Thursday, August 23, 2012

First year survival guide: Pencil wars

For the price of a daily cup of coffee (and a bit less than a daily Lexapro), here's a little advice that will go a long way to saving your sanity--buy pencils.

Antique pencil vending machine, via Showtime Auction Services

Everyone, everyone, knows the rule--bring a "writing utensil" to class. There are some variations--some teachers require certain types (the ol' Number Two vs. the I said black ink ballpoint pen)--but all have the same basic idea. Bring your tool.

I worked on the docks a long time ago. I worked hard, and I mostly enjoyed it, except when a boss got up my butt. The simplest way to slow down a job was drop a tool into the drink, which meant getting off the barge and retrieving another one, which meant 10" of sauntering. For a few moments, I had control.

I teach high school students--they know the rule. So what do you do with a child sitting with empty hands as class starts? First let's look at a few things that don't work.

Do not ask a child if she has a pencil--either she doesn't, which is pretty obvious, or she does and is keeping it hidden, and she's got other issues that need addressing, but not during class.* Just asking the question wastes time.

Do not ask a child if she knows the rules. She does. The whole freaking world does.But you go ahead and waste time explaining the rule anyway, which only makes you look ridiculous.

Here are the usual solutions, which all stink for various reasons:

Points off class participation:
If a child deliberately refuses to carry a pencil, well then, you'll show her! 

Stop for a moment and think about your logic--you're engaging in her battle, and docking points for a behavioral issue, not good. If a child simply forgot, you're docking points for an action that has not been cured by 10 years of formal public schooling--not likely you will affect any real changes.

Next time a colleague bums a pen off you, sneer at him. See how far that goes.

Giving the child a half-chewed used pencil with no eraser/stubby golf pencil/My-Little-Pony-style pencil:
Har, that's hilarious! Works even better with a loud announcement to the class about how this is the third time this year that Lynnea gets to use whatever crippled version of a pencil you're handing out.

Humiliation and blatant reminders of who has the power always works with mid-adolescent children so charged up with estrogen and testosterone they make the bulls of Pamplona look like kittens, no?

You can watch the other kids focus on Lynnea as she saunters into class again without a pencil. It's showtime! And you're the clown. The kids know this even if you don't.

Giving the speech:
"In the real world... blahblahblah.... responsibility..... blahblumblah... unemployment.... blahbityblap ...starvation...."

Eyes roll, class time is lost, and now you've elevated this into a crisis worthy of the International Criminal Court.** Pencil-less children ultimately end up prone drooling in city gutters, and our economy goes to pot. Just ask Arne Duncan...


The solution?

I tack a red Solo cup on my bulletin board stocked with a few freshly sharpened spanking new pencils. If you need one, take one. Put it back when you're done. And yes, a few kids forget, because that's what some do--but even they eventually put one or two back.

The cost? Maybe 3 pencils a day, less than half a cup of coffee.
The return? Fewer battles, more trust, and (dare I say it?) a happier classroom.

*I am not talking about major issues, which, of course, should always be dealt with immediately. Latest spat with BF usually doesn't count.
**Yep, too far over the top...which is, of course, the point.


Anonymous said...

Yay! Thank you for some sensemaking. I have even had other teachers tell me off: "You're not teaching responsibility." No, I'm not. Nor has anyone else in the last 9 years of formal schooling. What makes you think I'm going to do any better?
Regardless of what anyone thinks, my main job is to pass along some level of mathematical understanding, and it's really hard to do that when the least able have no pencil. Let's show them that the subject matter does matter!

Luann Lee said...

A few years back, I stopped at a garage sale and bought about 50 Star Wars pencils for a dollar. The woman was selling them because the her son felt it was inappropriate for him to have such pencils in the 8th grade. I bought them and put them out for my classes. These pencils were the pencils of choice for the seniors in Physics and AP Bio. One never knows. But always, always have pencils!

Philip Cummings said...

Hey Doyle. I'm with you. Most of my students start school with a box or two of new pencils and pens, which they go through quickly losing mot of them in a matter of a few weeks. I started suggesting they take out a few and give the rest to me. I store them in my room and tell the kids they can come get one anytime they want. They just walk into my closet and get one. The only catch is that they have to have contributed to our supply.

It's worked out really well and we haven't run out of community pencils since.

Jenny said...

As a parent and as a teacher I have learned, often the hard way, that picking your battles should be done carefully and thoughtfully. I don't always manage to do so, but I think I know enough to recognize when I fail.

John T. Spencer said...

Thank you! I follow the same approach. For me, it's a Scorpion cup (our mascot) in the supply center (a space once inhabited by a teacher desk that now has all the supplies out in the open). I also let them grab a sheet of paper while they're at it. The average class has two, maybe three kids, who need paper. A package of paper is pretty cheap.

On average, I have to buy pencils once a month. That's not exactly an expensive solution.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

Focusing on what we're here for makes all the difference to me. I've heard that responsibility line, too--and they're right! I'm teaching kids!

Dear Luann,

Geekiness is always a plus in science class--and my AP kids get downright silly about these kinds of things. My bottom line is this: if it's a pencil I won't use, I won't give it to someone else.

Dear Philip,

I love that idea! Do you keep track of who gives what, or just trust the community?

Dear Jenny,

Picking battles is critical, for me, anyway--I used to look for them. I was so naive just a few years ago.

Dear John,

I may have stolen the idea from you! (We have a paper pile, too--I get lots more at the end of the year when kids toss their stuff in the recycling bins.)

Anonymous said...

What would have happened if you failed to bring your proper equipment when you were a doctor? Why should it be any different with kids?

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous Number Two,

Ah, what if?

Happened all the time--and I'd reach over to a nurse or a resident and borrow her stethoscope, bum a pen, grab a tongue blade, etc.

21 years of schooling, and I still forgot to carry pens. And folks provided anyway, so I could get my work done.

I continue the tradition.

Mr. David M. Beyer said...

I like the way you laid out the argument for providing pencils. I do so in my classroom (6th grade, so it's a "pencil bin"). Most years I lose about 1000 pencils a year -- about 6 a day. Last year was an outlier: I went through 1784 pencils, my entire stock, and ran out in March! That's about 15 pencils per day. Doesn't change my plan; I'll keep giving out the pencils, and I've warned the 7th grade teachers that a pencil apocalypse is coming...

Kate said...

I have the pencil basket. It's is easy to keep stocked because I teach seventh grade, and pencils are left behind every class period. I don't always have to buy pencils; I harvest them!
(And I have a stack of lined paper right next to the basket.)

Anonymous said...

I'm the teacher who walks through the halls and picks up any viable writing utensil I can find. I have a cup on my desk that I fill periodically--but I will only actually buy two boxes of pencils a year. Period. Especially when I find pencils--brand new pencils--broken in half on my floor. Yep, they get the, "How are you going to solve this problem?" lecture from me when they come unprepared to class. Ask a neighbor, pray that I might have a pen or pencil in the cup, and learn to treat your materials with care.

P.S. I love the community pencils idea. I might steal that.

Anonymous said...

Enable them all and they will always be dependent us. Seniors in high school that still need their noses wiped and when they decide to get a real job, they might be surprised by real life. Forgot your assignment... Here are the answers. Forgot your coat... Here's one. Can't fing your car keys take mine. I make plenty, I'll just keep buying you pencils and all will be be right in your little corner of the world.

Joy Kirr said...

Love this post!
I go one step further... I wrap pens/pencils in floral tape and attach a flower to the end of it. I then have a pot full of "flowers," and these are for use in the room. I also have a mug of utensils I've found in the halls or on the desks and new pencils for anyone to take and keep. Some years it is full, and other years I have to restock often. It just makes sense! Thanks for the comedy this morning, too!

doyle said...

Dear David,

If you think about the number of students doing the writing that they're doing, then a thousand pencils doesn't seem like a lot.

I have about 100 students per day for 183 days, so that's just over 5 pencils per day, and about 5% of pencil consumed per day, about a quarter in per day (assuming that once it gets to 2.5 inches, it's done).

I think far more of my pencils are actually used than lost.

Dear Kate,

I have lined paper available, too--but I figured talking too much largess int he classroom would annoy some of my readers. =)

Dear Joy,

Sounds like a great idea! I may steal this--maybe I'll use real flowers, too.

doyle said...

Oh, and Dear last Anonymous,

Ah, the ol' slippery slope slide into the septic tank of's just a pencil.