Monday, August 5, 2013

Pencils: Tips for Organizing and Managing Pencils in the Classroom

Any non-teacher reading this would think it was straight-jacket-crazy to go to such lengths over pencils. However, all you teachers reading this know exactly why the task of managing pencils in a classroom warrants an entire blog post.

Pencils can be the root of many distractions. 

Kids wander the classroom to sharpen them...or worse yet, intentionally break the tip as an excuse to wander the classroom pretending to need to sharpen them. There are three options for sharpening them and each is more annoying than the other. You have the choice of a grinding sound from the traditional sharpener, the screechy sound of the electric sharpener or the inevitable pile of pencil shavings that land on the floor when a hand-held sharpener gets dropped. Kids fight over who owns the longest, sharpest, most awesomest pencil and who gets the stubby one.  I could continue, but I won’t because with a few management tactics you can avoid all of the above.

OK, I admit it is more like micromanaging than just managing, but it works.

Here’s what I do in my classroom:
  • Everyone gets a standard issue, yellow, no-frills, Number 2 pencil to use. 

  • I number my students and write their number at the top of their pencil in Sharpie. It usually stays on, but sometimes may smudge off. If you are really feeling Type-A you can also give it a quick brush of Modge Podge or clear nail polish right over the number. I have never gone that far. Shocking, I know.
  • We talk a lot about responsibility and how it is their job to try and make the pencil last for the entire month. My purpose for this is not to hoard the hundreds of pencils I have in my classroom, but instead to eliminate the distraction caused by that burning desire kids have to always have the best pencil in the class. When I had a “help yourself” policy I found that kids were constantly getting new pencils and I was finding less desirable ones scattered around the room.  Accountability changed that. I had debated making a game of it to see who still had their original pencil at the end of the month. However, because I realize that sometimes a pencil goes missing to no fault of their own (classmate snags it by mistake or I grab it to jot something down quickly and then walk off with it) I knew that would cause a new kind of pencil-related drama and abandoned the idea.
  • I use a silent hand signal for students to let me know that their pencil is broken or dull. At the start of the year I make a point (pun intended) of “inspecting” the pencils. I sort of do this in a joking manner by dramatically scrutinizing the tip, holding it up to the light, testing it on a scrap of paper, etc, but they quickly get to know the difference between needing a new pencil and wanting a new pencil. This step alone erases most of the pencil-related distractions in the classroom (again, pun intended). But not all, so. . .

  • I don’t let everyone sharpen their own pencil and instead assign pencil sharpening as one of the classroom jobs. We have a cup for pencils that are broken or too dull to write and a cup of loaner pencils that students borrow when needed. Those pencils are marked with tape. The person assigned to the task of pencil sharpening not only sharpens the pencils in the cup, but also returns the sharpened pencils to the owner’s table/desk and makes sure that the two cups are ready for the next day.

  • Finally, I don’t have them travel with the students when they rotate for Math Workshop. Instead I just keep a supply caddy at my small group table for when they come to me for Guided Math Instruction. I found this was when most of the pencils were getting misplaced.

Below are some addition pencil tips (Did you see that? It was another pencil pun. Who knew there were so many?) that may be helpful to you: 

  • Don’t ask for pencils on your school supply list. Because even if you specifically ask for plain, #2, goldenrod pencils, you are going to get sparkly pencils with smelly erasers. Pencils are one of those things that I truly don’t mind purchasing each year. 

  • If students do bring in decorative pencils with their school supplies and they were not on your supply list, suggest they use them for homework.

  • Use only quality pencils. Not all pencils are made the same. The cheaper ones break easily which translates into more frequent distractions. I’ve always liked Ticonderoga pencils the best.

  • Establish a hand signal for students to use if their pencil breaks or becomes too dull to write with. Even if you are not implementing a pencil inspection, the need to ask permission to get a new pencil tends to thwart those who are simply looking to wander.

  • Assign pencil sharpening as one of your classroom jobs. Have that person sharpen all the pencils in the “needs to be sharpened” cup at specified times each day and then return them to the owner’s desk or table.
  • Ask parents who are not able to come in and volunteer to sharpen pencils for you at home at the start of a new month or as needed.

  • Invest in a high-quality pencil sharpener. The cheaper ones stop working and need a rest after a few pencils. 

  • Preserve your sharpener by only using it to sharpen regular pencils. I allow the students to use a plastic hand sharpener for their colored pencils. They keep them in their art bags.

  • Let the kids use a special decorative pencil on a special occasion. Allow them to use if for the day and then take it home at  dismissal to use at home. This is great for celebrating birthdays or as a special reward for effective effort or role model behavior.

  • Be sensitive to individual student needs. Some kids have fine motor issues which may cause them to wear down the pencil faster. Others may have a sensory issue that makes them prefer a sharper pencil. Make exceptions if needed. Also, some kiddos do truly need to get up for a movement break and a pencil seems like a good excuse to them. If you identify a student with that need then find ways to fit in prescribed movement breaks at appropriate times.
The Justin Beiber pencils crack me up. I imagine that would be one way to encourage high schoolers and middle schoolers to remember their pencils.

For more tips and ideas on organizing and managing your classroom please check out my Clutter-Free Guide along with my Teaching Procedures and Routines Workbook. This post is part of:

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