I was meeting with Paul the Pre-industrial Poet. He's a thinking man, the type who can be patient with the moralistic ramblings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and then discover himself in the pastel explosion of wildflowers. For my part, I'll never really get the whole "John Muir, go to nature and find yourself and make bold pronouncements about the universe." When I go to nature, I don't see beauty as much as savagery - animals eating their young or starving to death. Paint that impression, Monet!
Therefore, I was surprised when Paul became an "early adopter" of pencils in the classroom. We met last night and shared a pint. Okay, we shared more than a few. But since a few of my kids' parents are part of the Temperance Movement, I'll claim it was a pint of Coca-Cola. (Somehow cocaine in soda is okay, but a little alcohol is the work of the devil.)
"Tom, I went through phases with my pencil integration. They were five distinct phases."
"Seriously? Don't tell me you're going to put this on a pyramid. Educators seem addicted to pyramids."
"I know, kind of creepy. Let's fashion a model of thinking based upon an archaic way of housing the dead."
"Maybe I'll create a PowerSlate Slideshow using an urn as my metaphor."
"So, anyway, these were five stages for me. In the first phase, I saw pencils like fine china - expensive and pretty but not very useful. I was afraid kids would break the china, so I stayed distant."
"They gave me five pencils and said I could use them in my classroom. They didn't break when students used them. So, then they became tools. I created a pencil-based station in my class and segregated it from the rest. "
"Did that work?"
"Not really. I found that the lessons required more integration, so I began to mix the pencil in with the other tools. That was phase three. I rounded up a bunch of old pencils and had a whole class set."
"Sounds interesting. So from fine china to a tool. I think I lean toward the whole tool concept."
"Well, I shifted toward seeing it as a tool to seeing it as a magic bullet. I petitioned the district to get a whole class set of colored pencils. We got the fancy iParchment, too. I replaced reading with picture-book writing. I switched from writing to color-maps. Everything was pencil based. So, from pencil integration, it became pencil-based. I saw it as a new pedagogy for the Gilded Age. I would empower students through the power of pencil."
"Well, it was a bullet, but it struck us a few times, I guess."
"You mean, kids were stabbing each other. I've been worried about that. Secretly I've wondered if they would use the pencils to hurt one another. Did you have issues of lead poisoning?"
"It's not that at all. Besides, in an age where kids are dying in factories, pencil lead isn't the worst thing that can happen. What happened was this: It struck me that students weren't thinking well."
"I see. The pencils drove the curriculum instead of the curriculum driving the pencil."
"Exactly. I had bought into the idea of Progress so much that I missed the down side of pencils. I began to see pencils, not as a magic bullet, but as a double-edged sword. I still use them, but I encourage students to ask hard questions about how they should be used and how they impact our world."
"That sounds pretty cynical, Paul."
"I know, but it's really not. I'm optimistic about my students and their ability to think well. I'm optimistic about pencil integration. I just don't buy into the snake oil solution that people claim it is."