When a Child Hates Pencils

I have a student who walked into class the first day and began biting on the pencil nervously and eventually he simply snapped it in half, leaving shards of our beautiful crisp medium on the floor.

At this point, I am supposed to send him to the office, send a telegram to his mother and begin the "step process" to eventually isolate him entirely from learning.  Except, the school system is precisely the cause of his problem.  I know it sounds bizarre, but the boy hates pencils.  Not pencils, really, but writing and his hatred of writing has little to do with a hatred of language or expression or anything that naturally flows into writing.

See, Josiah has spent the last three years giving almost no effort in writing and in response, he has received huge block letters with the words FAIL.  It's not that he had the chance to write anything substantial anyway.  In an effort to create a 20th Century factory-style education, his teacher used isolated-skill worksheets (the name says it right there - they aren't "think sheets") and he grew weary of being bribed with colorful stamps and peppy praise.

Pencils were not used for learning, but for working.

Then, we he began acting up, teachers sent him to another classroom as part of the Shame-based Oppositional Behavior Process (or SOB Process), where he had to copy words out of the dictionary or write "I will not be a class fuck-up" repeatedly.

Want real education reform?  Buy pencils, yes.  Purchase some crisp new paper as well.  However, nothing will change in student learning until we get over a system of bribes and extortion.

Our principal encouraged me to keep Josiah away from pencils until he was "mature" (as if a pencil was something one has to mature into) and has "proven that he can earn the privilege of using them again."  I ignored his advice and handed Josiah a new pencil the second day of school.  I told him he could draw, write poetry, tell a story, whatever.

"Will I get a stamp?"

"No. I don't do stamps."

"A letter?"

"No letters here either."

"Then why should I do this?"

"I write because I have something to say.  I draw because I want to create.  I can't control it.  There's something in me that propels me to draw."

"Will you read it?"

"Yep.  I'll even write comments and on some parts I'll ask you to do an assignment I choose.  I'll make some corrections.  I'm still your teacher.  But my goal is feedback, not judgement."

He tears a page out of the journal, writes a poem about wanting to fly and then creates an origami flying dragon with the poetry written on the wings.  It's beautiful and quirky and it didn't happen because of letters or stamps or peppy praise.


  1. Hi! I am a student at the University of South Alabama and I am in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class! I think it is important for teachers to read this post! We HAVE to realize that punishment does not always work and can have even worse effects in the end. I thought your post was really down to earth and I can tell that you think deeply into what really works for students individually. I enojoyed reading.

  2. Well written Tom! This story is a window inside the world of a classroom where both boys and girls are being catered for. As the mother of a son, our experience is that classrooms are not all places where boys get to participate in learning too. Thanks for your insights - much to think about here. Regards, Deb (Sydney, Australia)
    P.S. I visited because the link to this blog entry was left on the NSW Dept of Education social network (Yammer) so these ideas are being shared, Tom! Good job!