I meet with Paul the Pre-industrial Poet after my fourth day of our one-to-one unit. I always feel conspicuously white when we hang out at this diner. I believe in Progress and so I imagine that, a century from now, we won't have a China Town or a Little Havana or an all-black Harlem. I can't fathom that, over a hundred years after Reconstruction, we would still have segregated churches or neighborhoods or media.
"What do you think of the whole pencil citizenship idea?" he asks me.
"I guess it has its place in using pencils. I mean, I suppose we need to educate kids on the dangers of pen pal predators and the problems with pencil sharpeners, but it seems a little overinflated right now."
"I'm not against the term," he adds, "but it just seems like the focus should be on citizenship first and pencils second."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"I mean this. If I thought about regular citizenship and all I taught students about was safety, we'd be living in an authoritarian regime. I'd be scaring kids into following rules instead of developing a mentality of democracy, right?"
"I see what you mean. So, pencil citizenship should include things like teaching kids to use a pencil to combat injustice and using paper to develop a social voice."
"Exactly. I want students to know that pencil citizenship, if we're going to use that word, means analyzing how pencils are shaping humanity and how the written word shapes culture and community. I want them to see how people like Frederick Douglass used pencils and paper to tell narratives that led to social change. If all I do is teach kids how to avoid pen pal perverts, then I've failed."
"I wonder what it would look like to drop the word pencil from it. I mean, what if we just said 'citizenship' and then focussed on what that means with pencils, images, photography, the printing press, music, poetry, whatever. What if we added pencils as yet another tool that we analyze and use and apply to this concept of being a critical thinking, democratic citizen."
"I think it's a dangerous concept, because it goes beyond simply avoiding pedophiles and learning to write without using all capital letters. Teaching citizenship from a critical perspective might mean they challenge the authority . . . "
"Which I don't seem to mind, unless they challenge me," I add.
I look out the foggy diner window and gaze at the gray pillar of smoke.
I point to it and say, "It seems eternal, unstoppable, unshakable. The factory is a metaphor of our warehouse school system and slowly we are relegated to robotic machinery spouting out scripted curriculum. I keep thinking about when you mentioned an authoritarian regime. I'm thinking about the desks in a row and the difficulty of serving out of humility instead of being a dictator in the classroom. I think about the hysteria over pencils and paper and the fear of low kill-and-drill test scores and our obsession with this Caravan to the Top."
"It's like we're all ruled by fear," he says. "And those of us in the pencil world seem just as scared of not being innovative. For all the talk of a grand new pedagogy of paper and pencils, we have to define what it means to be well educated. We need to explore a better metaphor than factories. Otherwise we end up simply creating a newer, shinier, Edison-projector-enhanced pencil factory that merely mimics what's already out there."
I wonder if one day we'll wake up in a daze, shake our heads and see with a little clarity that public education is meant to educate citizens on what it means to be free. I wonder if we'll walk out of the factory and ask ourselves, not just, "What new system do we need to create?" but "What did we lose? What is buried under the industrial pavement?"