Sunday, July 9, 2017

Making Worksheets Just Got a Whole Lot Easier

It was the early 1990s. I had just moved from a library clerking job (where only the guys were being sent to learn about computers and database building) to a job as library technical assistant in the academic library of a vocational college where I was guaranteed opportunities to learn computer skills. Mine was the noon to closing shift. Quiet evenings found me immersed in the many magazines that had been ordered to support students of courses ranging from robotics to nursing to secretarial.
My favourite magazine was about using WordPerfect; my favourite section was the macro of the month. These were the days when one still dealt with a DOS prompt to talk to others around the world using this crazy new thing called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). 

Macros fascinated me. You could copy lines of code from a page of the magazine into a special hidden 'backroom' area of the word processing software, then click a button and watch as seventeen keystrokes were executed in a 1.5 seconds. Without money for real database software, I controlled the entire magazine and DVD inventory using WordPerfect's mail merge feature. It was sort of like trying to build a house using Crackerjacks toys.

Such skills helped me get a better job. Soon I was office manager of a little independent bookstore where I wore many hats--from payroll clerk to A/P to A/R, shipping and receiving.
WordsWorth Books & Co. going away party for Kelly
In 1999 I moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Waterloo, insurance capital of Ontario. Insurance companies were hiring, so my versatile liberal arts degree once again came to my rescue. Soon I was roving the aisles of the computing section of the many bookstores in that university town, plunking down large amounts of cash for four-inch-thick 'teach yourself' books and John Walkenbach's book on power programming Excel using Visual Basics for Applications (VBA), which became my dog-eared bible. I took a course in basic database building in Access. Within five years I had changed jobs again and was using VBA to customize MS Word, Excel, Outlook and creating business tools for my coworkers and supervisors with lovely graphic user interfaces, pretty buttons to push to run reports, to print out insurance certificates, to calculate the age a client will be on the birthday nearest a policy's maturity date. My apps even had little pop-up messages to remind the user to put the special paper into the printer when it was time.

All of those quasi-technical office skills have served me amazingly well in my new field of English language teaching. But if you have ever made your own classroom materials in MS Word with tables or columns, you know that the application can be a bit cantankerous at times. Even if you know the magic way to see the invisible code that tells the software where to start a new page, a new paragraph, a bulleted list, or a set of columns, it can still be a product that many times leaves you pulling your hair out--especially if you're trying to whip something up right before class or late the night before. It's not terribly intuitive. Mastering it requires the memorization of the placement of scores of commands that are hidden within dozens of menus.

Here are some worksheets and games I use that were created using MS Word:

BINGO game card

Board Game from Val Baggaley

Word Map
Okay, now for the drumroll part. Having heard about the course on Twitter, I've just enrolled in Tony Vincent's course called Classy Graphics with Google Drawings. Oh, heavens, this is going to be a game-changer. It is going to revolutionize how I make classroom materials. I can already see that it's going to save time and is also going to vastly widen the range of possibilities for what I can create for my students or teach them to create for themselves. 

I'm only on week two of six, but here is a sneak peek at some things I've created so far.

In place of the word map above, here is a word map created in Google Drawings:
Now if you're not familiar with Google Drawings, you might not be aware of the vast difference between the two because the biggest difference here isn't in appearance so much in ease of creation and editing. If I want to change the Word version, I have to go into a convoluted menu system to do so. If I want to change the Google Drawing word map, I need only to grab edges and corners of shapes and drag them into their new spots. GD will tell me when something is perfectly centred. I can easily duplicate a box to get another and another of exactly the same dimensions. I can nest one inside the other. I can ask GD to align shapes for me, distribute them evenly. And this course is only just getting started.

Here are some other fun ways Tony has gotten us to play around with Google Drawings. In week two we learned about designing in black and white. I created some custom sticky notes (there's a template with light grey lines inside which you stick six bright sticky notes before printing your designs--minus the original grey guidelines--onto the stickies).
I can't really put into words how it feels finally to have the right tool at my disposal or how much time this is going to save me as a teacher who loves to create her own stuff. It is a bit like the experience of getting my first real database software package after three years of making do with WordPerfect's mail merge tools used as a database. Yeah, it could be done, but my penny wise pound foolish employer was paying me for five hours of labour for every one hour inventory management would have taken me had they just purchased me FoxPro or Dbase.

How about you? Have you ever used Google Drawings? Do you like it? Are you using your summer to take any online classes or attend any webinars? I would love to hear.


  1. Thank you Kelly, and Google, for releasing us from the tyranny of Word. Like you, I cut my teeth on the many amazing capabilities of WordPerfect and other Corel products which were amazingly user friendly for their time, and Word frustrates me beyond belief. I'm going to give Google Drawings a try!

    1. Christine,
      Yay! I'm so happy to hear that my experience has inspired you to try GD. One thing I should point out right away is that you'll want to start your drawing by changing the page setup to custom: 8.5 x 11 inches. Keep us posted on how you make out!

  2. Good Morning,

    I am sitting quietly doing gentle seat work this summer, and trying to mine the depths of google docs. I love the suite. I already have been convinced that google can help me manage all the paper work in ESL ( and there is a tonne more of it recently, right)but mostly I am excited that google makes it fun.

    There are lots of free tutorials on youtube that have helped me figure things out. I might take a course when I can concentrate more.

    Thanks for posting. I hope it encourages others to make the switch. I brag on the magic that google is all the time. Great app available any where you are for free. Whoever cooked this up to google deserves a raise.


    1. Toni,
      I agree someone deserves a raise. It's just crazy the lengths I used to go to in order to attempt to create attractive worksheets with supportive images in MS Word. I'm sitting here looking at one into which I imported some BitStrip characters.
      Enjoy, as I am, the excuse to sit quietly, move slowly, and take this summer at a mindful pace. -- K

  3. Hi Kelly,

    I love the snappy, fresh style of your layout and the articles are well-written! I'm looking for feedback on the blog I've just started, it's more casual with stories photos of "Canadiana" for my students who live overseas. C'mon over and check it out! I'd love a follow and a mention if you like what you find there. Constructive criticism is appreciated!