The thing about crises of the public health variety is that they strike at the very core of the things we value most as members of society. We think explicitly about safety, our health (whether physical, mental, or emotional), and the safety and health of our family and closest friends. We wonder how pandemic policies and restrictions will affect us and those we care about. Some will experience financial and economic hardship. Some will find themselves in periods of darkness that weigh heavily on the mind and soul. Then there's the fatigue, the exhaustion.
The last 14 months have been an eye-opener for myself as an educator. The pandemic has brought to the fore some of the values and concerns I've long held, but have seen less time in focus. The last few years have seen me spend considerable time and effort concerned with curriculum and textbook writing, consultation with various groups around new social studies courses, and the development of new materials to support these efforts - this website is a part of that ongoing project. Being involved in such things has helped me become a better teacher who is more confident and effective in what I do. While there are definite related positive influences that will result in the classroom, what these preoccupations have in common is a focus on elements of education that place students on the periphery of direct concern. Sure, the curriculum, the resources, and the materials are created for students to use, but the connection between student and teacher is tenuous as far as these go.
This shift in focus was new and shiny, adding a freshness that helped me reorient myself and redefine my practice as a teacher. I still taught actively and did my best to help students and maintain high standards for them and myself. I would also, however, frequently be away for meetings or participation in curriculum committees, or even leading professional development sessions for other educators. What was lacking, however, was a greater emphasis on relationship-building and understanding of the social-emotional needs of my students.
The pandemic would help redefine my approach to education once again. Like many of the social issues, tensions, and inequities that have become prominent across society, I found similar concerns within my classroom and the school as a whole taking centre stage in my mind. As decisions were being made at higher levels around public health policies and protocols and how these would be effectively implemented, other discussions about instruction and assessment occurred. I found myself more often than not trying to consider various student perspectives around what was happening around them and to them. What were they feeling and thinking about the changes that were occurring rapidly? How much say did they have in what they were experiencing and the choices around this? What challenging conditions existed for them at home that might complicate or make their experience of my class awkward at best and unbearable at worst? How did our decisions as adults affect their understandings of privacy, personal security, and well-being?
It comes down to thinking about the other and being kind.
While all good educators are concerned for and about their students on a level that goes beyond merely the academic realm, the pandemic has helped refocus my concern for the student in my classroom. I have a more clear idea in my mind of certain aspects of my work and make a conscious effort to consider these things when interacting with students. I directly ask for student thoughts and perspectives around the strengths and limitations of online, in-class, and hybrid forms of learning (they've experienced all to date). I invite them to suggest what works best for them and what doesn't when it comes to instruction in these new forms. I let them see that I'm human, I'm not infallible, and sometimes trip along the way as I learn how to use a new app, or piece of tech. I listen with a concerned ear when a student has literally anything to say. I've come to realize that for every student that expresses concern for an issue or problem they experience, there are many others who suffer in silence for any number of reasons. I don't want to be an extra source of stress or anxiety for my students and would rather be a source of comfort and be understanding whenever and wherever I can.
While I won't always get it right, I want to be an educator who makes an honest attempt to make the lives of my students be easier, not more difficult during an already widely difficult pandemic. Even school switching between online, in-class, and hybrid models every couple of weeks adds considerably to student challenges. To help mitigate these issues, the following sorts of changes have materialized in my classes:
While what we say has important influences on children, I believe our actions are equally, if not more important. Concern for the other in the class, school, or community is often best shown through the things we do and the tangible effects of these actions. The quote below has almost become a cliché, but there is a truth of value behind it that I have come to appreciate:
"They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel."
During my career of 13 years as an educator of high school social studies, there have been many changes that I have seen: everything from new student resources, textbooks, updated and entirely new curriculum, the shift from using a traditional whiteboard to a digital one, new apps, Google Meets, the need to consider students' social-emotional well-being, to buzzwords that come and go and far more between. Change, as the ancient stoics will tell you, is natural and to be embraced.
Part of being a professional in any career is keeping up to date on best practices and modifying or improving methods to become better at what we do. This, I believe, is a central point to becoming and effective educator. Many new ideas or changes in methods have been successful or have, at least, improved upon the situation from which they have arisen. This often involves a new perspective around some issue in education or modifying what is in place to make it work better for students, teachers, families and other stakeholders of education. Pursuing these goals are to be encouraged wherever possible.
Recently, I noticed a hashtag being used on twitter that has been around for the last number of years and it struck me as odd. #DownWithWorkSheets has a straight forward message to it: stop using this traditional form of student activity. The argument from some educators is that worksheets are stale, unproductive, do not encourage critical thinking or creativity, and are not effective means to teach students the curriculum. This has also been equated with "busywork", a term associated with any activity used in a classroom to fill time and has no educational value.
I agree fully that busywork is to be avoided and what happens in the classroom should be of value - whether this is helping students to master learning outcomes, improve upon previous understandings, to foster a positive learning environment, or to benefit their social, emotional, mental, and physical health. These goals go hand-in-hand with teaching at any level and busywork, as a time-wasting exercise, is not conducive to achieving these aims.
I do, however, take issue with referring to worksheets as busywork by definition. While there are "bad" worksheets that do not achieve learning goals, as a professional I trust my colleagues to develop or use materials for their classrooms that meet the goals they are trying to achieve, and this includes worksheets - if this is what they choose to employ. I do my best to develop materials that meet the goals established for my courses and classroom, and worksheets are a part of this. I use other materials (video, music, art, graphics, data sheets, discussion, debate, etc.) to help students learn and I provide choice in the types of products students wish to use to demonstrate this learning (posters, lyrics, videos, essays, magazine articles, organizers, oral products or performance, etc.). Worksheets are to be included in this list.
Worksheets should not be the only way students learn or show their learning. That said, they can be developed to be one of several effective means to achieve these goals. Sometimes "practice-and-drill" methods (one use of worksheets) help reinforce student understanding of foundational knowledge that will aid them in future critical and creative thinking endeavors. Other times, questions or prompts on worksheets can be used to help students consider a topic or issue in a new way, or through multiple perspectives. Skills can be developed through these means that are of greater value than the paper written on.
Clearly, some work is involved in creating worksheets that are effective. When developing worksheets, I ask myself questions like those below to help me produce something of educational worth for students to use:
For me, a worksheet should not be a list of definitions written out by students, but a series of tasks that help students delve deeper into a topic or source of information. Sometimes this includes some foundational factual knowledge, but what is most important is how students use this knowledge to more deeply understand the issue, its subtleties and complexities. While they do this, are students able to employ skills and competencies that will benefit them beyond the activity, the class, the subject, and school and, as a whole, help them become informed, engaged, and contributing members of society? This is the big picture of social studies education that should always be in the mind of the educator, no matter the lesson being planned or the activity being developed.
Can worksheets play an effective and valuable role in social studies education? I believe the answer to this question is yes. When well-formed and rigorously developed, they can be one of a variety of activities that teachers can use to promote learning in their classes.
Stephen Rowe is an educator and teacher of high school social studies at Gander Collegiate, in Newfoundland and Labrador. His areas of greatest interest in the social studies are ancient/medieval history, politics, and demography.