Often times visitors show up and ask about the pencils.  "How do you keep them so sharp?" or "How do they remain such a bright yellow?" or even "Do they have an eraser capacity?"

They obsessively focus on the texture of the paper or the gloss on the shiny pencils and they miss the beauty that takes place within the seven walls (as a new initiative, our district is trying out hexagon-based learning and has spent money not on raising teacher pay but in creating classrooms that have different spatial features to help ensure creative thinking).

I get used to the pencil talk and have memorized a mantra that involves a smile and a gentle push toward pedagogy.  This time, however, a visitor walks in and moves past the pencils.  "Show us the plog.  Let us see what students are doing."  It moves into a discussion about the math problem they had recently finished that had actually involved slates (yes, I still use them).

As the class period progresses, they seem interested mostly in student learning.  The pencils and the paper are merely a secondary factor.  This gives me hope for pencil integration.  Perhaps in another century pencil and paper will be such a normal phenomenon that visitors won't be impressed with the medium but with the way students manipulate it to create their own learning.

meat the teacher fiasco

It's five o'clock and Meat the Teacher night is beginning.  The crowd is extra large due to the issues with an error in homophones (or homonyms - I can't always keep them straight), assuming that the teachers were putting on a barbecue, which would be cool because nothing builds community like the collective bonds of setting animal flesh on an open flame and then digging into the carcass while talking about the weather.

A man pulls me aside and introduces me to his son.  "You'll like his class, Josiah."

He then whispers to me, "He's a Graphite Geek. Plays Hang Man and other violent paper games non-stop.  He loves pencils.  I'm guessing he'll love your class."  

I whisper back, "I hope he likes learning, because we don't really play Hang Man in my class."

I sigh, realizing that this will be another year of reminding students at the beginning that the pencils are tools, not toys.  It's not that we won't have fun.  It's just that the fun won't revolve around playing simple games or throwing paper balls at one another.  

The principal strolls into my room.  "How did speller check not catch that?" he asks. 

"It's not misspelled.  It's misused."  

"What's the point of technology if it's going to fail on you?" he asks.

"Yeah, it can be unpredictable."  

"Must be a glitch," he adds. 

The dictionary didn't fail him. The failure was human. Technology is predictable and flawless, making mistakes only when programmed improperly.  The beauty of humanity is that we aren't predictable, because as hard as the district office tries, we can't be programmed.  It's why we can be creative.  It's why we have stories.  We're not mechanical.  Nothing is clockwork.  

The principal humbly faces the consequences by running across the street to the meat market.  Gertrude rounds up a few parents bail him out and spread the news that it's a "bring your own meat" barbecue. (It's that rare moment when a micromanager saves the day)  Around six thirty we're all eating.   A pick-up game of baseball has started among the parents and the kids, losing interest, have started their own game in the street.

I end up playing soccer with a few of my students.  It strikes me that this is how it should always start, not with lectures and rules and procedures, but by playing together.  None of us say anything, but they are seeing who I am as a person so that they can understand who I am as a teacher.

We've gone from an awkward "meet and greet" to an all-out carnival - united by the shared celebration of learning and the shared experience of burning animal flesh.  Perhaps this is how every school year should start. 

Help on a Subtitle

I'm going with Pencil Me In for the title, but I'm not sure what the subtitle should be.  Here are a few options:

  1. Pencil Me In: Pencils, Pedagogy and Parody
  2. Pencil Me In: A 19th Century Allegory of Educational Technology
  3. Pencil Me In: Adventures in Pencil Integration
I'd love your feedback. 

Does every teacher need to plog?

I'm meeting with Paul the Preindustrial Poet.  He has this worn-out notebook with him - the kind that existed before tabs and folders.  He writes lines of poetry, not in any sequential order, but wherever he finds space.  Sometimes he'll fill the blank space with an entire short story.  One entire page is a series of 140 character short stories he wrote just to prove to me that one can, in fact, tell a narrative on a pen pal network.

Paul tried to write a plog at one time, because he bought into the lie that every good teacher needs to write a plog.  It was too structured for him and too public as well.  "Look, I would never say that every teacher needs to write poetry or that every teacher needs to write for Hearst.  The reality is that different people find a medium that works for them."

Mr. Brown doesn't plog, either.  Or at least, he doesn't plog about school.  He writes mostly about fantasy and baseball and his fantasies of running a baseball team.  He says that in another century he might be able to find a like-minded group of people who would participate in a make-believe league where they would live vicariously through a sport that allows people to live vicariously through athletes.  Mr. Brown won't go on the pen pal networks.  It's just not his thing.

My wife is social.  Very social.  She knows everyone in the neighborhood.  She has a whole social network within walking distance of our front porch.  (She thinks its sacrilege that I don't call it a "stoop.") However, she has no desire to plog or to participate in the pen pal networks.  She's a teacher.  Not formally, but in conversation, in life, in her actions and in her questions.  She plans to home school the kids when they aren't at school (we'll do both home school and public school, saving most of the home-schooling for weekends and summers).

Some of the best teachers I know are not pencil geeks.  They have no desire to write a plog or go on a pen pal network or use social book marking.  What makes them great is their passion for the subject, their love for their students and the way they combine these in practical, tangible ways.  If a plog is part of the deal, it's great.  We all get to learn from them.  If not, that's okay.

If the district made it mandatory for me to plog, I would quit plogging.  I would probably plagiarize or find passive-agressive ways to get back at the power elite.  I would see myself as a pencil pusher and my plog as mere paperwork.  But alas, I can plog when I want and it isn't tied up with my self-concept as a teacher.


Somebody told me that if I want to be popular, productive and prone to alliteration, I need to make lists and post them on the pen pal networks.  So here goes my first list titled 100 SUPER-AMAZING WAYS TO USE PENCILS IN YOUR CLASSROOM. (Not sure why I had to add that in the body if it's in the title, but there it is)

  1. Have students draw
  2. Have students design buildings
  3. Have students create maps
  4. Have students solve algebraic expressions
  5. Have students do geometery and other math stuff
  6. Have students fill out worksheets and convince them that the goal is to complete a worksheet and to work hard rather than learn
  7. Have students write poetry
  8. Have students write letters to people in power who will have to hire a secretary who will pretend to care
  9. Have students write persuasive essays
  10. Have students write expository essays
  11. Have students write functional texts
  12. Have students write narratives
  13. Have students make comic books in "gray scale" and then claim that it's a "graphic novel" so that it sounds more sophisticated 
  14. Have students write a funeral dirge
  15. Have students write dirty limericks and blame them on their peers
Okay, I'm out of ideas.  Maybe I'll just stick to telling stories.