They're Still Pencil Natives

As my school shifts toward one-to-one pencil to student ratio, a group of teachers come to me with their concerns about a lack of decent pencil skills. I hadn't predicted this. Students are snapping pencils and saying they just don't know how to use them.  Others have turned papers into projectiles.  Still others have turned to playing violent games such as Hang Man.

"I had two students forget to save their documents," a teacher mentions.

"Could that be an issue of their age rather than a pencil skill? I mean, a hundred years from now we'll probably still have students who forget to put their names on their papers." I ask.

"Another one couldn't figure out how to put his documents in a folder. I have others who just leave every document on the desk top. Aren't they supposed to be Pencil Natives?"

"I heard that's just a myth," another teacher adds.  "Turns out the 'Pencil Native' generation isn't all that technologically savvy at all.  It's just hype created by pencil pushers hell bent on ruining slate-based learning." I know the study she's referring to and it seems to prove little more than what I already experience: students still have gaps in their ability to use pencils in meaningful ways.

The gripe fest continues until I ask the teacher, "What is their native language?"

"English," a teacher adds.  "Some of them Italian and German, but mostly English."

"And do you still have to teach them grammar and spelling?"


"You don't say?  You mean they don't pop out of the womb diagramming sentences?"

"No, but . . ."

"And what is their native country?"

"Most of them are from here."

"Do we still teach civics?  I mean, if they are American, they should know all about democracy and the bicameral legislature and the writ of habeas corpus."

"Oh no, we still have to teach them that."

"Could it be that one's status as a native has more to do with comfort, culture and values and less to do with skills?  When I look at my students, they are comfortable with pencils.  They identity with the modernist, sketchy-gray worldview.  They understand conceptually the notion of portable information via the telegraph and telephone.  It doesn't mean they are information engineers with perfect penmanship, however."

Natives still need to learn the language.  They need to learn to think critically and become better citizens.  Pointing out their lack of skills doesn't take away their social context or generational identity. Instead, it suggests what we already know: that we need to teach students to think deeply about the tools they use and like any good citizen, I want them to think about how tools are shaping their reality, their relationships and their beliefs about love and truth.  I want them to criticize their pencil nation and determine when it is the right time to abandon the values of their techno world and recover what is buried in the earth under the industrial carpet of their factory school.

target date

I plan to release Pencil Me In, a book based upon this blog, on September 1, 2010.  The book will have much more of a long-lasting narrative structure and will also span 3 years instead of sticking with just 1897.  It's been a confusing, fun and exciting process so far.  My goal is to have the book ready on September 1st as an eBook, physical book and MP3 download.

I've enjoyed the process of working with a story arc.  It's helped me to think through my own journey of educational technology as well. One area of weakness for me is revising.  If you are interesting in fixing grammar, spelling and syntax mistakes, please e-mail me at or send me a message on twitter @johntspencer.  I would love some help in this area.

So if you like this blog, spread the news about the book.  I have no PR and I know that word of mouth is what will make this thing work.

the enemy isn't a person

I'm sitting on the front porch, trying to construct a decent plog.  My hand wanders toward doodling and I end up sketching fictional characters.  I'm yearning for human conversation when my wife comes home and mentions, "We met a wonderful lady at the park.  I just felt like I had this connection with her."  

"Why is that?"  

"I had to correct your daughter," she says, knowing that it irritates me when she says "your" to describe the moments our daughter gets into trouble.  Why am I the rebel?  

"She had real empathy when I talked about the difficulty involved in having to discipline.  It turns out one of her sons is special needs and she feels a stronger sense of guilt every time she gets angry.  We talked about authority and authenticity.  It was strange to have this great conversation with a total stranger."  

"I know what you mean," I say.  Truth is I'm more introverted and I doubt that I would ever speak to a stranger in the park.  

"It turns out that she works at your school.  Her name is Eunice, I think."  

"Really tall, red hair?"  

"Nope.  It might be Mildred.  Do you have a Mildred?"  

"With the big mole on her nose?"  

"No, maybe it's not Mildred.  I know, it's Gertrude." 

"You mean Gertrude the Enemy of All Things Tom Johnson Wants to Accompilish?"  

"That's her?" 


"But she seemed so nice.  She even talked about how hard it is to do her job when there's so much pressure from above to get the teachers on the same track."  

It has me thinking about enemies.  Perhaps my wife is right.  Gertrude at the Park might be a different person than Gertrude the Ruiner of Plans.  Or perhaps she is he same person, but just complicated.  Maybe she's scared.  Maybe she's stressed by dealing with a special needs kid.  Maybe she's human after all.  

Perhaps Gertrude is not the enemy of pencil-based innovation.  Perhaps the true enemy is an ideology of articiality.  Or maybe the enemy is a much more visceral fear - a fear that our students will be behind on the global pissing contest.  Or maybe it's a system and a structure that churns out robotic students prepared for the factories.  Whatever the enemy is, I'm becoming convinced that it is not an individual or a person.  In fact, it is the opposite.  The enemy isn't human.  The enemy is a process of dehumanization.

blocking phonographs

As I walked into my classroom with the brand-new phonograph, a man from the district stopped me.  "Yeah, um, this is blocked.  Sorry dude, but you can't have your students use the phonograph."

"Why is that?"

"Well, it could have dirty words.  After all, these are Victorian Times.  Who wants to risk a lawsuit?"

"I see your point, but students could also speak a dirty word as well.  So, I don't really see why a change in the medium is all that different."

His boss walks up to me.  "It's not about that.  It's about our limited capacity for music.  See, the school band will be using this hall way and they need it for their classroom.  It's just not that wide. We can't fit all the instruments and fit a phonograph. So, with limited band-width, we have to either block the phonograph or slow everybody down."

"Why can't we just use a different hallway or perhaps build a new one?" I ask.

"I don't know.  I'm just the IT guy.  I'm an Instrument Technician.  If you have issue with this, talk to the district."

So, I found a way to sneak the phonograph in through the back door.  I just think it's sad that we have to find back door methods of accessing tools that will be useful for learning.

erasers - a post about assessment

Gertrude the Bureaucrat pulls me aside this summer, "I know you plan to use pencils this year, but you're not planning to let them use erasers are you?"

"I think it's a great tool. Students can erase mistakes as they go or they can erase them after the fact."

"Yes, but how do you have common assessments if you don't have common methods of assessing?"  By "common" she means "standardized."  Common is multilateral and democratic.  Standardized is unilateral and authoritarian.

"I'm not sure I see your point," I add.

"Well, a kid can just erase his or her work at any given point."

"Isn't that what learning is all about?  What about our slogans of life-long learning and loving learning?  If that's the case, how do you justify an end point?"

She goes into a long lecture about formative and summative assessment and I tune her out.  It's a small battle to fight and I nod my head.   See, if pencils and erasures represent anything good, it is the notion that one can always change.  Growth is always possible.  Learning is not a fixed commodity, but a journey.

"How will you grade their work if they can just go back and change things?" she asks.

"I don't grade it.  They do portfolios."

"Won't that make kids lazy?" she asks.

"Not at all.  They work harder because I take away the bribes and extortion. I can't claim to support the notion of developing democratic citizens and go with a totalitarian style of assessment."

"This goes against standard pedagogy," she objects.

"Tell me, why would you ask me to use differentiated instruction and assess in one format only? And why would you ask me to have students collaborate and then force them to compete for grades?"

The conversation ends with a long lecture on the Bell Curve.  I listen for awhile and then we "agree to disagree" which is a nice way of saying, "we'll just choose to casually ignore one another."

See, the issue isn't about pencils or erasers.  The issue is about the purpose of learning and assessment.  If I want to use assessments to help students, I can't be the bully.  I can't be a dictator.  An adversarial relationship leads to fear.  I don't want a fear-based classroom.  So I let them re-write work.  I let them use the erasers.  I need a positive classroom in order to gain their trust enough for me to speak truth into their lives.

She finally ends with, "All your cuddly bunny coddling is doing a disservice to them. It's not how the real world operates."  Perhaps.  But I have a hunch that in the real world they just might use erasers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil-pen-pal-plog problems

Note: I'm writing this blog from personal experience.  I once mocked the curriculum specialist for using People Bingo.  I posted a snarky comment on Facebook and she came to me the next day and told me how much it hurt.  

The pen pal networks are down right now.  Apparently the conference didn't anticipate such a high use of paper. So, I'm at a cafe with paper and pencil, plogging my problems. I begin this entry, expecting to write about pencil integration and why it doesn't have to server economic interests.

A lady walks in and orders a large coffee.  "It's been a tough day," she begins.  "I had two people leave my workshop yesterday and when I checked the pen pal network, they had mocked the Ice Breaker I had developed."

"Oh, that's horrible," the waitress comments.  "I know a thing or two about grumpy customers, but none of them have ever left the table in mid-meal."

"Do they write 140 character messages that mock you?"

"Nope.  Not so much."

"One man even wrote a plog post about it. Plogs last forever. Couldn't he just have talked to me instead?" The lady begins crying.  She starts talking about missing her husband and her sons and how hard it is to be creative with something like ice breakers when she's not a fan of them in the first place.  For the first time, I see her not as a fixture of a conference, but as a human.

I walk up to her and say, "I'm so sorry.  I mocked the ice breakers for being artificial and contrived but then I chose the most artificial and contrived method of complaining.  It was cruel and insensitive."

The moment is awkward, but she's gracious.

"I'm sorry for crying," she says.

"Don't apologize.  Your tears are a gift.  I needed a change in perspective."

For all the discussions my class had about pencil citizenship last year, I feel like a hypocrite.  I failed to understand that even in the transgeographic pen pal world, the bottom line should be love.

People Against People Bingo

We gather around the tables, all hyped up on Coca-Cola. At some point, the conference organizers will realize that a cocaine-laced beverage is probably not the best refreshment before a long-winded workshop on "Pencil Citizenship in the Pencilsphere."

So, it begins with an Ice Breaker. A simple glimpse at the hashtags on our pen pal networks would suggest that the ice isn't all that frozen. If anything, we might need a lesson on being kinder in our comments (myself included). But it's the culture of this thing, where quick wit, novelty and sound bytes are more important than story and sustainability.

I'm not sure why we need an ice breaker. We're at a conference, and we're speed-dating for acquaintances we'll never see again. It's not that important that I know your trivial background or that you know mine. So, you met William McKinley? Nice, but not beneficial to me. So, I once played on a barnstorming baseball team? Again, not that important.

The choice this time is People Bingo. It consists of running around and getting signatures for trivial facts about people's lives. As if Bingo wasn't already the lamest game ever, we have to take away the gambling and turn it into an autograph party. Fun. Not. All of a sudden the Wednesday night smoke-field Bingo room just got a lot cooler.

I start envisioning new Ice Breakers. How about Extreme People Bingo, where you have to wrestle people to get a signature? Or what about turning People Bingo into a drinking game? I've given workshop presentations before and I'll tell you that I wouldn't mind having a slightly liquored-up crowd. (If you are in the Temperance Movement, please don't be offended. I am not advocating public drunkenness)

Ice breakers generally fail for two reasons: Extroverts don't need the ice broken and introverts need the ice to melt slowly. So, it is a waste of time for one group and socially awkward for the other. I fall into the socially awkward category, so I use People Bingo as a time for a quick escape.  I wander the conference hall for a bit and then step outside into the cool summer air.  Call me icy if you must, but the loud chattering voices are a bit much.  Let me hear the breeze.

the myth of a creative class - part two

After sitting through the Creative Class session, Paul the Pre-Industrial Poet says to me, "I'm bothered by his message. Tools are great. I don't deny that. It's just that I don't believe that complex tools equal complex thinking."

I add, "A motion picture is complex but it leaves little to the mind. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but I'll take Tolstoy and Twain over anything Edison can produce."

"And I don't believe that there has to be a special elite class of people who use creativity for economic and social pursuits."

"It's a bit insulting to those who work blue-collar jobs."

"I had the same thought. Look, my dad was a slave. We had no tools.  To those in power we were the tools. But listen to the songs we produced.  Listen to the oral history we told.  Take a glimpse at the Underground Railroad for a minute.  We shaped farming in ways that people will never know.  We changed American cuisine. We were a Creative Class as well."

*      *      *

A few days ago, I gave my daughter a box. She didn't think outside the box. She turned the box into a cave and into a horse and into a home for her doll. I didn't tell her that she had to be creative. She has the creative impulse because she is human. We are made to be creative.

If I want my students to be creative, I won't tell them to be creative. I won't explain to them that they can be part of the great Creative Class. I'll give them freedom. I'll make learning meaningful. The tools will not "require creativity." Creative thinkers will find the tools and use them in innovative ways.

the myth of a creative class

We grab a seat in the balcony, because even at UnConventionAl, the twentieth century un-conference, innovation doesn't include progress in race relations.  It's a trend of noticed with some of the techno-utopians who don't want to be bothered with the sticky human issues of social justice.  After all, the machinery will eventually take care of those issues in our Global Village.

"We need to cultivate a culture of collaboration to compose a creative class."  All alliteration aside, the message is one I've heard repeatedly.  I could use the same alliteration if I wanted, "From farms and factories to a philosophy of frenetic futurism."

He pulls out a box and says, "We need to think outside the box."  I find it odd that he's using cliches as he talks about innovation.  True innovation isn't thinking outside the box.  It's re-purposing the box.

"It starts with a pencil and moves to mimeographs and type-writers, photographs and Vitascopes, phonographs and telegraphs.  Simple minds and simple tools are fine when you are growing corn . . ." the crowd chuckles. "But you need an innovative mind to think through the mixing and mashing of multimedia tools. Complex tools demand creativity."

*     *     *

My mind races back to corn fields.  There is more molecular complexity in an ear of corn than in an entire Vitascope.  We lie to ourselves when we think that knowing machinery means we have a deeper, more conceptual understanding of life. It's true that we were simple people if simplicity is measured only in tools.  We had fewer tools.  We had less access to the world at the palm of our hands.  But we weren't illiterate hicks. We were a Creative Class.

So, I'm listening to the chatter of the speaker, but I move back to the corn field.  I'm eight, barefoot and staring at a worm.  My father is arguing moral philosophy with a neighbor.  Dad says that Aristotle had it right - that the goal is a middle ground, a place of temperance between two extremes.  The neighbor says the goal is a Hegelian synthesis.  Neither men have access to a photograph or a telegraph or a pen pal network.  Yet, they are creative thinkers, tackling existential questions from multiple perspectives.

As their dialog transitions into farming, it becomes a more practical layer of creativity.  They are discussing water use in a time of drought. They discuss sustainability in light of soil erosion and fertilizer.  It isn't the tools that lead to the creativity.  Instead, they become creative because of limited resources and simple tools.

Farming required more than mere "grunt work" as the speaker describes.  (Really, "grunt work?" Were we merely cavemen wandering a sea of corn?) The skill set involved predicting the unpredictable, developing new tools at low costs.  Collaboration?  We had a community co-op that helped us survive.  Creativity?  My dad could use bailing wire and wood to develop tools that would rival anything Edison is producing.

The Upside of a Global Village

I share the story of the Flat World and the Global Village with Paul the Preindustrial Poet. I expect him to nod in agreement, but instead he responds with, “Tom, I think you’re creating a false dichotomy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why  do you have to have either round or flat?  Why go global or local?  Can’t it be both?”

“I’m not sure it can.  I think you have to make up your mind where you plant your feet.”

“Perhaps.  But the forces of a flat world are here regardless of what you feel.  If I ignore it, I am doing my students a disservice.  However, if I teach them to think critically about the whole flat world concept then they can be critical thinking citizens of this flat world.” 

“But aren’t they better off acting in the local community where they at least have a voice?”

“If they only think locally, their world view will be myopic.  It becomes tribalism.  If they go global without knowing their own backyard, it becomes imperialism and colonialism.  If they think globally and locally, they avoid the extremes.  They walk in tension, yes, and they face a certain level of confusion.  Yet, they also learn to navigate that confusion.”

“I see your point, but there is something unnatural about the Global Village.”

“I don’t disagree.  It’s inhuman.  It’s industrial.  We let the steel steal the soul of the people in exchange for instant communication.  I see your point.  However, who better to humanize it than your students? Let them act locally and communicate it globally.  Let them think about global issues in their own community.  But also let them think about how their own locale affects the entire world and if the time is right let them partner across the world with fellow students.” 

“That sounds like idealistic romanticism, Paul.”

“I’m not pretending it’s easy.  I’m not suggesting that pen pal networks will bring world peace.  But respectful dialog is a powerful force.  And if you don’t allow your students to participate in the global dialog you create your own ghetto.”

“I guess it’s just personal for me.  When I was standing on the plains with the sun rising, surrounded by my family, it all felt natural. It felt right.  It felt like I lost something when I moved to the city.  And it feels like we all lost that something in the process of the flattening of the world.” 

“So, have one foot in the factory and one foot on the farm.  Have one hand on the pen pal networks and one hand holding a pint with a friend.  Garden and write.  Be open to the world without shutting out your neighbors.  I’m not saying it’s easy.  Paradox is always harder than polemic pursuits.”

Paul has a point. Whether I agree with it is up in the air.

So pencil me in.  Don’t stain me with ink.  Let me live the graphite duality of global and local, of technophile and Luddite of urban and rural.  Let me experience the monochrome mystery that never truly hits black and white – the gray reality of paradox.  Pencil me in so I avoid the extremes of myopic parochialism and arrogant imperialism.  Pencil me in, because life is temporary, a vapor, in constant flux, in tension and harmony.  Nothing in this world is entirely permanent. Pencil me in.

a note to city planners

Dear City Planners:

I am a strong advocate of pencil integration.  I have been on a crusade to provide new learning tools for all of my students and to liberate them from slate-based learning.  However, the real barrier goes beyond simply a lack of access to pencils.  The real issue is a lack of access to learning.
  • If you want students to understand art and the deeper implications of the humanities, why is there only one public art museum in our city?  And why is the museum so far from schools?
  • If you want students to participate in civic activities and become better citizens, why is nearly every public civic institution so far away from our school?  
  • If you want students to access knowledge instantaneously, why is it that you don't provide public access to telegraphs?
  • If you want students to be literate, why is it that the public library is miles away from our school? Why not build a bridge between the two institutions instead?
  • If you want to build a public school, where education is truly an extension of the public, why are you selling so much of it to corporations?  Why are you seeking corporate rather than public input?  And more importantly, why are you building walls that prevent the students from interacting with the public?
See, more than pencils or photographs or phonographs or telegraphs, the greatest innovation that could happen in my school would be to make it public again.  I visited the one-room school house where I grew up and it was located next to other public institutions: the library, the city council, the post office.  While few would point to the town as being truly innovative, I was struck by the lack of barriers for students who sought access to public institutions. I know it isn't a high-tech, trendy, 20th Century idea, but I assure you that in this Era of Industry, it is truly innovative.


Tom Johnson

the world is not flat

I take a seat by the window of the train, my eyes fixated on a monochromatic landscape.  The smoke stacks tell the story of a steel steal of all things natural, replacing tradition with movement and space with efficiency.  It’s the color of a photograph, all value and no color.

I am sitting with a pencil, sketching on an iTablet.  (Don’t worry, I’m not a convert just yet.  My wife loaned me hers, because it’s less bulky than my notebook) I’m sketching what I remember of my father.  I could capture it better on a photograph, but I’m less in the mood to capture and more in the mood to create.  I have this lingering sense that capturing is part of the problem.  We are all captive by the monochrome value of industry.

Besides, my whole purpose in sketching is to remember my father for who he was, so that I don’t forget him after viewing the casket.  Still, I’m distracted. I look out the window. Steel tracks clawing into the tender earth, a tattoo of convenience, taken in a parlor when we were all too drunk on novelty to know the difference.  It was a Faustian exchange promising instant connections and all the while losing the connection to all that was once sacred – the land, the dirt, community, family.

We will someday wake up with the hangover and convince ourselves that what we really need is a newer fix.  We’ll grow nostalgic for the railroad, using it for children’s stories and decorating devices, while we push forward with newer devices to flatten the world.  We already have horseless carriages, replacing the horse with raw power of a combustible engine.

I imagine that in another half century, we will find a way to fly. We will be Icarus, pushing toward the sun, going further from the ground, detached in a steel-winged cage, stripping away the boundaries of space and time.  We’ll find ways, no doubt, to extend portability so that even the telegraph seems quaint and so that the phonograph feels static.  Someday we’ll have the world at the palm of our hands without questioning whether one should compress the globe so easily.  We will find Babel without a blink and we’ll marvel not at the power we possess but at the novelty we create.

It’s an age of Pi, permanently and randomly marching forward, each step dividing the finite infinitely.  We had no need of seconds until we created the railroad.  What will we divide next?

*     *     *

A man sits next to me and asks me what I do for a living.  We begin talking about teaching and I share my vision for my classroom, complete with photographs and a dark room, an area for phonographs, a working telegraph and most of all pencils for every student.

“I want a twentieth century classroom,” I explain.

“You can’t wait three years for that?” he asks.

“I want a classroom that will be relevant in the industrial age.”

“Oh, like a flat classroom.” 

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“One that connects to the world.  Columbus proved that the world is round and now we’re proving that the world is flat.  It’s progress.  We’re being united into a global village.” 

I’m not about to argue with him on the Columbus point.  Just about all of antiquity knew that the world was a sphere. But I’m struck by the word “progress.” It is progress, no doubt.  Progress in terms of progressing, in terms of novelty and kitsch and pushing toward a climax without questioning the resolution.  But it’s not progress I’m after right now.  It’s permanence – the kind that doesn’t exist with the (temporary) nature of a telegraph and railroads and pencils. 

I like the notion of a global village.  I like the idea of my students communicating via telegraph and telephone with students across the globe.  A part of me really hopes that technology can bridge the barriers of culture and politics and lead to peace.  A flat world might just do the trick.

*     *     *

Two days later, I am standing on the flat Kansas earth, spade in my hand and tears on my face.  It is, in a sense, a vacation, an escape, if you will, not away from reality, but back to reality.  The cool fertile earth calls for a return from where we came. I am burying the dead, refusing to outsource the job to some stranger with no need of closure. Our economy is built on separation of labor, but in this moment, I won’t be ruled by economic norms.

The land propels me back into a narrative.  I know the people, though I have changed by the flattening, monochromatic forces of industry.  I know the story, from exposition to climax and I’m yearning for resolution.  I grasp for the theme, having a hunch that it can’t be found in a telegraph or a photograph or any other type of graph.  

Global village?  On a train it sounds so eloquent, but now it’s just an oxymoron. 

I want my students to use the technology, but I don’t want a flat classroom or a flat world or flat learning.  Let them learn locally before they go global. Let them know their backyard before they tackle the world. Industry turned my world gray.  The trains already etched their name into the ground.  When I stand beside my little hometown, I’m not so sure I’m ready for it to be flattened as well. 

those aren't the tools you'll use in the real world

"Rumor has it that you are supplying children with wide-ruled paper." Supplying? Am I some type of a cocaine dealer?  Do I look like Coca-Cola?

"It's not a rumor. It's true. I let the students use wide-ruled paper. Some choose to bring in college-ruled paper and I let them pick their learning tool."  My wife hates my incessant use of the word "tool."  She says paper isn't really a tool unless it's turned into functional oragami. She says an artist doesn't call paint brushes tools and that few scholars would ever call a book a tool for that matter.

"But they will be college ruled so they need to use what they'll use in college.  They need to use what they will have in the real world."

I want to cut her off right here.  In the real world, children my students' age work in factories for fourteen hours a day.  In the real world, nations wage wars in the name of ideologies that their own citizens don't understand.  I'm not so sure I'm ready to boot my kiddos out into the real world so soon.

"I get that paper for free.  Paper engineers work on the Linus Project and my students can access it for free."

"Do you know where they are getting it from?  I mean, it could be stolen paper," she adds, with the thickest italics should could offer.

"It's open source, so it really is free."

"But it's not college ruled. Don't your students deserve the best?"  she asks.

"If my goal is to train students to use a particular paper, then I've failed miserably as a teacher.  I don't care about the brand of pencil or the style of paper or even the notebook that they carry around.  If they want to bring in a tablet . . . "

"I've seen those tablets.  The iTabs, right?  Kids just use them for entertainment.  Let's give them the tools they will need in college and in their careers."

What I want to ask her is, "My students will get married some day, so should we have them choose a spouse or teach them how to relate well to one another?  They'll make financial decisions, so should we have them go work in the factories or should we teach them about budgets and financial management?" Instead, I take a more diplomatic tone.

"I promise you that I will provide them with skills that they need right now so that they are prepared for college and career later.  The truth is that they are eleven and twelve years old. Sometimes wide-ruled paper is still what they need.  Sometimes the simplicity of it helps them to be more creative.  Besides, I don't have the money to go out and purchase college-ruled paper."

"Well, I still think they need exposure to professional tools. Let me see what I can do for you."

So, she starts a fundraiser.  She works really hard baking pastries that they sell to the community.  She walks into my classroom one afternoon with reams of paper.  I'm grateful, but still I have this lingering sense that she missed my point entirely.  I choose open source paper not just because it's free, but because it works well for some students.  It's not about the paper or the pencils or the tablets or the notebooks.  It's about the learning.

Don't Let Them Take Pencils Home

This post was largely influenced by Larry Ferlazzo's latest post and my own experience with 1:1 computing and my friend Javi's experience with a Parent University.

Gertrude the School Curriculum Instructional Interventionist Academic Specialist storms into my classroom after school, "Tom, Tom, you cannot have students bring home pencils and paper."

"Is this about the dangers of carrying them in their pockets?  I've told you that not a single child has punctured a scrotum."

"It's not about that at all."  

"Is this about damage of property?  I've had parents sign legal waivers."  

"It's not that, either.  I have a journal article about how students who use pencils at home have lower standardized test scores.  So, for the love of test-taking, we need to stop our students from taking home pencils." 

"I take issue with that research.  The only measurement of learning was a drill-and-kill bubble test.  How is that measuring authentic learning?"  

"It is what it is," she adds.  It's her mantra that she uses to avoid divergent viewpoints.  

"Look, I understand the research, but it has to be taken within context.  Often times, students in low-income areas . . . "

"like ours, which means the context is the same . . ." she cuts in. 

"Let me finish.  Schools in low-income areas often have students who come in with a mentality that pencils are to be used for entertainment.  Their parents don't use pencils in their factory jobs and don't have experience using pencils in schools.  Because the poor are often marginalized, clever marketers tailor pencil use in poor areas toward entertainment.  So, they come into my class thinking, 'Cool, this is a toy.'  But we can change the paradigm."  

"How exactly do you plan to do that?" 

"I met with the parents and the students and explained ways that pencils could be used for learning. I worked with Mr. Brown to develop a parent pencil program, where parents have learned certain skills we're teaching students. It's actually been a really cool, horizontal kind of thing, where they have begun taking charge of the courses . . . "  

"Look, that's nice.  It really is.  But, how do you keep them accountable at home?  They'll just use the supplies to play Hang Man.  Such a sick and twisted game!"  

"I don't hold them accountable.  I try and find projects that keep them interested.  But if they choose to play Hang Man or go on the pen pal networks, I'm okay with it. There's probably some learning that's taking place that we don't realize."

"Okay, you keep telling yourself that, but don't blame me when your test scores are lower."  I love the use of "your" right here, as if I am the one taking the drill-and-kill tests.

the human cost

A Note Ahead of Time:
I almost didn't post this, because I was afraid it would seem like an attack on Teach Paperless.  It's not.  I think Shelly Blake-Plock is someone who really gets it.  He understands that going paperless is more than simply using less paper.  It's about a different paradigm of education.

I'm sitting with Mr. Brown and mention, "I hate this march toward industry.  For all my pencil advocacy, I want to conserve paper.  I want a more sustainable way of life. I wonder if the answer is found in the telegraph.  Perhaps information can go paperless."

"We have that already.  It's called vocal chords."

"Seriously Brown, I'd like to believe that in a paper-free world, where all things are electrical, we would reach the point of technological progress that we can evade ecological disaster. I'd like to think that the pencil is just a step toward something better."

"I'd like to believe in leprechauns, but I'm skeptical of them as well," he responds.

"What do you mean?"

"Leprechauns.  Green-clad vertically challenged folk who chase rainbows in Ireland and hoard the world's gold reserves in an a plot to manipulate the currency markets."

"I know about leprechauns.  I'm not seeing your skepticism."

"It's the myth of efficiency.  Factories are more efficient and farms are more effecient and so we would think that this would lead to conservation.  But it doesn't.  We're at the dawn of an environmental disaster.  Replace the methane pollution of horses with horseless carriages. But we've just created a new problem. Yes, the automobile will be more efficient if we keep our same short-distance habits.  But we won't. So, we go paper-free, right.  Sounds good.  But then we switch from a renewable source of trees to coal and oil, which is essentially what's running our city.  People die each year so that you can brew your coffee electronically."

"So, what does that mean for students?"

"It means that we can't propel a myth that the medium we choose is a free one.  There's always a cost.  A cost on our ecology and a cost on our relationships.  It's never neutral.  So, we traded in slates for paper.  Someday we'll trade it in for an electric alternative. The cost isn't always measured in dollars. It's often measured in lives."

"That's pretty fatalistic."

"I know it sounds that way.  But what if we encourage students toward a paradigm of sustainability?  So, you use paper in your class, right?  Figure out a way to teach them the connection between that sheet of paper and the oxygen they breath.  Make them think about how they use resources. So, you get a telegraph.  Remind them that wireless doesn't equal free, either."

"So, how do we do it?"

"For starters, we could try teaching science.  Real science. Teach them the art of observation. And we could quit confusing science with engineering and technology."