At the February 2009 Oklahoma Technology Association’s conference, keynote speaker Will Richardson told a story about the worksheets his own students bring home from their public school each week which resonated with me. Will said he’d contemplated keeping all the papers for an entire school year in a big stack, and then photographing them to document the school-communicated learning they’d experienced all year. I then thought about doing the same thing, since our two oldest children (who are in elementary school) bring home a “Thursday folder” each week filled with the worksheets they’ve completed.

Alexander's Thursday Folder from Elementary School

Last night, Alexander asked me to review his paperwork for the week and sign his folder. He was particularly proud of a very challenging social studies test which he’d aced, as well as a writing assignment he completed: A time-capsule letter to a future student at his school in 10 years. After reviewing all his papers and grades, we spread them all out on the floor of our living room. Several of these documents were multi-page, stapled together. This is a week’s worth of worksheets from his school, sent home this week in the “Thursday folder.”

A week's worth of worksheets sent home in the Thursday folder

Alexander and his sister DO attend a wonderful school, but in many ways it defines “a worksheet school.” The students DO participate in wonderful musical programs, participate in memorable class-wide events like the re-enactment of the Oklahoma land run, and participate in living history museums. They also have time each day for recess, which is more than the Texas school we left three years ago provided for students in grades three and above. (That was due to high-stakes testing pressure – The school was “exemplary” but they still didn’t have time to let 9 year olds have recess during the day.)

At our current Oklahoma elementary school, “learning evidence” from the week is communicated to parents almost exclusively via the “Thursday folder” and the worksheets it contains. Our school is very common in following this procedure in Oklahoma. This is what kids do in most schools today in 2009: worksheets. This is how most schools communicate with parents about the “learning” their children are allegedly doing in class each day: by sending home worksheets.

My problem with this situation? It’s twofold. First, many of these worksheets are stupid, irrelevant, busy work. Second, worksheets tell me VERY LITTLE about the things my child understands, perceives, knows, and wonders about. Worksheets are almost useless to me as a parent interested in the learning activities and developmental progress of my child, compared to alternative forms of assessment. It’s good to see how Alexander’s writing skills are developing, including his handwriting. But it saddens me to see worksheets like this which he’s spent HOURS in some cases completing.

A wordsearch puzzle worksheet

There are SO many more valuable ways to spend heartbeats than completing word search puzzles. This is busy work, and I think assignments like this contribute very little, if at all, to meaningful learning experiences for my children inside and outside of school.

Worksheets from this week's Thursday folder at school

Included in the assortment of worksheets sent home this week in the Thursday folder were several pages about science and the unit on light they’ve been studying. I asked Alexander if he’d done any experiences during the unit on light. He said yes initially, but further questioning revealed HE had not done the experiments, he had watched the teacher demonstrate some things in front of the class. He had not formulated ANY hypotheses and tested them with experimentation and observation. How is my son supposed to learn the scientific method and become the engineer he aspires to be, if his school does not provide him with REGULAR opportunities to learn the scientific method by PRACTICING the scientific method? (David Thornburg’s message from CoSN09 burns in my mind when I ask these questions.) The answer? Like many things (including writing with social media and learning about hyperlinked writing) it’s up to us as parents to teach these things at home. What about other kids whose parents are not focused on these issues? Who is going to “turn these elementary age kids on” to science? If we really care about STEM, why are we not insisting on a hands-on approach to science in our schools which involves regular experimentation instead of endless note taking and worksheets?

Alexander recorded this short, 90 second video explaining about his Thursday folder and demonstrating what happens at the end of Thursday night after we’ve looked at the pile of worksheets: They get thrown into the trash can. (We did save his social studies test he was so proud of, however, and put it on the fridge.)

The eventual destination of the Thursday folder worksheets: The Circular File

I dearly wish our school district was willing to embrace the constructive potential of social media to help students “show what they know” and more meaningfully document their journeys of learning with images, audio, and video than anyone can ever do with mere worksheets. After Alexander shared his “time capsule” letter with me last night, I asked him to quickly record it onto a short, three image VoiceThread for which he selected the photos. This took five minutes for us to do together, and I posted it to our family learning blog. His grandparents in Kansas were able to listen to him and watch this today, and told us on the phone they loved it. They hadn’t realized he’s planning to major in robotics at Kansas State in college! I hadn’t either until I read his essay. Without this technological documentation of his learning, there is little chance his Kansas grandparents would have EVER seen, read, or heard this letter. Thanks to technology sharing tools like VoiceThread, however, they did and now you can too. This is extremely important and valuable stuff to Alexander and to our family. And, it’s free to do.

We need to get digital tools into the hands of ALL our students in grades three and up as soon as possible, as well as our teachers. This morning I had a chance to briefly examine a $200 Lenovo S10 Netbook owned by James Deaton, and I marveled at the size, capabilities, and price point of this device.

Holding James Deaton's new Lenovo Netbook

Lenovo S10 Netbook

Lenovo S10 Netbook

Hat tip to Dawn Danker for taking the first photo in this series of me with the netbook. 🙂

When are my own children going to be able to use technologies like these IN SCHOOL here in Oklahoma? The clock is ticking. They’re learning plenty about how to use technology tools here at home, but we have much more limited opportunities to digitally create, collaborate, and communicate compared to what could be accomplished during the school day.

I have my fingers crossed that our state’s educational technology stimulus money will be used in an innovative way to empower students in a few more Oklahoma school districts (in addition to Crescent, Howe, and Lowery) to learn in 1 to 1 environments.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to watch the stream of worksheets come home each week in the Thursday folders.

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On this day..

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  • All I can do is to re-ask:

    “When are my own children going to be able to use technologies like these IN SCHOOL”

    because you have explained it all…

  • I would maybe suggest a paper recyling bin might be in order. Imagine how much all that paper would cost the school to buy and the trees that could be saved by finding a more creative way of sharing a child’s learning. It’s a worry all right- there must be better ways for kids to fill their school day than doing a word search or fill in the gaps worksheets.

  • Excellent post! This is why I have you in my Google Reader! 🙂

    One thing to add. As an elementary student, I can distinctly remember finishing a worksheet one day faster than most everyone else in the class, and how proud I was. My teacher smiled and gave me another worksheet. I learned that it made sense for me to slow down. In some ways, things haven’t changed since the 70’s…

  • Here, here, Wes. Not only paper is wasted, but also teachers’ time standing at the copy machine churning away. Think of how this time could be used to plan projects and hands-on activities.

    The power of our hands to create is too great to restrict them to pencil and paper!

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  • I tried to post earlier, but I don’t think it went through…so here it goes again.
    Thanks for the post Wes! I completely agree! Too many students are all too often engaged in meaningless lower level busy work! We live in an age of changing communication, and technologies that are being offered for students to use are exciting and engaging, why are so many educators fighting the use of these instead of embracing them? As a tech coordinator and teacher I am always trying to get my colleagues to try some of the many exciting web 2.0 tools that are available and I am often met with closed minds.

    When teachers use technology to allow students to learn, create, and collaborate we are engaging students in meaningful, higher level thinking and active literacy (http://myccs.ccs.k12.in.us/uploads/news/0000/0321/schmoker.pdf). I am so excited to see many schools promoting 1:1 initiatives! We need 1:1 computing in schools as soon as possible!

    Wish your son was in my fourth grade class, check out our class blog: http://ifolder.ccs.k12.in.us/mt4/mr_atkinson_4th_grade_2008-2009/, our class Ning! http://atkinsonclass.ning.com/, and our class Moodle http://moodle.ccs.k12.in.us/course/category.php?id=15.

  • Wes,

    What bothers me most is not the worksheets, but rather the lack focus on higher order thinking skills. Students don’t need to reinforce their learning; they need to APPLY it. I, like you, have an elementary school child and am often frustrated with her “worksheet set” as well. I’ve written a similar story to yours: http://problemfinding.labanca.net/?p=133

    When she elects to follow on her own ideas, the results are so different, so much more relevant and really reminiscent of a 21st-century learner – (see: http://problemfinding.labanca.net/?p=224) maybe this type of learning might not involve technology, but it should access critical, creative thinking, written/oral communication, and authenticity.

    That’s my challenge as an educator: to give students meaningful, authentic work that allows them to apply knowledge, not just regurgitate it.

  • Jason

    I am very inclined to agree with you, Wes, but I have to take exception to this post and the same observation that Will makes at nearly all of his appearances. I find it distasteful to drag your own kids into public criticism like this and in fact, if I were a teacher and ran into criticism like this on the Internet, I would feel ashamed. Are you actually talking with your children’s teachers and sharing this criticism? Are you contacting them and saying this to them directly? If you aren’t, it is poor form to then run off to the Internet and trash on their methods. Even if their is a lot of truth in your message (word searches? really?), calling them “stupid” on your blog if you aren’t willing to contact them and have a productive conversation strikes me as mean spirited…

  • Jason: You raise important points. Here are some responses.

    First of all, I am not calling any teacher, including my own childrens’ teachers, “stupid.” This is a basic issue we see with behavior all the time. I am not criticizing the person. I am criticizing a specific behavior, and in this case, a specific worksheet and type of worksheet. I am also criticizing a pattern of behavior, which is giving children worksheets like the one I highlighted in this post that constitute “busywork.” This happens quite a bit at our school. Please do not hear me “calling them [my childrens’ teachers] ‘stupid.'” If you re-read my post above I think that should be clear. Attacks like that would be counter-productive, and also just wouldn’t be something I would do.

    It is reasonable to ask me if I’ve talked directly to the teacher who assigned that word search about it personally, and the answer is no. I saw that worksheet on Thursday night, and didn’t make an appointment to meet with her on Friday. Based on your suggestion and encouragement, I will do that next week. She certainly deserves to hear my sentiments directly.

    Please note that I am not posting these thoughts to “skewer” particular teachers or even my kids’ own school specifically. You’ll note I do not mention teacher’s names or school names when I am critical in posts like this. When I praise individuals as well as organizations, I DO use their names.

    I really would like to change the learning culture at my children’s school, to move beyond this worksheet focus, but I am not naive enough to think a parent-teacher conference is going to do that. I have been engaged the past three years in several ways with our own teachers and school district when it comes to digital literacy, promoting collaboration and videoconferencing, etc, but basically these efforts have produced very little fruit. See my post, “Live tweeting back to school night” from August 2008 for more on that background.

    No one likes criticism of any kind, especially public criticism. You wrote, “if I were a teacher and ran into criticism like this on the Internet, I would feel ashamed.” You and everyone else are certainly entitled to feel any way you want. When we encounter criticism, however, I think it’s potentially most valuable if we consider the ideas which have been presented and then analyze our own behavior to see if there IS something which we can or should change.

    I’m listening to you and trying to model this idea in taking your suggestion. I’ll go visit with the teacher and talk with her about this. We’ll see what happens. I won’t be holding my breath that the result will be transformative, pedagogic change in her classroom, however, or in the school building more generally. I’ll report on the result of our conversation here on this post thread after the meeting.

  • @AllanahK That is great suggestion about recycling! I’ll discuss this with my kids.

  • Jason:

    I’d like to respond to a separate point you made in your comment: “I find it distasteful to drag your own kids into public criticism like this.” My children are enrolled in public school, and I am focused on working to improve and transform learning opportunities for people everywhere inside and outside of schools. How could I not permit the experiences of my own children now in public school to not influence and color my own thinking about learning, school, and educational change?

    Why do you find this “distasteful?” In my view, this is authentic and real. Should I ignore realities like this? Do you find this “distasteful” because it is critical, and critical views (especially ones which strike close to home) can be difficult to hear and accept?

    If I was writing an article for a professional journal, I would be much less likely to use an example like this. In that context, we’d likely survey families, aggregate that survey data, and then present those findings in a less personal, more objective way. Is that why you find the use of family anecdotes like this “distasteful,” because you are used to and prefer a more objective, less personal, and more formal style of writing like what we continue to find in professional journals?

  • JRCB

    Part of the issue is time and “accountability”. In our school district teachers are required to teach no less than 300 minutes a day. This is because the administration feels that students only learn when a teacher is in front of a class. Our contract only calls for 2 and ½ hours planning time each week. That’s 25 hours of “teaching” with 2 ½ ours of planning.
    I am not endorsing the use of worksheets but the administration of our district is not encouraging creative teaching with this type of scheduling. My schedule next year will be 10 half hour classes a day, 800 students a week. Factory style teaching at its best, the students better fit the mold.

  • Wow. As Gary Stager might say, that’s a lot of full frontal teaching.

  • Jason

    Hi Wes…

    Thanks for engaging with me on this… I would imagine that for many, the temptation would have been to delete my comment and move along…

    To respond to you thoughts:

    …I get that you are trying to make changes but honestly, what is more likely to change your children’s classroom experiences: blogging about the teacher in hopes s/he reads it, takes it constructively and then makes meaningful changes or actually approaching the teacher and talking about it? My guess is that many people that read your blog are really already in transition mode. If the school your students are in seems to be missing the shift, it seems awfully hopeful to think they will change without action on the part of passionate advocates.

    …What is distasteful for me about your approach? Well, for me it goes back to the problem with educational criticism in general. I read your blog and I think you are a smart, well-meaning guy, but you are still taking an outsider position of the school, seemingly without consequence. Let me explain. You ask if it my problem with the post is the critical nature. No, absolutely not. I think criticism is important in any activity and even if I disagreed with your point, I think disagreement is often the path to enlightenment. (Somewhat related: I believe schools suffer from a problem that staff members are encouraged NOT to disagree and often ostracize those with alternative views. This leads to school stagnating.) My problem is that you are critical in a forum where there isn’t any implication to you taking such views. It is easy to criticize (constructively or not… I think your post was generally constructive… and though I understood what you were referring to as stupid, would you really say that to the teacher’s face? my guess is no, so perhaps it doesn’t meet the test tasteful) when you are speaking to a crowd that will largely agree with you… but what tone would you take when you are talking to your child’s teacher? Will you say exactly what you said in the original post?

    My guess is that the elementary school in question is similar to many across the nation. The teachers there are well-meaning and are probably solid professionals. Or… it could be that you there are a number of just bad teachers there who don’t give a damn (sadly, it is my experience that there are more of the bad than we could want or imagine). Either way, I can’t imagine those professionals reading this post and thinking “wow! wes is right! i am going to go ahead and change my pedagogy right now!”… You seem to think the case is hopeless… “I won’t be holding my breath that the result will be transformative, pedagogic change in her classroom, however, or in the school building more generally.” What makes you think that the many other classrooms in the same position would be any different? It is hard, I know, to watch the incremental changes in schools but only through working together for positive, cooperation action, will we all see the changes that seem to be necessary…

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  • This post made me stop and think about how many worksheets my kids might get during a week. I think I’m doing ok – some weeks they get NO worksheets (even though they like them). but mostly they get worksheets to support their learning: for example if a small group has been working on “counting on” they may then go and do some independent work via a worksheet to reinforce what they’ve just been doing with me. I am moving slowly into using other ways to demonstrate learning. (I see another video coming up!)

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  • My son just started kindergarten and we get the friday folders. Unaccustomed as I am, having not been raised in the States, I was not sure what to do with them. So I kept them, we review them sometimes if he wants, I think about things he needs to work on and we try to do that but I have asked several friends what they do with theirs. They do the same as Wes. I am looking forward to showing them to my mother in NZ and my mother in law in France. I too believe social media tools and the kinds of learning they carry with them are incredibly important to our kids….. and we need to recycle the paper. But perhaps most importantly, we need to think about what are kids are learning to do….. because I teach college and it ain’t pretty…..

  • Wesley,
    This question is a little off topic… but I was wondering if anyone else is noticing…
    At least in my kids’ schools…
    * Teachers don’t go over these worksheets in class!?!

    My youngest (6th grader) brings home his “Wednesday Folder” and has no idea how he’s done on the papers inside.

    His older sister (11th grader) has had classes where they are given test review worksheets. They fill them out and then they are taken up on the day of the test.

    Somewhere we seem to have lost the whole concept of feedback (… except for grades). Is this common? new?

    Regards,
    Kent

  • In my eleven years of teaching I have significantly cut back on the number of pieces of paper I use in a given year. I feel that we are all using our time (and resources) in many better ways now.

    That said, I do struggle with how best to communicate my first grade students’ learning to their parents. I teach in a community in which very few families have computers. We do make VoiceThreads and movies and such, but many of my families have now way to see them. I am lucky to have three computers in my classroom (counting my laptop) and a lab available, but that is often not true. Do you have any advice on how to deal with these issues?

  • Loved the post and just referenced it at my blog “Middle School Monkeys” (middleschoolmonkeys.com). Great work!

  • sally

    In my high poverty area I feel that giving homework to students just for the sake of giving homework has little value. Most poverty kids don’t have the resources at home to get the help they need on their work. Most leave it home or don’t get it completed. I feel it adds to the negative attitudes that many kids have towards school. I think it is great whenever teachers can use technology to increase the value of homework.

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