why penmanship class is failing our students

The Pencil Teacher pulls me aside for a moment in the staff lounge and says, "Mr. Johnson, nice shirt."

"Thanks, my wife says mauve is the new wave of the next century."

"Yep, it's the Gay Nineties after all."

"Are you accusing me of frivolity?" I ask.  I hate when I get defensive over things like that.  Seriously, so who cares if people think I'm happy all the time?  It's not a problem if I smile.  It's not like I'll do that for the camera or anything.

"No, I'm just pointing out that you look up-to-date.  It's not a bad thing, I promise. So I was meaning to talk to you. Do you really think we need a one to one ratio of pencils to students?"

"I think it will be valuable for students.  It seems like it will probably enhance learning."

"Yes, but they are already learning it in the Pencil Lab.  I teach them penmanship skills and most of them have already learned to put together a document of words."

"I assure you that I won't be teaching pencil skills.  Instead, we will be using pencils within the curriculum."

"Tom, these kids don't know the basics.  I see how they treat my pencil lab.  I've had four pencils stolen despite the fact that they are bolted to the desktop.  Yours will be mobile.  Kids snap off erasers.  I'm just worried about you, that's all."

"Thanks.  I appreciate your concern, but I also think I can handle pencil integration just fine."

I can't blame him for being nervous.  They already use his Pencil Lab for student projects and I'm guessing he's worried that pencil-integration will eventually phase out the need for a penmanship class.  Yet, honestly, he has done little to make the subject relevant.  Do his students analyze the shift from an oral to a print culture?  Do they look at the shifts in the world in an industrialized society and what it means for citizenship and for human identity?  Do they create projects that simulate how people will use pencils in the workplace or in life?  Do they write and read with pencils?

Not so much.  Instead, I visit the pencil lab and students work in isolation, sitting in rows, creating cursive letters and then practicing erasures.  He walks around with a pocket watch timing students and they receive a score.  (The man won't even let them use the pencil sharpener). Only at the very end of the semester do the students actually write anything and typically it is a pre-formatted business letter. One would assume they would write a letter to congress or a business or to a local newspaper, but that's not the case.  

The pencil class will die out because students learn only how to use pencils instead of learning with pencils.  If I were the pencil teacher, I would have students create webs with pencils and do their own pencil publishing.  What if they each had a journal and perhaps even wrote articles that could eventually be typed in a school newspaper?  I would find ways to get the community into the classroom for interviews and I would allow students to use pencils on some creative projects that blend the newly-emerging medium of photography with the articles they write.

I would have students solving problems with their pencils and creating graphs to match their data analysis.  Students would explore narrative and story-telling.  I might even allow students to work in groups and collaborate on a shared chart paper. I know he's contemporary pop literature, but I'd let kids read Mark Twain and share their reflections in journals. Kids could leave comments on the margins and it would become interactive.

Seriously, he has a blank canvas with the pencil class and he's using it for penmanship practice.  


  1. I flipped from high school to elementary school about three years ago. I think it was only this year that I was able to shake off the old penmanship habits. Until I read your blog I had managed to dismiss the dull technicalities of penmanship entirely from my mind. Our trips to the lab are simply moments when I can pretend I have 1-1 pencils rather than the unsatisfactory 1-5 arrangement in my room (we borrow pencils from other rooms all the time... so many otherwise innovative teachers still cling to slate, ironically dazzling their students with their own pencil savvy at front of the room).

    Pencil Labs and I go back twenty years. The students and I did discuss the impact of pencils. We were all just realizing what was going to be possible and the momentum built rapidly.

  2. This is a very clever blog. As an ESL teacher, there is a similar analogy between the pencil class and teaching English language learners grammar and vocabulary out of context. In this instance a teacher teach students grammar and other language components without relating it to the content area curriculum. What we need to do is use English to learn the content area just as you describe using the pencil for the same purpose.

  3. Outstanding. Currently sending this to my administration and staff. Thanks for writing a "duh" way for me to present this concept!

  4. Anonymous3:44:00 PM

    Hey, if the edublog awards had a nomination in either fiction or in 19th century bloggers, I think you'd win.

  5. Thank you for the kind words. I don't really get your century too well, but the edublog awards seem very spiffy, indeed!

    Incidentally, I had a friend win a Pulitzer prize, which is a bit odd considering Joseph Pulitzer supports crooked yellow journalism. Nothing like an award for journalistic integrity named after a guy who lacked integrity. What's next? Is the robber baron Carnegie going to try and start a charity foundation?

  6. Love it! It reminded me of this video...You've probably seen it, but if not, it will probably give you a giggle.


  7. I love it! It's both relevant foreign (which wins me cool points with my trendy hipster friends). Thanks for posting it.