Why Were Your Kids Playing Games?

"We need to talk," the principal tells me.

"Mind if I shut the door?" I ask.

"I do. I have an open door policy to keep up."

"Oh." We sit down at a table and I pull out a hoarhound from his candy dish.

"I see you were playing games today instead of teaching."

"It was an advanced simulation."

"It was a game."

"But not like Tic-Tac-Toe or Dots. This one involved a mock factory, where they were making their pictures and . . ."

"So they were drawing?"

"They were reading as well. They had to read various scenarios and describe their solutions in a text. It was real interactive and the kids were engaged and . . ."

"Do you remember what I said after the Hang Man Fiasco of 1895?"

"No games, period."

He raises an eyebrow at me. I gulp hard and almost swallow my hoarhound.

"Yes, but this wasn't violent. How could a parent possibly complain?"

"It's about learning, Tom. I know you're trying to connect it to learning, but frankly it's a stretch," the principal tells me.

"Well, soldiers play games. Surgeons do simulations. It's part of their education."

"Yes, but this isn't war and this isn't a hospital. If we want students to pass the rote memorization test, we need to focus on rote memorization skills. Were you sleeping during our professional development lead by the Drill and Skill Consulting Group?"

"I was paying attention," I lie. The truth is that I was paying attention, but only to the words. I wasn't about to let Mr. Brown win another week of Buzzword Bingo.

"If you want to abandon slate-based learning, at least try the Jonestown Intervention worksheets. Or maybe fill out the packets of algorithms."

My solution: we'll create an algorithm factory and integrate it into our Conflict-Oriented Reading and Writing Project (a.k.a. The Factory Game).

10 Points on Pencils

Dear Superintendent:

I want to address a few of your concerns that you had about my classroom and a list seems like an organized way of doing it:

  1. No, we don't have an Acceptable Use policy for pencils. I refuse to do this, because I don't have a policy for slates, for compasses (for more dangerous, in my opinion) or for chalk. If you want it to be an issue of compliance, I'll comply - but only through paperwork. I don't believe in it.
  2. Pencil predators are real, but most abuse happens in-person via close social relationships. I suggest an open dialogue with parents about monitoring pen pal letters. 
  3. Pencils aren't making kids narcissistic. They're in junior high which means they are naturally self-centered. The good news is that pencils provide a platform for self-awareness.
  4. I see your concern about Pencil Citizenship and it's being addressed, but I'd like to push back a little and suggest that ethics and social justice might be a better approach. And not just with pencils, but with life. 
  5. Banning pocket paper devices (i.e. tablets) is a really bad idea. Yes, they pass notes, but they're also learning to use these tools well. Let's allow students to learn how to use these tools for learning.
  6. Please quit banning Bullying is a real issue, but the most common method is still verbal and the most common site is still the cafeteria. Are we going to ban food next?
  7. Students aren't addicted to paper. Really, they're not. They're addicted to social interaction in the same way they are addicted to water and to oxygen. 
  8. I see your concern with violent games, but I played Hang Man and I'm not violent. It's really not as big a deal as you think.
  9. Teachers are motivated to use pencils. The real issue is self-efficacy. Many of them want to use the tools, but they're scared. Slate-based testing is a major component to this. There is a fear that learning can't transfer from one medium to the next. 
  10. The real issue is pedagogy. The power in the pencil is the nuance, the paradox, the gray area. It's in the idea of portability and permanence. It's about empowering each student to learn in a personalized way. It's a chance to erase and thereby move away from summative and toward formative assessment. 
Tom Johnson

Are Pencils Making Us Narcissistic?

"Tom, I'm not comfortable with students using pen pal networks," my principal warns me.

"It's not about comfort," Mr. Brown shoots back.

"Good point.  Let me rephrase this.  I am concerned about the pen pal networks and the plogs and the class newspaper you have created.  I recently read a study about how pencils are making society more narcissistic," he warns.

"Pencils? Really?" I ask.

"Yes, see, people are becoming addicted to them and it's turning people self-centered," he warns.

"Addicts?  They're communicating, not drinking Coke.  Let's be honest.  Kids write short texts to one another, because they like to communicate.  It has nothing to do with a fancy yellow Ebherhard," I respond.

"Perhaps, but you can't deny that the medium is making children self-centered," he adds.

"I'm pretty sure self-centeredness is a social and psychological rather than a technological issue.  Blame humanity on that one," Mr. Brown adds.

"What about mirrors?  Those seem to make people far more self-centered than pencils.  Are we going to shatter all school mirrors?"

"That would mean bad luck," the principal says with an awkward chuckle.  He's a dry man trying his best to use humor to deflate the escalating tension.

"Look, I see your point.  Maybe we have that conversation with kids.  Maybe we ask them if they feel the pressure to perform when they have a larger audience.  And maybe that's the issue.  Maybe we keep saying 'audience' rather than 'community,' and so our words are framing our mindset," Mr. Brown adds.

Narcissists aren't always the loudest ones out there and loud people aren't always narcissists.  My father had a strong voice.  He spoke up loudly in defense of the one-room schoolhouse when the town considered closing it down and letting students walk a few more mile to go the opposite direction.  When we moved to the city, he wrote letters to the editor regarding worker's rights and factory conditions.  He wrote letters to friends throughout his informal social network, sharing stories about our family. But his voice was humble.  It was earthy.

The issue isn't the technology we use, but the tone of voice that matters.

7 Reasons Why I Quit Reading Your Plog

Hey readers, I quit writing for awhile, not because I don't like to write, but because I had nothing relevant to say.  I decided it would be best to take some time off rather than write a plog for the sake of a plog. 

1. You quit pencil-logging and have replaced it with recommendations for information sites I should visit.  If I want a list of where to find information, I'll talk to a librarian (or anyone else well-acquainted with the Dewey Decimal System) or I'll visit a museum.
2. You sold the plog to the highest bidder.  In other words, you've replaced your voice with the voice of a corporate marketer trying to sell something. Look, I'm sure Edison makes some badass film strips, but there's more to the teaching than technology.  
3. You have found one specific trick and play it on repeat.  Maybe it's one particular strategy or one specific issue and you keep going back to it on a daily or weekly basis.  Look, I know we have a niche.  That's fine.  I know I probably write about pencils too often.  My buddy John writes about his kids too often. However, I can only take so much repetition. 
4. You're using it only to promote an item. Your blog becomes a showcase of what book you're writing and what you're going to say at the PIE (Pencil Integrated Education) Conference.  I'll pay for your content if it's good.  However, you need to write some original things every once in awhile.  Which leads me to . . . 
5. You got stingy with content and you forgot why your readers began reading your plog in the first place.  Maybe you ran out of ideas.  Maybe you got too busy.  But you forgot that I didn't fall in love with your voice.  I fell in love with your ideas, your stories, your sharp prose and your humorous language.  
6. You started getting mean toward students or staff and used your plog as a means of attacking people rather than ideas.  I've done this before with a lady named Gertrude.  She read my plog and cried.  I realized the pain that my venting had caused. 
7. You forgot that plogs were supposed to be interactive.  You never commented back.  You never asked thought-provoking questions.  I read the paper.  What I hope for in a plog is a chance for a dialogue. 

Note: I have only abandoned a small handful of plogs that fit this criteria.  Truth is that I'll follow you if you're honest, if you're thought-provoking and if you have something to say - which happens to be most teacher plogs I read. 

Capturing Reality

"Daddy, what are you doing?" my daughter asks me. 

"I'm setting up the camera," I tell her. 


"So I can take a picture of you guys in front of the waterfall," I respond. 

"Why?" she asks. 

"So I can capture this moment and keep it forever," I tell her.  

"Why do you have to capture it?  Can't this moment run free?" she asks. 
Paul the Preindustrial Poet refuses to use cameras at all.  "I took one picture of my wife and kids," he explains. "But the picture was of me.  It was me, detached, looking through a lens, hiding behind a cloud of smoke." 

"So you never take pictures?" I ask. 

"Never," he says. 

"A hard line," I tell him. 

"I don't want to miss a minute of life." 

"Tell me, do you ever let your mind wander?" 

"Yeah," he says.  "I see where you're trying to lead me.  The issue of detachment isn't about technology. And it's not as if we can carry cameras in our pockets, either.  But technology makes it that much easier to capture reality in a way that we miss it.  We become recorders rather than participants," he says. 

"But we've been recording since the dawn of man.  Camp fires and cave walls.  It's deeply human to capture it.  I'd argue that reality is an act of imagination.  What we see as real, how we tell our stories . . . I don't know, those are an act of memory, but more an act of what we imagine to be real.  We're constantly filling in the details." 

"So, why not reflect later and participate now? Why not allow your memory to be the recorder?" 

"Because photos are more accurate." 

"Depends on how you define accuracy," Paul explains.  "The camera is always black and white and always framing the story.  How is that any different from memory?" 

"True, but in the moment, you gather evidence.  You find tokens.  You hold onto letters or images or you remember conversations.  We're always reinterpreting our story at every moment.  This notion that somehow we 'live now' and 'interpret later' is crazy.  We're always doing both.  Always." 

"But for me, I'd rather be present with my family than allow a medium to get in the way.  See, the scary thing for me is that the lens looks transparent, but it makes me opaque.  My son and daughter can't see me when they see the camera and it's just not healthy for me." 

"Really?  There's no nuance there." 

"For some, yeah, but for me, none. And that's the thing.  There aren't any hard and fast rules for using and rejecting technology.   You set a rigid time limit on the pen pal networks and I don't take pictures." 

It has me thinking that maybe we're doing a disservice to students when we teach tech criticism as good versus bad rather than asking, "What is best?"  And perhaps we're doing a disservice to students when we teach, "What is best?" rather than "What is best for me in this current context?' 

Acceptable Use Committee

I made the mistake of joining the committee regarding the Acceptable Use policy of the district.

"We need kids to know about Pencil Predators."

"Oh, I heard about that.  They send notes to kids and then lure them in."

"Nice, what else?" our leader scribbles away at her tablet.  

"Teach kids not to tear the goddam paper," a man says.

"Please, these are Victorian times," a woman says.

"This is a the U.S.A.  I'll use whatever goddam language I choose.  Just add the part about tearing paper."

"What if the goal isn't acceptable?" I ask.

They stare at me blankly.

"Yeah, what if it's about being ethical instead?"

"Okay, well anymore ideas?" the woman says.

"I'm not done.  Why are we even here?" I ask.

"To craft an Acceptable Use policy."

"Yes, but numbers are used to marginalize people and we don't have an Acceptable Use policy for math.  And kids get hurt in P.E.  Where's the policy for that?  Then, there's language art.  If we're really serious about the art of language and the power words possess, why don't we have an Acceptable Use policy for that?  Come to think of it, people have been abusing science to justify Social Darwinism and history is often used to justify injustice.  So, why don't we create Acceptable Use policies for those subjects?"

The leader misses my point and says, "I think that's a brilliant idea.  I'll bring that back to my supervisor. We should have Acceptable Use policies for all subjects."

Or we could teach students to be ethical critical thinkers.

5 Reasons for Leaving the Pencil Conference

In the past, I've learned some neat things in the PIE Conference, including how to fold oragami, the wonders of colored pencils and how to use notebooking (yet another chance to turn a noun into a verb) for student learning.  This year, however, I left a day early.  I boarded the train and headed back to my wife and daughter and realized that I will grow more as a teacher spending a day with a two year old than with a crowded lecture hall full of experts.

Here are my reasons:

1. Many presenters I've met are unapproachable.  Yes, they give nice speeches, but I've been disappointed that some of the ones who claim to love all the social media tools are quick to shy away from using those tools for honest discussion and debate. "Hey, you should use a pen pal network.  But don't try and send me messages.  I'm much too important than that."

2. Many presenters are arrogant.  I can't listen to you if you are automatically the expert. I can't listen to you if you won't ask questions.  I can't listen to you if you are unable to share some of your difficulties.  If you believe that your job is to change me as a teacher, I'll kindly ask you to eff off and I'll listen to someone else.  News flash: just because you got yourself an Edison Projector and fancy new phonograph doesn't mean you are now the Pope of Paper.

3. Many presenters fail to grasp complexity, paradox and mystery.  It has to be about "their" way and in doing so they engage in tribalism and provocation for the purpose of sounding different.  It's like hanging out in a stuffy art house.  Don't talk about why we need to move past the one-room school house unless you are able to recognize that the one-room school house had a few redeeming qualities (multi-age classrooms, for example)

4.  Many presenters speak like addicts.  Yes, paper is flat and smooth and ultra-portable.  But save the addictive language for the opium dens.  If I want to feel coked-up, I'll stop by the drug store for a soda.

5. Many of the New School folks won't admit that there are some great ideas from the past - whether the idea is ten or two thousand years old.  That bothers me.  Innovation for the sake of innovation is novelty and ultimately it will eventually lose their luster.  Remember those Chester B. Arthur sideburns?  Yep, your phonograph might just be headed that way.

This by no means makes up all of the Pencil Education community.  I've found great people in plogs and on the pen pal networks.  However, I've also ran into my fair share of prima donnas that convince me that the conference circuit can all too quickly become a cute, glossy version of show and tell.  I don't mind show and tell, either.  But I need to to show me reality and tell me more than simply what I need to do to "fix" my teaching career.

Avoid Social Networking

The district office HR representative explains to us at the staff meeting, "From now on, teachers must avoid any site that allows for social networking with students."

"I can't believe this," Ms. Jackson says.  "I . . . I've volunteered in my church's youth group for years.  It seems that the best way to model appropriate adult behavior is to interact with kids and be a positive role model."

"No can do, Action Jackson! Churches can have creeps.  Do we want you to seem like a creep?"

"What about the grocery store?  I run into students at the grocery store all the time.  It can be a real network of social interaction."

"Nope.  You can be on the site, but you can't greet students. Just avoid eye contact and pretend that they don't exist."

"I coach baseball."

"Is it the school's team?"


"Then, you'll need to resign immediately."

"I'm a family friend of one of my students.  Her whole family has been over for dinner."

"That might be misconstrued as a date.  Just tell her family that you cannot be friends with them until their daughter is in college."

"But she's in the fourth grade!"

"Well, they'll have to take a rain check, then.  Any more questions?"

"Can it be an anti-social networking site?  I mean, can I go to a riot where my students might be attending? To me, that's pretty anti-social," I add.

"Good point.  We might need to revisit that.  Let's go to the Board with this.  Perhaps we'll simply pass a rule that you cannot interact with a student at all outside of school."