Sketchy Portraits: 8th Grade Identity and Pencils

Despite its versatility, few people respect the pencil.  While we talk admire the permanence of ink, we use "pencil me in" with a certain sense of derision.  It's temporary.  It's gray.  For all its graphite glory, it seems immanently practical and yet always tentative, always questioning, always mysterious, always meandering through shades of gray.

My students are at that age where the pencil becomes their own metaphor.  Few of them can articulate it, but they relate to the medium itself.  I watch students sketching pictures and delicately smudging the graphite in order to create value and texture and shading.  A simple circle turns spherical.  An abstract face turns fleshy.  Perhaps I'm overstating the case, but my eighth graders embrace the power of to create and to destroy and to wander in this mystery while they still can.

A fourteen year old yearns for freedom and yet still clings to the safety of childhood.  At one moment, she might be lashing out at the world and demanding autonomy and yet in the next, she is wounded by its darkness and crying in pain.  This ebb and flow, this graphite confusion, is true of even the "best behaved" of the bunch.

It's sketchy.

It's permanent and temporary.

It's change, constant change, sometimes in smooth lines and sometimes in wild, dark jagged edges.

A first grade teacher pulls me aside and complains, "William was mouthy."

"What happened?"

"I asked him why he was here and he said, 'We're all trying to find that out.  Isn't that the point of life?' and so I asked him again and he gave me attitude again."

"So what did you do?"

"I told him that he couldn't have his pencil out during school."


"And he said that school was out and so I told him that he was still on school property and he said that school wasn't a place, it was the people and the ideas.  Otherwise you wouldn't have to do homework, since the physical space doesn't hold any magical powers."

I laugh at this response. She shows me her Teacher Death Stare.

"What did you do next?"

"I told him that this was no way to talk to a teacher and that he can be paddled for it if we need to go there."

"I don't blame you for being angry.   Eighth graders can be disrespectful.  What she doesn't undrerstand is that their misbehavior often confuses themselves.  They are moody, emotional and experimental.  They are testing the boundaries of humor and social interaction.  Everything in their world has gone from black and white to gray.  They feel penciled in and a part of them embraces this change and yet each child is scared and lonely as well."

"I just don't get them.  They can be so rude," she adds.

"The thing is that little kids are just as rude.  They give unexpected hugs, ignoring the rules of space.  They interrupt you when they are excited.  Some of them still lack the ability to fart silently. And they yell in those squeaky little voices of theirs."

"But they can't help it.  That's their age."

"Same with fourteen year olds.  In a fourteen year old's mind, just about everything is temporary and everything is changing and honestly that's a major part of the disrespect.  They want to be treated like kids and adults."

"I don't get it. It has to be one or the other."

"Or both."

It strikes me that I have been shaped by the students I teach.  I embrace the mystery.  I accept the duality.  Somewhere deep within, I get the yearning for freedom.  I've learned to navigate the comments and use them as a chance for student self-reflection.

On the other hand, she accepts the rules and embraces the structure and understands that the literal and the permanent are so necessary for life.  In this moment, we fail to see one another.  She's writing the world in ink and I'm sketching it out in pencil.


  1. Another post that resonates strongly with my personal experience. Thanks John.

  2. Wonderful post! The "transience" of the pencil as a metaphor for middle school kids is spot on, and is a lot of the reason why I enjoy working with them. Yes, it can be stormy, but so rewarding!

  3. Hello! I am a student from Dr. Strange's class. This post is absolutely amazing. I never thought that a pencil could describe middle school students. Everything that you have described is so true. I really enjoyed reading this post.

  4. @ Alan - some day, some day, we'll have a pint.

    @ Jim - Thanks! On most days, it's rewarding. On the hard days, we're just all broken together.

    @ Leviticus - Thank you. I am often stuck in metaphor. It's my lens for making sense out of life.

  5. Hey!

    My name is Lauren Myrick and I am also in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class. I really enjoyed this post. You are absolutely correct about how middle school students behave, and how they are unable to help it times. It actually sounds like the student is thinking creatively, not being rude. I like that you are open minded about your students, and you experience and learn from them. It is amazing. I also love how you use metaphors to evaluate life. So creative and enjoyable! I love it!

  6. I am also a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. Today I substituted for a local high school, which I graduated from. I have been subbing now for almost a year and I did it to be sure that I wanted to become a teacher. You are correct that middle school, or high school, students can not help they way they act sometimes. They are simply just experimenting with their emotions and testing limits to see how far they can get. I think middle school aged children are just trying to figure out who they are still. I did like the responses the child gave back though.

  7. Hi,

    My name is Darlene Staimpel and I am in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. Your post is completely spot on. I always enjoy reading your posts. I am constantly amazed of your pencil metaphors and your ability to use the same one in so many different aspects. It's brilliant!!

    I totally understand the excitement, confusion, the yearning for freedom that young teens have. My boyfriend has two teens. I have learned they are rarely "happy" or content yet they strive for approval like children. I have also learned that just about every teen is the same (emotionally). They are all confused, emotional, yet they add some of the most amazing and enjoyable moments to ordinary life.

  8. Hello,
    My name is Catina and I am a student at the University of South Alabama.I take Dr.Strange media class.I thought that your approach was awesome.I like when you can describe thing in a brand new outlook.I enjoy reading all your posts.

  9. My name is Brooke Broadus and I am also in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed this post. You did an excellent job describing middle school student behavior! Your are right, sometimes they can't help it! I also enjoyed reading all the metaphors in you post! Thanks for sharing!

  10. I am a pen teaching 110 pencils everyday. I am a "graduate" of EDM 310 and still check in to see what the class is reading about from time to time. That led me to your blog, and your fascinating insights kept me here.

    You nailed it...they want to be an adult one moment and a child the next. And often times their rudeness doesn't seem offensive to them in any way. I am wearing down from trying to make them black and white, right and wrong. I want to "accept the duality" and "embrace the mystery" now, before I become the stern-faced, disgusted with the world middle-school teacher that I see in my colleagues.

    Thanks for inspiring thought tonight!

  11. Hey Mr. Spencer,

    I am Jessica Hadaway a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 at South Alabama. I really loved this post. I loved how you used a pencil to describe a fourteen year old. Sketchy, temporary, permanent. Aren't kids this way? As a parent I find all of mine to be this way from the 11 year old down to my three year old. Life is full of ebbs and flows and like I wrote in my blog post we have to give our students grace to be kids and yet love them enough to be firm. I love how you said you are "sketching it in pencil". I am encouraged and motivated to keep sketching my life in pencil too! Thank you your writing.
    Jessica Hadaway
    Dr. Strange's EDM 310

  12. Hi Mr. Spencer, my name is Erin Tillman and I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class. Your blog posts are very interesting, but I especially enjoyed this one. I have never thought of a child as a pencil, but the description makes complete sense. Children are constantly changing just like the drawings on a paper. They are molded and perfected through hard work from teachers/parents. The student you described seems to have his act together when it comes to thinking logically. I can only hope my kids will be able to respond to a situation like he did.

    Erin Tillman
    University of South Alabama
    Dr. Strange's EDM 310

  13. Hi! I am from Dr. Strange's EDM310, and I love that you know your students so well. Describing your students as pencils was a great way for us to better understand them. I would much rather be like a pencil, than an ink pen.

  14. Mr. Spencer,
    Your pencil metaphors are really entertaining and thought provoking. As a former 9th grade teacher, I could relate to the identity crisis that this "tween" age group experiences. Thanks for shedding a whole new light on their dilemma for me. They are struggling to decide if they are adults or kids. We are able to watch them use the pencil and other mediums to mold and shape themselves. Luckily they have the ability to make changes and corrections along the way.

    Thanks again,
    Kristin from EDM310

  15. Hi, Mr. Spencer
    I am Cassandra in Dr. Strange EDM310 class. I like your metaphors about the pencils, and how is compliments the job of a pencil. I think our minds are just that because we can have one thought and then it can quickly be changed. Thanks for the great post. This is my favorite.
    Sandra Williams' Class Blog

  16. Hi, I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. I really enjoyed reading this post. It made me laugh. My son just entered middle school this year and his mood swings are exactly what Darlene above commented about her boyfriend's sons. Some days my son is moody and unhappy and then there are other days he wants to share and talk. I just try to keep the lines of communication open.

  17. Hi,

    My name is Gaillard and I am in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at The University of South Alabama. I absolutely love this post! I can definitely relate to all the different moods of middle school kids because I have a 14 year old brother. This post made me smile. I loved the metaphors you used. This post was brilliant! I can't wait to read some more of your posts.

  18. Hi, My name is Sarah Pierce and I am in Dr. Strange's EDM103 class at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I totally agree with your post about students seeking independence yet not quite wanting to leave their childhood security behind. Almost all seniors cannot wait to graduate and leave home whether going off to college or just sharing an apartment with a friend. Moving out, though, means you have to make more decisions about money mainly but personal relationship situations can also be tough to deal with (college roommates, job colleagues, bosses, etc.) Parents and teachers have a tough job trying to let adolescents find their way in the world.

  19. Mr. Spencer,

    My name is Courtney and I'm a student in Dr. Strange's class at South Alabama. I love the blog posts I have read! I especially love this one--I've never thought of middle school kids as pencils. But you are right--they can not help how they act and react sometimes! I have cousins who are in middle and high school and they are just trying to figure out who they are in this world--and where their emotions fit in to all of it as well! Thanks for the blog post!


  20. Hi Mr. Spencer,
    My name is Kristen Hayes and I am in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I have read some of your posts and I really enjoy them. This one was especially enjoyable because you say a middle school student is like a pencil. I agree with you about how middle schoolers act. Most of the time they are not being rude, but creative. They often can not help the way they are acting and I love how you're so open minded about it. I pick two kids up from school everyday and they are 12 and 13, brother and sister. I want to kill them sometimes, but I have to stop and think I was the same way and every other middle schooler is acting this way. It's who they are and we all need to start being as open minded as you about the matter! Great post!

  21. Hi,
    I am a student in Dr. Strange's class too. I love everything you said in this post! I have a friend that has a daughter in her teens. She can be a little abnoxious and quite annoying at times but that is who she is right now. Every time she starts to do something that shows her cute personality, her mom stops her. She is so terrified of what people think that she is holding her daughter back from just being herself. I told her one time to just let her get it all out of her system so she won't act this way as an adult. She finally let her sing karaoke at a restaurant one night and I thought she was going to hide under the table. She's a great mom but I just don't think she realized the negative impact she was having on her daughter by not letting her show that side. I think your blog says it all that teachers need to be less serious on some things. I feel that teachers need to still teach students there is a time and a place but to let them get dirty sometimes. Great post!

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. Hello,
    My name is LaChandra Lett. I currently enrolled at The University of South Alabama taking Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class. I think your postings are great. The power of your writings help people think in a totally different manner. I must admit your work is bright and clever. At first I did not understand the irony of the metaphors but I read more of your postings and finally got the point. Thank you for sharing your amazing thoughts and ideas.

    LaChandra Lett

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Hi Mr. Spencer,

    I am a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class. I really liked this post. My plan is to become a middle school teacher, and this post will be extremely helpful in future. As I was reading the post I thought, that is a very bright student. I say that because of the how the student replied to the teacher. I would have never expected an eighth grader to say anything like that, especially "school wasn't a place, it was the people and the ideas". Brilliant!

  26. Hello. I am one of Dr. Strange's students. I love the imagery in this post. Your writing is very creative. I believe I would have to re-read this post a few times to fully comprehend all the hidden messages. The sharp and dull edges of a pencil mark resonate the teenager's battle to reach for autonomy with one hand while holding firm to childhood with the other; this I see as a middle school substitute teacher. I must agree with you.

  27. Hi Mr. Spencer,

    I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts. You have helped me to regain some insight into metaphors. I never truly understood their importance until reading your work. I think it is great that you are finding a way to work with the gray areas of life as well as the parts that are written in ink. All teachers should open their minds to the never-ending changes we all go, especially as young teenagers. Thank you for sharing all of your thoughts!

  28. Hey Mr. Spencer,
    I must say you have a way with words. I have to really think about the point you are trying to make. The metaphors you are using are very creative even though they sometimes confuse me.
    I like the point of this post because, like others that have commented before me, I have a little brother that is a teenager. I need to remember this post when he starts to show his smart-y pants personality.
    I am a student at U.S.A. and am taking Edm310 under Dr. Strange. Feel free to contact me at
    Great Post,

  29. Hi, Mr. Spencer! My name is Kathryn Buchanan from Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I have immensely enjoyed reading your blog posts, and I think that you have made many great points concerning education and how we should go about teaching. This post, in particular, struck me as meaningful and important. We often forget that students are going through many changes in their youth, and it is vital that we encourage and teach them as kids and support and push them as adults. They sketch, and we edit. Thank you very much for letting me read your blog!
    -Kathryn Buchanan

  30. Hey! My name is Sterling! I am in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed this article and I thought you did a great job! I completely agree with you on 8th Graders behavior. Sometimes they cannot control their behavior. I believe that sometimes it is just the age they are. Great Job!


  31. Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I enjoyed reading this post.