it's not opium and it won't kill our writing

So, I'm at that cafe again and I hear a group of teachers whining about the pencil.  They say it will make kids shallow.  They say short-hand language is ruining academic prose (as if students completely lack the ability to shift registers.  Don't they move from slang to academic language in speech?).  They say that pen pal networks are America's new cocaine.  I slip back into my childhood again:

I bought my first pencil when I was thirteen.  Back in the day you couldn't buy the fancy yellow kinds and the eraser was still a new concept.  But it wrote accurately and I believed that I could sketch out the world in all its gray ambiguity.

My mother called me in, concerned about my pencil time.  "I fear that it's becoming addicting," she said.  "You've been writing so many letters to classmates.  Isn't it killing your study time?"

"Mom, it's not a drug.  It's communication.  It's not an opium den, it's a pencil.  I spend time writing letters because I care about my friends. It's not the act of writing that I love. It's how we communicate. The same goes with drawing.  If I had a set of paints, I would probably paint."

"I fear that the pencil is making your communication shallow."

I wanted to say, "I'm in seventh grade.  On some level, everything I write will seem shallow to you.  And if it's deep, I'm probably hiding it from you."

Instead, I answered, "That's how we talk, too. Yet, you don't seem concerned about the language used verbally."

She worried that I would lose my ability to write.  I have a hunch that it taught me to distinguish between formal and informal English and thus helped me refine my writing.  It broadened my scope and taught me how to write concisely when necessary. I'm thinking my students are learning the same lessons.  Brevity is not an option when limited to 140 characters.

She said it wouldn't prepare me for life.  I wonder if it taught me lessons on human relationships.  The letters taught me how to refine my thoughts and the sketches helped me to see the world differently - whether that "different" is better or worse, I have no idea.  But I embrace it nonetheless, because it's now a part of who I am.

She said it was opium for the mind. I get her point.  She wanted us to play. And we did.  Often.  What she failed to see was how quickly the novelty of notes wore off and we would chose instead to play a pick-up game of baseball. Even now, I have to be careful with the pen pal networks.  I can waste my day away reading 140 character messages when what I really need is to play in the mud with my daughter. Yet, the same can be true of reading or painting or tinkering with machinery.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't buy into the myth of the Pencil Natives.  I don't think that a yellow Eberhard Faber will bring salvation and peace to our "globalized society."  But I don't think we are raising a generation of stupid, illiterate, shallow thinkers.


  1. Agreed, however, if we make the trade-offs explicit and ask students to come to grips with how their thinking, acting and being are different with vs without the pencil, they are better prepared to make informed decisions for their own well-being. Most of them don't realize how the pencil changes their outlook, most don't care, and apathy is rarely a good thing. I want as many kids to be proficient with pencils as possible, but I also want them to understand the technology and its effects on deep levels, not just be able to use the pencil. As with all learning, I want beyond superficial.

  2. You make a great point. I am creatively drained and cannot possibly stick to the pencil metaphor right now, but with that said... I am not one to condemn kids for texting or tweeting or the like, but it has crossed my mind that it could negatively affect how students write in an academic setting. I think some sense it has: never, since I could form sentences have I ever used a lower-case “i” when referring to myself regardless of the setting; this is something I believe is much more prevalent now. However, when you wrote, “I have a hunch that it taught me to distinguish between formal and informal English and thus helped me refine my writing. It broadened my scope and taught me how to write concisely when necessary.” it made me think about properly addressing an audience when writing. Writing for a particular audience taught in writing class, but when a students’ audience is their friends and their message is typed with their thumbs, this lesson suddenly goes out of the window and focus shifts to belittling how kids communicate. I guess, as with all things, moderation is key.

    Jillian LeRouge, Elementary Education Major
    The University of South Alabama
    Dr. Strage’s Class, EDM 310