(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)
I generally don’t hand out pencils or paper to my students. I’ve never made any official announcement of a policy. I just don’t think I should do it.
The whole pencil/pen/paper thing seems to undermine my relationships with students and wastes precious classroom time, yet all the other options seem to send the wrong message. I admit to being confused.
Let’s suppose you are a bored, unhappy occupant of room 151. You are looking for some way to add a soupcon of entertainment to your day. So you ask the teacher: “Can I borrow a pencil?”
You already know the answer. It’s the same one I’ve given a thousand times since August. I point to the front white board.
“Look up there,” I say. “I always put any pens or pencils I find up there.”
There are none left.
Savvy students have already snatched up whatever pencil nubs and half-empty pens were there when the class began.
As I resume talking to the class I notice a student walking across the room in front of me. Everyone is following his progress. (It’s always a boy. For some reason this pencil gambit has no appeal to girls.) My ‘instruction’ is temporarily waylaid.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“To borrow a pencil,” he replies.
I suspend my talk and wait for the student to return to his desk.
I don’t give out paper or pencils because I figure that, after ten years in school, every kid knows they must bring materials to class. If they don’t it seems like justice when their grade suffers a bit for the lack of supplies. And I always hope that the frustration of today will teach them to change things tomorrow.
Generally when I supply anything for free the students treat it as you might expect—as something worthless.
Years ago I brought bottled water to class, especially on hot days. After class I’d find ten bottles with one or two swigs taken from it, the bottle left on the floor for me to pick up.
Same with pencils. If they weren’t used as missiles to be thrown across the room they were broken in two or simply left behind. (If they go to the next class without a pencil they can replay the same drama for the next teacher.)
One teacher told me she sells pencils. But the logistics of operating a store seemed daunting. The principal told me to exchange pencils for some kind of valuable, the swap to be repeated in reverse at the end of class.
It all seems to me part of the fabric of my classroom ethic. I try, in every way, to tell my students that effort is the currency of my classroom. Anyone of any intelligence level can be successful in my class. All they need to do is do the work. If they make the effort to succeed I will reflect that work in my gradebook. If they do the work of toting supplies to my room that should improve their grade.
At least one colleague has sharply criticized me for withholding pencils. He feels that some kids can’t afford school supplies and I’m being cruel by not providing them.
A part of me wants to show my generosity by always having paper and pencils for any student who says they need them.
But another part of me thinks that would be a mistake.
This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary. You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)