Worksheet Busters

Revitalizing teaching and learning with engaging activities

By: Katie Powell


It's Monday morning. You're refreshed after a weekend spent with your family, your favorite fuzzy socks, and an unashamedly impressive amount of streaming content. You're excited about your lesson plans. You've arranged your room just so, maybe with some special decorations to set the stage. You've carefully arranged all the materials. Your bell ringer is pulled up, you have upbeat, curse-word-free music playing, and your fashionable shoes aren't pinching your toes. You've planned interaction, tech integration, and a check for understanding so you know who you need to meet with tomorrow. Today, you rock.

And then you've got to do it again Tuesday.

And Wednesday.

And Thursday.

And by then, you're tapped out. Your coffeemaker is on the fritz, brewing rust-colored water instead of coffee, spurting it across your counter—and your dress shirt—as you rush out the door. Your family time has been spent shuttling one kid to soccer, another to theater, and entertaining the other while getting the hole in your tire patched since your car knows exactly when you DON'T have time for this kind of thing and has conspired with the coffeemaker to make your life as difficult as possible.

You gave up on the fashionable shoes and switched to tennis shoes by Tuesday afternoon. You're running late from your morning staff meeting, so you sacrifice your bell ringer so you have the chance to stop by the bathroom before the kids arrive. Six kids were playing four different games during class yesterday, so you've locked the computers down and want to pretend it's 1983.

You gave up on checks for understanding when Tuesday's small groups turned into a contest in which the students you needed to work with and the rest of the class competed to see who could be off-task in the most creative ways possible. Today ... today you are knee deep in The Thursday Problem.

We've all been there. Sometimes we have precisely the right activity for the objective and we can craft a truly memorable and valuable learning experience. But other times, for a variety of reasons, we find that our lesson plan amounts to "page 47."

We ALL want to be great teachers. We take this role very seriously. And we are measured by increasingly challenging professional standards that mandate we pay close attention to student engagement. In my state, our professional rubric describes a master teacher as engaging 75% or more of the class in deeply active learning experiences at all times.

That's a tall order.

When you find yourself facing The Thursday Problem, Worksheet Busters may be just the thing you need. Worksheet Busters are activity frameworks that turn any worksheet or question set into memorable, engaging learning experiences. Worksheet Busters can be adapted for ANY content at any time. Many require no special materials. All are easy to make or set up. And all bring added depth and value to traditional worksheets.

And they're fun.

If students are having fun, they are interested, connected, engaged. The walls they've built against school and learning come down. They may even start to LIKE school. And we know great things follow that. It's about creating the ideal conditions for meaningful engagement.

Fun is a tool. It's effective. But it's not the end goal.

So, in addition to being fun, Worksheet Busters are deep. They take the original experience of whatever worksheet you start with and drive the learning deeper, requiring higher-order thinking skills or a whole different depth of knowledge. In other words, massive learning bang for your very little or non-existent buck.

If you have nothing but a worksheet (or any question set, vocab list, etc.), you have all you need for Paper Airplanes, Musical Desks, Speed Dating and more. To play Paper Airplanes:

  1. Have students put their name on their worksheet and do the first problem.
  2. Then have them fold their worksheet into an airplane.

Yes, an airplane.

  1. Students stand. At your signal, they throw their airplane.

Take a moment to look around the room. You'll notice something about your students at this point. (Hint: it involves a strange phenomenon in which students' mouths turn up at the corners, possibly revealing their teeth.)

  1. Students grab the nearest worksheet and do the next problem.
  2. Repeat steps 2-4 until the end of playing time or the worksheet is finished.
  3. Students get their own worksheet back and evaluate all the answers on it, deciding if they are correct and making changes as necessary. This brings a deeper level of thinking to a traditional worksheet.

Musical Desks also requires nothing more than a worksheet or question set and a little music (preferably of the curse-word-free variety). There are many different ways to play. To use Musical Desks with open-ended questions:

  1. Put one open-ended question on a piece of paper. Place one paper at each desk.
  2. Crank some tunes.
  3. Students walk (or dance) through the room until you stop the music.
  4. Then they sit at the nearest desk and answer that question.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4. As students sit at desks where the question has already been answered, they extend their answer with their own thoughts, prove the answer with more evidence, argue against it, even prove it wrong. Students are engaging in written conversations with each rotation.

For Speed Dating, divide your class in half. Give half a question and half an answer from a worksheet and answer key. Arrange the students in circles facing each other. Then:

  1. Pairs discuss their question and answer and determine if they're a match. If not, they hypothesize what question or answer they go with.
  2. Keep the time tight. Rotate students to a new partner right before they'd be done with their conversation. Like true speed dating, you want to keep the sense of anticipation and urgency high. Repeat.
  3. If students are rotating with a copy of the worksheet, they can write answers with their partner as they come up with them. But even without a worksheet, students can still engage in meaningful discussion.

Students discuss Hungry Hippos questions
If you're willing to spend a few bucks on a bag of ball pit balls*, you can do even more. Hungry Hippos is a Worksheet Buster with many variations. Here's one way to play Hungry Hippos:

  1. Cut apart a worksheet or question set.
  2. Tape one question to each ball.
  3. Have students draw out a ball and discuss their questions (or write answers on paper).
  4. Return the balls and repeat.

To really up the ante, try letting the kids come up with the questions. They can write them directly on the balls with dry erase markers, deposit their ball, then draw a different one out to take back to their seat and discuss. *Middle school students tend to have trouble with the word "balls." I suggest the euphemism "learning spheres" instead.

When you can craft a learning experience perfectly suited to your objective, do. But when you find yourself facing The Thursday Problem (even if it's Monday), Worksheet Busters are a sanity-saving way to engage your students in deep, meaningful learning. And they'll want to come back for more tomorrow.

These Worksheet Busters, including many variations of each, and more are available at www.teachbeyondthedesk.com.


Katie Powell is a sixth grade reading and ELA teacher in Indiana. After serving as a special education teacher, Title 1 teacher, and instructional coach, she developed Worksheet Busters to be applicable to any content without sacrificing teachers' already limited time or money. Katie serves on AMLE's On-site Professional Development team.
Katie.Powell@southmont.k12.in.us
@Beyond_the_Desk

Published January 2019.

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