"Mr. Johnson, are pictures more real than reality if we just forget reality after it happens anyway?"

"What do you think?"

"I think a picture is more real, since it doesn't change."

"What about memory?"

"Your imagination gets in the way of reality."

Imagination. Imaginary.  Root word: Image.


Make believe.  Make belief.  

We are living in a world just beginning to shift from a print to an image culture.  We create imagery.  No, we capture imagery, letting imagination believe it is less important or less real or less true than the snapshot flash of a camera. 

But we also create images; spinning truth and reality to improve the image we try and maintain with the vain hope of masking our mortality.  

Graven images.

I spent an hour retouching a photograph I'll use in my pen pal network.  

It might capture reality, but I feel less real than I did an hour before when I broke bread with my wife and daughter.  (Okay, I had to break the bread into really tiny pieces for her, but it was still breaking bread)  When I share the sense of confusion in sketching out a pencil-based image of myself, my wife reminds me that it is human.

"Tom, we hide.  We stay out in the open.  We hide again.  Social context, language, clothing - these are all a part of the natural desire to create that element of self that we experience so deeply."

"It just seems like we lost something human in the process." 

"No, our technology, our tools, our language, culture . . . those are what make us human.  The need to develop an image is the root of imagination.  It's what makes us who we are.  It's pictographs on cave walls and hierogliphics on pyramids and stained glass on cathedral walls.  The tools might change, but the sense in which we create an image or capture an image and then call it reality . . . that is a part of what makes us human."  

My daughter paints a monster.  It's real, or at least it is real to her.  I retouch a photograph.  My wife quilts a blanket.  True, we might be moving toward an "image culture."  However, let's not kid ourselves.  We have always been image-based.  It's just that the tools change in how we express imagination.  Yet, whether we conjure up a new vision or try and rethink our public memory, it is always an act of imagination.  

Imagination.  Image.  Imago.

"Imago Dei," she reminds me as I slowly slide the air shudder and watch the silhouettes fade into darkness.  Even now, as I embrace her beneath our comforter, I am experience at once the empirical reality of her warmth and conjuring up images of that moment she walked down the aisle. Even when we are laid bare, in our most vulnerable moments, we are still bound by our images.

Tech Masks

"Sorry I'm late.  Some idiot in a horseless carriage cut me off and spooked my horse a bit," I tell Paul the Preindustrial Poet when we meet for coffee.

"I know what you mean.  I was cut off by a mustang this morning.  You know the type that a guy gets in his mid-life crisis.  I was walking down the street and he just cut me off."

"I guess I'm just in a bad mood.  Some anonymous guy wrote told me that I'm going to Hell."

"On your plog?"


"It seems like people use technology to hide.  It's like it becomes a mask.  Whether it's cutting you off in a horseless carriage or being vindictive in a plog or bumping their phonograph loud enough that the whole neighborhood hears.  They wouldn't cut you off in person or shout at you in a room or shout a song so loud that the whole city hears.  It's like the technology becomes a way to hide."

"Is it really masking anything?'

"What do you mean?"

"I understand that it's unpleasant.  I get that.  And I understand that people use technology to hide.  Or they forget the human side behind it.  But cutting people off, making mean comments and the like - isn't that simply a part of the human condition?"

When a Child Hates Pencils

I have a student who walked into class the first day and began biting on the pencil nervously and eventually he simply snapped it in half, leaving shards of our beautiful crisp medium on the floor.

At this point, I am supposed to send him to the office, send a telegram to his mother and begin the "step process" to eventually isolate him entirely from learning.  Except, the school system is precisely the cause of his problem.  I know it sounds bizarre, but the boy hates pencils.  Not pencils, really, but writing and his hatred of writing has little to do with a hatred of language or expression or anything that naturally flows into writing.

See, Josiah has spent the last three years giving almost no effort in writing and in response, he has received huge block letters with the words FAIL.  It's not that he had the chance to write anything substantial anyway.  In an effort to create a 20th Century factory-style education, his teacher used isolated-skill worksheets (the name says it right there - they aren't "think sheets") and he grew weary of being bribed with colorful stamps and peppy praise.

Pencils were not used for learning, but for working.

Then, we he began acting up, teachers sent him to another classroom as part of the Shame-based Oppositional Behavior Process (or SOB Process), where he had to copy words out of the dictionary or write "I will not be a class fuck-up" repeatedly.

Want real education reform?  Buy pencils, yes.  Purchase some crisp new paper as well.  However, nothing will change in student learning until we get over a system of bribes and extortion.

Our principal encouraged me to keep Josiah away from pencils until he was "mature" (as if a pencil was something one has to mature into) and has "proven that he can earn the privilege of using them again."  I ignored his advice and handed Josiah a new pencil the second day of school.  I told him he could draw, write poetry, tell a story, whatever.

"Will I get a stamp?"

"No. I don't do stamps."

"A letter?"

"No letters here either."

"Then why should I do this?"

"I write because I have something to say.  I draw because I want to create.  I can't control it.  There's something in me that propels me to draw."

"Will you read it?"

"Yep.  I'll even write comments and on some parts I'll ask you to do an assignment I choose.  I'll make some corrections.  I'm still your teacher.  But my goal is feedback, not judgement."

He tears a page out of the journal, writes a poem about wanting to fly and then creates an origami flying dragon with the poetry written on the wings.  It's beautiful and quirky and it didn't happen because of letters or stamps or peppy praise.

I Banned Pencils Today

I see the need for all types of media in my classroom.  I have fought the battle to expand our band width so that my students can use phonographs without running into the tuba players.  I have fought to avoid the term "pencil bullying" and to use tablets and pen pal networks in class.  

Yet, in math today we banned the use of paper and pencil.  

I asked students to find the area of a volume of a cylinder that is twenty inches wide and twenty inches tall.  I watched students fidget for awhile before realizing that they would have to solve this using a cerebrum rather than a slate or a paper.  

No manipulatives.  No paper.  No slates. No chalk.  Just a mind.  It took awhile at first, but eventually every child answered it and then shared their process with partners.  

Having tools is a part of being human.  I never want to deny that.  Yet, I also want to recognize that we have the power to abandon our tools and use our highly evolved minds.  I ask students to do mental math because I want them to see that their brains are powerful in and of themselves.    

Thanks EDM 310

I normally post responses to people's comments, but life has gotten crazy-busy lately.  So, I want to direct this at Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class in general:

Thank you for all the positive feedback.  It is always encouraging to get compliments, que stions and insightful responses from readers.  I know that my blog was a "required reading," but it often felt from the responses that people were reading this not simply out of a desire to get a grade, but in an honest desire to think about education.  There were plenty of times when I considered scrapping this bizarre, satirical, often clunky little blog, but your comments helped reshape how I chose to approach writing this.  So, again, thanks to all the folks who are reading this blog.

-John Spencer

My Eduplog Nominations

I am doubtful that anyone will nominate Tom Johnson's Adventures in Pencil Integration, seeing as how there is no 19th Century Satirical Blog category (and it really can't be called "new" if it takes place back in the day).  So, with that in mind, I am doing a post about the Eduplog Awards of 1897.

Eduplog Award Nominations - 1897

Best Individual Plog: This was a hard one, but I'm having to go with Waldo's Pond.  I love the way he takes up Thoreau's notion of finding a pond and thinking about life.  The combination of poetry, sketches and thoughtful reflection make this a truly literary education plog.

Best Individual Tweaker: With the explosion of opium dens and the use of cocaine in medicine, I'm a bit shocked that anyone would ever glorify the concept of a tweaker. Shame on you, Eduplog!

Best Group Plog: Caravan to the Valley does a great job creating a satirical plog mocking William McKinley's Caravan to the Top.

Best New Plog: Theodore Grant's Losing My Sideburns deals not only with what it's like to be a new teacher who must shave his sideburns and dress professionally, but also what it means to completely lose one's former identity in becoming the "man in charge" at this one room schoolhouse.

Best Class Plog: I'm Down with Brown. It's a brilliant plog dealing with social class issues throughout this current Spanish-American War. Topics such as marginalization and racist language (hence the brown) . . . oh, what's that? Wrong use of the word class? Oh well, I'll keep it up anyway.

Best Resource Sharing Plog: 20th Century Learning Resources - George has a way of finding all the resources that are necessary for the Industrial Age and locating them in a daily paper. Nice work, George! Where else will I find the 18 Ways to Integrate Origami into Daily Paper-Based Instruction?

Most influential Plog Post: We Are the Factory. I love the notion that in creating this current modern factory model, those of us who are complicit in it become the factory itself.

Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion: I almost went with the meadowlark on this one, but I'd have to say the robins at Steele Park.

Best Teacher Plog: Learn to Serve. I love the way Ruth gets her children to serve without feeling coerced or falling into the overly progressive trap of "let's go fix the world."

Best Librarian / Library Plog: Mary Emerson's Damn Dewey's Delightful Decimal System is a mildly irreverent description of the life of a lonely librarian with a keen sense of alliteration and irony.

Best School Administrator Plog: I Assist in Intending, in a Super Kind of Way is an honest, funny and often bizarre portrait of an assistant superintendent of a small rural district.

Best Educational Tech Support Plog: A Sketchy Solution has saved me on many occasions when I simply couldn't figure out how to fix a pencil.

Best eLearning / Corporate Education Plog: Thomas Edison's Education Funhouse might be a bit overly corporate, but come on, it's Thomas Effing Edison, guys! The man who invented (or had other people working for him who invented) the light bulb - the very symbol we will forever use when drawing clip art pictures of people with an idea. If we're going to have corporate buyout of education, let's at least keep it entertaining in the process.

Best Educational Use of a Phonograph: Can You Hear Me Noun? is genius in the way it captures both the limitations and the strengths of the phonograph and the human voice in education and grammar in particular.

Best Educational Use of Motion Pictures: Check Out Some Skin! I realize the marketing on this one failed, with many patrons assuming it would be a peep show. But regardless of the box office dud, this was a real hit with my classroom. Who knew the epidermis could be so fascinating?

Best Educational PowerSlide: How PowerSlides Lost Their Power is a self-mocking PowerSlide making use of everything we dread when we hear the first rumbling of that Edison projector: comical typeface, cheap stock photography, entire paragraphs on one slide. You get the idea.

Best Educational Use of a Social Network: Ray's Cafe. Just go there sometime and try the pie or the pi. Either way, you'll never have enough. People connect in a deep social network on a daily basis.

Best Educational Use of a Virtual World: Isn't that precisely schooling already is? A dark virtual world with draconian discipline all in the name of the "real world?"

Just Teach Them To Solve for X

A few people have asked me to keep posting to this blog instead of just consolidating.  So, I'm keeping this bad boy around, but I'll start posting these to my other blog as well. Incidentally, before writing this post (or looking at any comments on blogs), I created a video yesterday that is on my personal blog today dealing with this issue of metaphor. I want to assure you that none of this is ever meant to demean, disrespect or insult anyone - just provoke thought.   

Gertrude the Cognitive Acquisition of Newly Developed Youth Learning Achievement of National Data (CANDY LAND) Specialist approaches me in mid-lesson.

"Your schedule says 'math block' right now and I see your students sketching pictures."

"They're creating metaphors for the concept of 'x.'  So, they start with the picture and then describe the process using the metaphor."

"Why not just teach them to solve for x?"

"I want them to understand how variables work.  Most of them have no idea that 'x' isn't simply a magical number, but actually an independent variable.  If they can't understand how 'x' is used, how will they understand how it is used in life?"

"Look, I see kids drawing pictures of tools and bridges and revolutionary figures.  Why not just teach them to define and use 'x' instead?"

"Metaphors are how we as humans make sense out of the abstract.  It's the bridge between pure abstraction and the concrete, terrestrial reality we experience.  It's used by children and philosophers alike to grapple with a complex universe."

"I don't mind when you have the students replace the slates with paper, Tom.  That's fine with me.  I get it. They can go back and look at previous work."

"Yes, but you miss the full potential of paper when we simply duplicate how we used it with slates.  The genius of paper is how we can use it to construct knowledge rather simply copy processes."

"Your job is to teach them truth.  Cold, hard reliable truth.  Metaphors are messy and muddled and confusing - like a scavenger hunt through a swamp. It should be like clockwork.  Mechanical.  Bits and pieces as clear as day."  I find it odd that he uses two or three metaphors himself to make sense out of his own theory of knowledge.

"What if learning is messy?  What if confusion is the process that leads to clarity?  What if simply memorizing a computational practice does little help students understand how a variable works?"

"Are you arguing that we should make math more confusing?"

"The world's greatest teachers were often confusing.  They understood that truth involves metaphors."

"Like who?"

"Let's start with Locke, Rousseau, Plato, Erasmus, Jesus."

"You aren't Jesus, Tom."

"Good point."

"Look, it's just that metaphors are dangerous.  There's too much room for confusion."

"That's exactly why we need them.  Life is dangerous.  Learning is dangerous.  A bad metaphor can launch a war.  I want my students to know this.  I want them to see that language shapes our perceptions of reality."

New Book Cover

Here's an initial idea for the book cover.

This Blog Is Moving

In an effort to consolidate blogs, I have decided to move this blog to my Spencer's Scratch Pad blog.  I will keep this blog open, but all new posts will be available on my other blog. If you are a blog follower, I encourage you to follow my other blog.  If you are a subscriber, I encourage you to subscribe to my other blog.

Sketchy Portraits: 8th Grade Identity and Pencils

Despite its versatility, few people respect the pencil.  While we talk admire the permanence of ink, we use "pencil me in" with a certain sense of derision.  It's temporary.  It's gray.  For all its graphite glory, it seems immanently practical and yet always tentative, always questioning, always mysterious, always meandering through shades of gray.

My students are at that age where the pencil becomes their own metaphor.  Few of them can articulate it, but they relate to the medium itself.  I watch students sketching pictures and delicately smudging the graphite in order to create value and texture and shading.  A simple circle turns spherical.  An abstract face turns fleshy.  Perhaps I'm overstating the case, but my eighth graders embrace the power of to create and to destroy and to wander in this mystery while they still can.

A fourteen year old yearns for freedom and yet still clings to the safety of childhood.  At one moment, she might be lashing out at the world and demanding autonomy and yet in the next, she is wounded by its darkness and crying in pain.  This ebb and flow, this graphite confusion, is true of even the "best behaved" of the bunch.

It's sketchy.

It's permanent and temporary.

It's change, constant change, sometimes in smooth lines and sometimes in wild, dark jagged edges.

A first grade teacher pulls me aside and complains, "William was mouthy."

"What happened?"

"I asked him why he was here and he said, 'We're all trying to find that out.  Isn't that the point of life?' and so I asked him again and he gave me attitude again."

"So what did you do?"

"I told him that he couldn't have his pencil out during school."


"And he said that school was out and so I told him that he was still on school property and he said that school wasn't a place, it was the people and the ideas.  Otherwise you wouldn't have to do homework, since the physical space doesn't hold any magical powers."

I laugh at this response. She shows me her Teacher Death Stare.

"What did you do next?"

"I told him that this was no way to talk to a teacher and that he can be paddled for it if we need to go there."

"I don't blame you for being angry.   Eighth graders can be disrespectful.  What she doesn't undrerstand is that their misbehavior often confuses themselves.  They are moody, emotional and experimental.  They are testing the boundaries of humor and social interaction.  Everything in their world has gone from black and white to gray.  They feel penciled in and a part of them embraces this change and yet each child is scared and lonely as well."

"I just don't get them.  They can be so rude," she adds.

"The thing is that little kids are just as rude.  They give unexpected hugs, ignoring the rules of space.  They interrupt you when they are excited.  Some of them still lack the ability to fart silently. And they yell in those squeaky little voices of theirs."

"But they can't help it.  That's their age."

"Same with fourteen year olds.  In a fourteen year old's mind, just about everything is temporary and everything is changing and honestly that's a major part of the disrespect.  They want to be treated like kids and adults."

"I don't get it. It has to be one or the other."

"Or both."

It strikes me that I have been shaped by the students I teach.  I embrace the mystery.  I accept the duality.  Somewhere deep within, I get the yearning for freedom.  I've learned to navigate the comments and use them as a chance for student self-reflection.

On the other hand, she accepts the rules and embraces the structure and understands that the literal and the permanent are so necessary for life.  In this moment, we fail to see one another.  She's writing the world in ink and I'm sketching it out in pencil.

He Just Likes the Class for the Pencils

I'm not the Nice Guy Teacher who hands out candy and offers free time (Isn't all education supposed to be an act of liberation?) and plays the pal at recess and lunch time.  I am strict.  I allow a large amount of freedom (we have tables instead of desks, where the students are allowed to eat and they may choose where to sit), but I will correct a child every time I see disrespect or laziness.

Somehow I get the reputation as the Nice Guy Teacher, though.  Thus teachers who have never visited my room often seem surprised by the lack of chaos and the serious demeanor that I have.  I want my students to enjoy learning, but I also want them to grasp the fact that it is a serious endeavor. So, I use some humor and try and develop a good relationship with them.  However, I expect full mental engagement.

I'm in a "behavior meeting," with a parent, a child and three other teachers.  Under the guise of "finding solutions," each teacher blames and shames until the boy cries. (Occasionally teachers will actually delight in this, believing that shame leads to a change in direction, when, in fact, it leads to perfectionism, rebellion and ultimately hedging your bets and wearing masks so that no one ever knows you)

"He's doing well for me.  I teach all the subjects except for the electives," I explain.

"That's only because of the pencils," another teacher says.

"I really think it's because he and I have found a way to get along," I add.

Another teacher says, "I wish I had a set of pencils.  Maybe he would behave for me.  I know he loves pencils.  I guess we can't all have it our way."

"I'm not sure the pencils are the thing that makes it meanin. . ."

"Don't get defensive, Tom.  He loves your class for the pencils.  At least he doesn't interrupt you with stupid questions. In gym class . . ."

His voice trails off and I check out.  Turns out this meeting was meant to shame and blame me. What he doesn't realize is that pencils will be exciting for a day.  Any new technology is like that.  We have a phonograph that the students fell in love with for a week.  We have access to a telegraph that we use on occasion.

Ultimately, though, it is about trust and purpose.  This child trusts me, because I don't shame him.  In fact, the one time I yelled at him, I apologized and he responded with humility and strength.  He trusts me, because I know him and I know him, because I take the time to listen.  This child sees meaning and purpose in what we do in class.    I try not to waste his time with meaningless work and in return he doesn't waste my time with meaningless chatter.

None of that requires a pencil.

When the meeting is over, the teachers walk out first.  The child is sitting with his face buried in his hands, tears streaming down.  An angry mother sits beside him.

As he gets up to leave, he says, "I don't just like your class for the pencils.  I like pencils.  But I like your class because it's fun.  No, sometimes it's really boring and, I don't know.  I don't know why I like your class, but it isn't just the pencils."

"I know," I tell him.

The Medium Shapes the Learning

My students toured one of Edison's film studios.  They saw firsthand how something so lifelike is actually a production.  


The filmmakers chop up bits and pieces of captured, vital life and reproduce it into something new.  

It's magic to us. We're mesmerized by the dancing light and the larger-than-life figures haunting us in their "not-really-here but not-really-gone" since of permanence.  Everything is smoother, grander and more seductive than the terrestrial reality of a school yard.

Yes, I know it is about light hitting a photograph and moving.  "Motion picture" sounds tame.  But given the nature of light, the paradox of ray and particle, I can't help but see the magic of the motion picture.  When they perfect the art of phonography, we'll have talking motion pictures.  Perhaps a century from now we'll have it all at the palm of our hands - the ability to pick apart and edit life and present it as something new and magical.  

*     *     *

"Why can't we get a film studio on campus?" a student asks me.  

"I'm not sure about the medium," I tell him.  

"So, just teach like you normally would and add some motion picture parts.  I bet it would be fun. Imagine what we would produce."  



I'm thinking of the Roman notion of bread and circus.  I always assumed bread was the more powerful element.  I'm now understanding the pull of circus.  It's not that I am opposed to fun, per se.  It's just that often "fun" is the cheap replacement of "intriguing" or "meaningful" or "beautiful" or "life-changing."  Edison's studio is, in fact, a fun factory.  I cannot and should not reproduce it.  

*     *     *

Educators often believe that they have the power to wield each tool to fit their own purpose.  They assume that a lesson can remain virtually unchanged when a new medium is added.  Often, the metaphor is one of a tool - though, they would never use a tool in this way.  Who would ever say, "We need to screw this in with a hammer?"  

There is something inherently dangerous about taking every technological device and applying it to learning without ever asking the intended meaning of a medium.  A pencil, for example, is inherently individual, deliberately vague (shades of gray, ability to erase), intellectual, portable and text-based.  A film is, by contrast, visual, collective, emotional, geography-bound, visual and non-linear.  

If I begin with a lesson plan and simply pick a tool based upon "fun" or "productivity" or "student engagement," I am running the risk of teaching something entirely unintended.  If I introduce a telegraph as a source of knowledge, we send an implied message that knowledge should be portable, consumable and in small increments. 

I am not opposed to adding new tools to learning.  I simply want us to recognize that whatever tools we choose will reshape learning in ways that we often fail to recognize.

How I Got Roped Into a Satirical Workshop Presentation

We all had to fill out a sheet of paper (you should have seen the complaints teachers made about having to use pencils in professional development) describing what type of workshop presentation we want to deliver in our monthly district professional development.

I don't mind the notion of a monthly professional development, despite the reality that the best skills I have learned occurred in a relational context, within the process of teaching and only among a small number of people.  That and it usually involved a pint or two.

I simply don't have anything to teach, which makes it a dangerous venue for me.  I play Icarus with the group and take the wings they offer me and then sail beyond my area of expertise.  I get arrogant.  I put on an act.  It's not that people dislike it.  In fact, they are often enjoying the show.  It's just that it's dangerous for me when I fall into the sea and I'm left in isolation to tread water with my arrogant self.

So, when I filled out my application, I wrote the following answers as a joke:

1. What is the most important element in a thriving economy?
The human element.

2. What do business leaders use to create economic growth?
They use humanity.  All of us.  Those who figure out how to manipulate people learn how to manipulate systems and create revenue for personal gain.

3. What is the most necessary skill needed in an industrial economy?
For those at the bottom, it is obedience and conformity.  To those at the top, it is figuring out how to get people who are naturally inclined to freedom and individuality to sacrifice these ideals to serve the needs of the company.

Yeah, I realize it had an anti-capital streak to it.  I'm a bit of a civil libertarian myself.  More of a Thoreau  than an Emerson than a Marx or a Tolstoy. (Though I was involved in the Haymarket Square protests back in the day)

Then again, it was a joke.  So, I was a bit surprised when I received the telegraph explaining that they would love me to give "The Human Element" as a PD explaining the dangers in being obsessed with education-for-job-growth and missing out on the notion of education-for-life.  Perhaps I could even go in character as a representative of a robber baron and force the audience into deconstructing the satire.

It will be interesting.

I'm thinking "The Human Element: Ten Ways to Teach Students to Use People for Personal Gain."  I heard people love lists and numbers at PD.

No, I Won't Address Pencil Bullying

"Mr. Johnson, I think you need to talk to your class about pencil bullying," a district office representative explains to me.

"Can you elaborate on this?"

"Well, there was an incident where a student pinned up a note on the wall of another students' home."

"Was the wall private or public?"

"It was private, I suppose. But the point is that it was a clear act of pencil bullying."

"So, what would you like me to do about it?" I ask.

"Talk to your class about the severity of pencil bullying.  Let them know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated."

Zero tolerance.  Bad behavior.

We're missing the point. Our lack of tolerance and militaristic mindset is part of what causes bullying.  When we fail to create a safe space for children, bullying increases. Furthermore, our obsession with behavior rather than the human condition only enhances the problem, because it fails to question why students choose to bully other students.

Is it the social capital they gain?  Is it their own insecurity?  Is it what they have seen modeled for them?  Is it the result of being bullied?

I don't have the answers to any of those questions.  However, I do know one thing: bullying is not a result of pencils.  Yes, a public note can amplify the bullying.  Yet, information spread verbally is just as devastating.   A rumor can move just as quickly as a pencil-based message.  However, it doesn't have a paper trail, making it stickier and more organic.

What if pencils do not change bullying so much as help us see that it is a part of the reality of childhood?  What if the paper trail is now the collective voice of all the students who live in fear on a daily basis? Is it possible that bullying is not a new trend so much as it is a part of our public memory that we have deliberately forgotten in order to perpetuate a myth of the innocence of childhood?  What if the deeper reality is that humankind can be dark, even at an early age?

Perhaps the answer isn't a classroom chat about pencil etiquette.  Instead, the answer might be that we truly ask what it means to be human and what it means to love one another in the context of community. Instead of obsessing over pen pal networks and sharpened pencils, we might want to think about the nature of humanity and the darkness that we all share.

As I leave his office, he hands me a stack of fliers and a curriculum for pencil bullying entitled "Let's Erase Bullying."  It has a smiling pencil giving a thumbs up.  I'm doubtful that peppy propaganda will change things.  I'm skeptical that Zero Tolerance will fix it as well.  In fact, I don't have the answers on how to fix it at all, but I suspect it might be more simple and more complex than we imagine.  It might just be that the only solution to "pencil bullying" is love.

Put the Pencil Down

The rainclouds gather and the class grows antsy in anticipation.  For all the brick and concrete and steel of the school, the natural element has a way of awakening something primitive in every student.  It's not that primitive is bad, either.  It's simply deeper, more human, more earthy and real than dividing fractions.

The claps of thunder disrupt my monologue.

I let go.

Students gather near the windows and watch, studying first the drops and then the hail.  A few brave souls venture outside and experiencing the pummeling of a lifetime, but the fist-fulls of atmospheric ice are a prize they relish.

"Is it safe to eat?" one asks.

A girl pulls out her paper and begins to draw.  Her twin sister slaps her hand away and says, "Not yet.  You can sketch later.  Right now we can watch."

A boy standing by our class camera takes the twin's advice and sets down the machine.

When we study conflict, we study Man versus Nature and Man versus Machine.  Today, though, we are watching Nature versus Machine and though the war may be lost, this battle belongs to the clouds.

How will people see us?

We take a few pictures with the Kodak we got last year.  The students keep a serious pose, because this is the Guilded Age, very serious times and all.  What with the rise of industry, might as well look industrious.

"Mr. Johnson, do you think people will confuse us when we're gone?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, when we're all dead, will people look at the pictures and get the wrong picture?"  Kids say some of the most confusing and morbid things.

"I'm still not seeing your point."

"I mean, after we're dead and our children are dead.  Not that we should be having children since we're children.   But generations from now, will people look back at the scowls on our faces and think that things were more serious back in the day?  I mean, will they think kids never through a paper or slammed a slate down or smiled when they hit a home run or told a joke?  Will the picture be telling a lie?"

"Like Jesus," another girl adds.  "It never says he smiled, but I don't know, I guess . . . I guess I just always pictured him smiling when the kids ran up to him."

I stop the class at this point as we discuss what we record, the artifacts we leave behind and the huge gaps that are missing in history as a result.  Sometimes it seems that technology itself creates a narrative of a whole people group and its an image, but a very incomplete image.  It's what society wants people to think of itself rather than who the people actually are.  It has me thinking that maybe that's the tragedy of technology and the pitfall of posterity.  It always leads to selective memory.

we still use slates

"What are these doing here?" a student asks.

"Yeah, they're slates.  You've used them, correct?"

"But this is a pencil classroom.  We have paper.  What are we doing with individual slates?"

I explain to my students that there are times when students will use paper and times for pencils and times for slates.

"But slates are so old school!" the student explains.

"True, but so is the human voice.  Don't we still discuss things in class?"

"I thought you believed in the twentieth century classroom?" the student points out.

"I believe in learning. Ultimately, that's what it's all about."

show and tell

I know that I teach older students and therefore Show and Tell seems a bit like child's play.  However, I allowed my students to choose one item and then use our snazzy new set of pencils to sketch the item and describe each one in a few paragraphs.  Students took home the paper and pencils, finished the activity and then brought the item into class.

At first, students were reluctant to talk about the items they had brought. In kindergarten, the children nearly bludgeon one another to death with their swaying hands and "ooh, ooh, ohh, pick me."  Yet, here I ran into a wall of apathy.  

"Why do we have to present if we can just publish this to our plogs and read about it?" a girl asks. 

So, I begin with my item.  I share the red rock from the western frontier where I was born.  I talk about how I kept it as a child so that I wouldn't forget it when we moved back to the flat, dull land of Kansas.  I mentioned what the land represented, how I had been shaped by the sense of the wild freedom out west and why I get depressed in this urban enclave when the smoke stacks and the gray terrain makes me feel trapped.

This opens the door for the students.  A boy shares a deck of cards that he used when his dad was in the hospital and since they had little in common to talk about, the cards became another language for them to speak.  A girl shares a stack of recipes her grandmother wrote out with the note, "This is my legacy.  Don't lose it.  I know you've committed this to your mind.  I know you will modify these meals to make them your own.  But if you ever feel yourself pulled to far by the city, look back at these recipes."  

When it's all over, a student says, "Why can't all school be show and tell?"  

It has me thinking that maybe he's right.  What if it was always this personal?  Or at least, what if there was always a personal element that they could hold onto in each subject?  And what if, instead of "judge and label," the model was "show and tell?"  What if the goal was to demonstrate their knowledge with a tangible item that they could show the world and talk about in a one-on-one conversation.

The beauty of pencils and paper is that it's permanent.  Sort of.  At least more permanent than a slate.  It's portable, too.  Kids can publish on plogs and write on shared documents.  What this means is that the potential for a classroom based upon show and tell becomes more feasible.  

Pencils, Progress and Perfection

Pencils often lie, erasing mistakes in the gray matter of memory, turning stories, once etched in ink, into new shades of half-truths.  Pencils promise perfection. Keep erasing the mistakes and slowly we evolve (or is it "descend with modification?") into something stronger and more efficient.  The word "efficient" is, in itself, deceptively inefficient with vowels and double letters reminding even the most ardent linguist that form sometimes trips up function.

I yelled at a student today after he told me to "fuck off." For the record, I don't think he literally wanted me to fuck off. He just wanted to win an imaginary battle he was having with me or with the system or with whatever the Universe throws at a twelve year old enough to cause an unprovoked "fuck you."  

I didn't "raise my voice."  I screamed.  Red faced, eyes bulging, monster in the classroom.  I scared him.  I scared the classmates.I scared myself.  When it was over I cried.  I think my crying scared him even worse.  Then I apologized. I think the apology was the scariest part. I get the sense he wants to believe that grown-ups aren't as vulnerable as this.  

Pencils promise perfection, but as long as I'm around, imperfection abounds.  If I were a sentence, I'd be a past progressive turned imperfect tense.  Always imperfect.  Sometimes tense. Pencils provide a mythology that the education factory can turn out a series of codified best practices and with just the right amount of training, we'll never screw up again.  

This evening, my daughter, now three, threw a temper tantrum when I tucked her doll in wrong.  I tried to comfort her, but she kicked me in the stomach and slapped my face.  I cried like a baby, feeling broken down by a broken world.  She stopped me and said, "It's okay, daddy.  It's okay."  I'm supposed to be strong here and prove that I'm her protector and here I am holding a child who gets angry for no particular reason and I cannot help her. "I love you even when you cry," she says. 

That's always the right answer. Not much is permanent anymore, but I'll etch that one in India ink. 

"I love you even when you're angry," I answer.  

I go to bed tired, but I'm not sleepy, so I light the gas lamp and pull out the paper.  Edison is promising to replace teachers with motion pictures and phonographs.  At some point, we'll have no purpose.  A lesson is much more efficient when produced by a corporation.  Some day learning will be customized to every student and teachers will be obsolete. Gray films, gray lines, gray matter expanding with the march of industry - a concrete tabula rasa etched with steel.  Either embrace the machine or become the machine. And I'm too tired and yet too resilient to do either. 

I am not a Teacher of the Year.  I am not an award-winning mega-star.  I will not have my picture on the gray print newspaper or star in a monochromatic motion picture.  But I'll be here, in my classroom, vulnerable and broken and ready to cry and apologize and forgive.  I can't offer progress.  I can't offer perfection.  But I can offer myself, inefficient, sometimes even ineffective, but always real.  

a pencil native story

Once upon a time, there was a group of pencil pioneers who pushed their way into the Slate Land and conquered it in the name of education.  All was well for the Pencil People, who changed the name from Slate Land to the rather uncreative Pencil Land.  In fact, they grew rather giddy over the prospects of raising Pencil Natives in this brave new world they had created.

So, they decided it wasn't important to show a kid how to use an eraser or use blending and shading.  In fact, it wouldn't be important that they learned how to write at all, because being a native automatically made one a perfect citizen immersed in the culture.

The Pencil Natives wandered aimlessly, never knowing how to use the tools of their own culture.  Some teachers pointed this out and wondered if these children had actually been born in Pencil Land at all.  They missed the reality that the Pencil Natives were comfortable with pencils and had, indeed, internalized the value system of a Graphite Globe.  They were creating a world that was ambiguous, confusing, gray.  They were erasing any remnants of history and replacing it with every-changing, bite-sized information.

Others said that the old folks were simply clueless and that they should delight in the fact that the Pencil Natives spent their days making paper gliders and paper balls and playing Hang Man instead of writing poetry.  After all, this was their world and we should learn from them. We should let them be our mentors and tutors and guides, because they knew more about pencils than the Pioneer Generation.

The two sized polarized the issue into a binary reality that missed the nuances of the argument.  Instead of asking, "How do we help Pencils Natives make sense out of a graphite globe?" or "How do we get Natives to criticize the tools they use and use the tools they criticize?"  they focussed on the question of, "Why aren't they getting it without our help?"  Instead of asking, "What does citizenship mean and how can pencils be used to sharpen critical thinking?" the adults obsessed for hours about whether or not pencils were luring in creepy outsiders.

So, the Pencil Natives grew up with the dual reputations of Saviors of the Graphite Globe and Dumbest Generation Ever and all the while they secretly yearned just to be kids with pencils, trying to make sense out of their world and their place within it.



Often times visitors show up and ask about the pencils.  "How do you keep them so sharp?" or "How do they remain such a bright yellow?" or even "Do they have an eraser capacity?"

They obsessively focus on the texture of the paper or the gloss on the shiny pencils and they miss the beauty that takes place within the seven walls (as a new initiative, our district is trying out hexagon-based learning and has spent money not on raising teacher pay but in creating classrooms that have different spatial features to help ensure creative thinking).

I get used to the pencil talk and have memorized a mantra that involves a smile and a gentle push toward pedagogy.  This time, however, a visitor walks in and moves past the pencils.  "Show us the plog.  Let us see what students are doing."  It moves into a discussion about the math problem they had recently finished that had actually involved slates (yes, I still use them).

As the class period progresses, they seem interested mostly in student learning.  The pencils and the paper are merely a secondary factor.  This gives me hope for pencil integration.  Perhaps in another century pencil and paper will be such a normal phenomenon that visitors won't be impressed with the medium but with the way students manipulate it to create their own learning.

meat the teacher fiasco

It's five o'clock and Meat the Teacher night is beginning.  The crowd is extra large due to the issues with an error in homophones (or homonyms - I can't always keep them straight), assuming that the teachers were putting on a barbecue, which would be cool because nothing builds community like the collective bonds of setting animal flesh on an open flame and then digging into the carcass while talking about the weather.

A man pulls me aside and introduces me to his son.  "You'll like his class, Josiah."

He then whispers to me, "He's a Graphite Geek. Plays Hang Man and other violent paper games non-stop.  He loves pencils.  I'm guessing he'll love your class."  

I whisper back, "I hope he likes learning, because we don't really play Hang Man in my class."

I sigh, realizing that this will be another year of reminding students at the beginning that the pencils are tools, not toys.  It's not that we won't have fun.  It's just that the fun won't revolve around playing simple games or throwing paper balls at one another.  

The principal strolls into my room.  "How did speller check not catch that?" he asks. 

"It's not misspelled.  It's misused."  

"What's the point of technology if it's going to fail on you?" he asks.

"Yeah, it can be unpredictable."  

"Must be a glitch," he adds. 

The dictionary didn't fail him. The failure was human. Technology is predictable and flawless, making mistakes only when programmed improperly.  The beauty of humanity is that we aren't predictable, because as hard as the district office tries, we can't be programmed.  It's why we can be creative.  It's why we have stories.  We're not mechanical.  Nothing is clockwork.  

The principal humbly faces the consequences by running across the street to the meat market.  Gertrude rounds up a few parents bail him out and spread the news that it's a "bring your own meat" barbecue. (It's that rare moment when a micromanager saves the day)  Around six thirty we're all eating.   A pick-up game of baseball has started among the parents and the kids, losing interest, have started their own game in the street.

I end up playing soccer with a few of my students.  It strikes me that this is how it should always start, not with lectures and rules and procedures, but by playing together.  None of us say anything, but they are seeing who I am as a person so that they can understand who I am as a teacher.

We've gone from an awkward "meet and greet" to an all-out carnival - united by the shared celebration of learning and the shared experience of burning animal flesh.  Perhaps this is how every school year should start. 

Help on a Subtitle

I'm going with Pencil Me In for the title, but I'm not sure what the subtitle should be.  Here are a few options:

  1. Pencil Me In: Pencils, Pedagogy and Parody
  2. Pencil Me In: A 19th Century Allegory of Educational Technology
  3. Pencil Me In: Adventures in Pencil Integration
I'd love your feedback. 

Does every teacher need to plog?

I'm meeting with Paul the Preindustrial Poet.  He has this worn-out notebook with him - the kind that existed before tabs and folders.  He writes lines of poetry, not in any sequential order, but wherever he finds space.  Sometimes he'll fill the blank space with an entire short story.  One entire page is a series of 140 character short stories he wrote just to prove to me that one can, in fact, tell a narrative on a pen pal network.

Paul tried to write a plog at one time, because he bought into the lie that every good teacher needs to write a plog.  It was too structured for him and too public as well.  "Look, I would never say that every teacher needs to write poetry or that every teacher needs to write for Hearst.  The reality is that different people find a medium that works for them."

Mr. Brown doesn't plog, either.  Or at least, he doesn't plog about school.  He writes mostly about fantasy and baseball and his fantasies of running a baseball team.  He says that in another century he might be able to find a like-minded group of people who would participate in a make-believe league where they would live vicariously through a sport that allows people to live vicariously through athletes.  Mr. Brown won't go on the pen pal networks.  It's just not his thing.

My wife is social.  Very social.  She knows everyone in the neighborhood.  She has a whole social network within walking distance of our front porch.  (She thinks its sacrilege that I don't call it a "stoop.") However, she has no desire to plog or to participate in the pen pal networks.  She's a teacher.  Not formally, but in conversation, in life, in her actions and in her questions.  She plans to home school the kids when they aren't at school (we'll do both home school and public school, saving most of the home-schooling for weekends and summers).

Some of the best teachers I know are not pencil geeks.  They have no desire to write a plog or go on a pen pal network or use social book marking.  What makes them great is their passion for the subject, their love for their students and the way they combine these in practical, tangible ways.  If a plog is part of the deal, it's great.  We all get to learn from them.  If not, that's okay.

If the district made it mandatory for me to plog, I would quit plogging.  I would probably plagiarize or find passive-agressive ways to get back at the power elite.  I would see myself as a pencil pusher and my plog as mere paperwork.  But alas, I can plog when I want and it isn't tied up with my self-concept as a teacher.


Somebody told me that if I want to be popular, productive and prone to alliteration, I need to make lists and post them on the pen pal networks.  So here goes my first list titled 100 SUPER-AMAZING WAYS TO USE PENCILS IN YOUR CLASSROOM. (Not sure why I had to add that in the body if it's in the title, but there it is)

  1. Have students draw
  2. Have students design buildings
  3. Have students create maps
  4. Have students solve algebraic expressions
  5. Have students do geometery and other math stuff
  6. Have students fill out worksheets and convince them that the goal is to complete a worksheet and to work hard rather than learn
  7. Have students write poetry
  8. Have students write letters to people in power who will have to hire a secretary who will pretend to care
  9. Have students write persuasive essays
  10. Have students write expository essays
  11. Have students write functional texts
  12. Have students write narratives
  13. Have students make comic books in "gray scale" and then claim that it's a "graphic novel" so that it sounds more sophisticated 
  14. Have students write a funeral dirge
  15. Have students write dirty limericks and blame them on their peers
Okay, I'm out of ideas.  Maybe I'll just stick to telling stories.

They're Still Pencil Natives

As my school shifts toward one-to-one pencil to student ratio, a group of teachers come to me with their concerns about a lack of decent pencil skills. I hadn't predicted this. Students are snapping pencils and saying they just don't know how to use them.  Others have turned papers into projectiles.  Still others have turned to playing violent games such as Hang Man.

"I had two students forget to save their documents," a teacher mentions.

"Could that be an issue of their age rather than a pencil skill? I mean, a hundred years from now we'll probably still have students who forget to put their names on their papers." I ask.

"Another one couldn't figure out how to put his documents in a folder. I have others who just leave every document on the desk top. Aren't they supposed to be Pencil Natives?"

"I heard that's just a myth," another teacher adds.  "Turns out the 'Pencil Native' generation isn't all that technologically savvy at all.  It's just hype created by pencil pushers hell bent on ruining slate-based learning." I know the study she's referring to and it seems to prove little more than what I already experience: students still have gaps in their ability to use pencils in meaningful ways.

The gripe fest continues until I ask the teacher, "What is their native language?"

"English," a teacher adds.  "Some of them Italian and German, but mostly English."

"And do you still have to teach them grammar and spelling?"


"You don't say?  You mean they don't pop out of the womb diagramming sentences?"

"No, but . . ."

"And what is their native country?"

"Most of them are from here."

"Do we still teach civics?  I mean, if they are American, they should know all about democracy and the bicameral legislature and the writ of habeas corpus."

"Oh no, we still have to teach them that."

"Could it be that one's status as a native has more to do with comfort, culture and values and less to do with skills?  When I look at my students, they are comfortable with pencils.  They identity with the modernist, sketchy-gray worldview.  They understand conceptually the notion of portable information via the telegraph and telephone.  It doesn't mean they are information engineers with perfect penmanship, however."

Natives still need to learn the language.  They need to learn to think critically and become better citizens.  Pointing out their lack of skills doesn't take away their social context or generational identity. Instead, it suggests what we already know: that we need to teach students to think deeply about the tools they use and like any good citizen, I want them to think about how tools are shaping their reality, their relationships and their beliefs about love and truth.  I want them to criticize their pencil nation and determine when it is the right time to abandon the values of their techno world and recover what is buried in the earth under the industrial carpet of their factory school.

target date

I plan to release Pencil Me In, a book based upon this blog, on September 1, 2010.  The book will have much more of a long-lasting narrative structure and will also span 3 years instead of sticking with just 1897.  It's been a confusing, fun and exciting process so far.  My goal is to have the book ready on September 1st as an eBook, physical book and MP3 download.

I've enjoyed the process of working with a story arc.  It's helped me to think through my own journey of educational technology as well. One area of weakness for me is revising.  If you are interesting in fixing grammar, spelling and syntax mistakes, please e-mail me at or send me a message on twitter @johntspencer.  I would love some help in this area.

So if you like this blog, spread the news about the book.  I have no PR and I know that word of mouth is what will make this thing work.

the enemy isn't a person

I'm sitting on the front porch, trying to construct a decent plog.  My hand wanders toward doodling and I end up sketching fictional characters.  I'm yearning for human conversation when my wife comes home and mentions, "We met a wonderful lady at the park.  I just felt like I had this connection with her."  

"Why is that?"  

"I had to correct your daughter," she says, knowing that it irritates me when she says "your" to describe the moments our daughter gets into trouble.  Why am I the rebel?  

"She had real empathy when I talked about the difficulty involved in having to discipline.  It turns out one of her sons is special needs and she feels a stronger sense of guilt every time she gets angry.  We talked about authority and authenticity.  It was strange to have this great conversation with a total stranger."  

"I know what you mean," I say.  Truth is I'm more introverted and I doubt that I would ever speak to a stranger in the park.  

"It turns out that she works at your school.  Her name is Eunice, I think."  

"Really tall, red hair?"  

"Nope.  It might be Mildred.  Do you have a Mildred?"  

"With the big mole on her nose?"  

"No, maybe it's not Mildred.  I know, it's Gertrude." 

"You mean Gertrude the Enemy of All Things Tom Johnson Wants to Accompilish?"  

"That's her?" 


"But she seemed so nice.  She even talked about how hard it is to do her job when there's so much pressure from above to get the teachers on the same track."  

It has me thinking about enemies.  Perhaps my wife is right.  Gertrude at the Park might be a different person than Gertrude the Ruiner of Plans.  Or perhaps she is he same person, but just complicated.  Maybe she's scared.  Maybe she's stressed by dealing with a special needs kid.  Maybe she's human after all.  

Perhaps Gertrude is not the enemy of pencil-based innovation.  Perhaps the true enemy is an ideology of articiality.  Or maybe the enemy is a much more visceral fear - a fear that our students will be behind on the global pissing contest.  Or maybe it's a system and a structure that churns out robotic students prepared for the factories.  Whatever the enemy is, I'm becoming convinced that it is not an individual or a person.  In fact, it is the opposite.  The enemy isn't human.  The enemy is a process of dehumanization.

blocking phonographs

As I walked into my classroom with the brand-new phonograph, a man from the district stopped me.  "Yeah, um, this is blocked.  Sorry dude, but you can't have your students use the phonograph."

"Why is that?"

"Well, it could have dirty words.  After all, these are Victorian Times.  Who wants to risk a lawsuit?"

"I see your point, but students could also speak a dirty word as well.  So, I don't really see why a change in the medium is all that different."

His boss walks up to me.  "It's not about that.  It's about our limited capacity for music.  See, the school band will be using this hall way and they need it for their classroom.  It's just not that wide. We can't fit all the instruments and fit a phonograph. So, with limited band-width, we have to either block the phonograph or slow everybody down."

"Why can't we just use a different hallway or perhaps build a new one?" I ask.

"I don't know.  I'm just the IT guy.  I'm an Instrument Technician.  If you have issue with this, talk to the district."

So, I found a way to sneak the phonograph in through the back door.  I just think it's sad that we have to find back door methods of accessing tools that will be useful for learning.

erasers - a post about assessment

Gertrude the Bureaucrat pulls me aside this summer, "I know you plan to use pencils this year, but you're not planning to let them use erasers are you?"

"I think it's a great tool. Students can erase mistakes as they go or they can erase them after the fact."

"Yes, but how do you have common assessments if you don't have common methods of assessing?"  By "common" she means "standardized."  Common is multilateral and democratic.  Standardized is unilateral and authoritarian.

"I'm not sure I see your point," I add.

"Well, a kid can just erase his or her work at any given point."

"Isn't that what learning is all about?  What about our slogans of life-long learning and loving learning?  If that's the case, how do you justify an end point?"

She goes into a long lecture about formative and summative assessment and I tune her out.  It's a small battle to fight and I nod my head.   See, if pencils and erasures represent anything good, it is the notion that one can always change.  Growth is always possible.  Learning is not a fixed commodity, but a journey.

"How will you grade their work if they can just go back and change things?" she asks.

"I don't grade it.  They do portfolios."

"Won't that make kids lazy?" she asks.

"Not at all.  They work harder because I take away the bribes and extortion. I can't claim to support the notion of developing democratic citizens and go with a totalitarian style of assessment."

"This goes against standard pedagogy," she objects.

"Tell me, why would you ask me to use differentiated instruction and assess in one format only? And why would you ask me to have students collaborate and then force them to compete for grades?"

The conversation ends with a long lecture on the Bell Curve.  I listen for awhile and then we "agree to disagree" which is a nice way of saying, "we'll just choose to casually ignore one another."

See, the issue isn't about pencils or erasers.  The issue is about the purpose of learning and assessment.  If I want to use assessments to help students, I can't be the bully.  I can't be a dictator.  An adversarial relationship leads to fear.  I don't want a fear-based classroom.  So I let them re-write work.  I let them use the erasers.  I need a positive classroom in order to gain their trust enough for me to speak truth into their lives.

She finally ends with, "All your cuddly bunny coddling is doing a disservice to them. It's not how the real world operates."  Perhaps.  But I have a hunch that in the real world they just might use erasers.

it's not opium and it won't kill our writing

So, I'm at that cafe again and I hear a group of teachers whining about the pencil.  They say it will make kids shallow.  They say short-hand language is ruining academic prose (as if students completely lack the ability to shift registers.  Don't they move from slang to academic language in speech?).  They say that pen pal networks are America's new cocaine.  I slip back into my childhood again:

I bought my first pencil when I was thirteen.  Back in the day you couldn't buy the fancy yellow kinds and the eraser was still a new concept.  But it wrote accurately and I believed that I could sketch out the world in all its gray ambiguity.

My mother called me in, concerned about my pencil time.  "I fear that it's becoming addicting," she said.  "You've been writing so many letters to classmates.  Isn't it killing your study time?"

"Mom, it's not a drug.  It's communication.  It's not an opium den, it's a pencil.  I spend time writing letters because I care about my friends. It's not the act of writing that I love. It's how we communicate. The same goes with drawing.  If I had a set of paints, I would probably paint."

"I fear that the pencil is making your communication shallow."

I wanted to say, "I'm in seventh grade.  On some level, everything I write will seem shallow to you.  And if it's deep, I'm probably hiding it from you."

Instead, I answered, "That's how we talk, too. Yet, you don't seem concerned about the language used verbally."

She worried that I would lose my ability to write.  I have a hunch that it taught me to distinguish between formal and informal English and thus helped me refine my writing.  It broadened my scope and taught me how to write concisely when necessary. I'm thinking my students are learning the same lessons.  Brevity is not an option when limited to 140 characters.

She said it wouldn't prepare me for life.  I wonder if it taught me lessons on human relationships.  The letters taught me how to refine my thoughts and the sketches helped me to see the world differently - whether that "different" is better or worse, I have no idea.  But I embrace it nonetheless, because it's now a part of who I am.

She said it was opium for the mind. I get her point.  She wanted us to play. And we did.  Often.  What she failed to see was how quickly the novelty of notes wore off and we would chose instead to play a pick-up game of baseball. Even now, I have to be careful with the pen pal networks.  I can waste my day away reading 140 character messages when what I really need is to play in the mud with my daughter. Yet, the same can be true of reading or painting or tinkering with machinery.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't buy into the myth of the Pencil Natives.  I don't think that a yellow Eberhard Faber will bring salvation and peace to our "globalized society."  But I don't think we are raising a generation of stupid, illiterate, shallow thinkers.

pencil-pen-pal-plog problems

Note: I'm writing this blog from personal experience.  I once mocked the curriculum specialist for using People Bingo.  I posted a snarky comment on Facebook and she came to me the next day and told me how much it hurt.  

The pen pal networks are down right now.  Apparently the conference didn't anticipate such a high use of paper. So, I'm at a cafe with paper and pencil, plogging my problems. I begin this entry, expecting to write about pencil integration and why it doesn't have to server economic interests.

A lady walks in and orders a large coffee.  "It's been a tough day," she begins.  "I had two people leave my workshop yesterday and when I checked the pen pal network, they had mocked the Ice Breaker I had developed."

"Oh, that's horrible," the waitress comments.  "I know a thing or two about grumpy customers, but none of them have ever left the table in mid-meal."

"Do they write 140 character messages that mock you?"

"Nope.  Not so much."

"One man even wrote a plog post about it. Plogs last forever. Couldn't he just have talked to me instead?" The lady begins crying.  She starts talking about missing her husband and her sons and how hard it is to be creative with something like ice breakers when she's not a fan of them in the first place.  For the first time, I see her not as a fixture of a conference, but as a human.

I walk up to her and say, "I'm so sorry.  I mocked the ice breakers for being artificial and contrived but then I chose the most artificial and contrived method of complaining.  It was cruel and insensitive."

The moment is awkward, but she's gracious.

"I'm sorry for crying," she says.

"Don't apologize.  Your tears are a gift.  I needed a change in perspective."

For all the discussions my class had about pencil citizenship last year, I feel like a hypocrite.  I failed to understand that even in the transgeographic pen pal world, the bottom line should be love.

People Against People Bingo

We gather around the tables, all hyped up on Coca-Cola. At some point, the conference organizers will realize that a cocaine-laced beverage is probably not the best refreshment before a long-winded workshop on "Pencil Citizenship in the Pencilsphere."

So, it begins with an Ice Breaker. A simple glimpse at the hashtags on our pen pal networks would suggest that the ice isn't all that frozen. If anything, we might need a lesson on being kinder in our comments (myself included). But it's the culture of this thing, where quick wit, novelty and sound bytes are more important than story and sustainability.

I'm not sure why we need an ice breaker. We're at a conference, and we're speed-dating for acquaintances we'll never see again. It's not that important that I know your trivial background or that you know mine. So, you met William McKinley? Nice, but not beneficial to me. So, I once played on a barnstorming baseball team? Again, not that important.

The choice this time is People Bingo. It consists of running around and getting signatures for trivial facts about people's lives. As if Bingo wasn't already the lamest game ever, we have to take away the gambling and turn it into an autograph party. Fun. Not. All of a sudden the Wednesday night smoke-field Bingo room just got a lot cooler.

I start envisioning new Ice Breakers. How about Extreme People Bingo, where you have to wrestle people to get a signature? Or what about turning People Bingo into a drinking game? I've given workshop presentations before and I'll tell you that I wouldn't mind having a slightly liquored-up crowd. (If you are in the Temperance Movement, please don't be offended. I am not advocating public drunkenness)

Ice breakers generally fail for two reasons: Extroverts don't need the ice broken and introverts need the ice to melt slowly. So, it is a waste of time for one group and socially awkward for the other. I fall into the socially awkward category, so I use People Bingo as a time for a quick escape.  I wander the conference hall for a bit and then step outside into the cool summer air.  Call me icy if you must, but the loud chattering voices are a bit much.  Let me hear the breeze.

the myth of a creative class - part two

After sitting through the Creative Class session, Paul the Pre-Industrial Poet says to me, "I'm bothered by his message. Tools are great. I don't deny that. It's just that I don't believe that complex tools equal complex thinking."

I add, "A motion picture is complex but it leaves little to the mind. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but I'll take Tolstoy and Twain over anything Edison can produce."

"And I don't believe that there has to be a special elite class of people who use creativity for economic and social pursuits."

"It's a bit insulting to those who work blue-collar jobs."

"I had the same thought. Look, my dad was a slave. We had no tools.  To those in power we were the tools. But listen to the songs we produced.  Listen to the oral history we told.  Take a glimpse at the Underground Railroad for a minute.  We shaped farming in ways that people will never know.  We changed American cuisine. We were a Creative Class as well."

*      *      *

A few days ago, I gave my daughter a box. She didn't think outside the box. She turned the box into a cave and into a horse and into a home for her doll. I didn't tell her that she had to be creative. She has the creative impulse because she is human. We are made to be creative.

If I want my students to be creative, I won't tell them to be creative. I won't explain to them that they can be part of the great Creative Class. I'll give them freedom. I'll make learning meaningful. The tools will not "require creativity." Creative thinkers will find the tools and use them in innovative ways.

the myth of a creative class

We grab a seat in the balcony, because even at UnConventionAl, the twentieth century un-conference, innovation doesn't include progress in race relations.  It's a trend of noticed with some of the techno-utopians who don't want to be bothered with the sticky human issues of social justice.  After all, the machinery will eventually take care of those issues in our Global Village.

"We need to cultivate a culture of collaboration to compose a creative class."  All alliteration aside, the message is one I've heard repeatedly.  I could use the same alliteration if I wanted, "From farms and factories to a philosophy of frenetic futurism."

He pulls out a box and says, "We need to think outside the box."  I find it odd that he's using cliches as he talks about innovation.  True innovation isn't thinking outside the box.  It's re-purposing the box.

"It starts with a pencil and moves to mimeographs and type-writers, photographs and Vitascopes, phonographs and telegraphs.  Simple minds and simple tools are fine when you are growing corn . . ." the crowd chuckles. "But you need an innovative mind to think through the mixing and mashing of multimedia tools. Complex tools demand creativity."

*     *     *

My mind races back to corn fields.  There is more molecular complexity in an ear of corn than in an entire Vitascope.  We lie to ourselves when we think that knowing machinery means we have a deeper, more conceptual understanding of life. It's true that we were simple people if simplicity is measured only in tools.  We had fewer tools.  We had less access to the world at the palm of our hands.  But we weren't illiterate hicks. We were a Creative Class.

So, I'm listening to the chatter of the speaker, but I move back to the corn field.  I'm eight, barefoot and staring at a worm.  My father is arguing moral philosophy with a neighbor.  Dad says that Aristotle had it right - that the goal is a middle ground, a place of temperance between two extremes.  The neighbor says the goal is a Hegelian synthesis.  Neither men have access to a photograph or a telegraph or a pen pal network.  Yet, they are creative thinkers, tackling existential questions from multiple perspectives.

As their dialog transitions into farming, it becomes a more practical layer of creativity.  They are discussing water use in a time of drought. They discuss sustainability in light of soil erosion and fertilizer.  It isn't the tools that lead to the creativity.  Instead, they become creative because of limited resources and simple tools.

Farming required more than mere "grunt work" as the speaker describes.  (Really, "grunt work?" Were we merely cavemen wandering a sea of corn?) The skill set involved predicting the unpredictable, developing new tools at low costs.  Collaboration?  We had a community co-op that helped us survive.  Creativity?  My dad could use bailing wire and wood to develop tools that would rival anything Edison is producing.

The Upside of a Global Village

I share the story of the Flat World and the Global Village with Paul the Preindustrial Poet. I expect him to nod in agreement, but instead he responds with, “Tom, I think you’re creating a false dichotomy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why  do you have to have either round or flat?  Why go global or local?  Can’t it be both?”

“I’m not sure it can.  I think you have to make up your mind where you plant your feet.”

“Perhaps.  But the forces of a flat world are here regardless of what you feel.  If I ignore it, I am doing my students a disservice.  However, if I teach them to think critically about the whole flat world concept then they can be critical thinking citizens of this flat world.” 

“But aren’t they better off acting in the local community where they at least have a voice?”

“If they only think locally, their world view will be myopic.  It becomes tribalism.  If they go global without knowing their own backyard, it becomes imperialism and colonialism.  If they think globally and locally, they avoid the extremes.  They walk in tension, yes, and they face a certain level of confusion.  Yet, they also learn to navigate that confusion.”

“I see your point, but there is something unnatural about the Global Village.”

“I don’t disagree.  It’s inhuman.  It’s industrial.  We let the steel steal the soul of the people in exchange for instant communication.  I see your point.  However, who better to humanize it than your students? Let them act locally and communicate it globally.  Let them think about global issues in their own community.  But also let them think about how their own locale affects the entire world and if the time is right let them partner across the world with fellow students.” 

“That sounds like idealistic romanticism, Paul.”

“I’m not pretending it’s easy.  I’m not suggesting that pen pal networks will bring world peace.  But respectful dialog is a powerful force.  And if you don’t allow your students to participate in the global dialog you create your own ghetto.”

“I guess it’s just personal for me.  When I was standing on the plains with the sun rising, surrounded by my family, it all felt natural. It felt right.  It felt like I lost something when I moved to the city.  And it feels like we all lost that something in the process of the flattening of the world.” 

“So, have one foot in the factory and one foot on the farm.  Have one hand on the pen pal networks and one hand holding a pint with a friend.  Garden and write.  Be open to the world without shutting out your neighbors.  I’m not saying it’s easy.  Paradox is always harder than polemic pursuits.”

Paul has a point. Whether I agree with it is up in the air.

So pencil me in.  Don’t stain me with ink.  Let me live the graphite duality of global and local, of technophile and Luddite of urban and rural.  Let me experience the monochrome mystery that never truly hits black and white – the gray reality of paradox.  Pencil me in so I avoid the extremes of myopic parochialism and arrogant imperialism.  Pencil me in, because life is temporary, a vapor, in constant flux, in tension and harmony.  Nothing in this world is entirely permanent. Pencil me in.

a note to city planners

Dear City Planners:

I am a strong advocate of pencil integration.  I have been on a crusade to provide new learning tools for all of my students and to liberate them from slate-based learning.  However, the real barrier goes beyond simply a lack of access to pencils.  The real issue is a lack of access to learning.
  • If you want students to understand art and the deeper implications of the humanities, why is there only one public art museum in our city?  And why is the museum so far from schools?
  • If you want students to participate in civic activities and become better citizens, why is nearly every public civic institution so far away from our school?  
  • If you want students to access knowledge instantaneously, why is it that you don't provide public access to telegraphs?
  • If you want students to be literate, why is it that the public library is miles away from our school? Why not build a bridge between the two institutions instead?
  • If you want to build a public school, where education is truly an extension of the public, why are you selling so much of it to corporations?  Why are you seeking corporate rather than public input?  And more importantly, why are you building walls that prevent the students from interacting with the public?
See, more than pencils or photographs or phonographs or telegraphs, the greatest innovation that could happen in my school would be to make it public again.  I visited the one-room school house where I grew up and it was located next to other public institutions: the library, the city council, the post office.  While few would point to the town as being truly innovative, I was struck by the lack of barriers for students who sought access to public institutions. I know it isn't a high-tech, trendy, 20th Century idea, but I assure you that in this Era of Industry, it is truly innovative.


Tom Johnson

the world is not flat

I take a seat by the window of the train, my eyes fixated on a monochromatic landscape.  The smoke stacks tell the story of a steel steal of all things natural, replacing tradition with movement and space with efficiency.  It’s the color of a photograph, all value and no color.

I am sitting with a pencil, sketching on an iTablet.  (Don’t worry, I’m not a convert just yet.  My wife loaned me hers, because it’s less bulky than my notebook) I’m sketching what I remember of my father.  I could capture it better on a photograph, but I’m less in the mood to capture and more in the mood to create.  I have this lingering sense that capturing is part of the problem.  We are all captive by the monochrome value of industry.

Besides, my whole purpose in sketching is to remember my father for who he was, so that I don’t forget him after viewing the casket.  Still, I’m distracted. I look out the window. Steel tracks clawing into the tender earth, a tattoo of convenience, taken in a parlor when we were all too drunk on novelty to know the difference.  It was a Faustian exchange promising instant connections and all the while losing the connection to all that was once sacred – the land, the dirt, community, family.

We will someday wake up with the hangover and convince ourselves that what we really need is a newer fix.  We’ll grow nostalgic for the railroad, using it for children’s stories and decorating devices, while we push forward with newer devices to flatten the world.  We already have horseless carriages, replacing the horse with raw power of a combustible engine.

I imagine that in another half century, we will find a way to fly. We will be Icarus, pushing toward the sun, going further from the ground, detached in a steel-winged cage, stripping away the boundaries of space and time.  We’ll find ways, no doubt, to extend portability so that even the telegraph seems quaint and so that the phonograph feels static.  Someday we’ll have the world at the palm of our hands without questioning whether one should compress the globe so easily.  We will find Babel without a blink and we’ll marvel not at the power we possess but at the novelty we create.

It’s an age of Pi, permanently and randomly marching forward, each step dividing the finite infinitely.  We had no need of seconds until we created the railroad.  What will we divide next?

*     *     *

A man sits next to me and asks me what I do for a living.  We begin talking about teaching and I share my vision for my classroom, complete with photographs and a dark room, an area for phonographs, a working telegraph and most of all pencils for every student.

“I want a twentieth century classroom,” I explain.

“You can’t wait three years for that?” he asks.

“I want a classroom that will be relevant in the industrial age.”

“Oh, like a flat classroom.” 

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“One that connects to the world.  Columbus proved that the world is round and now we’re proving that the world is flat.  It’s progress.  We’re being united into a global village.” 

I’m not about to argue with him on the Columbus point.  Just about all of antiquity knew that the world was a sphere. But I’m struck by the word “progress.” It is progress, no doubt.  Progress in terms of progressing, in terms of novelty and kitsch and pushing toward a climax without questioning the resolution.  But it’s not progress I’m after right now.  It’s permanence – the kind that doesn’t exist with the (temporary) nature of a telegraph and railroads and pencils. 

I like the notion of a global village.  I like the idea of my students communicating via telegraph and telephone with students across the globe.  A part of me really hopes that technology can bridge the barriers of culture and politics and lead to peace.  A flat world might just do the trick.

*     *     *

Two days later, I am standing on the flat Kansas earth, spade in my hand and tears on my face.  It is, in a sense, a vacation, an escape, if you will, not away from reality, but back to reality.  The cool fertile earth calls for a return from where we came. I am burying the dead, refusing to outsource the job to some stranger with no need of closure. Our economy is built on separation of labor, but in this moment, I won’t be ruled by economic norms.

The land propels me back into a narrative.  I know the people, though I have changed by the flattening, monochromatic forces of industry.  I know the story, from exposition to climax and I’m yearning for resolution.  I grasp for the theme, having a hunch that it can’t be found in a telegraph or a photograph or any other type of graph.  

Global village?  On a train it sounds so eloquent, but now it’s just an oxymoron. 

I want my students to use the technology, but I don’t want a flat classroom or a flat world or flat learning.  Let them learn locally before they go global. Let them know their backyard before they tackle the world. Industry turned my world gray.  The trains already etched their name into the ground.  When I stand beside my little hometown, I’m not so sure I’m ready for it to be flattened as well. 

those aren't the tools you'll use in the real world

"Rumor has it that you are supplying children with wide-ruled paper." Supplying? Am I some type of a cocaine dealer?  Do I look like Coca-Cola?

"It's not a rumor. It's true. I let the students use wide-ruled paper. Some choose to bring in college-ruled paper and I let them pick their learning tool."  My wife hates my incessant use of the word "tool."  She says paper isn't really a tool unless it's turned into functional oragami. She says an artist doesn't call paint brushes tools and that few scholars would ever call a book a tool for that matter.

"But they will be college ruled so they need to use what they'll use in college.  They need to use what they will have in the real world."

I want to cut her off right here.  In the real world, children my students' age work in factories for fourteen hours a day.  In the real world, nations wage wars in the name of ideologies that their own citizens don't understand.  I'm not so sure I'm ready to boot my kiddos out into the real world so soon.

"I get that paper for free.  Paper engineers work on the Linus Project and my students can access it for free."

"Do you know where they are getting it from?  I mean, it could be stolen paper," she adds, with the thickest italics should could offer.

"It's open source, so it really is free."

"But it's not college ruled. Don't your students deserve the best?"  she asks.

"If my goal is to train students to use a particular paper, then I've failed miserably as a teacher.  I don't care about the brand of pencil or the style of paper or even the notebook that they carry around.  If they want to bring in a tablet . . . "

"I've seen those tablets.  The iTabs, right?  Kids just use them for entertainment.  Let's give them the tools they will need in college and in their careers."

What I want to ask her is, "My students will get married some day, so should we have them choose a spouse or teach them how to relate well to one another?  They'll make financial decisions, so should we have them go work in the factories or should we teach them about budgets and financial management?" Instead, I take a more diplomatic tone.

"I promise you that I will provide them with skills that they need right now so that they are prepared for college and career later.  The truth is that they are eleven and twelve years old. Sometimes wide-ruled paper is still what they need.  Sometimes the simplicity of it helps them to be more creative.  Besides, I don't have the money to go out and purchase college-ruled paper."

"Well, I still think they need exposure to professional tools. Let me see what I can do for you."

So, she starts a fundraiser.  She works really hard baking pastries that they sell to the community.  She walks into my classroom one afternoon with reams of paper.  I'm grateful, but still I have this lingering sense that she missed my point entirely.  I choose open source paper not just because it's free, but because it works well for some students.  It's not about the paper or the pencils or the tablets or the notebooks.  It's about the learning.