do we need educational pencil degrees?

Sometimes I wish that I could hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign around my neck and wear it at places where it is socially acceptable to be intrusive. I'd wear it at church, during the "shake hands with each other," time. I'm not so great at sharing the peace. I'd prefer to keep my peace to myself.

I'd also wear it on train rides, where it is openly acceptable to talk politics or religion or anything else one considers personal.

Tonight, I want to hold the sign up at a diner.

"Is that homework?" a man asks.

"Yes, it's part of my Pencils in Society class."

"Oh, I see. Is that part of your master's degree?" the guy asks.

"Yes, it is," I add avoiding eye contact.

"Seems like a silly degree to me," he continues.

"I beg your pardon," I finally look up.

"Well, it's just that pencil advocates always complain about not being included in the conversations about education. Yet, they have their own pencil conferences and pencil degrees and pencil plogs. I mean, last time I checked, there was an entire category on the 1896 Eduplogger Awards dedicated to pencil plogs. Don't get me wrong, I use pencils. I should state that outright. I use pencils everyday in my job. Love them. I carry one around with me in my pocket. On a bad day, I worry that it might puncture my scrotum, but on most days, they become a part of daily life."

"I'm not sure where you're going with this," I add.

"Well, we don't have a separate world in the workforce that's all about pencils. If I go to a leadership conference, we use pencils. If I go to a workplace productivity conference, we use pencils. But I would never feel the need to get a whole degree in Pencil Business or attend a Business Pencils Conference."

"I see your point. But these venues are necessary as long as we are shut out of the dialogue on curriculum and instruction."

"As long as educational technology and education remain separate entities, both will exist in a fantasy world of tech-denial or technophilia. See, we'll have all these people gushing about new gadgets in our Brave New Industrial World. We'll hear about connectivity of the telegraph and the global community and all of that and if we're not careful, we'll miss the reality that there are some dark sides to industrialization. Meanwhile, we'll have a separate faction advocating a 'back-to-basics' approach that plays on fear and nostalgia. I'm guessing you're of the technophilia camp, right?"

"I love technology, but I'm no technocrat. My students use paper and pencil, but they also criticize the role of industrialization, the loss of community with technology and the dangers of developing a vapor-self when moving toward a text-based personna."

"I'm glad. We need people who use technology to be focussed on the human element first. But here's the thing: wouldn't you be better off introducing technology to people involved in leadership and curriculum and policy?"

I'm wishing for my Do Not Disturbed sign. Right now I am definitely disturbed.

from acceptable to ethical

Paul the Pre-Industrial Poet and his wife Gloria invite us over for dinner.  I take a copy of the Acceptable Use Agreement with me so that I can grill Paul on his approach.

"Paul, do your students sign a Acceptable Use Agreement?"

"They do.  I pass it out on the first day."

I hand him mine and ask him for his thoughts.  "I don't like it much, I admit.  It's not like we have a Acceptable Use agreement for math class.  Yet, we hand out protractors that can quickly turn into shanks."

My wife adds, "And we lie to kids about language arts.  We're not teaching them the art of language.  It's all science the way it's taught.  Why isn't there an Acceptable Use Agreement on the dangerous dark art of words?  Last time I checked, nations still go to war over words. Couples still fight over words.  Sticks and stones will break bones, but words can crush a soul."

Gloria points out, "Kids in your school mix chemicals in science.  Which is more dangerous: a pencil or chemicals that could potentially be fatal?"

I turn to Paul and ask him why he bothers.  "Look, I'm not against the Acceptable Use Agreement, per se.  I'd love to have a Acceptable Use Philosophy that covers all classes.  Let's be honest, don't we want kids to use the resources effectively?"

"Yeah, I guess.  But it should go without saying."

"You use that word 'should' but reality is reality. People 'should' avoid adding raisins to desserts and salads, but they do.  All the time. So, you have to work around it."

"What is your approach?"

"Oh, I just pull the raisins out of the cookie or the carrot cake."

"No, I mean, what's your approach to the Acceptable Use Agreement?"

"My students have their parents sign the Acceptable Use Agreement and then we develop our own agreement.  The first part is a guarantee of academic freedom.  It spells out their rights and it includes aspects that connect with pencils. The second is a Code of Ethics that they promise to adhere to as they approach learning.  We create a new document each year and we sign it collectively as a reminder of both the individual and social responsibility."

"Do kids understand that it applies to pencils?" my wife asks.

"They realize that it applies to all learning and to all learning tools.  So, they can't snap a pencil and they can't stab someone with a protractor and they can't use words to tear a student down."

"What do you do with the Acceptable Use Agreement?" I ask him.

"I turn them in to the district where they remain in a file folder. Students forget about it, but often we go back and visit our rights and Bill of Rights and Code of Ethics."

why I don't care about the tablet

"Hey, Techno-Tommy, are you going to buy a tablet?" asks Mr. Brown.

"No. Not anytime soon," I respond.

"It's supposed to revolutionize the paper world. I thought you were a paper-geek."

"It just seems like hype. They might as well say, 'This is hand-crafted from the finest paper of the magical forests and consecrated by the holiest of of all woodland creatures. Every page is guaranteed to save the life of a sprite in danger.' Or 'Use this to turn water into wine and cure leprosy.' I just don't buy it."

Mr. Brown stares at me for a moment. "Really? Medieval mythology and thinly veiled Bible references? I'm talking technology, here, Tommy. It's supposed to revolutionize the paper world."

"Don't get me wrong. A tablet is cool. But it is not revolutionary. The Guttenberg Press was revolutionary. The horseless carriage just might prove to be revolutionary. The American Revolution - now that's revolutionary."

"Far from it," Mr. Brown begins. "As a Canadian, let me offer a critique. You stole democracy from the Greeks, your republican system from the Romans, the Bill of Rights from your states who stole it from the British. When will you understand that you simply aren't that special?"

"Okay, but you would agree that the tablet is mostly hype."

"Maybe. But you can flip through pages and touch it and take notes on books."

"It's a pad of yellow paper made from the over-expensive iCompany. I've been taking notes in books for years. I just don't think it's that special, that's all."

"But it's so much thinner than a notebook.  You'll grant me that, won't you."

"Yes, but I never thought my notebooks were too bulky or heavy or cumbersome.  I've never thrown out my back trying to care a composition book."

"Consider this, though. Often small changes are what make a huge difference. The shift from scrolls to pages revolutionized reading. The double-entry inventory forms helped the Spanish dominate the world. That and their boats. Oh, and their suave accents. See, it's little things. Yes, railroads are great, but a hundred years from now everyone will drive cars and trains will simply be an annoying, if quaint, relic of the past. But everyone will be carrying around tablets to take notes."

"Perhaps. I just don't see what makes a tablet so incredibly different from a stack of paper or a notebook. And for what it's worth, I'll refrain from the hype until I see the results. After awhile, all the slick marketing starts to feel like the junk mail promising to increase one's manhood or the letters saying I've won a UK lottery."

a rebel without a clue

Our plog hosting site is across the street. It's a bit like a library, but a little different. People can peruse the plogs, but also subscribe to them and have it sent directly to their home. Some plogs require registration to view or comment and others simply require a word verification code (It's a great device that may some day ward off robots. For now, though, it works great at keeping Phil the Town Drunk from writing obscene comments)

As we cross the road, we face a barricade sponsored by SiteSense, the same folks who keep us away from "unnecessary field trips."

He kindly tells us that the district has restricted us from this site and that we can go elsewhere, but he will not permit us to take any steps forward. I stare at his baton and assume he means business. The Paper World is full of such posturing and though I never test it out, I assume it is correct. Years ago, I would hand-write addresses incorrectly and the postal worker would send it back with a stern "You have performed an illegal operation." I kept expecting the Paper and Parcel Police to pound on my door and take me to prison.

On the way back, a student tells me that it's what she expected.

"Our district slogan is 'Learning for Life,' but life is the very thing they try to avoid."

"One of our values is community, yet we have huge walls that keep us in and the community out."

* * *

After school, I stop by the district office. The Assistant Superintendent of Paper-related Learning explains the issue to me.

"Oh yeah, you're supposed to publish all student work to the iSites. We paid good money and we're going to use it."

"Yes, but the Plogger site is free and easier to customize and kids can visit it when they aren't at school."

"But the iSites works with the iParchment and it flows seamlessly in a system. We know the company and we trust them. Besides, I heard that there might be pornographic plogs across the street. Gertrude was tell me a story about . . . "

"Look, I highly doubt it. But if there is, you can always fill out a Report Abuse card for the curator and she will throw the plog in the trash."

"Quite honestly, we are worried about your approach to safety. Your students never even signed the Fair Use policy."

"What do you mean?"

"We have a distinct code explaining how paper and pencil must be used."

"No one told me that."

"Well, you never asked."

"So, do they have a Fair Use Policy in the wood shop? I mean, it seems that they are much more likely to lose a hand in woodshop than, say, gouge out an eye using pencils."

"No, shop class doesn't have the same rules."

"Do we block the choir from singing at the town square? I mean, I heard there is drinking and gambling that goes on over there."

"But that is supervised, Mr. Johnson. Your students could be meandering through a site that SiteSense considers potentially dangerous. They have a scientific process . . ."

"Science is about reason and skepticism. It's about inquiry and exploration. This is hysteria. It's not science. Technology, perhaps, but not science."

I leave with a stack of Fair Use forms for students to hand out to their parents. I am struck by the notion that our community is afraid of all the wrong aspects of pencil and paper. No one questions the proper age and development of a child using a pencil. No one asks whether it is a good thing for a child to have a community audience. No one looks at the death of an oral culture when we embrace all things print-related.

I'm not opposed to having some guidelines or even some paperwork.  What scares me is that we get so hung up in creating structures of security that no one seems interested in protecting paper freedom.

(note: I was influenced on this post by a comment made by Josie)

should plogs be public?

Six graders snicker at the word plog. It sounds dirty, not in our Victorian sense, but in that innocent sense that you expect twelve year olds to have. Kids like turning it into phrases like "Don't plog the toilet," or into a makeshift cursed word like "Son of a plog!" Still, despite the strange terminology, students take pride in their plogs.

When I pass back their final projects, a student asks me what we should do with them.

"Save them, I guess."

"Can we make them public?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, there is this site I go to and it's like a library, but you can publish your plog and anyone can browse it."

"Wouldn't that be dangerous? I mean, wouldn't you worry about creepy people?"

"Maybe," another student interjects, "but I wonder if that's mostly hype. I mean, we let kids sing solos and do concerts for the public, right? And our school already has a baseball team. What's the difference?"

Another student adds, "Actually, a plog seems a little more anonymous. At a baseball game, they see you in person, learn your entire name and have physical access to you. A plog just means they have access to your public thoughts."

"Anyone in the world could visit this site," I point out.

"Do you really think anyone in the world is just going to randomly find out plogs?" a student asks.  "No,  they have to be searching for it. And if someone across the globe wants to take a boat to our great city and read the work of a bunch of sixth-graders, I say go for it!"

"What if you accidentally said something personal?" another student asks.

"Am I going to quit going to a diner because someone might eavesdrop?"

Another student points out, "I'd like to know what people think of my writing. If someone leaves a bad comment on the margins, I can always erase it."

"I don't know," another boy says. "I get random mail from strange people. I'm not going to divulge my secret, but apparently I have a large some of money in an account in Africa."

Finally, Ruth, a typically shy child, raises her hand and says, "I don't want my posts to be public. I think they belong to the classroom. They should be read by us. These walls aren't all bad. They define our community. I wrote with my classmates in mind. If I knew the public wanted to read my plog, I would have written it a little differently."

A boy adds to her comment, "If we knew that these would go to a public site, we would have been too careful in our approach. We would have tried to sound more important or more humble or more grown-up. I'm with Ruth. I like the barrier we have of a classroom wall."

I quickly develop a compromise, "What if we took this route? What if we played it safe at first and created a three-tiered approach? We could copy and paste the best parts of our personal plogs and made that a public magazine. We could then share our personal plog with the class and then have a separate private journal."

The class agreed with this solution, but then a boy pulled me aside and said, "Mr. Johnson, I think we should get to choose if we make our personal plog private or public. I think every student should have ownership of his or her voice."

In Response to a Ted Talk

Every so often this guy named Ted likes to gather around the world's movers and shakers to offer short lectures on the future of the twentieth century.  I know it sounds a little cultish, but these aren't magical mind readers.  They don't sacrifice animals to the industrial gods or anything. Most of them are geeks like me, just smarter and with more money and influence and power.

Over this past weekend, they invited my class to visit the latest Ted Talk (I give him points for alliteration).  A student pointed out to me, "Isn't that Andrew Carnegie?"

"It looks like it is."

"I can't believe he is lecturing us on what it means to be a philanthropic citizen.  I enjoy our library, but I have an uncle who worked in one of his steel mills.  When the machine chopped off his arm the company did nothing."

I sat uncomfortably through the talk.  Apparently acquiring a massive amount of wealth through the use of monopolistic endeavors gives a man moral authority over others. I whisper to the boy, "Having free books isn't that great of a privilege when you have lost your eyesight in the steel mill."

Next was a man named Phil Bates.  He seemed like a nice guy, slightly fidgety and a little shaky, but the kind of man who I would probably enjoy having a pint with.  Bates first talked about the need to fix all of the poverty in Africa.  It had a slight tone of "white man's burden" to it, especially considering the fact that he failed to address the larger issues of poverty, such as colonialism and imperialism.  (Who knows, perhaps he was influenced by Kipling's poetry) Still, I respect a guy who will use wealth to help others. I can't picture Rockefeller or JP Morgan following his example.

However, I couldn't handle his next points.  He spoke eloquently about the need to create a new pencil-integrated curriculum prepared to meet the demands of a New Industrial Economy.  "Schools should move from one-room schoolhouses to factories producing workers that are knowledgable about our new global economy. Teachers need to be held accountable.  Raise their salaries based upon their performance.  We need better creative thinkers and our lack of creative teachers is a part of this creative crisis." he implored.

I took offense to his speech for the following reasons:
  1. Phil Bates never finished college.  He wasn't a great student, either.  The man has no formal knowledge about the educational system, no registered research to back up his claims and no peer-reviewed articles under his name.
  2. Phil Bates earned his income by stealing the intellectual property of another company, marketing it as his own and creating a monopoly in the paper and pencil industry. So it's a little hypocritical when he talks about the need to develop a "creative mind" for future entrepreneurs. Unless, of course, by creativity one means, "find a creative way to take somebody else's ideas."  
  3. It is not charity to offer your paper products at a discount.  It is product dumping.  Telling kids they "need it" because "that's what businesses use" only stifles future pencil innovations and ensures that your company has a greater market share in the future.  
  4. The assumption that schools only exist to serve private industry goes against the very notion of public education and the original intent of developing critical thinking citizens.  
  5. If you are really worried about training better factory workers for a "global economy," then you need to create vocational programs that do this very thing.  But don't tell me that my only goal in teaching sixth graders is to create compliant workers. 
  6. I'm a good teacher and I teach because I care.  I teach because I believe it is meaningful.  No gold star reward system will ever motivate me to improve.  
  7. Having money doesn't mean you should have a stronger voice in educational reform.  Even if this were true, Phil Bates has never once donated to my school.  It is funded locally by hardworking citizens.  It belongs to us, not him.

Utopia Shattered

After visiting the second school, I told other teachers about the amazing Utopia I had seen.  My glossy-eyed edu-crush was shattered when I met with the principal the next day after school.

"I'm amazed with what you have here.  How did you pull it off?" 

"Tom, this place got real political when we began to change.  Twelve teachers quit.  People want autonomy and we were asking people to reject practices that weren't working. One teacher told me that she relished in being the Worksheet Warrior.  This place works because the teachers agree upon this model."

"I'm impressed by the way it runs."

"Sometimes I worry that we simply attracted great teachers and then some of them have had their hands tied in collaboration and might be more effective if left alone."

"It seems like it's working, though."

"Maybe so, but change doesn't happen in a vacuum.  The social and political and economic forces are hard. You know for a fact that both parties have been involved in handing out administrative jobs, right?  And the large textbook companies essentially bribed our Governing Board.  I almost lost my job in the first year."

I give him a puzzled look for his short lecture on Gilded Age politics. Yes, I know that corruption is the norm.  Some of the best teachers had to pay for a teaching position.  Yet, that has little to do with pencils and paper. 

"What I'm saying is to avoid the thoughts about reform. If you want to be effective, teach well.  Focus on your group of thirty students. If you are using pencils and paper effectively, it will catch on.  The change will happen organically."

"But your school created structures for change.  Your teachers do research and plan curriculum together and . . . "

"I know, but sometimes I wonder if they would have been better off without so much rigid structure. What's important is that they're talking about instruction instead of arguing about discipline or complaining about parents. Besides, things didn't improve for us until I backed down a bit and gave them the reins."
He pauses for a moment and then tells me, "Look, I hope you saw some good strategies, took a few notes on that fancy iParchment you have there and go back to your classroom with ideas. If you learn anything from this place it's to let your theory drive your instruction and then think of the pencils afterward. It's not the pencils, it's the people."

"What about implementing pencil integration school-wide?"

"Let it happen organically, Tom.  You have some great teachers at your school.  Let them ask you about pencils and move at their own pace.  If it's imposed from the top, they'll resent the change.  Didn't some guru in the first century say that change begins with something as small as a mustard seed?"

a contrast of two schools

I visited two schools in our district that had a different approach to their philosophy of pencil integration. The first was touted as a state-of-the-art facility (it's more state-of-the-science, with hardly anything artistic about it) based upon a new Pencil Pedagogy.  The second was a school that worked toward meaningful learning with pencils playing a secondary role.

The Pencil Palace

In the first school, I saw the teacher talking a great deal.  She stood in front of the class with her Smart Chart and lectured students on vocabulary.  Students were supposed to take notes and use their "expression" notepad.  However, most of them simply drew pictures while she created sentence diagrams.  They were creating expressions alright. Afterward, I watched the students use the self-paced Pencil Island program, where they completed a series of worksheets. Yet, none of them ever picked up a book and read anything.

I once worked with her.  She had been a phenomenal language arts teacher.  Students read individually, in small groups and in partners.  She would model what they needed in quick, interactive lessons.  Yet, it seemed that, with the new Pencil Pedagogy, she completely abandoned everything that had once worked for her.

Indeed, in most classrooms I listened to hardware hype, but few teachers discussed actual teaching practice.  "Look Techno-Tommy, these binders I'm using are amazing.  You can drop it and it won't break. You can add tabs.  They're amazing."  So is student learning.  Most students in his class spent more time figuring out the binder than figuring out the math problems.

In another class, the teacher spent most of his time checking his mail pile while students sent short-hand messages or abandoned the school altogether to go catch a baseball game.  When I pointed this out, he responded, "Look, they're safe.  Besides, there's a lot of math in baseball.  So I figure, let them go on their own field trip.  When they come back they can add it to their pencil log."

A Place with Pencils

In the next school I visited, the teachers had similar lessons.  Students used concept maps to plan out writing and they created their own documents for five paragraph essays.  Those who struggled could check out a tutorial binder.  Teachers utilized the larger shared documents for brainstorming activities and students passed papers only during the editing phase.

In math class, they varied from slates to pencils and one teacher even allowed students to use their own personal, miniature notebooks to take short-hand notes.  Students in the reading class actually read from physical books and used a graphic organizer with paper and pencil only to shift back to reading and then quickly wrote their response on a plog.

When I asked teachers about their lessons, none of them focused on the pencils and paper.  Instead, they discussed which strategies worked best with which students. A teacher explained it this way,  "Look, we like pencils.  We just get more excited about learning.  Some schools focus on pencil literacy.  We focus on literacy."

Another teacher pointed out, "Our school begins behind, because many of our students are still learning English. We differentiate between innovation and novelty.  In most cases, novelty is a new toy.  Innovation is a new way of thinking."

"What about the standardization of your school.  It seems like you guys are doing the exact same, rigid curriculum."

"It seems that way, but it's horizontal, Tom.  Our school lets us plan together and we have discussions about what strategies work best.  Once we define the strategies then we talk about what tools to use.  Sometimes it's slates and sometimes it's pencils. We have similar lessons, but we customize them to meet the needs of our students."

"Don't you feel less autonomous?"

"Not at all.  We're co-researchers.  The teachers document what is working in both qualitative and quantitative terms.  Instead of fighting against an imposed curriculum, we're working toward shaping it."

"So, it's not the pencils?" I asked.

"I don't deny that the pencils have helped.  We use the same tools in our planning that the students use in their learning.  But the power is in the way we think and not in the tools we use."

Another teacher stepped in, "Michelangelo wasn't a genius because he had the world's best chisel.  It was his creative mind that made him a genius."

what they never warn you about

Before beginning our second week of a one-to-one pencil to student unit, I explain to them that they will need to create some documents. I assume the skills will transfer over from the students' use of Pen Pal networks and plogs.

"Here's how it works.  When you are done with your document, write your name at the top and then save it inside of your folder."

Pretty simple, right?  Students of the Pencil Native generation should understand this without my explicit directions.

So, I am surprised the next day when students can't find their documents.

One girls says, "I set it in a folder and wrote the name on the folder."

"Did it already have a name on the folder?"

"Yeah, but I thought it was like a slate, where we change names when we change slates."

Not a problem. I pull papers out and pass them out, but I quickly run into a stack of nine papers that are untitled.  I have a hunch that this is simply adolescent immaturity. Some day when students have papers beginning in kindergarten, they will still forget to write their names at the top.

Two students have no papers at all.

"Where did you put yours?" I ask one girl.

"I left it on the desk top."

"Then it was probably put in the trash," I explain.

"Uh oh," a boy interrupts.  "So that metal bin is a trash can."


"I put my document in there."

"Didn't you read the word 'trash can' on the side?"

He shakes his head sheepishly. "Can I go get it back?"

"The custodian emptied the trash yesterday."

The boy next to him explains, "I erased it.  I forgot that it wasn't like a slate."

Mrs. Jackson enters the room in the midst of the chaos and I say, "I'm done.  I'm done with papers and pencils and folders and kids setting papers in the trash.  I'm done with pencil sharpeners that leave dust on the ground and . . . "

"I'm not a fan of pencils.  You know that.  However, where else are they going to learn some of these basics?  Yes, students are advanced, but they miss some of these small skills about organizing their papers or writing their names or setting them in folders.  I don't recommend wasting class time teaching this, but if they learn some of these pencils skills, then isn't that just a bonus of a great education?"

"I guess that's true."

"Besides, when they used slates, didn't they erase the boards before you had read them? Didn't they bang erasers together sometimes?  It's a part of being a kid."

I think back to the PIE (Pencil Integrated Education) Conference I attended last year.  The presenters spoke eloquently about each medium and how students would use it for amazing projects.  While I do not deny the power of pencils, there was an element missing from the discussion.  No one seemed to recognize the developmental level of sixth graders.  What I mean is that no one reminded me that kids will do some illogical, confusing things simply because they are kids.

Mrs. Jackson leaves the room with this reminder, "If pencil literacy is like true literacy, you need to give your students permission to make big mistakes.  My son is four and barely recognizes letters.  A few times he's even torn a page or two out of a book.  But my hope is he'll grow into it and eventually love reading."

field trip update

The principal pulls me aside and says, "So, your request to go to the university has been approved.  It looks like you'll be able to go on a field trip after all, Techno-Tommy."

"What happened?"

"Well, the district decided that the solution is not so much an issue of all sites being bad, but rather some of them needing to be restricted.  So, they outsourced it to a company called SiteSense. It searches out keywords and prevents teachers from allowing kids to wander to dangerous sites."

After investigating the SiteSense program, I'm a little skeptical.  I mailed out five searches and each were denied.  Apparently we can't visit with a lawyer, because of the use of the word "bar" in American Bar Association.  We can't listen to any music.  We cannot be present where anyone might access a Pen Pal network.

A student of mine decided to write a letter to the district:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am a sixth grader who is concerned about your current field trip policy.  You are scared that I might use a Pen Pal network incorrectly.  However, instead of teaching me boundaries, you cut me off from any letters entirely.  You are worried about me listening to ragtime so you cut off music (and thus a major aspect of education) completely.

Can I go to a hospital and interview a doctor about breast cancer?  Nope, SiteSense says that any field trip that includes the word "breast" is banned.  Can I go to the botanical garden for botany research? Apparently, merely hearing the word pussy willow will turn me into a binge-drinking, amoral hedonist.

What if we tried this instead?  Teachers could use their own judgment and monitor field trips.  If a student wastes time passing a note on a Pen Pal network, perhaps the field trip wasn't as valuable of a learning experience as one had assumed.  If a child wanders over to a baseball game instead of going to the museum, perhaps the child individually needs to be reprimanded.

We are a nation built on the notion of civil liberties.  Your district vision includes "model citizens" and "lifelong learning."  Why not treat field trips as a chance to model critical thinking and citizenship?  Instead of punishing everyone, what if you trust us to navigate field trips with the guidance of our teacher instead of a SiteSense that rarely makes any sense at all.



when hardware fails

Mr. Brown walks into the supply room with a candle in his hand,"How does a school expect its teachers to use the Edison Projectors if the electricity keeps going out?"

"I know.  I not only don't have electricity, they forgot the paper shipment system updates, so my entire system of operating has crashed."

"Crashed? That's a bit extreme. Besides, operating system?  Really?  It's paper, Tom. It doesn't have to be a system."

"Good point, Brown." (If they insist on changing the name colleague with the word "teammate" then I'm going to call him by just his last name and drop the "mister" entirely.  Brown, for his part, has started bringing sunflower seeds and scratching himself.  If we're going to use a sports metaphor, might as well go all out.) "But it's impossible for the paper and pencil system to work when they won't do a few purchase order updates. What's the point of one-to-one pencil to student ratio if I can't keep things updated?"

"People ask me why I'm not switching over to pencils and paper and Edison Projectors and phonographs.  You know how often slates break?  Never.  You know how often I run out of chalk?  Never.  I keep a huge stash of it under my desk.  Chalk doesn't get old, so I don't do any updates.  It's cheap.  It's portable.  It's durable. Tom, it's an issue of taking care of hardware.  That's why schools don't have meaningful pencil integration."

"Perhaps.  Some day, I imagine there will be machines that make copies for you and I won't have to worry about whether kids have paper, because they won't have to copy information from the board. We won't see the human errors, because it will come down to pushing a button."

"Yeah, but think about this, Tom.  A hundred years from now, they'll have telegraphs in each school and people will be able to access information from around the globe.  Yet, the telegraph connection will break constantly.  They'll have copy machines, but the machine will jam daily and they'll forget to order paper for it."

For all the talk about teachers being motivated to use pencils, no one seems to address this issue.  A teacher isn't going to create phenomenal PowerSlides, if the Edison Projector might not have electricity.  A teacher won't create a true pencil-based lesson if the access to paper is unpredictable.  Teachers want to have some certainty that the hardware they use will work.  Few of them relish in the unspoken role of improvisational speaker meets babysitter meets handy man while a group of restless kids sit on their hands and wait to learn.

No one does this explicitly, but on a subconscious level, we become timid about integrating new tools, because we are never sure if the tool will work properly.  We plan a lesson but then plan a back up lesson or a backup of the backup and it makes us a little skittish. Like a carpenter with a wobbly-handled hammer, we know that tools in schools are often unpredictable in their failure and in becoming overly careful, our students miss out on a full education.

from pencil citizenship to citizenship

I meet with Paul the Pre-industrial Poet after my fourth day of our one-to-one unit.  I always feel conspicuously white when we hang out at this diner. I believe in Progress and so I imagine that, a century from now, we won't have a China Town or a Little Havana or an all-black Harlem.  I can't fathom that, over a hundred years after Reconstruction, we would still have segregated churches or neighborhoods or media.

"What do you think of the whole pencil citizenship idea?" he asks me.

"I guess it has its place in using pencils.  I mean, I suppose we need to educate kids on the dangers of pen pal predators and the problems with pencil sharpeners, but it seems a little overinflated right now."

"I'm not against the term," he adds, "but it just seems like the focus should be on citizenship first and pencils second."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"I mean this.  If I thought about regular citizenship and all I taught students about was safety, we'd be living in an authoritarian regime.  I'd be scaring kids into following rules instead of developing a mentality of democracy, right?"

"I see what you mean.  So, pencil citizenship should include things like teaching kids to use a pencil to combat injustice and using paper to develop a social voice."

"Exactly.  I want students to know that pencil citizenship, if we're going to use that word, means analyzing how pencils are shaping humanity and how the written word shapes culture and community.  I want them to see how people like Frederick Douglass used pencils and paper to tell narratives that led to social change.  If all I do is teach kids how to avoid pen pal perverts, then I've failed."

"I wonder what it would look like to drop the word pencil from it.  I mean, what if we just said 'citizenship' and then focussed on what that means with pencils, images, photography, the printing press, music, poetry, whatever.  What if we added pencils as yet another tool that we analyze and use and apply to this concept of being a critical thinking, democratic citizen."

"I think it's a dangerous concept, because it goes beyond simply avoiding pedophiles and learning to write without using all capital letters.  Teaching citizenship from a critical perspective might mean they challenge the authority . . . "

"Which I don't seem to mind, unless they challenge me," I add.

I look out the foggy diner window and gaze at the gray pillar of smoke.

I point to it and say, "It seems eternal, unstoppable, unshakable.   The factory is a metaphor of our warehouse school system and slowly we are relegated to robotic machinery spouting out scripted curriculum. I keep thinking about when you mentioned an authoritarian regime. I'm thinking about the desks in a row and the difficulty of serving out of humility instead of being a dictator in the classroom.  I think about the hysteria over pencils and paper and the fear of low kill-and-drill test scores and our obsession with this Caravan to the Top."

"It's like we're all ruled by fear," he says.  "And those of us in the pencil world seem just as scared of not being innovative. For all the talk of a grand new pedagogy of paper and pencils, we have to define what it means to be well educated.  We need to explore a better metaphor than factories. Otherwise we end up simply creating a newer, shinier, Edison-projector-enhanced pencil factory that merely mimics what's already out there."

I wonder if one day we'll wake up in a daze, shake our heads and see with a little clarity that public education is meant to educate citizens on what it means to be free. I wonder if we'll walk out of the factory and ask ourselves, not just, "What new system do we need to create?" but "What did we lose?  What is buried under the industrial pavement?"

your SmartChart won't make my students any smarter

They send me to my annual PIS meeting. (Originally, the district representative called us the Pencil People, but when an edu-crat told him that PP could be offensive to some, he changed our names to Pencil Integration Specialists, which is just close enough to PISS to annoy the higher-ups, but just normal enough to be a coincidence).

One would assume that a meeting with all of the pencil enthusiasts would involve collaboration.  Instead, each meeting involves sitting down and listening to an overly enthusiastic consultant display diagrams about how amazing a new product can be. I'm sure that it's great, but it's a tool.  I've never been over-awed by a hammer or a screwdriver, either.

For what it's worth, I'm beginning to hate Edison Projectors and the whole PowerSlide program that most professionals use. PowerSlides lost their power a few years ago and the culprit was college professors in lecture halls and staff development meetings where they read slides that could have easily been handed to us on paper.

So the man is pitching a SmartChart, which is essentially flip chart paper in front of an Edison Projector.  He pulls out scissors and glue and cuts and pastes pictures of dolphins.

"Pretty dynamic, eh?"

"You can cut and paste.  You can save your charts and show them to another class."

He pulls out a pencil, draws a happy face and erases it. "Show me a chalkboard that does that." To my surprise, the teachers actually begin clapping, despite the fact that we've all been erasing information from chalkboards for years. Are they really this impressed or are they simply being courteous to our over-enthusiastic salesman.

"It will revolutionize your teaching experience."  Revolutions are bloody ordeals.  I just want learning tools.

Finally, when he asks for questions, I take the bait.  "Isn't this a little teacher-centered?  I mean, we've all been to boring meetings where someone just reads a slide presentation and the audience checks out after five minutes. I fear that teachers will get really excited about it, because many of them are like raccoons attracted to shiny new objects, at least when they are first exposed to technology.  It's not bad.  I was there at one time."

"I'm not seeing your point.  You are concerned about teachers being excited?"

"I'm concerned that there will be a disconnect between theory and practice.  Teachers will use this as a cool toy for lectures and thus students won't become any smarter by using a SmartChart."

"I see your concern.  First, I want to point out that this is not your average Edison Projector.  This includes paper and pencil integration and a cool stylus that allows you to draw."  Stylus? It's a pen.

"Second, you can use this in groups.  Have other kids reading in centers and let kids play games like hang man or a trivia game or let them view pictures and add comments. Why do you have to be the one using it?"

"With all due respect," (I hate that phrase and find myself using it precisely when I've lost any due respect) "this is a teacher-centered tool.  Many teachers aren't going to trust kids to use this by themselves. However, it's also unrealistic to keep giving us tools that are designed for lecture and then saying that we can just add them to learning centers. This product is designed for a lecture format.  Otherwise, you would have put us into learning centers and allowed us to use this."

"I'm modelling one simple way.  But really, try the learning center approach."

"Teachers need prep time and there are classroom management issues to work out," another teacher points out.

"The prep time is not an issue.  We have many great programs and trainings that our highly qualified staff offer . . ." I disconnect at this point, smile and grin and realize that any true dialog won't occur.

It's not that I hate SmartCharts.  It's just that it seems superfluous to add them to classrooms when students don't have paper or pencils.  Yes, we can use SmarCharts in learning centers.  However, if students cannot create their own PowerSlides and have no access to their own paper and pencil for previous planning, then the SmartChart will remain teacher-driven.

What's worse is that, because of the cost of buying SmartCharts, teachers will feel the pressure to use these often.  The technology will drive the instruction rather than the theory driving the implementation of technology and while the SmartChart people seem nice (if a little over-enthusiastic) their bottom line is sales and my bottom line is student learning.

phonograph man and the geeky gurus

A man rides his carriage up to the playground and stops the horses.  He pulls out a hand-cranked, ultra-portable, larger-than-the-cosmos phonograph.  It's not a pretty piece by any means.  Far from Mozart, it is a repetitive drum beat and a song with some choice words that the average primary grade student doesn't use (Indeed, it was a bit of a shock to the kindergarten class whose idea of "dirty language" is poopy face and stupid head).

I suppose his main goal involved impressing five and six year olds, not by creating his own innovative music, but by blasting a record loud enough for everyone to hear. On some level, his plan worked.  The little tikes found the phonograph to be an almost mystical experience.  Then again, they are also intrigued by the notion of Santa Claus and four square and playing jacks.

A student points out to me, "Knowing how to use technology doesn't mean you know how to use it," and he says it just like that, italics and all.

I ask the students to set down their pencils and pose the question, "What does it mean to know how to use a medium?"  From here, we discuss the loss of silence in our world, the humming sounds of industry and the choking clouds of soot from the factories.

"So, I can do more, but I'm so rushed that I don't have time to do anything," a girl explains.

"Everything is compressed," a kid says.  "We pack more into it, but we lose the quality."

"Can you elaborate on that?"

"I can take a picture and it's portable, right?  But it's not as good as a painting.  I can listen to music on a phonograph, but it's all scratchy.  We have some motion pictures, but they're choppy.  People are now eating canned meat and it's processed and has the texture of jelly."

I want my students to be geeks and gurus. The geek is knowledgeable about technology.  This person loves it, embraces it and knows how to use it in creative ways.  One the best days, the geek thinks of the future and how technology can be used to solve social, economic and perhaps even personal problems. On the worst days, the geek becomes intoxicated by the novelty and applies futuristic solutions that lack foresight.  Or, the geek is simply a guy on a wagon with a really loud phonograph, imposing his narcissistic desires on the world.

On the other hand, the guru is wise about technology.  This person sees it as a force that is sometimes negative in its dehumanizing aspects.  On the best days, a guru will remind us that the physical is as important as the mechanical and that some things in life should not be chopped into pieces and processed, compressed and then industrialized. A guru knows that, even when we try and predict it, technology takes on a life of its own. However, on the worst days, a guru will grow cynical and angry and shake an elitist fist at every innovation while missing out on the ways technology improves society.

I want my students to be a bit of both. Call it a paradox or a mystery.  I don't want them to abandon technology in a doom-and-gloom fear.  However, I also don't want them to get into the mentality that a robotic world will fix everything.

should kids play games in class?

So, it's the second day of our one-to-one pencil to student unit.  I'm teaching a financial planning / economics unit and incorporating all of the subjects into it.  I expected the "honeymoon" period to last longer, but pencils have no become normal.  On some level, I suppose that's what it's all about.  It's about getting beyond the hype and simply using pencils and papers as tools for learning.

Don't get me wrong, I see a need to teach students to criticize all tools, whether they are designed for print culture or oral culture, agrarian or rural culture, local or global.  However, we also need to get to a place where we say, "Pencils are shiny and new, but the real excitement is what students are learning right now."

So, I spend some time developing a program for learning about economics.  It's a market simulation game, where students graph their own investments and interact with one another.  Throughout this process, they write reflections, send messages and join a discussion zone.

Gertrude steps into my room and asks, "Why are they playing a game instead of learning?"

"It's not a game. It's a research-based, student-centered, interactive learning activity constructed to integrate pencils into a core knowledge environment."  I can play the buzzword game, too.

A student walks up to us, "Mr. Johnson, I love this game.  Why can't we play games more often? This is fun!"

Gertrude gives me the death stare.

I explain to her that the students use math, reading and writing.  I hand her a short example of this and say, "They are actually spending more time using their core curriculum skills than they would be if I stood here and lectured them on economic theory."

"You can't be playing games," she reminds me. "School has always been about work, not play. The bottom line isn't fun."

"The purpose of this game is to learn.  If it's fun, so be it. Trust me, I'm not trying to turn this class into a game. It just happens to be what we are doing in the moment."

She settles down after walking around and asking economic questions to students.  "They seem to know what they are learning," she says with a slight smile.
For millennia, it was a cultural universal that games existed for learning.  True, children had fun, but the games were designed to teach both social and physical skills.  Children learned to be warriors, how to govern, how to access cultural narratives all through the act of play.  In fact, Plato theorized that one could learn more about a person through an hour of play than a lifetime of conversation.

Even in America, where we have shifted toward a sit-in-your-desk-and-shut-up-and-learn model, our games become methods of accessing these cultural skill sets.  Thus, Simon Says teaches social conformity and prepares small kids for the prison-like environment of factory schools.  Dodge Ball teaches Social Darwinism and Capitalism.  Hide and Go Seek teaches children that transparency is overrated.  Best run and hide from others.  After all, this is the building block of most grown-up relationships.

On the flip side, our games teach the best of American values.  Hide and Go Seek helps teach autonomy and creativity.  Simon Says teaches listening skills and proves to kids that language can be powerful.  Dodge Ball helps with team work and allows kids to see the value of throwing things at people.

People assume that we play games in the class as a review.  It's true that most classroom games tend to be trivial.  That's why we call them trivia.  For what it's worth, I don't want my students learning anything trivial. Having a contest to see who has memorized the most state capitals doesn't exactly inspire deep thinking.

People consider games to be superficial fluff designed as a cognitive escape.  However, a well-constructed interactive game can reveal the opposite.  Games can be authentic and powerful and vital to students developing a deeper understanding of concepts.
When the game ends, students debrief the information in their plogs.  After words, we set our pencils down and talk.  On some level, it feels like waking up for a daze.  Students debate the pros and cons of a market system, talk about the risks of speculation and relate this to the economic crash of last year.

The pencil smudge girl from yesterday raises her hand, "I think there is a danger in playing this game, but I'm glad we played it."

"Can you elaborate on that?" I ask.

"I think the people in Wall Street got suckered into the same vortex that we were just in.  They got selfish.  The market is supposed to curb selfishness, but we found out how quickly it was to form oligopolies and attack people.  It became a game to win.  I think that's how it is for some of the people who run Wall Street."

social address booking

Mr. Brown (who is rarely much of a technocrat) tells me that I need to start keeping track of all the places to take paper and pencil.  "It's like leaving a bookmark when you read.  You keep it all in an address book and you can say to yourself, 'I'd really like to write a poem.  The best place for a poem would have to be the coffee shop.' So, you simply book it."

"Book it?"

"Sorry, that's one more of the noun-becomes-a-verb phrases.  It means you flip through your address book and find the best location."

"Okay, but why don't I just keep it all in my head?"

"Because the pencil world is portable.  You can take paper and pencil anywhere.  Want to go to Paris? They allow you to take pencil on a boat.  Want to visit India? You can bring stationary there, too."

"But I'm most likely to stay here in town."

"Wouldn't you want to keep a list of places you could go if you ever wanted to?"

"Maybe.  But I have a hunch I'd probably just go to places I remember and I'd rarely use the address book. I tend to stay in the same sites that I know.  I'm a creature of habit."

"Okay, but wait.  Check this out.  I can leave my address book open for anyone in public to read it. I just turn it in and they copy it and I can go to one location where I read other people's address books."

"Does anyone really do that?"

"Not much.  But everyone hopes that other people read their address books."

"So, let me get this straight: You keep a list of places you go or like to go but you rarely look at it and then you leave it at a location where everyone can see it and then you hope to cater to the voyourestic impulses of others, but you have no intention yourself of reading other people's list of sites.  Is that generally it?"

"You're a pencil geek.  You're supposed to like this stuff.  Just sign up and get an address book.  It's free."

"Well, I guess if it's free, it couldn't hurt."

I have yet to open the address book, but it's there in case I ever feel the urge to write down my sites and put a golden star sticker on my favorites and then leave it for everyone to see in hopes that they will consider me important enough to spy on me.   

Seven Ways to Create A Super-Ultimate-Best-Ever Popular Plog

Okay, so I've been reading various 20th Century Plogs (short for pencil logs which sounds much more fun and futuristic than say, "journal") and I'm beginning to get the hang of it.

So, here is what I've figured out:
  1. Use the colors associated with a pencil.  Notice my color scheme?  It's gray, like that crazy mechanical top and dual toned yellow (just to prove that I can use multiple brands).  The typography is readable and slick, very modern indeed.  Fit for a Gilded Age. (unlike this guy - what are we in first grade with that font?) 
  2. Buy Stock Photography so that every picture can look like the journal pages of every other plog.  Let's be honest, cameras are smoky and expensive.  I don't want to char my lungs with carcinigans just to get a decent shot. The goal is to have as many pictures of pretty people doing what pretty people do - which evidentially is shaking hands, laying in the grass (if they're young) and subtly supporting obligatory diversity while wearing tailored business suits. I get my stock photography in the mail and simply cut it and paste it when I remember.  Some day there will be a free site I can walk to and get creative work from a public commons, but for now, I'm buying stock photos.  
  3. Make every entry  a list.  I'm doing that today.  Seven is the best number. It's ambiguous and mysterious, with a sort-of religious connotation.  It's lucky on one hand and yet it's also a number we use to list the deadly sins (as opposed to those sort-of unhealthy sins) Indeed, few people know that the early church did not call them "deadly sins" but rather "the seven habits of highly ineffective church-goers."  Things began to change when seventh-century monks got sick of writing it all out on parchment and started abbreviating it and adding a more dramatic flair. 
  4. Invest in a decent speller check program. I send my drafts to a speller check who underlines it all in red.  Even then, I have to be careful.  I once went with the first choice and had colleagues ask me what a "cumulative ass is mint" was.  I'm really pretty puritanical about cursed words, so this was extremely embarassing.
  5. Use a picture of you where you have a real cool cowboy stare and you've printed it on yellow paper.  (I'm not sure why ploggers don't like regular pictures of themselves) Look at my picture.  Would you mess with a man like that?
  6. Titles: Your first option is to promise the world to your readers.  Make sure that everything is "the ultimate" or "revolutionary." No one wants toy read a journal entry with the title, "something I tried that worked alright I suppose."  People want the magical formula.  If that doesn't work, try clever posts with rhymes and alliteration.  Let's be honest, "Leaves of Grass" was okay.  But it was the rhyme and meter that made Whitman so catchy! Thus I've used titles like "Nong Went Wrong." 
  7. Connect it all to social media.  Not everyone owns a newspaper or a telegraph, so you have to be creative.  I've found a site I can go to where I hand passenger pigeons messages (within 140 characters) and they drop them at the homes of all my friends.  Could I have a pint and discuss things instead?  Perhaps, but I'd rather spare people my long-winded monologues and just send snarky musings via aviary media devices. Note that I also keep a public list of all the people who read my plog. It's a quantifiable data I can use to prove that I matter in this world.  
Note: This list was inspired by one of my favorite edubloggers Nashworld, whose blog is the opposite of this list.  It is visually appealing, insightful and far from cliche. I don't think he has ever tried to sell me educational snake oil. Also, much of this list is meant to be self-deprecating (aside from the absolute mockery of "seven steps" and other meaningless lists) 

should teachers take tools away?

We piloted our first day with one-to-one student to pencil learning.  I offered a quick explanation of the unit and reminded students that these were learning tools.  "I know many of you will want to play Hang Man." Parents hate that game.  They say that kids who are raised on violent pencil games will someday became mass murders. (Oddly enough, the same people who get upset about games are also the ones who have no qualms about Roosevelt leading a bloody crusade of American expansion)

"I also don't want to see you drawing pictures or sending one another short-hand messages.  Some of you might even be tempted to use the paper to create gliders. Personally, I think someday one of the kids of this generation will create an airplane, but this unit is not the time for it.  Remember, we need to think of these as tools and take care of them."

We begin the unit and students are doing a Venn Diagram.  A few students wrote comments on the margins of one another's notebooks, but they were generally on-task. However, I notice one of my top students using her finger to smudge pencil lines.  "Gladys, I need to see you." I warn her about the learning tool concept and moments later she sits alone smudging pencil again.  "Grab a slate.  You'll be using that today."

So, at lunch time, I process this with Mrs. Jackson.  "Was my lesson just not engaging enough?  Did I fail to motivate her?"

Mrs. Jackson surprised me with her response, "Dude, chill.  This stuff happens with slates, does it not? We like to believe in progress.  We like to believe that kids are naturally good.  But the reality is that they are just like us.  They want to play and they want to learn and sometimes they are addicted to fun and we  have to redirect them."

"So should I have created a lesson that was more fun?"

"I don't think so, but when this happens with slates, I don't take the slates away. You just don't take away tools.  It's our job to teach content not discipline," he added.

At this point our Vocational Learning teacher stepped in.  "Tom, tools require responsibility.  Sure, motivation is part of it.  But the goal is for students to learn.  If your lesson was meaningful and most students were engaged, that wasn't the problem.  Some kids are immature . . . Okay, all kids are immature, just at different times. "

"So, is it right to punish a kid for that?"

"It's not punishment, it's a preventative measure to keep things from escalating.  If a kid is messing around with a saw, I take it away from him.  It's a safety issue, but I also don't want tools to be wasted. The important thing is that the student has another chance tomorrow."  

Mrs. Jackson cuts in, "I still don't think we should teach students lessons by taking away supplies."

"What would you have done?"

"I would have given her the option of finishing the Venn Diagram at another time and found away to incorporate her picture into the lesson. But maybe that's a stretch."

So, the question I pose to people is whether I should have taken away a learning tool?

Note: I was influenced in my thinking on this one byRuss Goerend and his blog post about taking a learning tool away. One of the best lines was when he said, "You don't have to hide a learning tool."

decorating your class

Gertrude the Slate-Enhanced Learning Integrationist Coordinating Specialist asks if she can see the room where I will pilot a three-week unit using a one-to-one pencil to student ratio.

"What is this?" she asks.

"It's a poem."

"I know what a poem is.  I mean, what is this?"

"It's by Whitman."

"Take it down."

"Seriously? Is it because he was gay?  Because we're still using peanut butter even though George Washington Carver was gay, too."

"It's not that at all.  The issue is this: your classroom is a learning environment."

"Exactly, that's why I put up some photographs and poems and . . . "

She cuts me off, "Don't forget word walls.  Where are your word walls?"

"They're back in my old classroom.  I thought kids could keep track of vocabulary in their portable notebooks so that they could access the words at home."

"Everyone must have word walls.  And where are your anti-bullying posters?"

"I put up one of them.  It's just that they were so cheesy that I thought most of the posters would actually make kids want to start bullying."

"Where are the charts about academic achievement.  How will we Caravan to the Top without graphs?"

"I actually thought kids could graph out their own scores on paper and pencil."

"Where is your periodic table of elements?"

"Is that really necessary in the sixth grade? We're not in chemistry. Besides, they're still finding new elements.  They just discovered krypton."

"Just because you have pencils doesn't mean you don't have to play by the rules."  The term "play" is exactly it. I spend an entire week after school and cancel my community service club so that I can make charts and graphs and word walls.  But I have fun with it.  Our word wall includes the words "hypocrisy" and "asinine" and I have a graph up demonstrating how seldom students bother to read graphs when they are posted on the wall. At one point, I create a comical lazy cat named Gertude imploring students to work hard.

When I'm done, the principal walks in and says, "Oh, Techno-Tommy, the Fire Marshall was in.  Didn't you read the staff handbook?  You're supposed to have only half of your walls covered and you have three quarters.  Very dangerous stuff, I tell you. You'll need to take down some of these charts."

He glances around and smiles at the word wall. "As long as I'm in here, where are your posters that explain each of the Six Ways To Be a Good Writer? You know what? Why don't you just have the kids write down the Six Ways in their notebooks instead?"

"Yeah, so they can access it at home?"

"Exactly.  See, Tom, I can figure out this pencil and binder and paper world. I'm not as much of an old fogey as you might think."

lamenting the loss of nouns

People. Place. Things.  Dirt on a bad day.  Soil on a good day. I used to play in the mud and dig in the cold, hard clay.  It was red and wild and on the eve of winter, when death began to creep into our small southwestern town, the sky would turn crimson and we'd be baptized in color.

Trains cut through the land leaving steel spikes.  Machinery.  Motion.  Smoke stack skies of factories and railway stations, baptizing us in soot. On horseback, I can see the land.  On train, I can see the whole country and never see the land.  We become vapor.  John Henry might have won the battle, but the machine is eternal.

I pull out a pencil and it's portable.  I never dip it in ink.  I never feel the slight variations in the fluid movement of a feather.  Cold, hard, mechanical (if I have enough money and even on a teacher salary, I do).  A neighbor said the pencil is "the best thing since sliced bread."  I told my wife that our family would knead bread together, if nothing else, at least to feel the sticky dough and to toss the flour and to watch the yeast rise slowly. When it was hot, I sliced it myself just to remind myself that "the most convenient" doesn't mean "the best."

In the pencil world, we have programs to help my writing flow smoother.  Nong, Bang, Goggle, Zobo (a  whole toolbox with that one - arrives on a train).  When I flip through the binder, I used to say "searching through the tabs," but now I just say, "Goggle it," and I wonder if they are like beer goggles - causing me to miss the earthy reality of life.  I don't send mail anymore.  I simply mail it.  I don't send a message on my penpal network.  I simply message it.

Eventually, the English language will be reduced to onamonapea and all nouns will be verbs and we'll wake up some day a century from now wondering what happened to our sense of space and place and identity.

Why Nong Went Wrong

The parent from the Temperance Society walks up to me and explains, "We're not keeping this under wraps.  I called a socially conservative newspaper and they're running a story on this.  It should hit the evening papers in a few hours."

"Okay, well I'm really sorry.  I knew there were ads, but I had no idea one would involve alcohol."

"I need school to be a safe place for my child.  I expect that."  On some level, I get it.  I would be angry about my daughter seeing ads for peep shows (which, fortunately Nong blocked) or even for burlesque dancers.  Yet, learning is dangerous and the world is not all velvet and lace.

The principal explains, "We understand your concern.  We'll re-examine our policy about allowing ad-generated content."

"I'm worried about this pencil stuff.  I got a set of colored pencils and some paper for my son.  I thought he'd use it to learn.  He joined this pen pal network and apparently he's writing letters to members of the Mafia."

"It's a game. Just like the farm and sorority game." I explain.

"So, he's not thinking of joining a sorority either?"


"Glad we got the gender confusion out of the way.  Still, I'm worried about exposing my son to the world so quickly and so young."

"Hey, you wouldn't happen to have a newspaper with you right now?" I ask her. She hands me one.

"Let's see, the lifestyle section. Look, an ad about meeting local singles.  I'll check the sports section.  Hey there's an ad for beer.  Oh, and one for gin.  And, if I'm not mistaken the Knickerbockers are playing in a stadium with beer advertisements. This is a real problem, considering your son idolizes athletes.  What do you do to keep your child away from the paper."

"Oh, I don't censor it.  I mean, I want him to read.  Sometimes we even read the paper as a family." The reality hits her and she moves from anger to embarrassment and she buries her face in her hands.

I've won, or so it seems. Until she cries.  Not simple tears, but huge sobs.  She tells the story of her father being abusive when he was drunk and her former husband who would throw bottles at the kids when he had a few too many.  Apparently, she left her entire life behind and moved to the city where she often sees drunk factory workers exposing her daughter to a grown-up world and she wonders if the biggest danger isn't alcohol, but the fact that one of her children has to work 50 hours a week for them to survive.

Sometimes I get so focussed on pencil integration that I miss the deeper social reality that exists on a daily basis.  Sure, they can block field trips and even try and keep us in a Pencil Island, but every child brings in a story and as a teacher, I have to make snap judgements based upon a sense of ethics that we may not all share.  We bring in our own stories and often those stories clash and we fight to retain our voice and our character and a common setting.

The story never hits the evening papers.  Either it had been a lie or something had changed.  The problem with stories is that they're incomplete.

The Nong Network

Nong essentially networks together various social tools all within the confines of my classroom.  I saw it at last years PIE Conference and decided to order it for the Pencil Lab.  Our Pencil Teacher was angry at first, worried that I would load Nong onto all of the desk tops.  I explained to him that Nong was designed to be portable and kids would bring their supplies into the lab instead. Incidentally, I find it strange that we use the term lab, which has a connotation of exploration and critical thinking, to describe a place where desks are in rows.

When I explained the concept to the class, a student said, "I'm Nong Wong, guys."  They all did this squinty eye motion with their hands.  Nice to know xenophobia and racism are the default humor for sixth graders in the Guilded Age.  So much for progress.

The activity began well.  It was essentially like the Pen Pal networks with a few extra features.  At first I had to redirect students who felt the need to decorate their space with all the colored pencils.  Paul the Pre-Industrial Poet asked me if that was actually a valuable learning experience.

"Perhaps in a world as black and white as slate and chalk, this is precisely what students need. Employers need creative thinkers."

Maybe Paul is right, but I doubt that employers are looking for workers who use Seymour Butts or wear name tags with bright pink letters and daisies.  I reminded them that they were not writing pen pals, but learning about the Civil War.

After awhile, they caught on.  A group in one corner joined a discussion zone, where they wrote their debate answers on threaded sentence strips.  Note to self: remind students in the future that a discussion thread is not the place to use short-hand language. Another area involved a group writing plogs (I developed the name.  It's short for pencil logs.  Very clever I am) and then writing their comments in the margin.  Who knew that something like a journal could become so social?

Students even began searching the free encyclopedias to defend their answers. Admittedly, I had to tell a few students that it was illegal to simply bust out scissors and cut and paste parts of the encyclopedia into their plog posts.  Still, they figured it out quickly.

Teachers warned me that students might pass notes.  While this was the case, I was surprised that most notes pertained to the assignment.  Besides, it's not like the students stay one-hundred percent on task when doing group slate board excercises.

On some level, I felt a sense of loss, wondering if a pencil integrated format would mean I lose my role and my power and my status in the class.  However, I quickly realized that I now had time to interact one on one with students, join group discussions and write my own comments on the margins of their plogs.

The next day was a nightmare.  Apparently the Nong Network uses advertisements.  The anti-industrial Populist in me cringes that a child's mind is being sold to marketing firms.  Yet, I also see the value in learning tools.  It's tricky.  I tell myself it's okay to have a few ads, because there are advertisements all over the city.  Yet, I would be angry at product placement in the curriculum.  Could you imagine an ad with Chester Arthur selling hair care products for those massive mutton chops?

Apparently, the real issue was the content of the ads.  A parent from the Temperance Movement believed her child would now become a full-scale alcoholic because of a beer ad. I'm meeting with her after school today.

blocking sites

I know this has nothing to do with pencil integration, but there's something else I wanted to share:

Mr. Brown pulled me aside to discuss our field trip plans.  "They cancelled both of our field trips, Tom. Can you believe it?  We planned out our lessons to fit those particular sites and out of nowhere, they just blocked the sites."

"They can't do that.  We had parent permission slips.  We spent our time developing whole projects around it."

"Yeah, apparently a kid in another school wandered off to another site.  I guess they were in main street and he ran off to see the baseball game. He started talking to kids at another school."

"So, what does that mean for us?"

"We can't go anywhere, pretty much.  You know how we wanted to go to a motion picture, right?"

"Yeah, there's a short film about the Arctic."

"Well, they're worried that kids might wander off and try and see a peep show instead."

"Isn't that an issue of classroom management?"

"Yeah, you would think.  You might think that teacher whose kids snuck off should get some training or maybe the kid should be banned from going on field trips, but instead they are banning all motion pictures.  It gets worse, though.  You know how we were going to take them to see the orchestra, right?"

"They're cancelling that?"

"Turns out the orchestra is next to a place that plays rag time and rag time is dangerous stuff."

"Seriously? There's more sex and violence in Shakespeare and yet kids are forced to read his plays. Okay, okay.  So, what about the museum.  We get to go there, right?"

"Nope.  It turns out that as the kids wander around and search the images they can stumble upon some of that dangerous Renaissance art that has nudity."

"Can't a teacher filter out the experience so that they go to the correct images."

"Well, the corridors are still open and so the district is worried about it.  These are Victorian times, my friend.  Everything has to be hyper-clean to the point of censoring anything authentic to life. In fact, they're talking about cancelling all field trips for fear that a kid would run into a predator in public."

"Is that why my students have been completely banned from passing notes at recess?"


"Wow, Victorian times indeed!"

Pencil Island - Part Two

My principal pulls me aside on Tuesday afternoon.  "Techno-Tommy, we need to talk."  I appreciate the subtle warning.  Any time the word "need" is used, it means I'm in trouble.  Oddly enough, on really difficult days, when I feel the crushing blow of a broken world, I sometimes "need to talk" but I keep it to myself.  It might seem that a principal feels the same way, as if "we need to talk" could be a way of saying, "Tom, leadership is painful and lonely and I just need someone to tell me I'm doing okay."  But alas, "need to talk" is a code word for, "need to shame you in a subtle way."

"Tom, I don't like the way you talked to the consultant from Pencil Island," he says squinting through his dated monocle.

"The man's a snake oil salesman, not a consultant." I explain.

"Look, I know you don't trust businessmen, but this isn't time to pull a Coxey's Army stunt. Not all business is bad.  I don't mind if you're a Populist, but education is a business and we need to recognize it as such."

"It's not a business and I'm not an executive.  This is called public education for a reason.  I serve, because I care about my students.  I am a civil servant representing my community and I don't think my community wants to sell a child's mind to a wolf in professional clothing."

"All curriculum costs money."

"That's not the issue.  Yes, books cost money.  But this man has a whole system set up designed to teach rote skills and make him a fortune."

"Pencil Island is amazing, Tom.  Information is broken down into consumable parts for children."

"Consumable.  That's the problem.  Children should be thinking, not consuming."

"This is the Age of Industry.  We need to prepare future factory workers.  Back when we had farmers, well, it made sense to teach holistically.  But we can't.  We need compliant workers. We're pulling out of an economic panic and we have to educate our way into becoming an industrial nation."

"If that's the case, why bother with school?  I hear most factories will hire kids as young as five or six.  We won't even need to turn the school into a factory.  I think Rockefeller could hook them up with a job. Might as well start them early when their hands are nimble."

"Do you suggest that we give them an archaic education?  Set them up to be liberal arts majors.  How many jobs these days are asking for philosophy majors?"

"No, the challenge we face is giving kids a classic, holistic education within the context of our industrial age.  Setting kids down in isolation to fill out worksheet packets seems like a step in the wrong direction."

I leave the meeting wanting to slam a door, but the principal has taken the door off the hinge in an effort to create an open atmosphere.  So, I end up storming off in anger and then I feel horrible about getting so passionate about something I can't control.

spelling checker

A parent sends me a telegram yesterday.  Nothing like an angry-letter telegram on the first day back from the break. 

Deer Mr. Thompson,

I am worried about this whole "spelling checker program" you are using with my son.  I fear that it will make him lazy.  I saw how you underlined every mispelled word in red and gave him a dictionary to look up the proper way.  You even gave him the right suggestion won time.  I never had spell-check and I write real good.


Billy's Mom

A few thoughts on this letter:

First, if you are concerned about Billy becoming lazy, you might want to look at his effort in homework first.  The kid doesn't even bring his slate to school half the time. He's a sweet kid, but he struggles with motivation and is still convinced that he'll play on a barnstorming big league team someday. Who knows, maybe I'll someday see him play for the St. Louis Brown Stockings. Until then, I'm hoping he learns fractions.

Second, I have a few thoughts on the content. If you misspell the word "misspell" you might want to invest in a dictionary for your home.  If you mistake "deer" and "dear" and "one and won" then you might also want to learn homonyms and homophones.  Also, "good" is an adjective.  You don't "write real good" (and apparently you don't write really well either).

I mention this letter, because I think it's one of the biggest misconceptions of using documents with a spelling checker program.  If I underline a student's paper for mistakes, it's called instant feedback.  If that child has access to a dictionary, it's called a learning tool.  People may call it a crutch, but let's be honest, aren't crutches necessary if you're going to heal from a broken leg?

I send the mother a graph demonstrating how students have decreased in spelling mistakes due to the spelling checker on all of their pencil documents.  I also explain that I can de-activate the program.  It's less work for me and less red ink to waste underlining Billy's words, but I don't think it's beneficial for him.

His mother checked with the Writing Curriculum Coach (who, ironically is not much of a coach.  Not once has she blown a whistle and yelled kids who can't write) and the lady ignored the data.  Apparently, data is only useful when it supports the status quo.  According to the edu-crat, "spelling checker is dangerous because it gives children a false sense of security.  How will students do on the Caravan to the Top High Stakes Test where they are prohibited from using dictionaries?"

So, now I have another student refusing to use a dictionary because we live in a culture of fear that believes the best way to assess students is on drill-and-kill tests that do not reflect the realities of life. People tend to think of pencil integration as occurring in a social and cultural vacuum, but often the biggest divide to cross is one of paradigms.

the five phases of pencil integration

I was meeting with Paul the Pre-industrial Poet.  He's a thinking man, the type who can be patient with the moralistic ramblings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and then discover himself in the pastel explosion of wildflowers.  For my part, I'll never really get the whole "John Muir, go to nature and find yourself and make bold pronouncements about the universe." When I go to nature, I don't see beauty as much as savagery - animals eating their young or starving to death. Paint that impression, Monet!

Therefore, I was surprised when Paul became an "early adopter" of pencils in the classroom.  We met last night and shared a pint.  Okay, we shared more than a few. But since a few of my kids' parents are part of the Temperance Movement, I'll claim it was a pint of Coca-Cola.  (Somehow cocaine in soda is okay, but a little alcohol is the work of the devil.)

"Tom, I went through phases with my pencil integration. They were five distinct phases."

"Seriously?  Don't tell me you're going to put this on a pyramid.  Educators seem addicted to pyramids."

"I know, kind of creepy.  Let's fashion a model of thinking based upon an archaic way of housing the dead."

"Maybe I'll create a PowerSlate Slideshow using an urn as my metaphor."

"So, anyway, these were five stages for me. In the first phase, I saw pencils like fine china - expensive and pretty but not very useful. I was afraid kids would break the china, so I stayed distant."

"What changed?"

"They gave me five pencils and said I could use them in my classroom.  They didn't break when students used them. So, then they became tools.  I created a pencil-based station in my class and segregated it from the rest. "

"Did that work?"

"Not really.  I found that the lessons required more integration, so I began to mix the pencil in with the other tools.  That was phase three. I rounded up a bunch of old pencils and had a whole class set."

"Sounds interesting.  So from fine china to a tool.  I think I lean toward the whole tool concept."

"Well, I shifted toward seeing it as a tool to seeing it as a magic bullet.  I petitioned the district to get a whole class set of colored pencils. We got the fancy iParchment, too.  I replaced reading with picture-book writing.  I switched from writing to color-maps.  Everything was pencil based.  So, from pencil integration, it became pencil-based.  I saw it as a new pedagogy for the Gilded Age.  I would empower students through the power of pencil."

"What happened?"

"Well, it was a bullet, but it struck us a few times, I guess."

"You mean, kids were stabbing each other.  I've been worried about that.  Secretly I've wondered if they would use the pencils to hurt one another. Did you have issues of lead poisoning?" 

"It's not that at all. Besides, in an age where kids are dying in factories, pencil lead isn't the worst thing that can happen. What happened was this: It struck me that students weren't thinking well."

"I see. The pencils drove the curriculum instead of the curriculum driving the pencil."

"Exactly. I had bought into the idea of Progress so much that I missed the down side of pencils.  I began to see pencils, not as a magic bullet, but as a double-edged sword.  I still use them, but I encourage students to ask hard questions about how they should be used and how they impact our world."

"That sounds pretty cynical, Paul."

"I know, but it's really not.  I'm optimistic about my students and their ability to think well.  I'm optimistic about pencil integration.  I just don't buy into the snake oil solution that people claim it is."

reflections on being Techno-Tommy

I didn't coin the nickname.  My principal gave it to me in my first year of teaching.  "Thomas, you are the only one on staff who can switch the circuit breaker.  You seem to get the grid.  You are a techno genius.  I listen to you talk about the how the phonograph works and why we need pencils in class and I think you are just the man to lead our school into the twentieth century.  You're Techno-Tommy."

On some level, the nickname works.  It's certainly better than Jackass Jackson or Adequate Andy.  If I'm going to have a nickname with alliteration, might as well be Techno-Tommy.  Still, most teachers don't realize that there's a streak of Luddite in me (indeed, I was a bit anti-industrial in my participation at the Haymarket Square Riots).

I worry about the merging of man and machine.  When I hear people embracing a new Industrial World and bragging about a Gilded Age, I cringe.  I fear that preparing students for a life in the factory might make economic sense, but it's not sustainable.  When educators talk of the science of learning and the need for data, I wonder if we're turning children into micro-machines.

I worry that, in an industrial world, we might become so immense that we become myopic.  I think of the Emperor's New Clothes and wonder if that's us - expanding this empire and failing to see our own nakedness.  Don't get me wrong, we can dominate the Spanish-American War and go on about Manifest Destiny, but if cheap goods and more factory is our vision of humanity, I begin to doubt progress.

We don't have gas or electric in our home and for what it's worth, I doubt that I'll ever purchase one of those cool German horseless carriages.  My horse might be stubborn, but on a deep level, I know her.  I doubt that automobile owners can say the same thing. After all, would any fool actually give a horseless carriage a name? I can't fathom a day when someone tries to describe a car by saying, "Check out my mustang.  What a beauty!"

I held my daughter the other night and she could hardly see the stars. I think that gas lamps in the street are a grave mistake. We traded in our connection to the cosmos for a little false security.  So, I can see a street thug, but I miss the vast universe that surrounds me.  If the magi lived in our urban enclave, they would have missed the incarnation.  Sometimes I wonder if the same happens here.  It's hard to see God when surrounded by smoke stacks.

Don't get me wrong, I want to integrate pencils and occasionally use a motion picture and I do marvel at the wonders of a light bulb. In my classroom, I want to use the photograph and the phonograph and have access to a telegraph (and really all the other words ending in "graph").  But I will never truly embrace the name Techno-Tommy.

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.