busysheet would most likely be used to teach reading comprehension or serve as a Black History Month activity.

Let’s unpack these one by one.

It often misses the standards.
Even if they are labeled as addressing certain standards, the kind of work we see on busysheets often misses the mark. Take, for example, this typical grammar worksheet:

This type of worksheet, where students are asked to label or identify various grammatical constructions, has thrived for decades, and in the days before worksheets, it existed in the form of exercises from grammar books.

Apart from the well-established fact that teaching grammar outside the context of meaningful writing does nothing to help students become better writers, and in many cases makes them worse, the skills being practiced in this kind of worksheet don’t actually teach or reinforce the goals set by our academic standards.

Here’s what I mean: For convenience, I’ll use the Common Core Standards as a reference. There is no mention anywhere in the standards of students being able to identify or label these verb tenses. Nothing. It does, however, require students to use them correctly in their writing. So it would make a lot more sense to show students these different constructions, then have them find places in their writing where they are using them. If they aren’t using them anywhere, have them try it. They never ever have to actually know the names of the verb tenses or a whole lot of other grammatical constructions. Despite this, tens of thousands of students are required to complete busysheets like this every day. And I bet they get tested on the same kind of information, too. Meanwhile, little to no time is being spent giving them opportunities to use these constructions in their real writing.

It often has no instructional value.
By definition, a busysheet’s goal is to keep students busy, not necessarily teach them anything. The most egregious types of busysheets are word searches, word scrambles, and and crossword puzzles, which might as well be a list of definitions with blanks next to them.

I have watched my own children do word searches for homework and stress out about not finding every single word because they would lose points. If there is any pedagogical justification for that, I certainly haven’t found it.

It requires lots and lots of sitting still.
The more teachers use busysheets, the more students will sit and sit and sit. Yes, it’s possible that there are teachers who use a lot of busysheets but have great alternative seating options in their classrooms, but my guess is that in most of the classrooms where busysheets are abundant, students are basically sitting in desks. This is far from ideal. In 2014, teacher Alexis Wiggins spent two days shadowing her students and was shocked to discover just how much time they spent sitting, and how exhausting that was. And we hear all the time about the studies that are confirming how dangerous it can be to sit for extended periods of time. So planning for extended periods of sitting, all day long, just isn’t good for our kids.

It requires a ton of copying.
Anyone who has ever had to wait in line for a copy machine or found themselves staring desperately at a cryptic error message on the copier knows that relying heavily on worksheets wastes a lot of time and paper.

It gives you more stuff to grade.
Many teachers who use a lot of worksheets also grade them, calculating those points as part of a student’s overall grade in a course. This approach creates two problems. One, it erases the value of formative assessment: If worksheets are meant to be used to teach students something or give them practice on skills they are learning, then why would students be penalized for making mistakes on them? I can see why teachers might give points for completion, but going through and marking wrong answers, then taking off points for something students are still actively learning is really missing the point: That’s what summative assessments are for. The other problem is that this system creates a ridiculous amount of grading for the teacher. If you are going home with piles and piles of papers to grade, you’re assigning too many things to be graded. If you can shift some of these activities from graded to “practice,” you’ll be giving students the practice they need without creating a lot of extra paperwork for yourself.

Why We Do It, and What to Do Instead

Teachers have a lot of reasons for leaning heavily on busysheets, and some of these may seem unavoidable. Let’s look at the most common reasons, along with some ideas for what we can do instead.

1. No Textbooks, No Tech

If your school is short on materials and technology, it may be necessary to use printables to build your curriculum. Much of what we learn comes from reading things, so if you don’t have good science textbooks, for example, worksheets and handouts can serve the same purpose. What’s important is that we do this thoughtfully.

2. Skills Practice

Many teachers use worksheets to give students practice in required skills. This seems to be most common in math (or, in the later grades, with things like chemistry equations). While this method obviously gives teachers some of the results they’re hoping for, if you take a few things into consideration, you can probably refine the practice.  Here are some questions to consider when heading to the copy machine:

3. Differentiation

Teachers often find that creating leveled packets of work is a simple way to personalize learning for each student. But again, does that have to mean each child gets one of three large, comprehensive packets? Let’s look again at the suggestion I made earlier, where handouts (containing information) and worksheets (offering practice) are offered as resources, and students decide which they need. To see this idea fully developed, check out Natalie McCutchen’s self-paced math classroom: Students work through units on their own, and they decide how much practice they need before taking the assessments, so some students do a lot, while others do very little.

4. Grade-level Alignment

In some schools, teachers are required to teach the same thing as their grade-level counterparts, on the same day, and document the whole process in detailed, standards-aligned lesson plans. When I talk to teachers about why they’re burned out, it’s policies like these that they often cite as completely draining them. This type of requirement also causes many of them to resort to teaching entirely with packets: Find a workbook that says it’s standards-aligned, then everyone use the same set of pages every week. Done.

This makes for incredibly dry, uninspired learning, and unfortunately, I don’t have a good solution for it. My best advice is to share this post with your administrator so they can see the impact that this type of policy is having. I would also urge you to question the integrity of the standards label: Is the packet really getting kids to do what the standard says, or is it a “lighter” version of that? These packets may act as a stopgap for now, but if your team has been using the same set for several years, now may be the time to look more closely at them to see if some pages could be removed and replaced with other activities.

5. Sub Work

When we have substitute teachers, sometimes packets seem to be the only option. This is another tricky one.  If you really have no other option, at least do everything you can to make sure the worksheets lean more toward the “powersheet” end of the continuum. Another option that can work if you know you’re going to be out ahead of time is to train a few students to lead the class in an actual lesson, then let the sub know that the plan is to let these students teach. This would obviously require a lot of work up front, and you need to have built a classroom culture where students want to behave while you’re gone, but I do think it can be done.

6. Crowd Control

In overcrowded classrooms it seems impossible to do anything hands-on, any kind of group work, anything interactive. Worksheets keep everyone in their seat and under control. This, again, is more of a systemic issue that could only truly be solved at the policy level. With that said, I still don’t believe worksheets are the only option. Sure, you might not be able to do big, sweeping hands-on stuff, but you can do paired work, set up tasks around the room in stations, or even split the class in half so that only some are doing the “active” work while others are seated and calm, then switch. More than anything, just don’t throw in the towel on this.

7. Bell-Ringers & Morning Work

In order to maximize instructional time, we are advised to make sure students have meaningful work to do from the moment they walk into class; hence the birth of the bell-ringer. I have definitely seen the value of a good bell-ringer, and saw a huge difference between the year that I didn’t use these and the years that I did. But if that work isn’t really meaningful or isn’t helping most kids learn, it’s a waste. Here are some other options:

8. Some Kids Like Worksheets

For some students, busysheets give them a nice, calm, quiet activity to pass the time. But this alone is no reason to make them standard fare in your classroom. What you can do is make busysheets an option for free time, as something to do to decompress, or as one of several options students might choose to practice a set of skills or test themselves on some aspect of your content—not for a grade, but for practice.

9. Students Need Fine Motor Practice

Early childhood educators sometimes rely on worksheets for handwriting practice or to have students color, cut, and glue items to develop fine motor skills.

More Ideas

If you’re going to cut down or eliminate your use of packets and worksheets, you’ll have a lot more instructional time, and that’s a good thing. Here are some things you can do with that time:

 

The Challenge: Do a Worksheet Audit

Everyone teaches differently, and as we have established, all worksheets are not created equal. There is no single prescription for what kind or how many worksheets you should be using with your students. Only you and your students can know that for sure.

So my challenge to you is simple: From now on, every time you’re about to use a worksheet, ask yourself if it’s contributing to student learning or if it’s actually just keeping them busy. If it’s the latter, start replacing your worksheets with better, richer alternatives. Your students will learn better, school will be more fun, and you’ll waste a whole lot less time in line at the copy machine. ♦

 

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57 Comments

  1. I wrote about this same topic. Worksheet upon worksheet are the worst! “If You Give a Child A Packet…” http://www.diaryofapublicschoolteacher.com/2016/06/if-you-give-child-packet.html?m=1

    • Reba Matthews says:

      Thank you for posting your blog post. I enjoyed reading. I too was shock and proud of Jeff.

  2. Marcus Martins says:

    Such rubbish, if they would just apply SOLO/BLOOM verbs to the learning outcomes and grade the cognitive levels of engagement through the session the learners would be able to flex both memory and cognition and actually feel like they have achieved something. One only needs to look into Biggs or John Hattie even at a surface level to realise that change at the instructional level is both possible and effective.

    • Hi Marcus,

      I have seen a LOT of misuse of Bloom’s verbs, where teachers call something “analyze,” for example, where they aren’t actually doing any analysis. I’m not sure what you’re referring to as “rubbish”…do you think using lots of worksheets makes for good instruction?

      • John Faig says:

        Keep in mind that no matter how much teachers understand Bloom verbs, students know much less. An important aspect of learning (and the culture) is language. Students need to learn and understand that they are being asked to do (via a Bloom’s verb or other instructional design)

    • Clare Williamson says:

      Hi Marcus,
      If someone refers to the work of John Hattie, then one needs to be aware that sifting, sorting, and seeing teaching as a list of strategies that work the best, or are the most effective, according to how many research studies have been put through the statistical analysis is a bit simplistic for my liking.
      That list changes when a new research paper is added and confuses his use of an economic formula to predict outcomes. I prefer to look at the work of the educators from the city of Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, the work of Project Zero at Harvard, and Ron Ritchard’s Cultures of Thinking work. These people are in schools. Hattie…not so much.
      Just my opinion, of course.

  3. ana says:

    Holy smokes! I cried a little reading this, and now I have a little bit of a tummy ache that may last awhile. Sigh. Thank you for delivering a message of such importance and magnitude. We can’t just raise the bar and rigor for our students, we must also do it for ourselves.

    • Reba Matthews says:

      Totally agree!!!
      We as teachers must continuously stay updated on improving our craft and engaging each child who sits in front of us. Today’s students are digital naive and the four walls are not enough.

      • Jule Pearsall says:

        I get tired just thinking about keeping up with changes in education. Not because keeping up is tiring, but all the other “non-negotiables” at school suck up so much time: IEP and parent meetings, paperwork, entering grades in edline, parent phone calls, proctoring exams, writing referrals…. none of it actually ‘teaching’ or time with Ss.

        • Jule Pearsall says:

          But I am currently spending my Spring Break reading about Project Based Learning in an effort to learn new strategies to engage my students and bring greater meaning to my lessons.

    • Cried! Ana! Why? I hate hearing that. I hope it ultimately ended well?

  4. D.Lee Sebree says:

    Disrespect aside, the young man is right. I fight this battle, parents often want the packet for easy As. I make students think, not so easy for them or me.

  5. Reba Matthews says:

    I just watched the video of Jeff Bliss and his Honest passion to demand that his teacher educate him and not give him another packet. With what our youth have shown this week with the “March for Our Lives” protest, and myself as a former teacher and current teacher coach, I am proud of Jeff. I am also glad that I had the passion as a teacher to engage my students because I always viewed teaching through the eyes of the learner. I hope this teacher was able to reflect on what was said and improve her craft and I hope the best for Jeff. Thanks for writing this post.

  6. Sara says:

    I give it to you….busywork sheets are terrible. BUT, I also am curious….when is the last time you were in the classroom? How many students did you teach in each period? When you are teaching 5-6 classes a day with close to 50 students per class period, it isn’t just “Crowd Control.” It is sometimes the ONLY way you can get one-on-one time with some of the neediest students without spending hours (that you already spend) on planning. Please advise, realistically.

    • Hey Sara!

      It’s been 10 years since I was in the classroom. I taught middle school and my class sizes ranged from 25-32 students, with a total of about 130 students every day. One thing I know for sure is that the culture has definitely changed since I was a full-time teacher, with a lot more emphasis on test prep and number crunching. This is not a positive shift, in my opinion, even though I do believe we need to be responsive to how well our students are learning. To keep current now, I talk to dozens of teachers about their work every week and I also have three kids of my own in school, so I’m pretty clear on the kind of work they are doing every day.

      I can definitely sympathize with how incredibly difficult it must be to teach 50 students at one time. That is completely unreasonable and no one would blame you for doing whatever you could to get something accomplished, even if it meant keeping everyone in their seats all period. My best advice is that you not give up entirely on switching things up. I don’t know what subject you teach — if you could come back and share that, I might be able to give more specific advice. In the meantime, I would suggest you start by looking at my post on class discussion strategies, some of which don’t require students to get out of their seats. I would also look at the work of Persida and William Himmele, who show us how to get more participation out of every student without taking any extra time from class. This podcast interview digs deep into that.

      I would like to hear more about what you’re currently doing to manage the class size and what your content area is so I can help point you toward more resources. I hope this helps.

      • Angela says:

        You’ve raised some important concerns that many teacher-professionals have. You lost me on the admittance that you haven’t taught in 10 years. Woah dood. Why? Money and time presumably? A quote in your bio brings me back to my concern with some of the accusatory apostrophe of this particular blog: “When I was full-time in the trenches, I was too busy teaching to fully develop my craft… I have made it my full-time job to do this for you“. Be a teacher or don’t, but please consider your diction and tone when you’re offering advice. Few people are insulted into change. You have great ideas and important concerns; don’t let them get lost in self-righteousness.

        • Hi Angela,

          If you don’t mind, can you point to a place where I was accusatory, where I insulted teachers, or came off as self-righteous in this post? I try very hard to validate the difficult position teachers are in and offer help, so I certainly don’t want to come across that way. The reason I never went back to teaching is because I got a position teaching pre-service teachers while on maternity leave, and I really fell in love with that work, so I eventually turned it into a full-time job on this site.

    • Clare Williamson says:

      I’ve been out of the classroom for 12 months and plan to return shortly. Busy work is busy work.
      What do I learn for myself as a teacher/learner/researcher about the learning needs of my students if I teach them by busy work?
      Parents who want busy work can download worksheets from the internet so why do we need teachers then? Are we merely reduced to glorified childcare so parents are able to work?

  7. Thanks for a well-argued article, and not just some worksheet bashing. Looking at the video I want to add another angle. It seems (from the bit we can see) that while the students were given packets to work through the teacher is sitting behind her desk.
    Even the best-designed worksheet or powersheet is less effective if the teacher is not teaching and by that I don’t mean lecturing, but playing an active role in the class. A good worksheet can sometimes give you the perfect opportunity to explain something to the students that need it personally or in a small group, but that doesn’t happen when you sit behind your desk.

    • Tara Brown says:

      Yes!!! That is definitely the first thing I noticed, too. I fully agree with you…great comment!

  8. I’m a relatively new principal at my current school and had a slight meltdown about something similar in a staffmeeting today. Teachers who are pedagogically stuck. They refrain from trying new ways of modern learning practice and try to hold onto the old and familiar. It’s like choosing to drive an old VW Bug when someone is offering you a free 2018 BMW. They love their “frickin packets”. SMH.

    • Corrie,

      I’m so sorry to hear this. When people are comfortable and feeling successful with what they already know how to do, they’re sometimes just scared to take a step or two out of their comfort zone…anything beyond that feels pretty vulnerable. Change takes time. But I’d encourage you to continue sharing bits of research-based practices, sharing something you just learned about, and invite dialogue. See if anyone is willing to give something a try and then let you know how it goes. It also might be helpful to reach out to other admin or create a Mastermind group for some support.

    • Joe says:

      Pedagogically lazy is more like it.

  9. This is the most thoughtful and comprehensive look at worksheets that I have ever read. Thank you for making the distinction between power sheets and busy sheets. Your options for how teachers could get away from using busy sheets is impactful. I hope this post causes many teachers to stop, think, and reevaluate the kinds of worksheets they’re using so that better instruction will prevail.

  10. Rowena Aldridge says:

    One place in which the left end of the worksheet spectrum is valuable is in second language acquisition. Reading comprehension in particular is often the place where early language learning is strongest; spoken language generally comes much later, and starts out like primary language does – as individual word responses and sentence fragments. For the most novice second language learners, those “busysheets” are often the only way they can demonstrate understanding and acquisition.

    • Thanks for sharing your persepctive, Rowena!

    • Katelyn Deville says:

      I am glad to see your perspective on this. I teach English as a Second Language and students often struggle with even the left hand side of the worksheet spectrum.

      • Tara Brown says:

        Hello, Katelyn! I know exactly what you mean because I teach high school Spanish 1. Because everything is brand new for the kids, it’s a little scary at first. Sometimes, it only seems logical to give them a wordsearch or crossword puzzle as vocab practice because we think that’s all they can do, but we both know it’s never going to get them talking and using the language. However, it might help them remember certain words and phrases for skits you want them to perform later on, or it might help familarize them with vocab that will be used in an upcoming short story you plan to read as a class. Either way, I think some teachers use worksheets because it is less scary (and less work) for both the students and the teacher. Good preparation and planning takes time, but the end result is worth it for everyone. I started making slow changes, baby steps, because it gave me the opportunity to learn and grow with my students, without feeling overwhelmed by a ton of changes all at once. Maybe you could try the same thing…do something new once a week (or even once every other week) and build upon it. Because we know the kids ultimate goal will always be to speak the language, we must get them talking. For example, instead of requiring them to complete an adjective word search, have them choose a funny/surprise item from a bag and walk around and ask 5 people to describe it with 2-3 adjectives in the target language before recording their answers on their sheet. This type of activity allows them to not only laugh and have fun, but it also gets them up and moving. They are also able to practice (1)Their speaking (with at least 5 peers in a repetitive manner, and since they are all at the learning stage, they won’t feel as nervous speaking to each other), (2)Their listening (of at least 10 different adjectives), and (3)Their writing/spelling (when they record the answers on their sheet). When they are finished, you could come together and have them do the same as one big group with you (out loud) with three different, but related, items or pics of people, of your choice. I like to make sure my items/pics pertain to (4)The target culture, so that they can see the value and real-life application in learning adjectives (again, only an example) and how their use connects with their lives and everyday interactions. Because my classes are only 50-55 min, it is usually time to go by then. For your bell ringer the next day, you could do the (5)Reading component of the lesson by preparing a short, five sentence story or movie-like slideshow (gets longer as their skills increase) that incorporates your three items/pics from the day before. Then, in the larget language, ask them basic questions about the paragraph or slides using the vocab they practiced the day before (as well as giving them the opportunity to practice/continue talking with vocab they have already learned, like the names, ages, nationalities (people) or locations (landmarks), etc.). The only prep for you is to find items for them to choose that are interesting and easy to describe, find your three items, create a sheet to record answers while they walk around, and write a short paragraph or slideshow movie about your three items. The lesson will be memorable, the kids will have fun, and they will have more confidence speaking because they will have gained a better understanding of how to use the language than they would have if they only were assigned to find adjectives in a word search. If you liked doing the activity, try it again the next week…or try something else that gets them using the language. My kids did struggle with this at first because they hardly knew anything in Spanish, but with consistent practice, we improved! They now look forward to coming to class…and, I don’t have to spend hours making copies or grading worksheets! Yay! Give it a try…you will do great, and before you know it, you’ll be having conversations and reading short novels in the target language. 🙂 Good luck!

        **As an fyi, this is my 19th year teaching high school Spanish and English in a Title 1 district. We do not have books or technology for student use, however, I do have a laptop and a white board to use for my lessons. My smallest class has 28 students, and my biggest has 43. I am the only language teacher in our entire building right now…for as long as I can remember, we have never had a full staff at any given time, so some of my students have subs every single day in some of their classes. We have a hard time keeping staff…mainly due to the difficult/challenging behavior of the students. Worksheets and packets make things MUCH worse because the kids see no value in completing them, which then leads to even worse behavior. My students have no interest in learning for the sake of learning. It is our job as educators to create meaningful, relevant, and engaging lessons that provide opportunities for self-discovery and growth. Kids cannot do this on their own because most of them do not know how. If they did know how, there would be no need for teachers. If I can do it in these conditions, imagine the difference we could all make together! 🙂

        So, teachers, do what you were born to do! You became a teacher for a reason. Whether you need to re-discover your passion for teaching or help the teacher next door re-discover his/hers, do it. Remember to keep being awesome…you are amazing!

    • Helen Riddle says:

      Yes! Exactly what I was thinking. However, differentiating the worksheets and demonstrating with I do, We do, You do can be very effective when teaching a second language and giving practice worksheets. I have found using technology in teaching my content is very tricky because they are more apt to “cheat” by using a translator and then not being able to demonstrate their knowledge with paper and pencil. I still include speaking and listening in my lessons and assessments as well, but practice worksheets still fulfill a need in my class.

  11. Amy Schorr says:

    That video is heart-wrenching. We all have to strive to do better for these kids.

  12. Jeremy Greene says:

    Packets yes! Worksheets no! And a packet of worksheets NO NO NO!

    Let’s differentiate between the two.

    I give out virtually no worksheets. But student learning and teacher time is often focused on and driven by packets.

    For example, this week the students are filling out a 20 page packet of 1) background / context to the 1930 movie All Quiet on the Western Front, 2) guided reading for the scenes we are watching, 3) poetry from the Great War – 10 poems – students answer questions for 3 for homework, 4) art of the Great War.

    Students are also reading a packet. Adam Hoschild’s introduction to Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 2016, The First Day of the Battle of the Somme https://vimeo.com/76336385. Then students will look at the book – which one could argue is just a 24 page packet of visuals from WWI.

    The 2 packets, the movie, and the book are the basis for an entire class discussion on the uses of industry and the experience of soldiers in WWI.

    I would guess that my students use about 40 packets during a year with about 120-130 teaching days. And though some have worksheet elements to them – guided reading questions for example – I would not call any of them worksheets.

    So up with packets and down with worksheets!

  13. Brooke says:

    I have to wonder where Jeff Bliss is now… I am hoping he was able to finish high school and is aspiring to become an educator. He sadly understands more about what great teaching is than some teachers. (Engagement and Enthusiasm!)

  14. Herb Coleman says:

    I cannot condone teachers, elevating this student as a “hero”. You already pointed out that he hasn’t been successful and he was rude and disruptive. If he had a real concern he certainly could have addressed it better.

    I’ve had students who are never satisfied no matter what you do. They don’t like homework. They don’t use computer lab time in class effectively. They complain about “boring lectures” and “meaningless discussions”.

    There as nothing substantive in his critique. The only thing he gets out is that he hates filling out the “frickin’ packets.” As a fellow educator, you cannot legitimately comment on the packets unless you know what they contain and how they are used. The packets could contain a reading assignment, journal response, team activity and evaluation sheet. Students might use them in teams or are allowed to progress at their own rate. This could have been (more like was) an alternative learning environment. The fact is WE just don’t know and don’t have enough information to determine. I just find it disingenuous to elevate his outburst above what it was.

    As someone once said, “Just because you say with conviction and you’re loud doesn’t mean you’re right.”

  15. Thank you for posting this article! After teaching for 21 years I now work with social studies teachers in our district and I am going to share this with them next week as we talk about student-centered learning. I also like that you didn’t bash all worksheets and get the reader to think about the purpose of the assignment/activity.

  16. Tracie Moon says:

    Thank you for the acknowledgment that graphic organizers are not worksheets! Thank you, also, for the acknowledgement that requiring teachers to “teach “in lockstep, at the least, causes burn out and at the worst is not true teaching!
    Worksheets do not allow for responsive teaching. They do provide easy answers for teachers who are too lazy or too incompetent to teach.
    I loved the video of the Ss going off on the teacher. She deserved the lecture. Too bad it wasn’t from an administrator!

    • Maria says:

      Although I did appreciate the post, no teacher deserves to be treated like that. Part of why the student may have been so unsuccessful thus far is that he lacks emotional control. At his age, it is imperative that he learns to channel his frustration and have respectful, productive conversations with peers, teachers, adults, etc. We are currently living in a climate of bash the teacher and seem quick to champion “telling teachers off “and “showing them the door” as a means to “drain the swamp” so to speak. This is the wrong way to invite people into the conversation, and this is the wrong type of behavior to encourage in our students. As we encourage the implementation of new and better teaching methods and challenge the validity of outmoded, less responsive methods, let us always be mindful to do so civilly.

  17. Beth Kelley says:

    I have used crossword puzzles in my classroom as bell ringers with great success! I’ve found the benefits to be classroom collaboration, vocabulary study and great discussion! Now I’m feeling guilty! I teach alternative education where many students have such a limited vocabulary and read very little other than Facebook posts! Although I understand teaching vocabulary outside of context isn’t ideal, my students all participate and seem to enjoy the challenge.

    • Hi Beth,
      Please don’t feel guilty! I, too, taught in an alternative education program so I understand what you are talking about. I wonder if you are perhaps underestimating the value of what you are doing–specifically that if students are being introduced to new vocabulary, and are collaborating and having discussions, then you ARE using your puzzles in a valuable way, in order to further learning, not just give busy work. When you see students aren’t engaging, then you’ll know you’ve overused them and it’s time to try something else.

  18. Page says:

    I think it completely depends on how the worksheet is used. Most importantly, the teacher needs to be actively engaged with the students. There have been instances when a worksheet led to powerful discussions in our classroom, and I’ve also had instances when a project-based learning experience fell flat on my face and left me eating a bag of Skittles under the table. We, as teachers, need to know our students and create responsive instruction based on their needs. Sometimes, I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to do what is instructionally “in vogue” that we forget to teach the children we have in our classrooms. Planning is important, but we teach children, not the plan.

  19. Lori says:

    While your article is informative, and more or less on-point, I decided to comment because the Jeff Bliss “rant” to his teacher is a train wreck I cannot stop watching. True: we do not know what happened this day or all the other days before the video was filmed. True: he was disrespectful in his approach. However, he lays out a valid argument with passion and valid points and without superfluous distasteful language, something few students (and dare I say adults) can do these days. He clearly wants to be taught. He craves it! And he craves it for his classmates also! I don’t know what happened to that young man, but I hope he went on to study rhetoric and will maybe make a change someday. Maybe he was even inspired to become an educator! Bravo, Jeff! The teacher missed a HUGE opportunity here to allow him a voice in the classroom and engage him in an analytical debate, allowing him the chance to critically develop his argument and help him outline some alternative ways of lesson delivery. The engagement was there. She missed the mark.

    • Kerry Combs says:

      Devil’s advocate here- saying he “clearly wants to be taught” isn’t necessarily true. I had a student who was upset because I corrected his loud hallway behavior lash out in a free write, saying that adults are supposed to “shape young minds” instead of acting like jerks. Someone else reading the paragraph might take him as a passionate, upstanding citizen. It just made me chuckle. We can’t assume anything without context!

  20. Anita says:

    I appreciate this post so much! I am teaching high school Spanish for the first time after teaching at the college level for the last 20 years, and I’ve found it hard to come up with enough activities to fill all the time I have. I’ve gotten a few complaints about some of my assignments, but in general students are pretty cooperative because I’ve told them that I don’t assign them stuff just to keep them busy; I only assign things that I believe are beneficial to their learning. This means that we have more free class time than I’d prefer for now because I don’t have enough hours in the day to prep that much meaningful practice, but it’s much easier to get student buy-in on assignments when they know that I’m not just doing stuff to keep them busy. (I disagree with the categorization of a crossword puzzle as something with no instructional value; though. In World Languages, anyway, the clues help them work on reading comprehension in the target language, and the structure of the puzzle provides some scaffolding/immediate feedback to help students eliminate incorrect answer choices. It could just be a regular worksheet, true, but I think that there’s value in making it into an activity that’s more game-like. My students love doing crossword puzzles, and they’re actively engaged in trying to decipher clues in Spanish, which means they’re engaged in the learning process.)

  21. John Faig says:

    Well thought out post as usual! I’ve found two examples where worksheets are beneficial. One is NOT copying some supplemental textbook material or downloading it from the Internet. If you are going to create worksheets, automate the process so you can adjust the complexity level and make unique worksheets. This way, students will talk about HOW to perform the task and not just copy answers. The other way is to capture the student work. There are plenty of tools where students submit their work and get an automated right/wrong answer so they can move ahead. The key is capturing the student work and not the actual answer.

  22. Cynthia Leigh Cudney says:

    If he is 18 and in 10th grade he is probably in some kind of make-up summer class. My children had to do that to make up failing grades during the year. A test in patience is all it was. There is no way to make up the learning lost only the seat time. But it takes time, money and willing teachers to reteach content to disinterested, unmotivated students. Tough situation.

  23. Samantha says:

    I’m sorry but I really see this student’s rant as a power trip and a way to get attention and/or out of whatever they were doing in class. Versions of this happen all the time, regardless of who the teacher is – students constantly blame the teacher for failing grades because it’s the teachers fault for not making it interesting/engaging enough. It’s definitely not their apathy or obsession with a girl in the class or a million other potential reasons…right? I know it is super taboo in today’s teaching climate to say that sometimes learning isn’t super fun or contain high-level thinking but… sometimes it’s doesn’t. There will be parts of learning that are AMAZING and inspiring and there are also times when you just have to memorize multiplication tables or verb conjugations and it doesn’t FEEL life changing but it is still really important.
    Also, if this student really cared about learning, why did he have an outburst in class instead of approaching the teacher or, failing that, an administrator? Why didn’t he talk to his parents and ask them to have a talk with the teacher? Or maybe he just wanted to make a viral video and seem like a cool rebel?

  24. This is my 39th year of teaching and my hardest. I teach 9th-12th grade students with multiple handicaps at varying degrees of intellectual and physical ability levels I have made many changes in my teaching styles over the years as I have grown and learned a wide variety of styles as they have come and gone. But I am now trying to break away from my current comfort zone and become more innovating and enlightening with new ideas of how to enhance my students’ learning. I have learned so much in this reading and I have many concerns and I’m not sure how to change my teaching strategies. My dilemma is that I use worksheets (or I hope you would call them power sheets) for my students. I teach four levels of English, three levels of Science, Music Appreciation and Theory, and Arts & Crafts. My classes have students of all four grades in them (such as – Eng. I, II, III, IV in the same class). My worksheets are geared for the abilities of each student (three groups – independent working, one on one instruction, and tracing the answers, all at the same time in the same class). I’m trying to develop academic games, but they are too hard for my students who are lower functioning. I have no English books and only 5 Biology books. The rest I try to glean from the internet. But I have to revamp all of the worksheets or samples I do get because they are too hard for even my highest students. The state says I am supposed to be teaching 9th-12th grade material to my students who are between Pre-K and 4th grade academic grade levels. I have done my best so far to bring material of quality into their realm of understanding, but now I see I need to expand my ability to broaden their knowledge while not letting myself become burned out on paperwork (and copying!). Do you have any suggestions for my situation? I would greatly appreciate your advice.

    • Hi, Robin–My name is Holly and I work as a Customer Experience Manager for Cult of Pedagogy. Thank you so much for writing in and sharing your situation, a difficult one indeed. I was stuck in a similar situation as I feel many other teachers are, too. My seventh graders were doing well if they tested into fourth-grade level reading, yet everything in the classroom was required to be grade level. I once tried to sneak a 6th grade reading passage on a test and got busted! I wanted nothing more than to set up my students for success, but all the standards, etc. didn’t allow for it.

      It sounds like differentiation is key here, and I can see how frustrating it could get trying to do anything as a full class. A Starter Kit for Differentiated Instruction could be a good place to start, and I’d also check out Using Playlists to Differentiate Instruction.

      The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies is my favorite post and may help with getting some ideas rolling–no standing in line at the copier needed 🙂

      Is technology available for your students? There are some great websites that can accommodate multiple levels at one time: Listenwise, CommonLit, Newsela. If you’re short on tech, you might be interested in this post.

      I hope something here helps!

      • Hi, Holly! Thanks for your suggestions. I may be able to reformat the starter kit idea for my classes. It had a very simple and visual layout that my kiddos can understand.
        I really appreciate your help, Robin

  25. I really enjoyed reading this post. Being a secondary school languages teacher, I don’t really have time to use ‘packets’ and avoid using the activities on the lower end of your continuum. However, you’ve made me think about whether the reading comprehension sheets that I use are as effective as they could be. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  26. Rosemary says:

    I love this blog!! I absolutely felt the same way when the boy spoke up for his classmates. I think worksheets are a crutch for teachers these days. I teach Kindergarten, and I do 12 groups a day, and we do not use worksheets. Many ask how I get my students so far, and the main way is with engaging lessons that are differentiated. It’s so nice to read information about the harm of so much paperwork. I’ve seen it as a parent and in many classrooms. The sad thing is that many of those teachers think they are the best, because they aren’t letting their kids waste time “playing.”

  27. Hi Jennifer,
    idk if you saw this, but I linked to one of your posts in my PBL News roundup on May 4: http://www.bie.org/blog/top_pbl_news_stories Loved your point that (good) worksheets can be useful. Would you consider writing something about the use of worksheets in a PBL unit? Some PBL fans think they should be banned, but I disagree, if they’re used sparingly and wisely.

    • I meant to add, could you write something we could repost in our blog?
      Thanks

      • Hi John! I work as a Customer Experience Manager for Cult of Pedagogy and ran your request by Jenn. As of now, Jenn doesn’t have plans to write a post specifically about worksheets in the PBL classroom, but I’ll add it to our list of things to consider. She also doesn’t allow reposts but is just fine with people writing their own posts either in response to or as an introduction to one of her posts and then linking over to the site.

  28. Gayle Cole says:

    Thank you! The thoughtful approach you take throughout this examination of packets demonstrates valuable learner-centered perspective. As always, teaching comes down to meaningful learning. What the students take from the class matters most. I particularly appreciate the way you demonstrated how technology just for the sake of technology doesn’t elevate an assignment; technology used to replicate a weak paper assignment still provides a weak assignment. The phrase “busysheets in disguise” will stick with me. Your comments about Black History Month also resonated a great deal, and I thank you for sharing the Teaching Tolerance link.

    Posts and podcasts like this can inspire robust faculty meetings and professional development conversations. I can just imagine the ways a teaching team could engage in a collaborative worksheet audit after reading this.

    Finally, I really appreciate the conversation taking place in the comments, and how clearly you maintain respect for all hardworking teachers and students. Education is challenging work. Cult of Pedagogy supports everyone trying to do the best they can to succeed at that challenge.

    • Hi Gayle! Thanks so much for taking the time to share — it’s great to hear you’re finding value in Cult of Pedagogy! I’ll be sure to share this with Jenn.

  29. Chris Shaffer says:

    The amount of assumptions people are making about the video above is disheartening. As teachers all of us would be upset if someone were to judge us without context. Yet here we are with teachers making all types of assumptions about this situation. It is disrespectful to the teacher to make these type of leaps and I am saddened to see fellow teachers jump at the chance to criticize.

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