Utopia Shattered

After visiting the second school, I told other teachers about the amazing Utopia I had seen.  My glossy-eyed edu-crush was shattered when I met with the principal the next day after school.

"I'm amazed with what you have here.  How did you pull it off?" 

"Tom, this place got real political when we began to change.  Twelve teachers quit.  People want autonomy and we were asking people to reject practices that weren't working. One teacher told me that she relished in being the Worksheet Warrior.  This place works because the teachers agree upon this model."

"I'm impressed by the way it runs."

"Sometimes I worry that we simply attracted great teachers and then some of them have had their hands tied in collaboration and might be more effective if left alone."

"It seems like it's working, though."

"Maybe so, but change doesn't happen in a vacuum.  The social and political and economic forces are hard. You know for a fact that both parties have been involved in handing out administrative jobs, right?  And the large textbook companies essentially bribed our Governing Board.  I almost lost my job in the first year."

I give him a puzzled look for his short lecture on Gilded Age politics. Yes, I know that corruption is the norm.  Some of the best teachers had to pay for a teaching position.  Yet, that has little to do with pencils and paper. 

"What I'm saying is to avoid the thoughts about reform. If you want to be effective, teach well.  Focus on your group of thirty students. If you are using pencils and paper effectively, it will catch on.  The change will happen organically."

"But your school created structures for change.  Your teachers do research and plan curriculum together and . . . "

"I know, but sometimes I wonder if they would have been better off without so much rigid structure. What's important is that they're talking about instruction instead of arguing about discipline or complaining about parents. Besides, things didn't improve for us until I backed down a bit and gave them the reins."
He pauses for a moment and then tells me, "Look, I hope you saw some good strategies, took a few notes on that fancy iParchment you have there and go back to your classroom with ideas. If you learn anything from this place it's to let your theory drive your instruction and then think of the pencils afterward. It's not the pencils, it's the people."

"What about implementing pencil integration school-wide?"

"Let it happen organically, Tom.  You have some great teachers at your school.  Let them ask you about pencils and move at their own pace.  If it's imposed from the top, they'll resent the change.  Didn't some guru in the first century say that change begins with something as small as a mustard seed?"


  1. Some background information on this post:

    We went to a tech-integrated social studies curriculum as a school last year and it worked well. However, it wasn't what one would assume. I had a class set of old computers running Linux and then another teacher added a half-class set running a stripped down OS X the following year and then another teacher added a full class set the third year.

    It was fluid in the approach. It was organic. We shared our lessons and our projects, but we still had the freedom to make decisions. We researched best practices and we still used non-tech strategies.

    Our classes did really well on the common assessments and many people wanted to credit the power of the computer. Yet, it was the theory that made it work. It was the slow, organic way (respectful of teacher autonomy) that led to a higher level of teacher self-efficacy.

    I once made the mistake of creating a rigid proposal for making a school a technology magnet. It looked great on paper, but it failed to recognize that change isn't imposed as much as it is contagious. It's viral.

  2. Anonymous11:17:00 AM

    Something isn't sitting right with me, regarding this post and "a comparison of two schools," but I just can't put my finger on it. I think there's something more complex going on in these situations, and that not enough time has passed yet to where we can develop general concepts that apply to most schools.

    I know that Pencil Palace schools aren't yet turning the entire education world on its head, but I'm not ready to toss the idea yet. I think some complexity is coming from the fact that most people, no matter how pencil-savvy they are, haven't yet re-wired their brain to problem-solve in a world based on pencils. Maybe we can't, because the world is still transitioning itself.

    In any case, it's kind of a discussion of push/pull: do we push pencils to teachers, or do we wait for teachers to ask for pencils? Pushing has obvious problems, but I also worry that a viral approach based on waiting means that a lot of teachers and students will miss out on the benefit of pencils for years to come. As with most education decisions, I'm guessing the best solution is somewhere between, and will vary among different students, teachers, schools, and districts.

  3. I think there is a tension that we need. Students and teachers should be "wired" and ready to connect to the newest medium. We need to contextualize education to fit the needs of a techno-world. Yet, we also need a streak of Luddite. We need criticism, open and honest criticism, to address the potential pitfalls of the Pencil Palace.

  4. Well yes it's the people, of course. Yet without pencils they will be people bereft of pencils, unable to express and record their creativity in a way that befits them.

    Let the re-wiring be organic, but give an extra push to the pencil.