what was missing from my presentation

The crowd is standing room only as I begin.  I'm Icarus soaring up toward the sun.  I'm powerful.  I'm respected.  No spit wads or hunks of paper.  No airplanes.  Just me, backed up with my PowerSlides set up with the Edison Projector.

I offer a give and take, asking critical thinking questions.  I see a few college students taking studious notes.  Who knows? They could be using their tablets for the pen pal networks, but I assume these are learning devices and perceive the nodding of the heads to be agreement rather than falling asleep.  

I offer a few bits of humor.  It's an easy crowd.  People expect safe, campy, cornball humor and so my sardonic, cynical musings seem, if nothing else, like a novelty.  The laugher jars me, because I was always the serious kid who sat silently in class.  I was always a little too grown up for my age and now I'm comfortable in my own age.  

I explain the relationship between social context (the dawn of a Progressive era, urbanization, the rise of industrialization), current educational theory (and its practice) and technology.  I mention, as a historical example, the Guttenberg Press meeting the rise of nationalism and the early educational theorist Erasmus.  I lock my hands together to show the Triple Convergence and how it is a catalyst for change.  

After talking about a New Pedagogy (which I cleverly refer to as Learning 4.0 just to prove that it is two steps ahead of being 2.0 and all the while feeling, in my gut that I'm still teaching at the Beta level), I offer the question, "as we move forward, what will we do to retain the voice from the past? How will we avoid the pitfalls of perennialism?" 

I explain my seven steps and show examples of student work.  

*     *     *

Paul the Pre-industrial Poet attends for moral support. I assume that supporting one's morals means boosting one's ego.  Wrong.  Paul pulls me aside and asks, "Do you really want to know what I thought?"

"Yup.  Let me know."  

"The slides were great.  The points were well spoken.  You wowed the crowd with a folksy style meeting just the right high vocabulary to prove your points.  The information was solid, too.  I think it got people thinking. But there was one thing missing."  

"What's that?" 


"I'm not sure what you're talking about."  

"Look, seven steps.  These folks have had seven steps and four keys all day long.  Multiply seven and four and you have a perfect number and that's the problem.  It's all perfect.  But people are tired, real tired, and all the keys and steps are making them feel like janitors in a stadium and they're jumping on all these steps trying to hold onto the heavy key chain and watching the players strut around on the field. What are they supposed to do with all this?"

"So, what would you have done differently?" 

"Okay, you know how you say pencils are not the magic bullet? You just presented them as the magic bullet.  You showed the best student examples and told the most enlightening stories.  You advertised yourself and although the crowd felt entertained, where do they go from there? Fantasy land?  Tell some stories of failure.  Tell a story of a snapped pencil or a paper airplane.  Show a time when a student failed to get it and ask the crowd for advice. They might not be pencil geeks, but they are experts in some area." 
Paul is right.  So if I'm Icarus, I'm crashing toward the ground.  I'll be greeted with adoration from those who attended the workshop.  We might talk theoretical nonsense and I might move closer to the sun.  Or maybe I can stop pretending that I'm cutting edge and admit that the edge has cut me up pretty badly in the process.

Maybe I'll just be what I am - a guy who is lost in a quickly changing industrial world, a little scared and lonely and confused by the fact that I cannot see the stars a little too squeezed in by the sardine can compression of it all.  Maybe I'll tell a few stories of failure and engage in a conversation about being relevant without selling out.

the pencil planning committee

I don't believe in committees.  Like bureaucracy, the term is too difficult to spell and too cumbersome to endure.  Committees often turn to mindless group think, chatty ego boosting and a lack of innovation out of a desire to mitigate liability.  Besides, they always hand us binders (seriously, do I need another binder?) and agendas and we sit at a table so I can't get away with drawing pictures (the way I would at an in-service).  As the pencil representative, it's my responsibility to attend.

The conversation appears innocuous and civil.  Each member of the Pencil Planning Committee (PP Committee for short) shares input on pencil integration.  Think of this as a secret password phase.  I can say anything that I have heard at a conference and people nod their head in approval.  For example, I might say, "We need to focus less on pencil skills and more on thinking with pencils."  Then, I can make a joke out of word play and say, "I didn't mean to call you morons."  People chuckle and I'm in the club.

A few other options are:
  • Teachers need to learn how to use pencils.  It's not an option. 
  • We need to go beyond pencils and think of what a true twentieth century pedagogy should mean
  • Let's keep in mind that there needs to be a connection between theory and practice. Let's make sure the pencils don't drive the instruction. 
  • We need to convince people that pencils are not scary.  Yes, they can poke an eye out, but that's why we have something called classroom management. 
  • Let's get pencils into the hands of students.  Why do teachers get all the good ones?  
For my part, I use the phrase, "Kids are pencil natives.  They come to class knowing penmanship.  Do we really need a pencil class?"

All of the above comments are valuable.  Indeed, they create a shared sense of values within the group. I have used every one of them at some point.  The word "used" is key here.  On a subterranean level, each of us jockeys for power and uses language as our weaponry.  For all the smiles and nodding (I'm beginning to feel like a bobble head) we are competing for a voice in how our district will use its resources.

As the conversation moves into practical elements, we begin to lose sight on everything we just shared.  The dialog quickly shifts to better teacher pencils.  

"Let's get colored pencils for the teachers.  If they fall in love with the quality pencils they will be more comfortable and eventually move into integration."  

"Ooh, I like that.  And what about making the shift to using only iParchment."  

"Our district could pilot iTablets so that all teachers could have a portable notebook that they can touch."  

I step in at this point.   "All paper is touchable.  Yes, some of them come with carbon paper that we can trace with our fingers, but is that really crucial to better learning? Besides, we just talked about a shift away from skills and away from teacher-centered integration and now we are focussed on colored pencils?  Are these just gestures we are using or do we really believe in a twentieth century education?"  

I tell the group that we need to have pencils in the hands of students, that professional development must be horizontal and that teachers with pencil experience should create a proposal for using piloting 1:1 pencils to student ratios and then mentor the next teachers.  I rattle off ideas and offer quick comebacks to anyone who challenges me.  

Paul the Pre-industrial Poet attends the meeting and remains quiet through the entire thing until it is over. 

"Can you believe what just happened?" he asks. 

"Yeah, the teachers started out really selfish, huh?  We talk about the social and political barriers that get in the way of pencil integration, but what about the human barrier of pride?  What if the biggest issues involve things like ego and selfishness?"  

"I agree," he adds.  

"So, I was able to steer it in the right direction."  

"I agree with your thoughts on ego and selfishness.  But I'm wondering if you might be searching for specks and ignoring planks.  Your school will be piloting the new initiative and you will be the one being recognized in the process.  Your classroom will have a set of pencils next year. Is it possible that this is about you?"  

He's right.  For all my talk of collaboration and wise decision-making, I tend to define those on my terms.  Collaboration is great so long as one agrees with me.  Wisdom is necessary as long as the decisions are in my hands.  What happened there was not honest dialog, but merely deceptive power-grabbing and I was the one who bullied my way to the top.

Mr. Johnson, will you be my friend?

I overheard a conversation a few days back (yes, I eavesdrop on my students) about the pen pal networks.

"I only have twenty followers," a kid says.  

"It's okay.  Jesus only had twelve."  

"That's not true.  Jesus had thousands of followers.  He just had his top eight.  Except it was his top twelve." 

"True.  So, maybe you're not Jesus.  But I'm your friend and though I won't follow you around, I'll always pick you for short stop even on your worst day."  

*    *    *

I receive a request from the insecure short stop asking if I'd be his friend.  I ignore the request.  Okay, that's not entirely true. I think about my own childhood and shudder.  I can't imagine walking to kids' homes and seeing a list of the top eight and realizing that I don't make the cut.  It would be like relational tryouts and I wouldn't have made the junior varsity popularity team.  I can't imagine what it would be like, in the formative years, when I was experimenting with how to interact with others, to have this massive public network of social relationships advertising to the world that I was a loser.

Still, it's not as if I can follow the kid or friend him.  For what it's worth, I'd like to keep "friend" a noun rather than a verb.  Can't a friend be the last refuge of permanence in an industrial world of change?  We've already lost place and we're quickly losing thing. Let's keep person.

It's just that he and I can't be friends.  I can't invite him with me to the pub.  I'm his teacher. He's my student. We aren't going to share stories about work or talk politics (and our shared anger at the McKinley administration for failing to deliver either hope or change in their Caravan to the Top initiative)  

A few days go by and then he stops me in class.  "Why did you ignore my friend request?"  he asks, calling me out on my act of passive-aggression.  

"I'm sorry.  You're my student and I just don't think we can be friends.  Some day, when you're older, send me a friend request again, okay?"  

He walks away, head hung low.  He'll understand, right? 

*     *     *

When I tell Mr. Brown, his answer surprises me.  "I would have accepted his invitation.  I know there is a difference in age and I am concerned with the graying of adulthood and childhood in our country.  Though, to be quite honest, we still have kids working in the factories.  I just think that the last person a kid wants to have reject him is his teacher.  Socially awkward short stop boy looks up to you."

"What about his parents?"  

"I would have become their friends, too.  I would have explained it all to them and talked about his need for a mentor."  

So, I'm left perplexed.  I set up rigid rules for social engagement and they seem to make sense to me.  They are set up to protect myself from rumors.  But in my goal to be safe, I've unintentionally crushed a kid.  

reflections on joining a pen pal network

So, I added myself to the Pen Pal network and I have found the following things to be true:
  1. My friends and family mostly send messages about make believe games where they pretend to run a farm or move through a sorority.  Note to self: the only thing lamer than being on a farm is pretending to be a farmer on a pen pal network.  
  2. No one told me that people would write personal notes on my wall. What disturbs me, though, is a friend who "tagged" a photo of me. He used some kind of adhesive and now it is permanently on my wall.  Not sure I want a photo of me at the Haymarket Square riot will look good in front of the school board. I never thought in advance the reality that the vapor-self, the ever-evolving imago would be amplified.  I feel a bit like a celebrity.  
  3. It's like a staff lounge without the bickering, gossip and complaining about children.  We share ideas, pass notes and actually talk about teaching.  It's like professional development, but without the annoying Edison Projector or the Kodak reps trying to convince me that their cameras will turn my children into geniuses. 
  4. There is a pecking order to #3.  For all the talk of democracy and horizontal collaboration, there are gatekeepers who open up the world for new guys like me.  This isn't bad, either.  They are sort of pencil mentors in a way.  Still, it has a darker side when people jockey for Eduplogger votes.  It's a bit of a pissing match, really.  But on that note . . . please vote for me.  
  5. Social networks dehumanize and humanize simultaneously.  We play games of pretend.  We craft identities.  We use the plural first person instead of saying "I."  But we also connect and play and interact.  I feel more authentic and more artificial every time I pass along a pen pal note.
  6. Stuff is permanent.  I can always say to a person, "that's not what I said," and if I look sincere enough, it works.  But once people resend a note I sent, I'm screwed.  I thought I had sent out a private note to a history teacher, "Garfield was a crappy president anyway.  So, he got shot?  Will anyone remember him in a hundred years?" Now my parents (who were big Garfield fans) think I'm evil.  
  7. People like to repeat one another often.  It's a bit like going to a party and hearing Gertrude say, "Josiah said something totally witty.  He said . . . " and then you run into another person that says, "So, Gertrude told me that Josiah said this really funny thing . . ." I'm sure Josiah feels pretty good, but after awhile I'm ready for something new.  

Isn't All Media Social?

Paul the Pre-industrial Poet tells me that I need to get onto a popular Pen Pal Network.  He's an "early adopter," who tends to find technology quickly, explore it rapidly and then decide if he wants to keep it or dump it.

I tell him that he treats technology like an uncouth bacehlor who hasn't discovered the joy of marriage.  He says, "More like speed-dating, but you're right . . . No, I don't like your metaphor at all.  I use technology, but it's because I don't want it to use me.  I don't want to be married to a medium and forget about my real wife. Let's avoid human metaphors.  The more we human the machine, the more we dehumanize ourselves."

"So, why should I join the pen pal network?"

"You need to be part of my PLN. It's how I connect with other educators."

"Can't you just connect over a pint?"

"Does it have to be either/or?"

"I just don't see the big deal in using a pen pal network.  I can't see the value in sending trite little messages to people on my free time."

"So, if something is short, it's trite? What about parables and poetry and proverbs?"  Paul is quite fond of alliteration.

"I just don't see what the big deal is."

"It's a social medium.  You connect with people constantly and share ideas and resources and, on a good day, you share a part of yourself."

"Every medium is social.  I keep hearing this term 'social media,' but a letter is social.  I send postcards all the time.  Last time I checked, that's social.  It just seems to be a ton of hype."

"You might be right, Tom.  But the only thing worse than creating unnecessary hype is the snobbery of avoiding a medium simply because people are excited about it."

part two of "Full of CREP"

For the most part, I abandon the worksheets.  We breeze through them quickly and then I break students up into small groups to discuss the question, "What are the elements of a good career?"  The brainstorm turns out to be incredibly specific with a few groups simply writing down names of careers.  Perhaps I should have modeled it first.

I then present career philosophies
  • Vocational: based upon one's identity, beliefs and values.  It's the notion that who you are guides what you do (a sense of calling to it)
  • Hedonist: find a job that is enjoyable, fun or pleasurable.  
  • Economic: a job is based upon money.  The higher the pay, the better the job.  
  • Recognition: the best job is one where a person will receive honor, recognition, fame or accolades. 
  • Humanitarian: here the idea is to make a difference in the lives of others
Students engage in a debate about the merits of each and the question of whether someone can truly pursue multiple career philosophies and find contentment.  Afterward, as they break into small groups again to do a pros and cons chart, a student pulls me aside.

"If there are all these reasons for having a career and our school wants to get us job-ready in the future, why are we only following the economic philosophy?  Why don't we make a difference as a school?  Why don't we talk about identity and values and beliefs?"

"Some people don't think that's important.  They see it as fluff.  Shouldn't we pursue the core knowledge?"

He responds, "It seems like answering the question of why we work a job would be at the core of all of our knowledge."

As the students work on an individual assignment describing their own career philosophy, I hear shouting from Mr. Brown's classroom.

"Faster, I say!  It's not about quality!  It's numbers! It's data! We need to win this race! It's a race to the top, I tell you! And our company will not have any losers being left behind!"

"But Mr. Brown, the work is looking sloppy and everything we do looks identical!"

"Welcome to the edu-factory," he responds.

Students are in an assembly line filling out one line a piece on each of their worksheets.  On the sideline are students who want a piece of the grade as well.  "You sir, do you want to work in this edu-factory?  I'll pay you a C for the work.  Right now you're failing.  Take a C!"

The child simply nods.

"Alright, everybody, your grade is now a C! We only have so many points to spread around.  But we can now hire two new workers."

A child volunteers to work for a D and Mr. Brown fires another worker who refuses a C.  Finally, two more workers begin to whisper to one another.  "We quit.  We'll fail this unit if we need to."

This leads to a chain reaction as the students begin to go on strike.  As my students discuss career philosophies, his students talk about unions and free markets, wages and fairness and eventually meander into why one would work a job.

Neither of us taught the same lesson.  I might steal his idea next year and I know he plans to use my career philosophies tomorrow.  We share.  That's the idea of "common" knowledge and "common" standards.  It's horizontal.  Our paper and pencil "integration" is natural and fluid and based upon our own expertise.

Give us a program and we'll be programmed.  Give us worksheets and our work will be full of sheet.  The results will be uniform, but we'll miss the chance to be innovative.  Give us a chance to develop our own lessons and give us the freedom to share what has worked and we'll grow together.  The best professional development happens over a pint, not in a crowded library.

full of CREP

A day after the worksheet debacle, Mr. Brown comes into my room.  "Can you believe we have to take time out of social studies to teach Career Readiness Exploration Program?"

"I'm sure the districts spent barrels of money on it, what with all the worksheets and workbooks and . . ."

"You nailed it.  They're worksheets and workbooks, but nothing is a thinkbook anymore.  It's about productivity and results and not the cognitive process anymore.  Might as well turn them into machines."  

"I'm upset with the conflict of interest.  Am I really supposed to believe that a program developed by Carnegie can be trusted?  Can I really separate out Carnegie the corrupt robber baron from Carnegie the educational reformer?  Yes, it's fine that he wants to give back, but that feels a bit like robbing a house and then returning a few pairs of slacks and some silverware."  

"They want me to teach CREP, well this is CREP, this is total CREP, this is a pile of stinky CREP," and he says it with just the right Scottish accent that it makes me smile, if not laugh.

"Are you really that upset about it?"

"See, Techno-Tommy, I'm worried about this.  I really am.  Students need social studies, because our community needs civic-minded people.  We need people who can explore the world with a critical eye. We need students to know the narratives of the past to make sense of the present.  It's not a fluff subject just because it doesn't help create better factory workers."

"What scares me is that teachers seem to love this program simply because it uses technology.  So, for a day they'll have access to a camera and through the entire unit, they'll have paper and pencil.  They're using novelty to sell us CREP."  I try a Scottish accent on the CREP part, but I end up sounding mildly drunk instead.

My friend Paul the Preindustrial Poet thinks the best way to prepare someone for the workforce is to prepare someone for life.  I'm thinking he and Mr. Brown both have a point here.  We're educating sixth graders.  Do they really need job preparation right now?  Is this really the time to have them develop a Career Readiness Plan?  

"So, Mr. Brown, what is your plan? Are you just going to play ignorant and claim you never had training on it?" 

"No, I have another idea.  They'll fill out the worksheets alright. You'll see."

Where should we invest?

A district office representative pulls me aside before class and says, "Tommy, we're concerned with some of your pencil use."  

"Well, it's not really me that's using the pencils.  It's the students, so would you mind if I allowed them to be a part of this discussion?" 

"Well, we noticed that you have an hour of weekly drawing time. How do you justify it?" he asks with a smug grin.   

"I do.  I believe creativity is a valuable skill.  The district said so themselves just recently," I added.  

"We have worksheets designed for creativity. Besides, we're looking for problem solving creativity, not drawing." he adds.  

"Yes, but I have my students use writing to solve problems in PBLs and solve problems in math. They use the pencil and paper with their lab reports from science and I try and begin with inquiry . . . "

"We are concerned about the academic nature of using pencils in such a way. Our worksheets are designed with best practices in mind. They are scientifically proven to work. Would you trust a doctor who tried to insert blood instead of using leeches?"  

"It seems to me that you say you want creative and imaginative teachers.  You want us to think outside the box and then you get angry when we don't have students follow your rigid curriculum."  

"There's flexibility in it.  Read the Teacher Workbook.  Each lesson has at least three Extension Activities you can consider."  

"Can you tell me something honestly? In art class, do you give kids a canvas and paints and then tell them they have to only paint by number?  In PE do you hand kids a ball and tell them every child must play the same position?"  

"Look, we paid good money for Pencil Island and Jonestown Intervention.  We want to get our money's worth on the investment."  

As I leave, I fail to say what is going through my mind: What if we stopped investing in curriculum and started investing in our children's minds?

do we need a phonograph in my classroom?

Last night, we gathered around a small fire in our back yard.  The necessity of warmth forces us to connect.  A few of our neighbors come by.  For all the talk of social networking, this is our true social network.  Before we had pen pal sites, we had fire pits and front porches and potlucks.

Earlier this week a representative from the district office pulled me aside and eagerly expounded upon a great pencil initiative.  It's not simply pencil-based, but multimedia.  Kodak cameras, phonographs, Edison projectors, perhaps even an instant connection to a telegraph.  "Tom, we're looking toward your classroom as the prototype for a Twentieth Century Classroom."

"That sounds really intriguing, but shouldn't we wait until the twentieth century so that we're all in the same century together. I mean it might be lonely in a classroom-based time machine." I responded.

He stared at me blankly.

"It was a joke," I tell him.  He offers a sympathy chuckle. It was a bad joke, but it was the best I had.  Just about every subject is taboo when talking to an edu-crat.

"So, look, we'll be adding a few phonographs in the next week.  We want to test some of this technology out on you first before launching the initiative." Something about this process leaves me feeling as though my students are the newest lab rats. I teach children, not data.  I always want to keep that distinction.


I spent a large part of my life in Kansas.  Everything is bigger and smaller when you can see the horizon.  Perhaps it's an optical illusion that the sun becomes massive.  I think it's an illusion that it was ever small in the first place.

We knew the land and the dirt and weather.  People have called it a simple life, but that's not exactly the term.  Life was complex.  Soil was complex.  We knew the names of most species that lived in our little ecosystem and our neighbors knew something of humanity that I've already lost.  I think you sometimes have to live in a smaller place to get a bigger picture.

So now our home is in a tiny enclave of a large urban center.  We can't see the stars.  My daughter will grow up without the freedom to walk out into a pitch-black night and stare into the universe.  I've heard that light pollution can cause animals to lose their orientation.  I wonder if that's what's happening to us. We start to believe that sky scrapers are larger than the very star that gives us life and warmth and light.


Phonographs, photographs and telegraphs present a subtle lie that life belongs on a graph.  Our neighborhood is an a grid, sending us electricity in promise of progress. It's less about progress than progression through compression.

Life on a graph is compressed.  A phonograph extracts sound that is meant for a concert hall and compresses it into a machine.  We lose a sense of the quality in exchange for portability and permanence.  The same goes for a photograph.  It's a two-dimensional, black and white replica of life. Or a telegraph - chop the information into patterns of beeps in exchange for instant messaging (teaching us the lie that the urgent is the same as the important).  For what it's worth, I have a hunch that the mind can produce permanent and portable images and sound, but it's intangible and untrustworthy.

The mind is mythology and pictures are prose, but I am convinced that truth is not always real and reality is not always true. If the twentieth century is simply more compression and portability and constant progression without ever feeling the connection to the land, I'm not sure that I'm fit for it.  If we are willing to exchange connection with one another for connection to to devices, then I think it's a Faustian exchange and I'm not sure I'm the teacher to lead this "cutting edge" reform. Especially when no one is asking "who and what are we cutting?" (Is it us? Is it information? Is it the land? Is it sound and space and time that we cut through?)

A couple of days ago, I saw my wife speaking softly into the mouth of a telephone.  She was at home, but she was somewhere else. Her hand gently held its mechanical mouth.  I don't fault her for wanting to talk to her parents, but in that moment, I was jealous.  It should have been my mouth she caressed and my lips she kissed.

A century from now, we'll probably have moving pictures at the palm of our hands.  We'll have instant messaging and we'll probably have a way to plug a tiny phonograph into our ears to hear thousands of songs. Life will be so compressed that people won't even have a reason to stare out into the stars or watch the son fall into the horizon or sit around a fire and tell stories.

why creating a school site was a disaster

I'm not a detail person. I mmispell works frequently and often my speller check won't pick it up. I don't notice when my shoe is untied. I forget to brush my horse. My wife has been known to write "Wash Me" onto the coat of dirt of the poor mare. I'm sure she has a complex by now.

So, I was the wrong person chosen to design a site for the school. It began fairly innocuous. My principal pulled me aside and said, "Techno-Tommy, I have a great opportunity for you."

Internally, I cringe when he uses the term "opportunity," when in fact, I can never turn it down. The correct term is "coercion."

"I need you to build our school a site."

"Build it? I'm not exactly a construction worker. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fop."

"Nonsense, Techno-Tommy. You're a creative man. I've seen the way you sketch and paint. There's a whole program set up for you. All you need to do is design it. You can set up one of those fancy plogs you talk about and design it like a visitor center."

So, I begin the process and enjoy it. I invite students to help take pictures and write sections of the site. I use various paper colors to design the layout. When it is done, I invite people to come tour our visitors site.

"You'll love it. It's like there is a whole web of information all in one site. I call it a website. It has our calendar and our contact information and bulletin boards with updates from sports and, well, just come out and see it."

Five people visited the site and only one had anything positive to say. I received notes of "constructive feedback" asking me to add more pictures or switch to stock photography because apparently having pictures that look like all other sites is quintessential for looking "professional." Two teachers informed me that their subject didn't have enough information. They pointed out any place where a line of text wasn't centered or any dates missing from the calendar. I knew it wasn't personal, but it hurt.

A few teachers pulled me aside, "Why did you use holiday break instead of Christmas Break? Are you trying to take the Christ out of Christmas?"

"I assure you that it was only to include our students of other faiths. I'm a big fan of Jesus, really I am."

"What about Columbus Day?"

"I didn't include it, because we don't get the day off from school. Besides, stealing land, committing genocide and then claiming it in the name of God and country is nothing to celebrate."


What's hard is that I can't imagine the same feedback in other areas. When the band performs, do people feel the need to tell the band director what colors the students should wear and what songs they should select? When the baseball team plays, do the staff members send letters to the manager explaining what position each player should play or a note to the custodian about how low the grass should be cut?

To make matters worse, the site is hosted at the district office and I no longer have a key to our supply cabinet. Thus, I can't update the site as often as I had hoped. The process has turned out to be a bit of a disaster.

I tell Mr. Brown that it's a mudslide and he informs me that it's an avalanche. A Mudslide is a drink ordered by pansies who are afraid to have a pint but are also too coward to admit they want a milkshake.

Mr. Brown explains it to me, "They chose you because you're a pencil geek and you know technology. But know one looked at the human side of the job. If I had done this, I would have created a staff survey, interviewed staff members individually and made each person feel like it was their site. I'd smile and pretend to listen to their feedback and then end up doing it my way. But Tommy, we both know that's not you. Ultimately, you're an introvert and those in leadership never considered the issue of personality when choosing you for the job."

a follow-up with Mrs. Jackson

The principal pulls me aside and tells me ahead of time, "Tom, I'm not a counselor.  I'm not a psychologist. I'm not even a phrenologist, so you won't see me trying analyze the bumps on your head to see what you were thinking."

"Okay, so what's the matter?"

"I want you to know that Mrs. Jackson is in my office right now.  I didn't want you to feel like it was a trap when you walked in."

The meeting begins rough, with Mrs. Jackson yelling at me, pointing her finger at my face and telling me that I was being unprofessional.

"Kicking a student out for a name on a paper is also unprofessional," I explain.  I have the amazing ability to use words as weapons and I can tell this stings.  She responds with silence, not because she is angry, but because she is hurt.

"You have to understand that we can't coddle kids.  They have to know that in the real world they'll need to learn to get along and respect authority and remember details.  What boss would possibly . . ."

Finally our principal speaks up.  "You just said that in the real world kids will need to learn to get along and yet I'm having to hold a mediation in my office right now.  I find it strange that both of you attend the same church and yet neither of you has internalized the message of humility and forgiveness. I'm not a religious man myself, but I can certainly see value in a Jesus-flavored approach."

I look at her as we both cringe at the term "Jesus-flavored," as if our Savior has been relegated to a lollipop.

"As I see it, you're both right.  Mr. Johnson, you have every right to suggest that a child will be forgetful and that shame simply brings out anger and rebellion.  Mrs. Jackson, you're right that children need consequences and it is our job to prepare them for the reality of a world that doesn't look like a bunch of cuddly bunnies and 'great job' stickers."

It's silent again, but this time out of a shared sense of remorse. I offer an awkward, clunky apology.  Ms. Jackson holds out her arm for one of those camp-counselor-side-hugs.


Later that day, she says to me, "I guess I get nervous and uncomfortable with paper and pencil.  My rules change.  I get uptight.  That kid I timed out wasn't a bad kid by any means. I just feel like I'm wandering in a maze right now and everything that seemed normal five years ago is no longer enough."

Mrs. Jackson is a phenomenal teacher and yet her veteran status often works against her.  People see the pencils and papers in my class and call me "innovative" and "forward thinking," and they pull her aside for condescending discussions about the need to move into the twentieth century. The reason she was acting out of character had less to do with student behavior and more to do with her own discomfort.

Here's the rub: Pencils geeks need her.  So, she gets a little nervous around a pencil sharpener.  Perhaps she grows uptight when kids forget names on papers.  However, she is not easily wooed by a shiny gadgetry.  Instead, she is impressed by learning and hence she has a contagious love of literature that her children seem to catch.  

What if we changed pencil-integrated professional development so that she became one of the experts?  What if, instead of sending her to a pencil workshop, we used job-embedded training that allowed her to use her expertise on pedagogy coupled with another teacher's expertise in pencil-based strategies?  what if we redefined "innovation" to be less about technology and more about what works in a system that is broken (even if what works looks, on the surface, to be pretty low-tech)? 

trouble-makers still need pencils

"I can't believe Mrs. Jackson through away my document because I didn't have my name on it.  I worked really hard, left it on my desktop and now it's gone," a student complains.

"Did you talk to her about it?"

"She said that in the real world an employer would never accept work from an employee who forgets a name.  She said that if I were to submit a time sheet with no name, I wouldn't get paid.  I will thank her some day for preparing me for life. Besides, she's not a detective, she's a teacher."

"She has a point.  What did you say to her?"

"I told her that I'm not an adult and I wouldn't expect her to play hop scotch well, either. I told her that I will work hard to remember next time and I'll make it a habit to save my document from the trash by writing my name on it at the beginning."

"Makes sense."

"She told me that she'll still give me a zero and I told her she wasn't being fair.  So, when she said 'Life isn't fair' I told her it's a teacher's job to fight on the side of fairness and justice.  That's when she kicked me out and told me that someday I'll thank her for teaching me a life lesson."

I tell him to sit down in the Corner of Shame (it's part of our Schoolwide Discipline Program called Shame-Based Organizational Behavior Process or SOB Process) and think about this actions.  Truthfully, it seems that he has.  It's the teacher who hasn't thought well about it.

Minutes later, Ms. Jackson sends me a note explaining that this child is banned from using pencils for the rest of the year.  She calls the learning tools "a privilege," which is odd, because I can't imagine her telling a child that he can't use a slate.

Eventually, I let this child join my class in our own pencil-integrated lesson.  When she asks about my defiance of her orders, I tell her that I couldn't read her note, because it didn't have her name on it.  After all, this is the real world and if this were a time card, she wouldn't get paid and besides, life is unfair and it's not my job to fight for justice.  When she protests that I should recognize her handwriting, I tell her that I'm not a detective, I'm a teacher.

As she storms off, I tell her, "You'll thank me for this someday.  I'm teaching you a valuable life lesson."

Perhaps I was a bit too harsh, but I'm convinced that we should take away learning tools for unrelated disciplinary reasons.  Sometimes trouble-makers don't even get a chance.  A teacher will say, "Timmy's just not mature enough for a pencil yet," meaning "I don't trust him and I'm scared he'll snap one in half."    If spoken with just the right calm, condescending voice, even Timmy begins to believe that he is not entitled to use a tool designed for his own education.

Nor should we reward a student who is done with slate-work to go to another table to "play with the pencils."  As long as teachers use this approach they will perpetuate a myth that pencils are toys rather than tools and are meant for amusement rather than learning.

a class of collage artists

The first time I allowed pencil-based research, I assumed kids would understand how to look at the bias in a source, figure out the facts and summarize them.  So, I brought our kiddos to the library and found a disturbing trend.

Students pulled out their notecards and began to write everythign they read.  Apparently "research" means "become a medieval scribe."  I pulled the group together and said, "If I wanted copies, I'd be running a printing press."  Students stared at me blankly.  Note to self: six graders sometimes have a difficult time comprehending sarcasm.

After dismissing them, the trend continued, but this time a few students pulled out scissors and simply copied and pasted from the Encyclopedia Brittanica. On some level, I didn't mind.  The British already have a monopoly on trade and language.  Do they really need to be the experts on all of humanities' collective knowledge?  Still, we have books with gaping holes, because students simply stole information without even bothering to copy it into their own words.

On some level, the librarian still hates me.

Move ahead to this year.  I begin, not with the notion of research, but with the concept of intellectual property.  Here, I separate the class into groups of four and have each group solve a complex, creative problem.  I then allow two spies to steal an idea and use it in their group.  I do a similar thing with a short paper students write.

When the students begin to complain, we have a class discussion on collaboration versus theft of intellectual property.  We discuss the need to share information and make it one's own rather than simply copy the work of others.  

I provide them with two options.  Either they can use a chart or they can use note cards.  However, for each source, they must include the following:
  • a question they are trying to answer
  • facts (in their own words)
  • bias of the source (with at least one loaded word)
  • a citing of the source
Students don't seem to plagiarize much anymore, but I had to model it for them.  For all the talk of the Pencil Generation and Pencil Natives and the telegraph promising to instantly connect information from around the world, my students still need help learning to decipher what is true, to find facts, to develop questions and to create an argument that is their own.

sorry, but you need to learn how to use the sharpener

"Hey Techno-Tommy, when you're on prep I need you to come by and sharpen my pencils," a math teacher mentions.  She turns to another teacher and says, "I know he loves working with pencils."

Wrong.  I love to write with pencils, because I love words.  I love to draw with pencils, because I love creativity.  I take good care of my pencils, not because I have a special affinity for pencils, but because they are my tools.  It's called stewardship.

What I want to say is, "Sorry, but you need to figure out how to use the sharpener.  I know it looks dangerous and it's made out of metal, but I assure you that you can figure it out.  I'll walk you through it the first time and then you do it on your own the next time. You have to run an update on each pencil and keep them sharp or eventually they won't work. It's a simple crank.  You can do it!"

Our custodian walks by and points out to me, "I'm just a janitor, you know.  But last time I checked, I had to learn how to take care of my tools.  I had never used a tape measure before.  Seriously, I just eyeballed it.  So, when they gave me a tape measure, I didn't find a measure man and ask him every day how to roll the tape back up.  I learned it, because I knew I needed to know how to use it if I wanted to keep my job."

"I'm guessing you could figure out how to use a pencil sharpener, too."

"I do.  You crank that fu -"

"Please, these are Victorian times.  Let's keep our language clean."

"But you see what I mean.  I wouldn't break a pencil and say 'well that's not my thing.' I wouldn't tell the people in charge that it's 'not in my job description' to learn how to use a sharpener.  After all, these people have to shake out the chalk dust from their erasers, don't they?  It's a part of the job.  You learn to use and take care of your tools."

"Some people are scared.  I get that, I really do.  Ask me to work on a horseless carriage and I'd be terrified. So, on some level, I understand how the teachers feel about pencils. Plus, they are rushed for time. It can feel like one more demand."

"If that were me, I'd find a kid who is comfortable with pencils and I'd have him teach the class how to sharpen their own pencils. I'd learn a skill, a student would be able to teach others and we'd all save time.  Then again, I'm just a janitor."

I wonder what would happen if more teachers had the mindset of a custodian.

will technology replace teachers?

Paul the Pre-industrial Poet asks me one day, "Techno-Tommy, do you think teachers will ever be replaced by technology?"

"I've considered this concept before.  I'm doubtful of it. Nothing will change.  Not for decades.  Not for centuries, really."

"You mean with all the phonographs and the motion picture improving and the telegraph and everything, you still think that, a century from now we'll have classes of thirty students in a warehouse style school?"

"Technology will only accelerate it.  Schools began as a way to educate citizens and then they morphed into a place to house urban kids while parents worked in the factories.  Parenting is hard, man, really hard.  I have days when I hate it."

"So you're saying that as long as we have parents working and essentially getting free babysitting we'll have teachers."  

"Yes, I guess so.  Don't get me wrong, I value education and my role as a teacher.  It's just that the primary role of a teacher is socialization.  No one says it outright.  We talk about learning to read and yes, that's true.  But on some level, schools raise kids while parents work."  

"I can see your point.  But I think some day we'll have robots replacing teachers.  They'll be underpaid and over-worked and the people in charge will program them."  

"So you think the folks in charge will choose robots instead of people like us?"

"No, I think the robots will be people like us."