Friday, August 14, 2015

Success #3: Pencils solved, finally!

So it took me two decades, but I solved the pencil problem.

If you teach elementary school, you probably know about the pencil problem.  "I can't find my pencil!" "He took my pencil!" "I don't have an eraser."   The world stops, no work can be done, and all the easily distracted children hit the floor. "Is this your pencil?" "I found your eraser!" "Whose glue stick is this?!" "My shoe is untied!" 

And then there's always the "I have to sharpen my pencil!" right as I'm poised to start the spelling test and suddenly a third of the class realizes that hey, their pencils are dull, too! and within moments, my test-ready class is lined up at the pencil sharpener.

(Sometimes it's a glue stick problem. "I didn't do my interactive notebook today because I don't have a glue stick." (Why didn't you tell me this 30 minutes ago?) Other times it's a whiteboard marker problem. "I can't find my marker, so I can't do my math." (Oh, really.)  I always solve these problems quickly - hop up and get a replacement - but that 20-seconds-to-the-cabinet-and-back is enough to lose the momentum of a lesson sometimes.)

But always, every day, multiple times, it's a pencil problem.

The pencil problem got considerably worse each year, even as I did my best to solve it: I tried the sharpened/need sharpening baskets, we did "countdown cleanups" periodically during the day to get all those pencils on the floor, and I praised/rewarded students who took good care of their materials.  I even made pencils part of the morning routine: unpack, do your lunch check, sharpen three pencils and get three books to read.  Shortly thereafter, that routine became SHOW ME your three pencils and three books.  Nothing helped.  We still had multiple pencil crises per day.

Then, two years ago, I went through more than 36 dozen pencils in the first 8 months of school.  (We order them from the warehouse in shrink wrapped packages of six dozen.  I used at least six of those before Spring Break.)  My teammates and I lamented the lack of care the students seemed to have for these pencils that we provided, sharpened, picked up off the floor, etc.  "What can we do?" we asked. 

At the end of that year, I found "Winning the Pencil War" on TeachersPayTeachers.  Then I found pencils pouches online - on sale! - and decided the cost would be worth it, so I bought them for use the following year.

Last year, I got everything set up and started the first day of school.  We watched a modified version of this powerpoint to get things started.  I spent time the first day walking around with my Sharpie and labeling the pencils and erasers and glue sticks the kids had brought from home so that everything in the pencil pouch has the child's number on it.  I provided pencils, glue sticks, and erasers for the children who didn't bring them.  (I had PLENTY of pencils in the cabinet for that purpose.)  Everybody's pencil pouch came with a whiteboard marker with their number on it.

The amazing Pencil Pouch.
Front pocket: eraser, whiteboard marker, glue stick.
Back pocket: at least 8, no more than 12 pencils.
Picture a student's number written in Sharpie above the front pocket and on ALL materials. ;)

That was a Monday.  On Friday afternoon, I placed an empty basket in the center of each table.  We reviewed what was expected to be in their pencil pouches.  I gave them a few minutes to make sure they had everything in their pouch, then all those pouches went into the baskets.

After school on Friday, I collected the baskets and walked over to the pencil sharpener.  One pouch at a time, I emptied out the pencils (the glue stick, eraser, and marker go in the front pocket, so the pencils are the only thing in the big pocket - easy to pour them out into my hand and do a quick count) and sharpened them.  I replaced all the pencils in each pouch, added a sticker in the front pocket if everything was there, and returned the pouches to the baskets and the baskets to the tables.

Everyone got a sticker.

On Monday, they were thrilled.  I mean, it's a sticker.  I think it was sparkly.  It was the best thing in the world.

On Friday, I collected the pencil pouches again.  This time, one child had left out his glue stick.  No sticker.  But everyone else got their sticker.  Happiness.

Repeat.  Every week.  And do you know what?

(Brace yourself.)

I never opened that cabinet to get a new pencil for a child who had lost one.  Not once.

Not ONE extra pencil was given.

How on Earth - ? I started asking myself around mid-September, when we'd been in school for a month and I hadn't replaced any pencils.  (By this point the year before, I was on my second package of six dozen.)

Well, it turns out, the children were KEEPING TRACK OF THEIR PENCILS.  They were keeping - and using - the freebies we got occasionally from special guest programs.  They were doing their nightly reading homework so that they could bring in their signed paper every 25 days and choose a free pencil from my basket of prize pencils.  And sometimes they were bringing pencils from home.

Now, yes, sometimes a pouch was missing its glue stick, eraser, or marker.  And every so often there were only 7 pencils.  But by the following Friday, that particular child - whoever it was - was back up to 8 pencils, or had put the glue stick back in the pouch instead of leaving in the desk, and life was good again.

Now, here are a couple of things I'm doing differently this year as I refine this program for my class.  (Because last year was awesome, but isn't there always a way to make it better?)

1.  I'm going to put this picture on the screen on Friday afternoon (or on the collection basket I place on each table, or somewhere the kids can see it) so they have a visual reminder of what I'm looking for.  No excuses for forgetting that glue stick.

2.  You might have noticed that there are 12 pencils in the picture.  (Very observant, you are.)  Last year I had a few little girls who got into story-writing competitions after their reading work was done each morning.  Eight pencils were simply not enough to last the week.  So they added more.  I was fine with that until one Friday afternoon when one of their pencil pouches had more than 30 pencils in it.  Nope.  A new rule was added: No more than 12 pencils in your pouch.  So this year, we're starting with that rule up front: 8 pencils at all times, but no more than 12 ever.

3.  Nothing else lives in the pencil pouch.  A couple of children started keeping their scissors in their pencil pouch.  When I dumped out the pencils, the scissors would clatter to the floor.  Sigh.  Other children stuffed their colored pencils in with the regular pencils.  No, thank you.  (One clever child only had 7 pencils one week.  She slyly added her yellow colored pencil to the pouch so she had 8 yellow pencils.  I thought that was cute.)

4.  If a child is missing something, I'm going to place this note in the front pocket instead of a prize.  I'll circle or highlight the missing items, or write "scissors" on the bottom line.

(The note refers to a pencil box.  That's where each student's crayons, colored pencils, scissors, eraser shreds, and broken pencil tips (do your kids save those, too?) live.  It's also where the extra pencils stay until they move to the pencil pouch - so your children who arrive with two dozen pencils can keep those spares in their desk and replenish their pouch as needed.)

What if you do NOT want to sharpen pencils on a Friday afternoon?  If I had a special at the end of the day, THAT day would be collection day.  Kids go to PE last thing on Tuesday?  I'd collect pencil pouches on Tuesdays, sharpen during PE, and return them Wednesday morning.  My schedule hasn't worked out that way, but I'm finding I really don't mind sharpening pencils each week.  You could also ask a parent helper or student volunteer to do it for you. 

If you're still fighting the Pencil War, give Pencil Pouches a try.  Modify it to suit your needs, sit back, and enjoy!

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