in praise of workbooks; or, how my life would be simpler as a fill-in-the-blank

One of my second-grade students rushed into class last week, quietly took her workbook out of her backpack, and placed it on the desk, flipping through its pages to show me that she had completed the entire thing in a week.

“I just got started and couldn’t stop,” she explained.

I totally get it.  I remember my second grade phonics workbook.  Between its oversized, green plaid covers were pages of vowel teams and consonant blends and simple rules about the silent e, all printed on gray and slightly pebbly newsprint.  Whenever I encountered a blank in a sentence, bare and tempting like the socket left behind after a lost tooth, there was a letter or word waiting in a box above to fix the problem.  I would try to make my clumsy elementary school handwriting mimic the publisher’s typeface, and at the end of the lesson I would look back over my  handiwork, pleased if the page looked uniform and neat.  Every i before e unless it followed c, every y changed to an i before I added -ed.

Middle school introduced the vocabulary workbook, a more compact text with a stylized pencil on the cover that offered the possibility — a thrilling one, for a word nerd like myself — that an exhaustive knowledge of the English language was impossible.  You just learned masticate and obfuscate, but next week promises pandemonium and bedlam.  The entire world of language was organized into multiple choice options, synonyms and antonyms, and analogies.

Every once in a while, I get nostalgic for the surface simplicity offered by workbooks.  During my last years of graduate school, nothing was so simple.  My argument refused to fit neatly into chapters.  My chapters resisted paragraphs.  The whole process really would have been a lot easier if it were a workbook assignment.  My introduction would include a sentence like, “This project argues that _______, which is a contribution to both childhood studies and _______.”  My advisors would offer a handy “Word Box” at the top of the page.  I would just chose the ideas that fit.

And I could certainly use a workbook exercise to handle the next few months–a summer of overlapping, demanding jobs and newly-minted-PhD anxieties.

“Below, see a picture of your life.  Circle the things that belong.  Cross out the pictures that don’t fit.”

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2 thoughts on “in praise of workbooks; or, how my life would be simpler as a fill-in-the-blank

  1. I used to hate phonics when I was a second-grader. I remember getting the chicken pox and being out of school for a week… having to make up a week’s worth of phonics worksheets all at once was torture to me. I cried my little eyes out before having to suck it up and do it.

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