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Pencil Sharpening for Beavers August 28, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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Next Thursday, twenty new beavers will file into my classroom. I’m not talking about eager beavers – as in students eager to acquire Knowledge. No, these are the No. 2 kind. Lumberjacks can’t chop down old growth forests fast enough to keep pace with the rate at which these kids chew through pencils.

First year teachers are often caught unaware. They don’t realize that the pencil sharpener is a potential iceberg, and that their classroom is the Titantic. As the captain, I mean teacher, you don’t want to go down with THAT ship. So here’s a few things I’ve learned to assure smooth sailing.

First, ditch that old hand crank metal pencil sharpener. Put a puppet over it, whatever it takes, but get rid of it.  Unless you want to feel like you’re working in a sawmill 24/7.

Next, guard your electric pencil sharpener with your life (You probably paid for it out of pocket, so that’s a given). If you fail to do so, you’ll learn the hard way that there are students who like to sharpen BOTH ends of their pencil (just stick the end with the eraser in and grind right through that shiny metallic thing), or better yet, sharpen their crayons in it.

Here’s how I do it, (but I’m always looking for ways to fine tune this procedure). Students receive two sharpened pencils each month. At the beginning of the year, I encourage them to bring a pencil sharpener – as long as it’s one that catches the shavings. Then they can sharpen away to their heart’s content. I buy pencil sharpeners to put in the class Treasure Box to promote this practice. Be forewarned, though, that once these beavers have their own pencil sharpener, it becomes imperative that it must be emptied within 15 seconds after each use. Students like to unscrew the top while en route to the trash, to increase the likelihood that they’ll blanket the floor with wood shavings.

Students who don’t have pencil sharpeners, put their “dull” pencils in a bin at the end of the day. The bin is under the beaver. Yeah, I know that’s not really a beaver in the picture above, but it’s got to be related. It IS chewing on wood. Besides it gets the point across (Point – get it!). I then personally sharpen the pencils after school. I went to college so I could take care of this important stuff.

Last year I had some students who brought mechanical pencils. I thought this was potentially a good thing. Silly me! Half their day was spent “loading” the pencil, managing their stockpile of said lead, or accusing their neighbor of having stolen the coveted pencil.

Then there are those children who invariably “lose” their pencils. When I taught second grade, one year I did a surprise “pencil inventory.” Students laid out the goods on their desks. We made a graph of the results. I held up a dozen pencils sharpened with such precision, you could have performed brain surgery using them as scalpels. The children who’d “lost” their pencils salivated. I then asked how I could entrust these precious pencils to students who couldn’t even take care of the two pencils I’d already given them.  Did this make sense?

Now, I’m of the opinion that It’s never too early to impart some of life’s larger lessons on children. After a brief pep talk on the importance of taking care of one’s supplies, I announced that because “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” the students who had the most pencils, would receive yet another one.

Two weeks later, every child in the class had two pencils at the ready at all times. Lesson learned. Problem solved.

If you’re not a teacher, I hope you can appreciate all of the thought that teachers put into something as seemingly mundane as sharpening a pencil. If you are a teacher, get your pencil sharpening procedure in order, so you don’t go down with THAT ship (Knock on wood!).

For all of my friends who are teachers, a new year awaits. Let’s do it!

UpdateSince I wrote this post, the electric pencil sharpener gave up the ghost.  I actually had to finagle a new hand crank one (think environmentally friendly). It’s high enough that most students need to stand on a stepping stool to reach it. I was sharpening the pencils myself after students left, and sometimes still do.  But my right arm was beginning to look like I was taking steroids.  Now, a student sharpens pencils at the end of the day. The sound of the students packing up is akin to the sound of troops moving out, so it drowns out that annoying grinding sound. Jan