Archive for Teaching Articles

A Year Without Worksheets… 


A Year Without Worksheets

Each year ushers in resolutions – some bold, others timid, many chucked in ensuing weeks. This January we propose the following experiment. Amid all of the technologies, ideas, and resources currently available to teachers, we would like to live “A Year Without Worksheets.”

Nationwide, public districts and private administrations purchase “programs” to form the foundation of their math, reading, and language curricula. These off-the-shelf programs typically include a core textbook and supplementary worksheets. Some programs augment the formula with web resources or custom videos, but at their base, they rely on regimented worksheets to guide teachers and students through prescripted problems.

Worksheets are not inherently poor teaching tools. They allow children to practice skills in standardized, structured formats. Worksheets theoretically draw from outside experts and take the onus off of the teacher to create customized lesson materials.

These perceived “benefits,” however, actually constitute the negative influences of worksheets in the classroom. Photocopied, bulk handouts push a “one size fits all” model of teaching, where every child, silently at her desk, dutifully mimics the regimen of her tutor. Worksheets represent a delivery-based model of instruction, where the teacher provides the pattern and the student conforms to the mold. “Good” worksheets do exist, inviting geographic analysis or document-based writing and including supporting images and informed designs. “Bad” worksheets, however, draw their inspiration from a commoditized view of student learning.

Source: ASIDE

Substandard worksheets ask nothing of the educator. They demand nothing more from a scholar than to manipulate a photocopier and pass out paper. They turn a teacher into a porter, not a professional. An over-reliance on simple worksheets obstructs creativity and collaboration. It refuses unique learning styles, and it denies differentiation and inspiration. On purpose, poorly designed worksheets relegate learners to workers. They dampen motivation and offer no outlet to the poets, astronomers, and dreamers among our children. Every modern educational theory champions music, play, dynamism, interaction, projects, technology, public-speaking, and problem-solving. Uniform worksheets allow none of these. They promote homogeneous learning for a heterogeneous America.

The basic philosophy of factory worksheets suggests that a consistent curriculum is important for educational quality, because teachers can’t be trusted to devise lessons. It imagines teachers as ill-motivated to invent exceptional materials and stimulating seminars. Yet even the prairie matron in her one-room schoolhouse would never suggest passing out identical, dull lessons to her cottage of diverse pupils.

Realistically, we’re not giving up on worksheets. We still value individual rehearsal and independent investigation. Many enriching, valuable worksheetscan challenge the mind and reinforce core learning. But wouldn’t it be nice if we really could eschew photocopied learning all together? Wouldn’t it be liberating to jettison the piles of paper and unshackle ourselves from the Xerox machine, to join our students in freeing, hands-on, experiential learning?

What we’re hoping for, really, is moderation in worksheets. We can’t avoid printouts, but we do promise to think extra hard about every handout we distribute. In our resolution, we will take pains to include helpful illustrations, catchy layouts, and educational methodology into each worksheet we craft. Ultimately, it’s not the worksheet that’s the problem. It’s the stultifying design and the over-dependence that we’re trying to dispel.

There are many ways to incorporate the positive aspects of worksheets – such as primary documents, mathematical practice, and grammar exercises – into hand-made, interactive, exciting lessons that utilize easily available technologies or old-fashioned circle times. For the record, the periodic table is not a worksheet. A paragraph response to a colonial diary is not a worksheet. An x/y coordinate graph or a hand-drawn menu in French is not a worksheet. Worksheets are those formulaic texts that measure learning by time quietly spent. They are the fill-in-the-blank chore of the “Do Now” and the crutch of delayed retirement.

For these reasons and more, we are proposing a year without worksheets. We are going to emphasize a year of personal teaching, original materials, innovative lessons, and imaginative activities. We will no doubt falter, in falling back on a Bill of Rights handout or a Census chart, and we will likely slip in a sheet or two for homework. But we will try, in bucking carbon-copied shortcuts, to hone in on layered, dynamic, self-pioneered worksheets that excite students with pictures and appeal. We will hopefully force ourselves to avoid the bluffing that comes with 30 minutes of “silent work at one’s desk.”

We invite you to join us in our initiative to design information for teaching that is not routine. If you have suggestions or ideas about how to make this worksheet-free dream a reality, please let us know. We anticipate needing as much help as possible to teach “A Year Without Worksheets.” Add your thoughts to your tweets about the topic. Use the hastag #AYWW.

Comment moderation is in use. Please do not submit your comment twice — it will appear shortly, after I have reviewed it. Thanks.

Share this with all the schools, please.


This is a must read for all teachers and administrators…profound. What a great idea to really get to know your students and to hopefully prevent a tragedy from happening. Looking for patterns of love and loneliness, it’s not just about teaching…we have the potential to save lives.

A few weeks ago, I went into Chase’s class for tutoring.

I’d emailed Chase’s teacher one evening and said, “Chase keeps telling me that this stuff you’re sending home is math – but I’m not sure I believe him. Help, please.” She emailed right back and said, “No problem! I can tutor Chase after school anytime.” And I said, “No, not him. Me. He gets it. Help me.” And that’s how I ended up standing at a chalkboard in an empty fifth grade classroom staring at rows of shapes that Chase’s teacher kept referring to as “numbers.”

I stood a little shakily at the chalkboard while Chase’s teacher sat behind me, perched on her desk, using a soothing voice to try to help me understand the “new way we teach long division.”  Luckily for me, I didn’t have to unlearn much because I never really understood the “old way we taught long division.” It took me a solid hour to complete one problem, but l could tell that Chase’s teacher liked me anyway. She used to be a NASA scientist (true story) so obviously we have a whole lot in common.

Afterwards, we sat for a few minutes and talked about teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility it is. We agreed that subjects like math and reading are the least important things that are learned in a classroom. We talked about shaping little hearts to become contributors to a larger  community – and we discussed our mutual dream that those communities might be made up of individuals who are Kind and Brave above all.

And then she told me this.

Every Friday afternoon Chase’s teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.

And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase’s teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.

Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

Who doesn’t even know who to request?

Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

Who had a million friends last week and none this week?

You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down- right away- who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.

As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children – I think that this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold – the gold being those little ones who need a little help – who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others. And it’s a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside of her eyeshot –  and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But as she said – the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper.

As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea – I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said.

Ever since Columbine, she said.  Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine.

Good Lord.

This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that ALL VIOLENCE BEGINS WITH DISCONNECTION. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. She watched that tragedy KNOWING that children who aren’t being noticed will eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.

And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often, and with the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11 year old hands  - is SAVING LIVES. I am convinced of it. She is saving lives.

And what this former NASA scientist and mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything – even love, even belonging – has a pattern to it. And she finds those patterns through those lists – she breaks the codes of disconnection. And then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her. It’s MATH.

All is love- even math.  Amazing.

Chase’s teacher retires this year –  after decades of saving lives. What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day-  and altering the trajectory of our world.

TEACH ON, WARRIORS. You are the first responders, the front line, the disconnection detectives, and the best and ONLY hope we’ve got for a better world. What you do in those classrooms when no one  is watching-  it’s our best hope.

Teachers- you’ve got a million parents behind you whispering together: “We don’t care about the standardized tests. We only care that you teach our children to be Brave and Kind. And we thank you. We thank you for saving lives.”

Love – All of Us

Comment moderation is in use. Please do not submit your comment twice — it will appear shortly, after I have reviewed it. Thanks.