I don’t need your stinkin’ worksheets

Around 4 years ago I was giving a presentation in Seoul. The topic might have been something related to teacher talk but I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember clearly from that day is how a participant (a well-known workshop hijacker, in fact) somewhat interrupted the presentation and handed me one of his worksheets right there in in the middle of my talk. He had it with him and was ready to pounce, I suppose. As I recall, the worksheet was only just tangentially related to the topic of the session.  I considered this share of the worksheet an unusual move so I did what any fake polite presenter would and thanked the man for his kind gift. I told him I’d take a closer look at it after the session. I told myself the same thing. He seemed quite proud of the worksheet. I got the sense he thought there were profound truths and lessons for teachers built right into his worksheet. It was as though he thought the worksheet would elucidate his teaching philosophy while somehow connecting to the session he found himself in. I couldn’t really see the connection and thought maybe it would be more clear after further investigation of the worksheet.

The more I thought about the situation the less interest I had in examining that worksheet in detail and seeking the truths supposedly inherent in it. There are a few reasons for this. It was written for his students in a very different course in a very different program in a very different university from mine. I suspect this teacher and I have different teaching beliefs as well. There are so many variables! His worksheet  was nothing I could ever imagine myself using. Especially in my current context. Given the time I’d much prefer to make my own worksheet (or of course go paper-free).

I’m ready to admit to being less than fully opened-minded on this but I couldn’t see how his worksheet could be much use to me as a teacher. Maybe it was just given as an example and was not intended as something I could potentially use? Fine. Maybe the expectation was that I file it away for the next time I was “doing the present perfect” or something? I hope it was not given with the expectation that I just rip off 11 copies of it and use it on Monday morning.

This worksheet sharing is not a one time thing, though. I have noticed worksheet sharing sessions (“Bring your favorite worksheet!) at a few local ELT group meetings here in Korea. Is the idea to see how others approach certain grammar points (or vocab or whatever) or is it to help participants build a collection of worksheets that can be pulled out of the drawer as needed? Is it to get a sense for the principals of design that others employ? Is it to facilitate discussion on best practices in worksheet creation? Is it to get a peak into others’ classrooms through the papers their students see? I have never actually attended one of these sessions. Maybe I am missing something or a lot of things. Any explanations or experiences shared in the comments would be very helpful and greatly appreciated. If you have ever received a worksheet from someone and found this very helpful I’d love to read about it.

Look, I don’t have any great antipathy for worksheets (or their sharers). I think worksheets are fine and can even be great. I think they are beyond being just a necessary evil. Also, I’m not going to say I’ve never been to busyteacher.org and printed off some sweet and tasty documents. I’ve been there. I can say I believe there are better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon with other teachers than sharing worksheets.

perfect-worksheet

Disclaimers and additions: 

  • I want to mention this post is in no way a response to anything I have seen in the ELT blogosphere recently. I started this post (staring with the title!) about 18 months ago and am now just getting around to polishing (?) and posting it. Please don’t take this post as an indictment of anyone
  • I also want to clearly state for the record (in case it is not obvious) that this is just my own current take on things and I am ready to admit many teachers might be in a different position in terms of time available, time teaching, as well as teaching beliefs and a whole host of things that would impact views on a topic like this.
  • I suppose the title of this post is more aggressive than my actual feelings on the issue.
  • I am pretty crappy at making worksheets and would love some tips on layout and the like. This would be much more interesting (and useful) to me than a collection of random worksheets from people in different contexts.
  • Regarding the group meetings mentioned above, I suspect it is partially a way to get more people involved and not have so many presenter-focused sessions. This is something I’d applaud but I believe there are other ways to do this and certainly other ways which would be fruitful and interesting to me.  I’d much rather hear about someone’s toughest teaching challenge of the year instead of their favorite worksheet of the year. I’d rather hear about how they learned to be a better worksheet creator or how their term without worksheets went. I’d prefer to hear about their thoughts on what makes a good/bad worksheet.
  • Alex Case of the excellent TEFLtastic blog commented below and this reminded me I have used lots of stuff in recent years, especially for lessons focused on business English.
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12 comments

  1. Marc

    I loved this, despite espousing worksheets (kind of) in my latest post. I think sharing worksheets is fine but I think developing worksheets together with people of similar need would be more useful, or gathering needs and allocating duties. I guess it’s why we looks, evaluate and then accept or reject. Cheers for making me think, as ever.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Marc,

      I was worried the timing of my post might be misinterpreted.

      I can see some room for developing things together but at the same time I have my concerns about contexts sometimes (?) being so different so as to make it a less than ideal enterprise. That said, I think just the sheer fact of working on something together could provide the types of insights I was trying to advocate for (and would certainly be preferable to me than just getting a piece of paper). Actually, now that I am thinking of it, I’d love to look over someone’s shoulder (digitally or otherwise while they created something.) Your comments (and post) got me thinking. Cheers!

      • Marc

        Yeah, contexts are different. Sometimes someone in a similar context makes something pretty useful for person X, too. I think Creative Commons is best then we can change stuff on sheets that are halfway good to make them the whole way good without needing to reinvent the wheel.
        Also, I know you are nice and your post would never be perceived as passive-aggressive. It’s all gravy.

  2. alexcase

    I think most people like sharing their worksheets because it makes the time spent on making them seem less wasted – I know that’s my main motivation! I literally never print off a worksheet without making changes, and that includes my own worksheets from previous classes (although that certainly wasn’t true in my first two years or so of teaching). Nowadays, I find online worksheets useful for an initial idea of what I could do and/ or good for raw material such as example sentences or lists of state verbs I could use, but that’s about it. One of the reasons why I put my stuff online with very specific stuff that would make it unsuitable for others such as my name, the name of my school and stuff about Tokyo is that I hope it will at least make people adapt it a little. (The main reason goes back to the first point – I feel like I’ve already spent too much of my life on the materials!)

    • mikecorea

      Great points here Alex!

      You also reminded me that I have gotten a lot of use out of your site in recent years!
      The business English stuff is great (and also gives me room to pick and choose what I think is useful!) Thank you very much for the comments and for the reminder as well as for the great material you are putting online.
      (I have actually updated the post to account for this. I guess I do need your non stinkin worksheets after all)

      It is interesting to see how you find worksheets of others useful these days. Maybe this is an unintended benefit of such sharing.
      Thanks again for the comments and food for thought.

      I think your point about putting stuff out there so as for it not to seem like a waste of time makes a lot of sense.

      • alexcase

        Thanks for the nice comments and link. Reading my comment again it looks a bit like a sly plug for my blog, but it really wasn’t…

        Getting back to your post, we’ve had a couple of worksheet sharing workshops but never been to one myself due to scheduling problems. They do sound very random, but I suppose it depends how you do it. Perhaps if the whole group discuss each time how you could adapt each worksheet to make it suitable for other classes it might be worthwhile? Or maybe the randomness is good – although not often, I have found really useful materials in the recycled paper tray before now!

      • mikecorea

        Hello again!

        For what it’s worth I didn’t take your response as a sly plug. I mostly just thought it was interesting.

        I can actually imagine a worksheet workshop being quite useful (and i would surely need it). I guess what turned me off the idea was imagining contexts and teacher beliefs far removed from my own.

        I suppose the randomness need not be a bad thing.

        In any case a friend I respect told me she had similar feelings to me but actually went to a worksheet share and got a lot out of it.

        Thanks for the comments and food for thought!

        On Wed, Oct 5, 2016 at 6:20 AM, ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections wrote:

        >

  3. Pingback: I don’t need your stinkin’ worksheets — ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?
  4. Sandy Millin

    “I am pretty crappy at making worksheets and would love some tips on layout and the like. This would be much more interesting (and useful) to me than a collection of random worksheets from people in different contexts.” While I’m sure that isn’t true, it does motivate me to try and finish the post on tips for creating worksheets which I started during the crazy year of CELTA last year and never got round to finishing. It’s aimed at CELTA trainees, but hopefully there’ll be one or two things in there that help you too! In the meantime, you might find this useful: http://www.eltteacher2writer.co.uk/how-write-worksheets I have to admit that I haven’t used it, but I have some of the other T2W stuff and it’s always good 😉
    Sandy

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the response, Sandy.
      I have an e-book of the book you mentioned. Maybe I should take a closer look. Thank you!

      I will be on the lookout for your upcoming post as well. 🙂

  5. davedodgson

    A tricky one this – like you, I am not a fan of the idea of sharing worksheets in the style of “this is a great worksheet for….” but Like Alex, I appreciate that people want to share their efforts and get feedback on them.

    In my current job, there is a well-established system of team planning in which teachers doing the same class divide the planning and materials creation week-by-week. It is great in terms of lightening the load but I do worry that some people might just follow the plan without considering how to adapt it for their own classes…

    I guess the idea that needs to be challenged is the focus on materials in the first place. Too often (in my experience), lesson preparation is all about writing a plan and making worksheets/having materials ready. There is not enough focus on the class itself and the learners in it (i.e. do they really need a detailed worksheet on gerunds and infinitives or will they be fine with a refresher and more time spent on practical uses and skills development?) Especially with higher levels, I feel we need a diagnostic-led approach with materials brought in based on how the students perform and what their strengths/weaknesses are.

  6. livinglearning

    I’m a little late to the conversation here, but I wanted to add my 20 won.

    I’ve been to a few ‘Swap Shops’ in a few different cities in Korea, and I wanted to share my experience.

    In one city, people literally do just share worksheets. They’re on the table for anyone to take. I have glanced at them, but never come away with one. I agree that this sort of ‘sharing’ is not very useful for me.

    In the other two cities, ‘swap shops’ were more inspiring. They sometimes involved worksheets and sometimes just ideas, and they were opportunities both for participants to share ideas without giving a full-on two-hour dress-up-and-stress-out presentation and to take other people’s ideas and consider whether or how they might be adapted to work in their own classes – not as a way to teach the present perfect or whatever, but more as a way to add things to our toolkits that can be adapted for other lessons. Everyone came away with something, whether it was an idea or experience presenting in a lower-stress situation.

    As a person who is also really interested in how materials are made, I would love to attend and participate in a workshop / swap shop on your fourth and fifth points in the disclaimers.

    (Apologies for crazy-long sentence and any times I might have mixed up worksheets and workshops.)

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