"Mr. Johnson, are pictures more real than reality if we just forget reality after it happens anyway?"

"What do you think?"

"I think a picture is more real, since it doesn't change."

"What about memory?"

"Your imagination gets in the way of reality."

Imagination. Imaginary.  Root word: Image.


Make believe.  Make belief.  

We are living in a world just beginning to shift from a print to an image culture.  We create imagery.  No, we capture imagery, letting imagination believe it is less important or less real or less true than the snapshot flash of a camera. 

But we also create images; spinning truth and reality to improve the image we try and maintain with the vain hope of masking our mortality.  

Graven images.

I spent an hour retouching a photograph I'll use in my pen pal network.  

It might capture reality, but I feel less real than I did an hour before when I broke bread with my wife and daughter.  (Okay, I had to break the bread into really tiny pieces for her, but it was still breaking bread)  When I share the sense of confusion in sketching out a pencil-based image of myself, my wife reminds me that it is human.

"Tom, we hide.  We stay out in the open.  We hide again.  Social context, language, clothing - these are all a part of the natural desire to create that element of self that we experience so deeply."

"It just seems like we lost something human in the process." 

"No, our technology, our tools, our language, culture . . . those are what make us human.  The need to develop an image is the root of imagination.  It's what makes us who we are.  It's pictographs on cave walls and hierogliphics on pyramids and stained glass on cathedral walls.  The tools might change, but the sense in which we create an image or capture an image and then call it reality . . . that is a part of what makes us human."  

My daughter paints a monster.  It's real, or at least it is real to her.  I retouch a photograph.  My wife quilts a blanket.  True, we might be moving toward an "image culture."  However, let's not kid ourselves.  We have always been image-based.  It's just that the tools change in how we express imagination.  Yet, whether we conjure up a new vision or try and rethink our public memory, it is always an act of imagination.  

Imagination.  Image.  Imago.

"Imago Dei," she reminds me as I slowly slide the air shudder and watch the silhouettes fade into darkness.  Even now, as I embrace her beneath our comforter, I am experience at once the empirical reality of her warmth and conjuring up images of that moment she walked down the aisle. Even when we are laid bare, in our most vulnerable moments, we are still bound by our images.

Tech Masks

"Sorry I'm late.  Some idiot in a horseless carriage cut me off and spooked my horse a bit," I tell Paul the Preindustrial Poet when we meet for coffee.

"I know what you mean.  I was cut off by a mustang this morning.  You know the type that a guy gets in his mid-life crisis.  I was walking down the street and he just cut me off."

"I guess I'm just in a bad mood.  Some anonymous guy wrote told me that I'm going to Hell."

"On your plog?"


"It seems like people use technology to hide.  It's like it becomes a mask.  Whether it's cutting you off in a horseless carriage or being vindictive in a plog or bumping their phonograph loud enough that the whole neighborhood hears.  They wouldn't cut you off in person or shout at you in a room or shout a song so loud that the whole city hears.  It's like the technology becomes a way to hide."

"Is it really masking anything?'

"What do you mean?"

"I understand that it's unpleasant.  I get that.  And I understand that people use technology to hide.  Or they forget the human side behind it.  But cutting people off, making mean comments and the like - isn't that simply a part of the human condition?"

When a Child Hates Pencils

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

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

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

Pencils were not used for learning, but for working.

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

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

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

"Will I get a stamp?"

"No. I don't do stamps."

"A letter?"

"No letters here either."

"Then why should I do this?"

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

"Will you read it?"

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

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

I Banned Pencils Today

I see the need for all types of media in my classroom.  I have fought the battle to expand our band width so that my students can use phonographs without running into the tuba players.  I have fought to avoid the term "pencil bullying" and to use tablets and pen pal networks in class.  

Yet, in math today we banned the use of paper and pencil.  

I asked students to find the area of a volume of a cylinder that is twenty inches wide and twenty inches tall.  I watched students fidget for awhile before realizing that they would have to solve this using a cerebrum rather than a slate or a paper.  

No manipulatives.  No paper.  No slates. No chalk.  Just a mind.  It took awhile at first, but eventually every child answered it and then shared their process with partners.  

Having tools is a part of being human.  I never want to deny that.  Yet, I also want to recognize that we have the power to abandon our tools and use our highly evolved minds.  I ask students to do mental math because I want them to see that their brains are powerful in and of themselves.    

Thanks EDM 310

I normally post responses to people's comments, but life has gotten crazy-busy lately.  So, I want to direct this at Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class in general:

Thank you for all the positive feedback.  It is always encouraging to get compliments, que stions and insightful responses from readers.  I know that my blog was a "required reading," but it often felt from the responses that people were reading this not simply out of a desire to get a grade, but in an honest desire to think about education.  There were plenty of times when I considered scrapping this bizarre, satirical, often clunky little blog, but your comments helped reshape how I chose to approach writing this.  So, again, thanks to all the folks who are reading this blog.

-John Spencer

My Eduplog Nominations

I am doubtful that anyone will nominate Tom Johnson's Adventures in Pencil Integration, seeing as how there is no 19th Century Satirical Blog category (and it really can't be called "new" if it takes place back in the day).  So, with that in mind, I am doing a post about the Eduplog Awards of 1897.

Eduplog Award Nominations - 1897

Best Individual Plog: This was a hard one, but I'm having to go with Waldo's Pond.  I love the way he takes up Thoreau's notion of finding a pond and thinking about life.  The combination of poetry, sketches and thoughtful reflection make this a truly literary education plog.

Best Individual Tweaker: With the explosion of opium dens and the use of cocaine in medicine, I'm a bit shocked that anyone would ever glorify the concept of a tweaker. Shame on you, Eduplog!

Best Group Plog: Caravan to the Valley does a great job creating a satirical plog mocking William McKinley's Caravan to the Top.

Best New Plog: Theodore Grant's Losing My Sideburns deals not only with what it's like to be a new teacher who must shave his sideburns and dress professionally, but also what it means to completely lose one's former identity in becoming the "man in charge" at this one room schoolhouse.

Best Class Plog: I'm Down with Brown. It's a brilliant plog dealing with social class issues throughout this current Spanish-American War. Topics such as marginalization and racist language (hence the brown) . . . oh, what's that? Wrong use of the word class? Oh well, I'll keep it up anyway.

Best Resource Sharing Plog: 20th Century Learning Resources - George has a way of finding all the resources that are necessary for the Industrial Age and locating them in a daily paper. Nice work, George! Where else will I find the 18 Ways to Integrate Origami into Daily Paper-Based Instruction?

Most influential Plog Post: We Are the Factory. I love the notion that in creating this current modern factory model, those of us who are complicit in it become the factory itself.

Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion: I almost went with the meadowlark on this one, but I'd have to say the robins at Steele Park.

Best Teacher Plog: Learn to Serve. I love the way Ruth gets her children to serve without feeling coerced or falling into the overly progressive trap of "let's go fix the world."

Best Librarian / Library Plog: Mary Emerson's Damn Dewey's Delightful Decimal System is a mildly irreverent description of the life of a lonely librarian with a keen sense of alliteration and irony.

Best School Administrator Plog: I Assist in Intending, in a Super Kind of Way is an honest, funny and often bizarre portrait of an assistant superintendent of a small rural district.

Best Educational Tech Support Plog: A Sketchy Solution has saved me on many occasions when I simply couldn't figure out how to fix a pencil.

Best eLearning / Corporate Education Plog: Thomas Edison's Education Funhouse might be a bit overly corporate, but come on, it's Thomas Effing Edison, guys! The man who invented (or had other people working for him who invented) the light bulb - the very symbol we will forever use when drawing clip art pictures of people with an idea. If we're going to have corporate buyout of education, let's at least keep it entertaining in the process.

Best Educational Use of a Phonograph: Can You Hear Me Noun? is genius in the way it captures both the limitations and the strengths of the phonograph and the human voice in education and grammar in particular.

Best Educational Use of Motion Pictures: Check Out Some Skin! I realize the marketing on this one failed, with many patrons assuming it would be a peep show. But regardless of the box office dud, this was a real hit with my classroom. Who knew the epidermis could be so fascinating?

Best Educational PowerSlide: How PowerSlides Lost Their Power is a self-mocking PowerSlide making use of everything we dread when we hear the first rumbling of that Edison projector: comical typeface, cheap stock photography, entire paragraphs on one slide. You get the idea.

Best Educational Use of a Social Network: Ray's Cafe. Just go there sometime and try the pie or the pi. Either way, you'll never have enough. People connect in a deep social network on a daily basis.

Best Educational Use of a Virtual World: Isn't that precisely schooling already is? A dark virtual world with draconian discipline all in the name of the "real world?"

Just Teach Them To Solve for X

A few people have asked me to keep posting to this blog instead of just consolidating.  So, I'm keeping this bad boy around, but I'll start posting these to my other blog as well. Incidentally, before writing this post (or looking at any comments on blogs), I created a video yesterday that is on my personal blog today dealing with this issue of metaphor. I want to assure you that none of this is ever meant to demean, disrespect or insult anyone - just provoke thought.   

Gertrude the Cognitive Acquisition of Newly Developed Youth Learning Achievement of National Data (CANDY LAND) Specialist approaches me in mid-lesson.

"Your schedule says 'math block' right now and I see your students sketching pictures."

"They're creating metaphors for the concept of 'x.'  So, they start with the picture and then describe the process using the metaphor."

"Why not just teach them to solve for x?"

"I want them to understand how variables work.  Most of them have no idea that 'x' isn't simply a magical number, but actually an independent variable.  If they can't understand how 'x' is used, how will they understand how it is used in life?"

"Look, I see kids drawing pictures of tools and bridges and revolutionary figures.  Why not just teach them to define and use 'x' instead?"

"Metaphors are how we as humans make sense out of the abstract.  It's the bridge between pure abstraction and the concrete, terrestrial reality we experience.  It's used by children and philosophers alike to grapple with a complex universe."

"I don't mind when you have the students replace the slates with paper, Tom.  That's fine with me.  I get it. They can go back and look at previous work."

"Yes, but you miss the full potential of paper when we simply duplicate how we used it with slates.  The genius of paper is how we can use it to construct knowledge rather simply copy processes."

"Your job is to teach them truth.  Cold, hard reliable truth.  Metaphors are messy and muddled and confusing - like a scavenger hunt through a swamp. It should be like clockwork.  Mechanical.  Bits and pieces as clear as day."  I find it odd that he uses two or three metaphors himself to make sense out of his own theory of knowledge.

"What if learning is messy?  What if confusion is the process that leads to clarity?  What if simply memorizing a computational practice does little help students understand how a variable works?"

"Are you arguing that we should make math more confusing?"

"The world's greatest teachers were often confusing.  They understood that truth involves metaphors."

"Like who?"

"Let's start with Locke, Rousseau, Plato, Erasmus, Jesus."

"You aren't Jesus, Tom."

"Good point."

"Look, it's just that metaphors are dangerous.  There's too much room for confusion."

"That's exactly why we need them.  Life is dangerous.  Learning is dangerous.  A bad metaphor can launch a war.  I want my students to know this.  I want them to see that language shapes our perceptions of reality."

New Book Cover

Here's an initial idea for the book cover.

This Blog Is Moving

In an effort to consolidate blogs, I have decided to move this blog to my Spencer's Scratch Pad blog.  I will keep this blog open, but all new posts will be available on my other blog. If you are a blog follower, I encourage you to follow my other blog.  If you are a subscriber, I encourage you to subscribe to my other blog.

Sketchy Portraits: 8th Grade Identity and Pencils

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

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

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

It's sketchy.

It's permanent and temporary.

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

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

"What happened?"

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

"So what did you do?"

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


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

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

"What did you do next?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Or both."

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

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

He Just Likes the Class for the Pencils

I'm not the Nice Guy Teacher who hands out candy and offers free time (Isn't all education supposed to be an act of liberation?) and plays the pal at recess and lunch time.  I am strict.  I allow a large amount of freedom (we have tables instead of desks, where the students are allowed to eat and they may choose where to sit), but I will correct a child every time I see disrespect or laziness.

Somehow I get the reputation as the Nice Guy Teacher, though.  Thus teachers who have never visited my room often seem surprised by the lack of chaos and the serious demeanor that I have.  I want my students to enjoy learning, but I also want them to grasp the fact that it is a serious endeavor. So, I use some humor and try and develop a good relationship with them.  However, I expect full mental engagement.

I'm in a "behavior meeting," with a parent, a child and three other teachers.  Under the guise of "finding solutions," each teacher blames and shames until the boy cries. (Occasionally teachers will actually delight in this, believing that shame leads to a change in direction, when, in fact, it leads to perfectionism, rebellion and ultimately hedging your bets and wearing masks so that no one ever knows you)

"He's doing well for me.  I teach all the subjects except for the electives," I explain.

"That's only because of the pencils," another teacher says.

"I really think it's because he and I have found a way to get along," I add.

Another teacher says, "I wish I had a set of pencils.  Maybe he would behave for me.  I know he loves pencils.  I guess we can't all have it our way."

"I'm not sure the pencils are the thing that makes it meanin. . ."

"Don't get defensive, Tom.  He loves your class for the pencils.  At least he doesn't interrupt you with stupid questions. In gym class . . ."

His voice trails off and I check out.  Turns out this meeting was meant to shame and blame me. What he doesn't realize is that pencils will be exciting for a day.  Any new technology is like that.  We have a phonograph that the students fell in love with for a week.  We have access to a telegraph that we use on occasion.

Ultimately, though, it is about trust and purpose.  This child trusts me, because I don't shame him.  In fact, the one time I yelled at him, I apologized and he responded with humility and strength.  He trusts me, because I know him and I know him, because I take the time to listen.  This child sees meaning and purpose in what we do in class.    I try not to waste his time with meaningless work and in return he doesn't waste my time with meaningless chatter.

None of that requires a pencil.

When the meeting is over, the teachers walk out first.  The child is sitting with his face buried in his hands, tears streaming down.  An angry mother sits beside him.

As he gets up to leave, he says, "I don't just like your class for the pencils.  I like pencils.  But I like your class because it's fun.  No, sometimes it's really boring and, I don't know.  I don't know why I like your class, but it isn't just the pencils."

"I know," I tell him.