The Pencil Palace
In the first school, I saw the teacher talking a great deal. She stood in front of the class with her Smart Chart and lectured students on vocabulary. Students were supposed to take notes and use their "expression" notepad. However, most of them simply drew pictures while she created sentence diagrams. They were creating expressions alright. Afterward, I watched the students use the self-paced Pencil Island program, where they completed a series of worksheets. Yet, none of them ever picked up a book and read anything.
I once worked with her. She had been a phenomenal language arts teacher. Students read individually, in small groups and in partners. She would model what they needed in quick, interactive lessons. Yet, it seemed that, with the new Pencil Pedagogy, she completely abandoned everything that had once worked for her.
Indeed, in most classrooms I listened to hardware hype, but few teachers discussed actual teaching practice. "Look Techno-Tommy, these binders I'm using are amazing. You can drop it and it won't break. You can add tabs. They're amazing." So is student learning. Most students in his class spent more time figuring out the binder than figuring out the math problems.
In another class, the teacher spent most of his time checking his mail pile while students sent short-hand messages or abandoned the school altogether to go catch a baseball game. When I pointed this out, he responded, "Look, they're safe. Besides, there's a lot of math in baseball. So I figure, let them go on their own field trip. When they come back they can add it to their pencil log."
A Place with Pencils
In the next school I visited, the teachers had similar lessons. Students used concept maps to plan out writing and they created their own documents for five paragraph essays. Those who struggled could check out a tutorial binder. Teachers utilized the larger shared documents for brainstorming activities and students passed papers only during the editing phase.
In math class, they varied from slates to pencils and one teacher even allowed students to use their own personal, miniature notebooks to take short-hand notes. Students in the reading class actually read from physical books and used a graphic organizer with paper and pencil only to shift back to reading and then quickly wrote their response on a plog.
When I asked teachers about their lessons, none of them focused on the pencils and paper. Instead, they discussed which strategies worked best with which students. A teacher explained it this way, "Look, we like pencils. We just get more excited about learning. Some schools focus on pencil literacy. We focus on literacy."
Another teacher pointed out, "Our school begins behind, because many of our students are still learning English. We differentiate between innovation and novelty. In most cases, novelty is a new toy. Innovation is a new way of thinking."
"What about the standardization of your school. It seems like you guys are doing the exact same, rigid curriculum."
"It seems that way, but it's horizontal, Tom. Our school lets us plan together and we have discussions about what strategies work best. Once we define the strategies then we talk about what tools to use. Sometimes it's slates and sometimes it's pencils. We have similar lessons, but we customize them to meet the needs of our students."
"Don't you feel less autonomous?"
"Not at all. We're co-researchers. The teachers document what is working in both qualitative and quantitative terms. Instead of fighting against an imposed curriculum, we're working toward shaping it."
"So, it's not the pencils?" I asked.
"I don't deny that the pencils have helped. We use the same tools in our planning that the students use in their learning. But the power is in the way we think and not in the tools we use."
Another teacher stepped in, "Michelangelo wasn't a genius because he had the world's best chisel. It was his creative mind that made him a genius."