It’s June! Let Collective Punishment Begin!

It’s June! YES! Students are rejoicing, and teachers who have been working 12 months in the span of 10 months are ready for the break. But it’s June, and the kids are losing their collective minds. So when something happens, they should all pay the price together, right?

There’s only one problem…. Collective punishment punishes all students and sends several messages (all negative). More importantly, collective punishment is against the Geneva Convention, against the law, and is considered by many experts to be a form of emotional abuse. With that said, while many teachers have used collective punishment and there are specific times in the school year when it feels most appropriate, there are real consequences to using collective punishment that are not outcomes we as educators want for our kids.

I’ve used collective punishment, and every time I’ve used it, I’ve felt guilty about it and looked at the faces of the kids I KNEW had been following the rules and thought, “What did he do? Why is she part of this?” I now know why I had that awful little tickle in my head, that disconnected feeling each time I utilized the “I don’t know who did it, so EVERYONE has lost the movie!” or the “I told you to quiet down, so now EVERYONE will have to pay the price!” maneuver. The more I’ve read about it, the more I’m convinced that I will never use collective punishment again.

There are three times of the year when I notice an uptick in punishing everyone: the beginning of the school year, right before Spring Break, and the end of the school year. These are stressful times for teachers and students alike. In the fall, teachers are still learning names, figuring out who can be sneaky and who would never tell a lie, and must make certain that rules and procedures are internalized and followed in order to have a productive and safe school year. Of course under these circumstances, when the teacher is trying to work on team building and responsibility, the use of collective punishment makes sense. Except that it doesn’t make sense.

One reason often given for collective punishment is that it reinforces team building. Students have to learn how to work together and follow the rules together or they all pay the price. But what kind of team are you looking to build? Are you trying to build a team of tattling sycophants who will do almost anything for approval? Then collective punishment is for you. We’ve seen it in history… think about the McCarthy era. The prosecution of “all” communists during the McCarthy hearings was a form of collective punishment. Every single communist would have to pay the price… unless they figured out how to snatch up a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. That often involved reporting others for being closet communists. Did it matter if the new target actually practiced communism? NO. The only real objective was to get yourself free. So, if you want to encourage false accusations and blame, then collective punishment will work.

Yeah, but that’s just ridiculous. That’s not the kind of collective punishment I mean. Okay, so when we think of collective punishment, we think of a specific group of students in a given classroom, not people outside of the group. So collective punishment for a specific class will reinforce team building there, right? Not so fast…. There is a bias belief buried in this thought process: students who misbehave will feel ashamed that the whole class had to pay for their behavior. Think about that. The kids who had no compunction about acting up in class will now feel ashamed? How often does that happen? In reality, the only kids who feel shame are the ones who shouldn’t feel ashamed at all. The kid who behaves and puts forth an honest effort day after day will feel angry, frustrated, confused, and ashamed for being punished. “What should I have done?” they ask themselves. “How could I have stopped Eric from throwing one more piece of paper? How do I KNOW when this will BE that one last piece of paper?” So, now transport yourself to a summer vacation drive down I-95. You’re staying close to the speed limit, you’re maintaining a safe driving distance, you’re not on your cell phone. All of a sudden, 5 police cars block the road and pull over 25 cars, including you. In that group, 5 drivers were tailgating, 5 drivers were texting, and 3 drivers were talking on their cell phones. So the police decide that EVERYBODY is going to get a ticket for careless driving. After all, YOU allowed that behavior to continue; YOU were part of the group; YOU should be sharing the road more responsibly. What would happen? How would YOU react?

And notice that those kids are feeling shame, not guilt. There is a difference. According to Tangney et al, “shame is considered the more painful emotion because one’s core self—not simply one’s behavior—is at stake. Feelings of shame are typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or of “being small” and by a sense of worthlessness and power-lessness.” Powerless, being small. These are not feelings we want to instill in our students. We want them to feel empowered to stand up for themselves and make the right choice. We want them to have a positive socialization experience, not toxic socialization.

I get it… that ticket scenario would never happen. But why? Because we’re adults. So, it’s okay to treat kids this way, but not adults. Here’s the problem: collective punishment screams out, “I don’t respect your efforts to behave; I don’t respect YOU.” Is that the message we want to give to kids? If it is, then we’re telling every well-behaved student that behavior just doesn’t matter.

Remember, we want our kids to be empathetic. Yet collective punishments are counterproductive to encouraging empathy in a child. As Tangney et al explains, we often set up a conflict of “Other-oriented empathy versus self-oriented distress.” There is a difference between feeling guilt and feeling shame. When we collectively punish, some students will respond with a feeling of shame, a feeling of wanting to hide and escape. Because of this response, “In describing personal experiences of guilt, people convey greater empathy for others than when describing shame experiences.” Therefore, if the guilty party or parties are disciplined, others in the class may feel empathy for them. However, if the entire class is punished, then we’re setting up not a culture of team, but a culture of everyone for themselves.

We also are in accord that we don’t want our kids to give into peer pressure. Yet the concept of collective punishment hinges on just that: if enough KIDS (peers) pressure the ones acting out to behave, then the behavior will stop. If we really want to encourage personal responsibility, then where does collective punishment fit in? I don’t think it does. How it CAN encourage peer pressure is different than what we want to occur. If we’re ALL going to get punished, why shouldn’t I just join in with the fun? What reason do I have to be good when everyone is being labeled as bad?

I’ve read some articles where people exclaim collective punishment is simply teachers being lazy. That is, to my mind, nonsense. Teachers have to keep the day moving, the learning moving, and behaviors often get in the way of important learning. As society continues to up the ante with high stakes testing, the need to keep on moving is ever-increasing. Teachers are NOT being lazy with the use of collective punishment. I’m sure many are relying on what happened in their own classrooms, and some were even provided with this type of punishment as a viable tool when student teaching.

But collective punishment is just that — punishment. We shouldn’t be looking to punish our kids. There is a great deal of difference between punishment and discipline. We also have to repeat procedures over and over again to help classmates understand and internalize expectations. In these times of sponging out every moment possible for learning all there is to learn, reteaching procedures may seem a waste of valuable time. In reality, by reteaching procedures, we’ll save time in the end and collective punishment will not cross our minds.

We need to remember that when we treat children collectively, we are taking away their individuality. As Angela Watson explains in her blog on the same topic, after talking to little Morgan’s mother, she had to think long and hard about the consequences of collective punishment. Like I said, I’m going to do my best to make certain I never use collective punishment again. And I hope many other educators will join in this crusade against the practice.

How Should We Fight the Perception that Teachers Are “Lazy,” Greedy,” “Whiny”?

Every teacher I know (and yes, I’m using an absolute statement here), has had to deal with somebody, and probably many somebodies, who has /have told them how good they have it and how they would never make it in the private sector. And boy are governors across the country jumping on this bandwagon:

There’s only one problem with this belief – data, reports, and personal experiences prove this belief to be one huge fallacy. Yet the belief continues.Those of us educated on some of these myths follow informed bloggers such as Jersey Jazzman, Diane Ravitch, Corey Bower, and Steven Singer, only to become more and more outraged and frustrated by unfounded attacks and misinformation.

Personally, I have worked in the private sector. I remember going to work in the summer and thinking how nice it would be to have summers off, and I remember getting frustrated when I was stuck in traffic at 5:30. I remember telling my sister-in-law how good she had it as a teacher. Wow… how I wish I could take back those words now.

Teachers work HARD. Teachers work non-stop. Teachers work under incredible pressure. And, somehow, most teachers love it. We know we’re making a difference. Those moments when that kid we couldn’t get through to makes an academic or personal breakthrough is our addiction that keeps us coming back for more. It’s why, when on vacation, we’re thinking about how we could incorporate something interesting into a lesson. It’s why, when we’re at a yard sale, we’re thinking about how an unusual item could serve as a prop or a purpose in the classroom. It’s why that coupon from Staples has us stopping on the way home to purchase something extra for the classroom. It’s why we work through the weekend, aggravate our spouses by marking papers, and wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea on how to get through to that kid.

But teachers are lazy. Public employees have no idea what it’s like in the real world. We have an easy job that takes not special skills. We are greedy. Our faculty rooms should be banned.  These attacks cause our ire to pump, and rightfully so.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I explain that teachers wouldn’t be dropping out of the profession at record levels if the job was so easy and part-time. I know we realize that governors across the country are attacking teachers and that many Republicans think we have it so easy it’s ridiculous. And anyone from New Jersey – nay – probably anyone who turns on a television in the United States – knows about how Christie spars with “you people!” But we also know that many in the general public want to say thank you to teachers for our hard work. These voices, however, tend to be drowned out by the other rhetoric.

I’ve often attempted to fight the “alternative facts” and “fake news” with facts. I’ve posted on Facebook, tweeted on Twitter, and written letters to politicians. While other educators and some of the public understand my points, the nay-sayers simply shake their heads and dig in even deeper. Why can’t facts change minds?

An interesting article about the sociological reality of “facts” and how we process the information has helped me to think differently. I won’t sit by and argue with those on the far-right anymore. I won’t engage in spewing out truths, facts, and data. I’m going to try another tact. Now that I have read Tristan Bridges’ article, I’m going to try something different.

One of the biggest issues of debate in New Jersey right now is the pension. Within the next twelve years, it’s expected to go bankrupt. Our governor doesn’t care that teachers are required to pay into the system, that our percentage of contributions have gone up under him, or that it’s far too late for many of us to come up with a different plan for a secure retirement. But data and facts to debunk Christie’s rants won’t change the minds of many in the general public.

So, here’s my plan for my next conversation. No more talking across a room. I want to engage the person one-on-one, quietly.  I’m going to start off where my debate opponent won’t expect me to start. Every one of us has had THAT TEACHER – the one who humiliated us or other kids, who couldn’t be pleased no matter how hard we worked, who didn’t seem to like kids. I’m going to start with, “Wow, I can tell you had some pretty awful teachers. Which one got under your skin the most? Tell me about that teacher.”  The person is going to be surprised, but is going to think. Then, they’re going to talk about a teacher and demonize the teacher. They’re probably going to say a bunch of stuff that will tick me off because it’s revealing a feeling of entitlement and ignoring how involved teaching is. I’m going to let those moments go.

After the person winds down, I’m going to continue the conversation with some compassion: “I remember Miss W. from 5th grade. I knew the moment I walked into that class that she didn’t like me. I wish she’d have understood when I misplaced my homework, but she was relentless. Thankfully, in 6th grade I had Mr. S. He teased me constantly, helped me learn how to get organized, and made me feel special. I adored him so much I invited him to my wedding. Did you have a teacher that you’ll never forget?” I’ll let them talk again –everyone also had THAT TEACHER – the one who made a difference. When they finish, “I went to Mr. S’s retirement party – it was just dumb luck that I found out when it was occurring. He talked about how he wanted to travel a little, visit his grandkids in the Arizona, and enjoy his time. I often wonder if he’s been able to do these things or if he’s so worried about his pension that he’s living in uncertainty. How do you think your favorite teacher feels about how unstable their pension is?” No stating my situation, or how unfair the system is. Just let them think about how it impacts their favorite teacher.

Now, there may be some retorts about how teachers expect too much, but I don’t intend to engage in those conversations. I want to keep it personal. I’m not sure if it’s going to make a difference, but I’m glad to have a different avenue to explore in fighting these general attacks on teachers.

Like I said earlier, I don’t know of a single teacher who isn’t frustrated by the eroding respect for education and educators. From soapboxes of politicians on the left, on the right, and even those in the center, we hear an outcry of how horribly teachers are serving our children. I’m still going to attend protests, I’m still going to Tweet, but I’m also going to try a personal approach to see if it is possible to start planting some positive seeds, one nay-sayer at a time. At the very least, it will keep my blood pressure down. At most, it will start changing the conversation.

This problem with trying to argue someone to agree with you being futile is nothing new. Dale Carnegie explained that “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Psychology Today explains why you shouldn’t try to reason with unreasonable people. The Los Angeles Times explains why agreeing gets us further than arguing. I’m hoping that this new philosophy will evolve and I’ll be more confident and prepared to engage with people who generally drive me nuts.

What Left-Handedness Can Teach Us

When I was a child, at first I wrote ambidextrously, which was a distinct advantage. Giving out punishments to write sentences 100 times was exceptionally normal, so my ability in first grade to change from hand-to-hand was a distinct advantage. By the end of first grade, however, my left hand was dominant; I was left-handed like my mother and maternal grandfather.

At that time, statistics stated that approximately 8 to 10% of the population was left-handed. For my grandfather’s generation, it was less than 5%. He loved to tell stories of how my mother’s first grade teacher attempted to force my mother to write with her right hand, so he charged in there and let the teacher know that her biases were not acceptable. That was a pretty impressive stand for a man who had a 7th grade education.

While some studies find that approximately 10% of the population continues to be left-handed, other studies show that the population of left-handed people is rising. Some believe that the reason for the increase is that fewer people are forced to be right-handed, although there are still students today who are being forced to write with the right hand. Others, however, believe that this is simple genetics.

I went to a Roman Catholic elementary school, and fortunately the issue of my “handedness” never bothered the nuns – I was encouraged to write with whichever hand felt the most normal for me. The nuns also made certain that I didn’t write back-handed, but wrote with the paper slanted properly. However, I was also aware that being left-handed was weird to some people, and others felt it was a sign that I had evil tendencies. As a matter of fact, many idioms and written phrases indicate that the right hand is much preferred, even by God (Jesus sits on the right hand of God with the angels of death sitting on the left side). Paying a left-handed complement is one in which the positive statement has negative connotations; out of left field generally refers to something surprising and questionable in truthfulness; having two left feet means being clumsy; and when the left-hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, the left hand is clueless. Yes, bias against left-handed people has been part of many societies for millennia, and while left-handedness is more accepted, the implicit biases still exist.

I thought that I didn’t think a great deal about my left-handedness, until I realized how much I do think about it simply because society reminds me that I am in the minority on a daily basis. When I sign for a credit card purchase, more often than not the clerk with be helpful and slant the receipt for a right-handed people and then seem aggravated when I need to change the position of the receipt. Each morning when I fill up my lovely Bella tea kettle, I have difficulty seeing the fill line, for the fill line is on only one side, the side a right-handed person would be able to see easily. When I pick up a pair of scissors at work and turn them upside-down to use, other teachers or students notice and ask why I’m doing that. And when I cut something with a knife, right-handed people feel that it’s awkward or dangerous (normally because they stand in a place that I’m cutting toward, which is opposite of a right-handed person’s handling of a knife). So yes, I notice daily that I’m in the minority, albeit an invisible minority. And as part of this minority, there are efforts to marginalize me, albeit small, invisible efforts, and certainly not conspiratorial efforts.

The beauty of my minority status is how invisible it is. For most people who fall into a minority demographic, the minority status is quite visible or quite pronounced. And, while what I experience is a simplistic annoyance, the experience of other minority groups is invasive. And while the type of simplistic annoyance I experience is lessening, in today’s climate the type of treatment other minority groups experience is exploding.

Hate crimes are exploding, the war on women is mushrooming, and bullying is fuming. The truth is, intolerance is alive and well in a world that should be growing in tolerance. At one time, I honestly believed that “In our… efforts to become tolerant of everything, we have become intolerant of everyone.” Now, in 2017, my beliefs have changed. We are becoming intolerant of everything and everyone. We are allowing fear, anger, hostility, and frustration turn into the norm instead of the exception.

The truth is, in specific situations, every one of us may be a minority. The truth is, every one of us deserves respect and dignity. The truth is, in every situation, we need to move on beyond the concept of tolerance. When my 3-year-old grandson throws a temper tantrum, I tolerate his behavior, and then I attempt to correct the behavior. However, when friends and acquaintances express beliefs experiences that are culturally different from my beliefs or experiences, I need to do more than simply tolerate… I need to attempt to understand and certainly respect them. Except for one time – and that is when hate or intolerance is imbedded in there. Then I have to challenge it.

The analogy of my experiences as a minority of left-handed citizens to the experience of other minority groups is downright trite. However, even through such trite observations, we can all learn to be more understanding, more accepting, and more empathetic with the experiences of other minority groups. Will I ever understand what it’s like to be afraid to be pulled over by a police officer because of the color of my skin? Probably not. Will I ever be terrified that my family or I may be sent back to a war-torn country because of my immigration status? Again, probably not. Will I ever be treated like an outcast because of my sexual preference? Probably not. Will I ever be feared and vilified because of my religious beliefs. I highly doubt it. Should I identify with the experiences of these groups and fight with every fiber of my being to assure that each of these groups is treated with dignity and respect? Absolutely. Should I fight just as hard to make sure that the rights of these groups are protected? Absolutely. Without the rights of minorities being protected and honored, we all lose. Find whatever common ground you can find and respect it, build upon it. Stand up to hate rhetoric and call out friends who use ethnic slurs or disparaging talk. Determine that from today on, you will be someone who has respect for the human race, which encompasses a myriad of minorities, a plethora of differences, and a kaleidoscope of beliefs.



Why I’m Not a Fan of African-American History Month

I can feel the raised eyebrows at the title of this blog; it can be perceived to smack of bigotry. And believe me, I’ve heard so many arguments against Black History Month, it makes my head spin:

  • There isn’t an Italian History Month, so why is there an African-American History Month?
  • Why is there a Black History Month, but not a White History Month? Isn’t that racist?
  • I’m not an expert in this area, so why should I try to teach it?
  • If I say something wrong, some parent is going to call me a racist, so why should I take the chance?
  • I don’t see color, so why should I point it out to my students?

Let’s quickly debunk most of these, and then explain why I’m not a fan (it’s not on the list). I’ve heard that there should be a Polish History Month from my father, an Italian History Month from a teacher, a German History Month from another teacher, and so on. This argument is based on a fallacy – the logical fallacy of faulty comparison, for it compares an ethnicity to a nationality.For here’s the difference: Italy, Germany, and Poland are individual countries that makes up part of the continent of Europe. African-American History Month is about an entire continent of people. It’s about a different ethnicity from the ethnicity originally found primarily in Europe. And we celebrate the European-Caucasian-White ethnicity on a daily basis. Columbus Day celebrates the White ethnicity, Thanksgiving is based on the accomplishments of the White ethnicity, President’s Day celebrates the accomplishments of the White ethnicity, and even Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day are about the White ethnicity. 

I’ve also heard that we need a White History Month to counter Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. But as I explained above, there isn’t a need for White History Month – White accomplishments are acknowledged and celebrated every day in almost every classroom across the country. This again is the logical fallacy of faulty comparison, for it compares what is taught daily with what is taught in isolation. On our morning announcements, I hear about John Glenn’s 50th anniversary, the day Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, the accomplishments of Edison, that a particular territory became a state, and on and on. It is a rare day indeed that I hear about a Black, Hispanic, Latino, or Asian accomplishment beyond Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and perhaps Frederick Douglass. Why do we not need White History Month? White history is taught and celebrated 13 months out of each year.

I’ve also heard the lament that we don’t have enough expertise in the area, and that, if we misspeak, someone is going to get angry. These concerns are actually another fallacy of thought – the fallacy of an appeal to fear. The educator fears making a mistake, therefore the situation should be avoided. Just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it should be ignored. When I applied for the New Jersey Amistad Grant years ago, I attended a Summer Institute. I’d heard the term “White Privilege” before, but I’d never understood it. There were many people at the Institute who truly believed that, as a White teacher, I should not be teaching Black History because there was no way I’d fully understand the issues and topics. Talk about me feeling uncomfortable! My first reaction was, “I don’t need this. I should just go home. It’s not my fault I’m White, so why am I being treated like this?” (little did I realize at the time that this reaction was my White privilege shining through).  But you know what? They were  right to an extent – I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be Black. I’ll never fully understand how much White privilege influences my thinking. However, the issue here is, if not me, then who? According to the National Center for Education Information, in 2011, a full 84% of public school teachers in the US were white, 7% were Black, and 6% were Hispanic or Latino. So what should happen? We march the one or two Black teachers into every class on a rotating schedule to teach Black History? No, the answer is for me to care enough to learn as much as I can and acknowledge that I’ll never fully understand, but that as an educator and a human being, I need to understand what I can. I’ve certainly said the wrong thing at times, and I’ve made mistakes. When approached about such situations, I take the opportunity to learn something from it. I ask questions, I ask how I should have presented the information, I ask how the information is fallacious. When I show a genuine, sincere interest in correcting my approach or knowledge, the result tends to be respect. 

So, what about that last bullet? The infamous “color blind” argument. Here’s the problem: when someone says that they’re colorblind to various ethnicities, the hidden message is that they see and expect everyone to react and act as they would. They are demanding complete uniformity and deny the diversity in front of them. Teaching Tolerance featured a wonderful article entitled, “Colorblindness: The New Racism?” years ago. The content of the article is just as valid today as when it was written. While “the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial and ethnic differences promotes racial harmony” seems prevalent in some schools and classrooms, in reality, “folks who enjoy racial privilege are closing their eyes to the experiences of others.” Colorblindness is not actually colorblindness at all: it’s assuming the world is one ethnicity and that diversity will disappear if ignored. Principal Kafele’s recent video on this topic should be mandatory for every educator to watch across the country. He acknowledges that often the idea of colorblindness is based on laudable intentions, but the results can be dire.

Okay – so the list of why many think Black History Month should be abolished is completed, and we have debunked the list and shown the fallacies inherent in each one. But I still have issues with Black History Month. Why? It’s a terrible commentary on the lack of tolerance and understanding in our society that Black History Month is absolutely necessary. In a previous essay, I explained:

While the African-American population in the United States approaches 15%, African and African-American characters, cultures, and history are minimally represented in the texts and trade books in classrooms across America…. Of course, many schools in the United States study African-American history during the month of February. Ironically, this is the shortest month of the year, and also the month that many teachers are preparing for standardized testing. So, while we may attempt to teach African-American topics in isolation, we also choose to do so in only one short month that is already packed with test prep, Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day. Therefore, clearly less than 5% of the school year is dedicated to learning about 15 to 20% of the population. In reality, Black History Month is a Band-Aid approach to handling a real need for diversifying our educational tools used on a daily basis.

So, how do we address this dire need for change in our schools? First of all, each teacher in each classroom across the country needs to look at the data in the classroom. How many African-American scientists are included in the science curriculum across the school year, not just during February? How many books in each classroom library depict some part of African culture, the African Diaspora, or the African-American experience? What percentage are these books of the full classroom library? Is the percentage less than 15% (the national demographic average)? What is the demographic for the school? Does the percentage meet the demographic makeup of the student population? What percentage of the Social Studies curriculum addresses African and/or African-American culture and experiences? Are these lessons concentrated primarily during the month of February, or are they infused throughout the school year?

This type of data can really feel uncomfortable at first, but the data need to be gathered, analyzed, and discussed by educators. This data can be the catalyst for discussion and understanding in classrooms and faculty rooms, and can lead to a celebration of the wealth of contributions that African-Americans have made to our nation’s society and development. Doesn’t it seem more educationally sound to examine the situation and make rational decisions for corrective measures rather than simply ignore the situation and do a disservice to all our children?

Of course, the African-American population is not the only population that has been ignored in our classrooms. Indeed, Hispanic-American, Native American, Middle Eastern-American, and Asian-American cultures have been marginally acknowledged in the trade books and stories read to children. Indeed, only those of European-American ancestry receive continuous and consistent recognition of their heritage in many of our classrooms. This situation must be changed if we are to truly move forward in our efforts to unite our society….”

What is missing in the above excerpt is the vital importance for children of mostly White ethnicity to learn about the accomplishments and  contributions of all ethnicities to our world. Placing blinders on children means that they do not fully understand how diverse and exciting the world is, and, when residing on a globe that is continuously shrinking, this lack of understanding can ultimately set them up for failure. Let’s help all our children succeed. Black History Month is absolutely necessary, but through seamless integration of all ethnicities into our curriculums, the day may come when Black History Month can be abandoned with a clear conscience. 


Note: For New Jersey educators, please visit the Amistad Commission’s Web-based Curriculum and use it as a starting point for integration. After reviewing the lessons there, make sure to visit the Holocaust Commission and its curriculum as well. Inclusion of African-American History and Holocaust education is mandatory in New Jersey.

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.

Launching a Blog

Here I am, a teacher, getting close to retirement, consumed by a need to continue to make a difference in the lives of children, and realizing how very opinionated I have become about a plethora of topics, especially about education, politics, and diversity. So how do I reconcile these variations on a theme that encompass who I am and what I care about?

A friend and colleague of mine, Larry, has encouraged me to delve into a new endeavor for me: the world of the blog. Three short years ago I had no idea what the term “blog” even meant. Sure, I had an idea, but I didn’t understand the power a blog can have. Then I started reading Jersey Jazzman, and Diane Ravitch, and Larry Zuares… and it dawned on me – a blog might have power for me, too.

I don’t know how often I’ll post, but I expect I’ll start off posting way too often, then swing that pendulum to far to few, and sometime around the time I’m ready to retire I’ll find that sweet spot. There are just so many ideas and issues I want to talk about:

  • why education has become a punching bag for some politicians
  • how we can be more engaging, understanding, and inspiring teachers
  • what in the world is happening on this ever-changing, chaotic stage of world politics
  • protecting our freedoms
  • what we can do to inspire kids to be lifelong lovers of reading, learning, caring, sharing… being.
  • when is sharing our opinions important and when is it manipulative or invasive?

The list goes on and changes daily.

So I hope that in your very busy, information-saturated day, you might decide to stop on by and read some of my ideas on “One Educator’s Take.”