I've always had a very comfortable relationship with No. 2 pencils.
You are about to get really honest with yourself and no one else has to hear your confession. Begin by envisioning your workroom. Picture yourself standing in front of your copier right now. What color is the copy button? Where is the paper tray? Can you picture it? Good. Now here's the question: How many times have you messed up your copies? Maybe you've forgotten to remove the blue paper before printing need-to-be-on-white assessments? Or maybe you've selected one- to two-sided copies when you really meant two-to-two sided copies so you ended up with double-sided copies with only half of your pages? Perhaps you've even tried to copy paper with dark edges that stick to the roller and cause an operator-related error?
Now imagine that for every mistake you make, your office professional:
1. Makes you give her your shoe for the remainder of the morning;
2. Tells you that you can now have only 25 sheets of paper a day;
3. Forces you to ask a colleague to borrow paper; or
4. Gives you a lecture about respect and responsibility for the school's property.
What would you say?
It's pretty ridiculous to think that losing copies would lead us to be unable to use a tool that is crucial to our job, right?
Is it possible that the same thing happens with pencils every day in classrooms?
Of the four multiple choice distractors above, there is no best-fit answer. I've observed all of those consequences and exactly none of them helped a teacher focus more time on student learning.
Consider this vignette: The fifth-grade writing workshop opened by three kids walking up to the front to leave a shoe by the teacher's desk and taking a pencil from the can. One of the kids thumped loudly back to his desk, while another was teased because of the big hole in her socks. A few minutes into the lesson one of the kids was rummaging through her desk.
The teacher stopped and asked, "What's wrong?"
"Can't find a pencil," the girl replied, biting her lip.
"Then just give me a shoe." The student pointed out that the pencils were gone.
The teacher said, "This is my last one. If you lose this one, that's it. No more borrowing."
During work time another student asked his tablemates for a pencil. He told them he wasn't allowed to do the shoe-trade because he'd accidentally chewed on one of the teacher's pencils.
"Then no way you are going to chew on mine," a girl said.
There was a lot to talk about during the short debrief with the teacher, but before I could get to that I asked, "Could we just talk about pencils for a moment?" She admitted she'd been through many pencil plans this year. At the first of the year each of the kids arrived with 36 pencils to sharpen. She hated the sound of the sharpener so she bought small sharpeners for each table, but the shavings were everywhere. After that she had them using name-labeled erasable pens, but the erasers on those pens wear out pretty quick. Then she'd asked parents to purchase mechanical pencils thinking that was the way to go, but of course then the kids were having to borrow lead from each other. At this point of the year either the kids had used up, lost or eaten all their pencils so she'd purchased a few more boxes and instituted the shoe plan to make sure they returned them.
I laughed and said, "I remember the year I decided to Velcro students' pencils to the desks."
She looked hopeful.
"No," I said, "Didn't work. They walked away just like the other pencils did and Velcro is spendy. Then I decided to use string to connect pencils to desks like at offices."
She looked hopeful again.
"No," I said, "Kids wound their fingers up in the string. It was a total distraction. Plus I was spending my time attaching pencils to string."
"So what should I do?" she asked.
I explained that it seemed like the accountability for returning lost pencils was important to her, so why not create a simple checkout form instead of having kids remove shoes? We talked about if there were an emergency that having kids with shoes off was not a great idea. She liked the simple revision. I shared that by also having a sharp pencil bucket and dull pencil bucket, kids could pick up lost pencils around the room. By defining a time for a student or two to sharpen the dull pencils and transfer them to the sharp pencil bucket, she could take her time back and give more responsibility to kids.
"Every Friday you can have a pencil scavenger hunt." I shared. "Play one song and give kids time to find all the pencils in their desk and around their area. They place sharp ones in or on their desk ready for Monday and dull ones in the bucket."
"You should write an article about this," she said to me. When she saw my look she said, "No, I'm serious. No one has ever been reflective with me about pencils. I was just doing what my teachers had done and my mentor during student teaching."
I got her point. Because these are the tools we use throughout the day, it pays to have a simple, consistent system that doesn't get in the way of teaching and learning. Consider:
1. Does your pencil plan allow for students to lose pencils and have a dignified way to get another tool in their hand? (The way we might lose copies and then sigh and do a new set?)
2. Do all students know what to do with pencils they find?
3. Is there a set time for sharpening that doesn't impede the learning time? Have you designated enough time? (i.e. Do you often hear, "There aren't any sharp pencils" from students?)
4. Do students have periodic opportunities to look through their supplies and find long-lost writing utensils? (Short opportunities to help students organize and be ready to learn are best – music works wonders. One song is plenty.)
While in the opening quote William Styron has a comfortable relationship with pencils, not everyone does. Even with something as simple as pencils, it pays to have a proactive, respectful, simple, consistent plan in place to deal with the tools. And if all else fails and you want to make a teacher's day? Hand him or her a bouquet of sharpened pencils.