A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with William Maguire, a teacher from Rowley, Massachusetts who has a very special classroom program involving pencils. At the beginning of every school year, William gives each student a wooden pencil box filled with Golden Bear, Prospector and ForestChoice pencils, erasers and a sharpener. Throughout the year, if any of his students do something above and beyond, he lets them choose any pencil from his pencil chest as a reward. Read on to find out more about how he’s creating a new generation of pencil-obsessed and the effect quality pencils have on students in the classroom.
Quality Pencils in the Classroom
Can you briefly explain your use of pencils in the classroom for our readers?
After a few dark years of third grade pencil purgatory, I finally wised up and decided to order some decent pencils (Natural Prospectors and Golden Bears). My goal was to not only eliminate pencils as a distraction, but also make them a positive focus in the classroom. To that end, I use pencils when I’m making up a practice problem for sentence structure or multiplication. Massachusetts pencil patrons Joseph Dixon, William Munroe, and Henry David Thoreau make excellent biographical studies, a third grade requirement. Additionally, in third grade we introduce cursive and I spend a good amount of time reviewing proper posture, grip, and technique. I’ve also been able to match each student with the type of pencil best suited for his or her grip and confidence; jumbo, triangular, hex, whatever works best. And since I make a big deal about the importance of pencils, incorporating character education lessons is a cinch. Respect and responsibility tie directly to the nice pencils and pencil boxes they now own.
What results have you seen from this program?
My students are now ready to work when I need them to be. They have a greatly heightened sense of respect for their own property as well as other’s. Writing is now approached with greater willingness because it involves using a favorite pencil and maybe a story from me about how many pencils Steinbeck used in a day when he was writing (Thanks! Pencils.com). Cursive has always been an easy sell to third graders, but now many of them reserve their favorite pencil exclusively for cursive. They get pretty excited to use it.
How do the students respond to the program?
They can talk pencils all day now. They obviously also bring their interest home and hit their parents up for any old or unusual pencils they might have. I’ve seen some interesting old pencils come into the classroom. Ironically, in a way I have simply replaced one annoyance (constant pencil sharpening) with a new annoyance, constant pencil questions. A happy tradeoff, however.
What types of pencils do you keep in your pencil chest?
The chest is meant to be the slightly mysterious epicenter of our pencilverse. I have some older pencils I inherited from an uncle: Hardtmuth, Eberhard Faber, Venus, Wallace, etc. as well as Blackwing, Palomino, Tombow, Musgrave, Mongol, Semi-Hex, and all sorts of ForestChoice, Prospector, and Golden Bears. Nothing terribly precious, but every pencil has a story worth repeating.
What has been the most popular pencil pulled from your pencil chest?
For the kids who have struggled at times with penmanship, the Spangle Mini Jumbo and triangular Golden Bear have been very popular. The status conscious crowd loves the 602s. The real sophisticates favor a Palomino.
Do you have a favorite pencil?
Depends. When I feel foppish, I don a Blackwing 602 with a pink hat (for the pencil, not me.) Serious business calls for a Palomino. But I have to admit, I love finding a real quality pencil I can afford in bulk. So I’m digging Golden Bears the most right now.
What do you think the pencil’s role is in the classroom and in education in general?
My perseverating on pencils serves to shock and jolt the students in an important way. When they see how much attention I pay to a small detail like a pencil, they start to understand the importance of all steps in a process. They are less likely to rush simply to finish an assignment, and the process becomes more important than the product. Since, typically, third graders are a little short on the metacognitive and simply worry about what the teacher wants at the end, the whole pencil “thing” effectively prepares students to produce their best through all phases of a task. This results in better results and students who take greater pride in their work and exude more confidence.
For the teacher, it always helps to have an anchor or two, something one can turn to at any time to help clarify a point. Pencils are my classroom anchor. With pencils, I can plan a lesson, start an activity, or use the remaining pencils in a gross to illustrate a math problem.