501. Worksheets

School can rely too heavily on worksheets. I’m not saying they should save trees instead; that’s important, too, but that’s not the main reason to avoid giving children lots of worksheets to do. Worksheets are often created by corporations that aren’t in tune with the teachers and children they serve. And besides, they’re usually not so good. I’ve seen some good worksheets – challenges for children who crave challenge, or constructive fun for children who need fun.
But more often, worksheets are not right for the children who have to do them. They are mindless, confusing, or just plain wrong. Yesterday, I helped a child do a worksheet about the four basic food groups. The child was supposed to figure out what was missing from each meal on the paper. The class was not doing a unit on nutrition, and even if it had been, the four basic food groups (invented by the American Dairy Association) are not used much to teach nutrition any more (or at least SHOULDN’T be). Many people are better off avoiding dairy altogether.
Then why was this child given such a worksheet? I think I know. I think this teacher sometimes uses worksheets the way I sometimes used them – to give children something to do. I’m not proud of having done that, but I remember why I did it. It was classroom management, not teaching. Some children, if not given clear instructions about what to do, do what they feel like doing. And sometimes what they feel like doing causes problems.
I have known teachers who always had meaningful things for children to do, and I’ve admired them. Now, I volunteer in classes with such teachers. But I also do work with teachers who give children lots of worksheets to do, and now, helping children do work I didn’t choose for them, I’m more able to see when time and energy are being wasted. I clearly remember why teachers assign that work, but I really wish they wouldn’t.
The trick – one I never mastered – is to have children involved in meaningful projects and tasks all the time. That’s not easy. We don’t plan our own days with anywhere near the amount of thought that teachers need to put into plannning children’s days. When I find myself with a free hour, that’s great! I don’t get in trouble. I go sit in a cafe and munch a muffin – maybe write some poetry or something. But teachers quickly learn to think of children’s “free” time as a potential problem; there aren’t any cafes in school, and if there were, some children would spend much of their time there. And it might not be spent writing poetry.
I think children do deserve to have their own time, but the way school is set up, giving them that time is difficult. They need meaningful, constructive options. Having them do worksheets just for the sake of doing worksheets is not a good substitute for providing those options.

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