How I Won the Pencil War
Pencils. They can stop a lesson in its tracks.
“I can’t find my pencil.”
“My pencil broke.”
“Can I sharpen my pencil?”
Crash. Bang. Boom. The entire flow of your lesson slams to a halt.
Well, I figured out how to win the pencil war with a series of easy-to-implement steps. I hope you find them useful.
1. Collect all the yellow pencils at the beginning of the year. – This is your best chance to make sure pencils are used for schoolwork and not building pencil towers or for karate practice. If students bring pencils with fancy designs, they keep those at their desk. I also add many pencils to this pile, both from back-to-school sales and another place I will name later, because I have some students who arrive at school with nothing due to economic reasons.
2. Put “Personal Pencil Sharpener” on the supply list. – Yes, you will have to deal with the occasional spill, but it’s worth it. About half the students will bring them, and they no longer have to get up to sharpen pencils. Also, I usually find these at back-to-schools sales for insane prices. One store ran a promo selling them for a penny. There’s a limit, but I visit multiple times. This way, I can give them out as prizes for something once school starts, increasing my number of students who have one.
3. Allow mechanical pencils. – Teachers worry students will take them apart and they will be broken. Some do. One week later, they are back to yellow pencils. More responsible students will make one pencil last for weeks, eliminating the need for more pencils.
4. Allow pens…sometimes. – Soon, I will allow my students to start using pens in their Writer’s Notebook. This helps the pencil problem and motivates students to write more.
5. Use technology. – Be careful here – if you’re constantly just substituting a keyboard for a pencil, it’s not worth it. However, if you are able to use technology to transform the assignment, go for it.
6. Remove the classroom pencil sharpener. – Yes, yank it off the wall. Some students see the classroom pencil sharpener as a great place to socialize and avoid schoolwork. Instead, get a few small, manual pencil sharpeners from your local art store (pictured below). They cost about a dollar each. I put eight of them in tiny boxes and placed them on a shelf in my classroom. A student needing to sharpen a pencil takes one back to his/her seat to sharpen, dumps the shavings in the trash, and keeps working. (Thanks to my school’s art teacher for this great suggestion.)
7. Make sure students’ bell work needs a pencil. – My students fill out their assignment notebook in the morning. In order to do this, they must procure a pencil. Then, when the reading mini-lesson starts ten minutes later, everyone has what they need.
8. Finally, uncover the pencil hoarders. – Some students get a new pencil every day. By the end of the year, they have 20-30 (or many, many more) pencils in their supply bag. Collect some of these back and use them to start your pencil basket next year.
Wow! That’s a lot of writing about pencils! Does it always work? No. However, you will certainly notice much fewer pencil problems breaking the flow of your lessons.