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  • Skye Shirley

Actūs III: The "W" Word

Updated: May 12, 2018

Recently, I was having a conversation with two of my teacher friends and they said, "Oh, these days, worksheets are the 'W' word. Don't ever call something a worksheet; worksheets are considered old-fashioned. You have to make it interactive, call it 'guided notes' or a 'formative assessment' or 'graphic organizer.'"

In many ways, I think they are right. Worksheets can be deadeningly boring drills, utterly out of context and easily forgettable. They aren't sexy, they don't work equally well for all learners, and they do seem old-fashioned compared to Chromebooks, Smartboards, and the like. But is there a place for worksheets in a language classroom?

For me, it returns to the age-old teacher question: do we prepare kids for the world we live in or the world we want to live in? Maybe it's a cop-out, but I aim for halfway between these two goals. I want my students to be able to function in today's society, but also sustain a desire to create, imagine, and improve the world. And the truth is, being an adult today often means a lot of worksheets. Nobody strives to make sure I understand my bills when they come in the mail; I just need to read them. I register to vote, fill out census information, and apply for classes, memberships, and more.

Worksheets might be the ‘W’ word inside of schools, but outside of schools, they are the way the world runs. Also, I know I myself have benefitted from just the process of writing in a different language, getting acquainted with the muscle memory, accent strokes and slower processing speed that worksheets allow. So I feel, at least right now, that worksheets do have a place in language learning, more as a way of assessing information learned than actually learning new information. New information seems to be best learned via meaningful, comprehensible input. But if you want to find ways to further hone your understanding after the lesson is learned, worksheets aren't a waste of time. Are they?

When I think more deeply about the ‘W’ Word, I realize I operate often on the assumption that worksheets become more acceptable the older the student becomes. Kids should be running around and using manipulatives; teens should be synthesizing information, crafting ideas, and... sometimes doing worksheets to more deeply engage with the material. Yet when I ask myself why, I'm struck by the fact that in my entire undergraduate English and graduate Latin degree, I don't think I ever once was given a worksheet. We wrote compositions, gave presentations, and did research. The back-and-forth of a question-and-answer worksheet became a skill I used in the academic office, the RMV, and doctor’s offices.

So is it any wonder that the moment I decided to undertake the task of doing worksheets on Act III this week, I felt like I had returned to high school?

For this week’s assignment, I used the Latin comprehension questions on Act III, from Greg Stringer's Amphitryo worksheets, and tried to be my own best student. Yet immediately upon skimming the worksheets, I was wracked with the same rapid fire questions students ask teachers:

-Do I have to write in complete sentences?

-Do I answer in Latin or English (seems obvious, but one question was asked in English and gave me pause)?

and, one important voice pleaded from the recesses of my student brain:

-Can you please stay here with me while I work on it?

The last question has haunted me a bit. How often do we as teachers leave students to do worksheets alone when they'd feel more reassured doing it in class beside us, even if they didn't end up asking us questions?

I took a big breath, and read through question 1. Seemed simple enough.

Immediately, I was faced with a choice: do I try to answer in the same structure as the question (and therefore increase my chance of being "right") or try to answer in my own style, and risk getting it wrong? I’m pretty type A, so the former path appealed to me; but I also love verbal play, just babbling until I get it right. I felt stuck.

My professor Petrus pointed me in the direction of Meissner to make my Latin more idiomatic, and so far it's been helpful but only on the words I myself identify as "high risk." That is to say, sometimes my confidence in a phrase is exactly what keeps me from saying it best.

I went with Plautine word order, imitating the structure of the question, resolving to be more creative in future sentences once I got the swing of things.

And as I continued, I noticed I was publicly talking to myself. Yes, this grown woman was at a cafe accidentally babbling Latin under my breath, trying to work through the sentence that sounded the best. At least, that’s what happened when I paused before putting pen to paper.

The truth is, I’ve always been more of an Epimetheus rather than a Prometheus. During science labs in school, I preferred to just roll up my sleeves and learn on the go, rather than reading directions (not surprisingly, science was never my strong suit). In speaking Italian, I try not to ask for comprehension checks, and prefer to just get a sentence out and let my listener stop me if things don’t make sense. I’m an incredibly fast reader and if I don’t understand something, I tend to reread the passage quickly many more times, rather than read it slowly only one more time. I’m a rusher, not because I am overconfident or lazy, but because I like learning after, not before, mistakes.

If I were your student, how would you direct me to do worksheets? Multiple times until I get it right? Or to work in pairs in the hopes my partner will balance me out? Do you teach with the assumption that it is best to learn before or after mistakes?

I did end up finishing the worksheet, and got feedback from Greg the next day. Most of his corrections were exactly the kind of errors prevented by babbling or revising: putting verbs at the end of sentences, swapping “non iam” for “non etiam,” etc. But I do leave the process of Act III wondering which phrases I still need to make more idiomatic. Just because I think I am getting them right doesn’t necessarily mean they are right. So what I’ll do this time is do “sentence corrections” just like I assign my students. I’ll take in feedback on these questions from a few sources and rewrite the worksheet. But for now, quindecim sententiīs scriptīs, I’m ready to move on to Acts IV and V for next week.