The Never-Ending Pencil Fight

Why is it that teachers are so consumed by the almighty pencil? We know that “The pen is mightier than the sword,” but why is there so much angst over a pencil? How did a pencil become so powerful?

In classrooms across the country, there are small skirmishes, stare-downs, and outright battles going on. It’s teacher against student in the war over what a pencil stands for and what having one means. How one slim piece of cedar that encapsulates graphite has become so powerful is beyond me. But powerful it has become. I think it’s time to take the power of the pencil fight away.

I love the lessons and messages provided in Teaching Tolerance. The project run by the Southern Poverty Law Center gives me insight into so many issues about race and inclusiveness that I don’t think I’d be the teacher I am today if I hadn’t found that first magazine in my mailbox decades ago. It may seem like I’m wandering away from my topic, but I promise I’m not. As I listen day after day in the faculty room about how frustrating it is when kids don’t come prepared for class, I am reminded a couple of times a week about an intriguing article in Teaching Tolerance,  “Give the Kid a Pencil”. Much to the chagrin of many a teacher, even many a student teacher, Chad Donohue states simply that he’ll give his students a pencil, not the first time they ask, not the second time they ask, but every time they ask. And I couldn’t agree more.

Right now educators are shaking their heads. There are so many reasons NOT to give a kid a pencil, how can I possibly think it’s a good idea? Well, let’s examine some of those reasons.

“Requiring a student to bring a pencil to class is a great way to teach responsibility – it’s a life skill.” I have heard this argument often, and I’m still baffled by it. I work in a district where many children receive free and reduced lunch, where there is a summer lunch program to assure students have access to at least one decent meal a day. While middle class values may have caused me to run out and buy pencils for my kids, I also had kids that didn’t need to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Requiring kids to bring a pencil to class who don’t have access to pencils at home is not teaching responsibility. It’s teaching the child that they’re a “have-not” and that the kid who has pencil is a “have.” The kid without the pencil is not going home to contemplate, “how can I be better prepared for class tomorrow? Where can I get my hands on that cheap little piece of wood with the graphite inside?” The kid is wondering if there will be anything for dinner that night, if the landlord is going to knock on the door. Consider this poem:

Cause I Ain’t Got a Pencil” by Joshua T. Dickerson

I woke myself up
Because we ain’t got an alarm clock
Dug in the dirty clothes basket,
Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform
Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,
Cause the lights ain’t on
Even got my baby sister ready,
Cause my mama wasn’t home.
Got us both to school on time,
To eat us a good breakfast.
Then when I got to class the teacher fussed
Cause I ain’t got a pencil.

Some are thinking, “This kid is the exception, not the rule.” I don’t think so. When we as teachers require students to have a pencil, we’re insisting that the child controls their home life, their circumstances, and has the ability to demand an adult makes sure they have a pencil. It’s not teaching responsibility. It’s teaching that the kid’s family is different from what we consider a “normal” family to be.

“Requiring a student to have a pencil can help teach economics.” Some teachers have come up with complicated systems students can use to get a pencil. They feel justified because they are teaching children about a “mini-economy,” a new buzz term in education. There’s only one problem – a mini-economy has an entirely different objective. Dr. Harlan R. Day of the U of NM meant the mini economy to teach students life skills like banking, making deposits, determining wants vs. needs, and balancing a budget. It has nothing to do with the “economy” of finding classroom dollars to buy a pencil.

“Not coming to class prepared should lead to a consequence.” Let’s think about this one. Punishments, by nature, are notoriously short-lived in their effectiveness. According to John Shindler, author of Transformative Classroom Management, “A punishment is an external intervention that is intended to give discomfort for the purpose of payback or out of the belief that it will change behavior…. The locus of control of a punishment is the punisher. In nature there are only consequences, NO punishments.” He goes on to explain that “On the surface punishments can appear to work. They produce what appears to be a desirable outcome. But as we examine their effects more closely, we will see that punishments either do not really improve behavior in the long-term, and/or are not the portion of the intervention that had a desirable effect.” In reality, when there are “consequences” for not having a pencil, the student has learned that this classroom is not a safe place. Harry Wong believes that every classroom should be a safe, respectful place, and I agree with him. Lunch detentions, demerits, loss of classroom “dollars” over a pencil can cause anxiety; it will never make a child feel safe.

“Not coming to class with a pencil is disrespectful to the teacher and the class.” This is a bias and judgment creeping in to the conversation. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a middle-class bias that believes students should have the ability to get a pencil and all parents should make preparedness for school a priority. According to Sarah D. Sparks in “Classroom Biases Hinder Students’ Learning,” there is no respect issue in such situations. Punishing a child for not having a pencil is a form of “learning under threat.” The student is threatened to be embarrassed or called out or receive a detention because of… a pencil? Sparks explains that “fear takes up mental energy – making it harder to think on the spot – and emotionally charges … reaction to errors, making [the student] remember the wrong answer as strongly as [they] would the right answer (2014 study). Likewise, in Dr. Mary K. Chelton’s essay, “The Overdue Kid: A Face-to-Face Library Service Encounter as Ritual Interaction,” she explains that asking a biased question like “Why aren’t you ready for MY class?” is akin to a “discursive ‘routine'” that demonstrates “one party’s behavior is construed by the other as an offense.” Such exchanges don’t lead anywhere productive.

“I’m a teacher, not a store. Why should I have to buy pencils for my class?” I couldn’t agree more. You read that right. I don’t believe that you should have to supply items like pencils, crayons, tissues, for your classroom. However, here’s the problem — the issue of budgets and supplies are controlled by adults, not by kids. So why is the kid being blamed for an adult problem? I don’t think I should have to buy these supplies, but Staples and I have a long-term relationship, and my points there add up significantly each year. I’ll grumble about the fact that I shouldn’t have to buy these things, but I’ll never blame a kid for this situation.

“I’m not going to sacrifice my classroom sanity over a pencil.” This is another point on which I couldn’t agree more. Larry Zuares describes a Socratic discussion he had with a teacher in his blog entry “The Hills on Which We Choose to Die.” Larry keeps drilling down until the teacher is befuddled – how important should a pencil actually be?

What’s really going on here? Why are pencils such a symbol of power? Of respect? What I’ve notice in many classrooms is that it’s not the pencil that’s the issue. It’s the procedure to get a pencil that is. If a child has to ask me every time they need a pencil, and if the child lives in a home that is chaotic and with different priorities than mine, the number of interruptions to my teaching is frustrating and can feel disrespectful. Think about changing the procedure. Have a place for kids to go to get a pencil – where they don’t need to interrupt you to get it. They just feel safe enough, valued enough, to know that in your classroom, there will always be a pencil.

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10 thoughts on “The Never-Ending Pencil Fight

  1. Hi Cathy,
    The NJEA teachers for change brought me here. I really enjoyed your post. I, too, teach in a high free-and reduced lunch district, and the Joshua Dickerson poem sounds like so many of the students in my high school English class.

    I’ve thought about the pencil issue for nearly 20 years, and I’m with the mindset that loaning and giving students pencils facilitates a kind of helplessness. These days, though, 95 percent of the writing that my students do in class is on a google doc, or some other digital platform. Having them take out pen or pencil is hardly the norm, so I don’t get too miffed if they don’t have one handy. I want my students to be as adept at digital writing and editing as any kid in an affluent district.

    Keep up the blogging! You’re great at it!

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  2. Thanks for writing this. I used to make a big deal when kids didn’t have a pencil in class, until I realized my district let teachers order 2 dozen pencils and a box of pens a month. Now I just give ’em away and don’t make a big deal out of it.

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  3. In theory, I agree with you.
    However, I have nearly 200 students – if 10% need a pencil daily, that’s 20 a day, 100 a week, 400 a month, 4000 for the year.
    It’s nearly 1/2 way through the year, so far I’ve received 24 pencils from our school.
    No raises for 8 years – increased
    Payments to health and retirement costs – I can’t afford to implement my principles.

    BTW – I’m from Michigan – these are the effects of Betsy DeVos’ policies

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    • Betsy DeVos is a nightmare with a smile. New Jersey, under Christie, has seen similar attacks. While in theory I’ve received a raise, my take-home pay has gone down each year for the last 4 years. The disrespect is even more troubling and exhausting than the pay issues.
      When I worked in Camden, NJ, one of the poorest cities in the country, I supplied everything from pencils to crayons to books. I remember how thrilled I was to get my first roll of making tape in year 2 of teaching there. However, I was teaching kindergarten then and the largest class I ever had was 29 students. With 200 students, is there any way that you can have classroom pencils that the students can borrow in your class but return to a specific spot before they leave?

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  4. Baloney. I know of no teachers, no classrooms where this is the kind of issue you propose. In 18 years of teaching I averaged purchasing between 500 and 1000 pencils a year that were used by my 135-145 students. This expenditure was never covered by the administration. One has to ask why this effort to play up teachers as petty.

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  5. Worked in Detroit Public Schools for 17 years. Friends and family would fuss at me for giving my kids a supply box & fill it. I would always hear how that was their parents’ job. I knew they needed it and I learned after a few years of being a young teacher, I gave them what I would have wanted. I watched my own child grow and my heart did too!! I would bring holiday pencils and erasers to add to that box until it over flowed!!! Why?! Because everyone needs to learn what it’s like to have a box filled with their own treasures.✏️🖍✂️📎❤

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  6. The pencils I give out to my students are the ones I pick up when I’m walking around through the school hallways. They’re just sitting there on the ground because students drop them and can’t be bothered to pick them up. The students in my classes, even if they don’t have parents who’ll buy pencils for them, could pick the pencils up off the hallway floors as easily as I can, and could bring those pencils to my class. If they cared.

    Liked by 1 person

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