Remember Pencil Quests?

It was somewhere in my sophomore year and the teacher was bubbling over with excitement. "We're going on a Pencil Quest!" he exlaimed.

I raise my hand. "So, you will take us to various sites. Is it like a field trip?"

"Yep," he says. "And each site will have a page that you will read. When you read the page, you'll answer questions."

"Like a textbook?" I ask.

"More like a moving textbook," he says, "with tons of pages. Imagine that!"

"I thought it was a quest," a student says.

"It is!"

"And the conflict driving the quest is?" I ask.

"Um . . . I don't know. Finishing it, I think. But it's an adventure."

I nod my head, "Got it. Like a Scavenger Hunt. Do we solve riddles to find new places?"

"Not exactly. You have a map."

"So, I can choose my own route."

"No, the route is determined ahead of time."

The crazy part? We ran from site to site with exuberance. We were happy to be using our pencils, even if the pencil still wasn't all that social. We loved the notion of multiple pages. I look back now at the Pencil Quests and I'm a little embarrassed by it. Yet, those were the pioneers. Those were the ones doing something different.

And here's the thing: my students are excited about our projects and our problem-based learning. They're excited about plogs and pen pal networks. It has me wondering what they'll look back at and consider to be quaint.

The Con Academy

"Mr. Johnson, we have a guest who we'd like you to meet," my principal informs me. I walk down the hallway and into the conference room.

"A bagel?" he asks.

"No thank you," I tell him.

"It's free. Just like our system," he says. I've heard of Sam and his specialized academy. Just like the bagel, it looks healthy, but it's more dangerous than it appears.

"I would like you to consider the flipping your classroom," he says.

"Pardon," my principal interjects, "I am not about to have someone flipping off our students."

"No, it's not that at all. See, we have a whole system that you can use in a pencil-based classroom.  Imagine this: each child learns discreet skills independently.  Step-by-step they move through a sequential order designed for the mastery of each math skill. It is powerful. Indeed, it pretty much replaces the role of the teacher. As we think of a modern pedagogy and differentiated instruction, you need resources to reach every child, every time," he explains.

If only I had my Buzzword Bingo card with me. I probably wouldn’t have a blackout, but definitely a five-in-a-row. Besides, what he's advocating is not even a truly flipped classroom. It's simply a stack of packets.

"Wouldn't it make sense to have students use paper and pencil to write essays and solve equations instead?  What if they did some of it independently and worked cooperatively together instead? What if they developed their own problems?" I argue.

Missing the sarcasm, the slick suit snake oil salesman answers, “That sounds great.  But aren't you tired of kids not working?  This allows each child to work at his or her level independently."

“If I didn't know how to teach I would use this product instead,” I answer.

Missing the sarcasm, he says, “Exactly.  The program is designed to fit the needs of teachers struggling to provide adequate intervention.”  Intervention?  Are we dealing with drug addicts here or with children who can't comprehend expository text?

“I just don’t see the appeal of this. It’s a series of worksheets,” I explain.

“Wrong! It’s an academy. It’s a whole system of learning. Kids get to pick their worksheets and the follow the instructions. Can you help every kid at every moment?”

“Well, I can’t. But if I have given them the freedom . . .”

“So, you can’t help each child in the moment? Is that correct?” he asks.

“That's true, but . . .”

“There you have it,” he points to the principal. And so, with that, the con artist and his con academy have prevailed over the voice of a teacher. I get it. This con academy is a free gift. However, so was the Trojan Horse.