What is your pencil sharpener policy?


                This was the question put on my observation form after a lesson in my English class – an eighth grade English class in a large middle/high school in Philadelphia. I will write more about the question and my response at the end of this narrative.

                Since school is about to begin in Philly again – underfunded as it has been for years, and run by people who do not have the integrity to stand up to the governor and DEMAND adequate funding – I thought I might reflect back to that eighth grade classroom and offer a contribution to a narrative that demonstrates the students ability to learn under the duress of criminal underfunding.

                The students in that class were predominantly African American with a smaller group of Latino students. The girls and the boys were about equally represented that year. That description is not sufficient in itself – many of the students were of mixed heritage, and were mostly aware and very proud  of their heritages. They would balk at a class description of the limited nature that I presented.

                We only had a complete set for two novels and I taught five classes so a different approach was needed. With the help of a small grant (and my own contributions) I was able to order more novels so that each student would read at least ten novels that year. How to teach them was another hurdle. I taught the students the elements of literature circles and they took to it because it offered them an opportunity to be leaders of the circle and the discussions about the texts. With some trepidation about class management I set up four circles in the classroom, using four different novels. I would hopscotch around the circles and provide common time for writing and discussion in each one. The intelligence and dynamism of the students carried the day. We would intersperse literature circles with larger class lessons around writing, poetry and short stories (of course I had to spend a lot of time at the Staples copy machines to that we had sufficient material for each student). This did prove to be exhausting but it also was exhilarating to see the students take charge and help manage and direct the literature circles.

                Regarding the title question of this piece – “What is your pencil sharpener policy?” During one of these classes my principal came to observe the classroom. I usually tried ways to put him off – to reschedule in the hopes that he would just forget and not come back. That did happen a few times. This time he stayed – he was one of those principals I have written about in the past who knew very little about classroom teaching – what he knew about the teaching of literature and the process of reading was even less than that. I don’t recall much of the observation – I usually threw them away when I got them, but this time I do recall his written inquiry about my pencil sharpener policy. It seems that during the observation some students would just get up, go the sharpener, sharpen their pencil, and then return to their activity in their literature circle. I had to honestly tell him that I had no ‘policy’ other than to have each student decide when their pencil needed sharpening. I trusted them not to abuse that small freedom and I was not disappointed.

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