cause i ain't got a pencil

Last week, I saw a poem by Joshua T. Dickerson posted on Twitter.

I don’t know anything about this poem.  I don’t know anything about this poet.

11988747_10100420955294457_7903090834599342656_nBut it stuck with me, and I knew my students needed it.
I haven’t always been a “give the kid a damn pencil already” sort of teacher, but I have been for the last few years.

No bargaining, no collateral, no quarters, no shaming. I just give the kid the damn pencil.  

I didn’t have any Great Revelation.  I just remembered:  It’s not my job to teach my students how to keep pencils, it’s my job to teach them how to read and write.  They need a pencil for that.

I knew they’d connect with this poem.
As we move into practicing informative writing, I used this poem as a mentor text today on how we can “show and tell” in our writing.

12249892_10100420955314417_7986356553911748857_nWe analyzed it together, first in notebooks, and then out loud.  We pulled it apart, and we debated it on whether or not this teacher was a jerk, citing evidence from the text.

I said that I thought the teacher was a total jerk, and some students agreed, using evidence from the poem to back up their claims.

Some students, despite providing evidence from the poem that this narrator had a rough life, said that the kid should have had a damn pencil for class, and that his life was no excuse.  (We’ve heard that before, right?)

12241607_10100420944081927_3936555186744413407_nAfter we talked, and I introduced informative writing, my students spent five minutes writing in their journals about what they wished their teachers knew about them.

(Some students needed pencils, and I gave them a damn pencil.)

Afterwards, they spent 5-6 minutes illustrating their thoughts on computer paper.  They knew I’d be showing these to other teachers, but I promised that they’d stay anonymous, even as they were handing them to me (nameless, upside-down) on their way out the door.

As you’d expect, many were heartbreaking.



12240133_10100420944141807_3381754357585315796_nInform and explain.  Show and tell.  Tell and show.

We won’t know unless we ask.  


The Value of Writer’s Notebooks

Nine years ago, when I decided to jump head-first into education, I had visions of my new imaginary students.  These students would voluntarily record all of their thoughts and feelings in composition notebooks, and I would be like Michelle Pfieffer in Dangerous Minds, giving my students a voice and letting them soar to new heights with their newfound empowered voices.

Then I started teaching real students.  Unlike my imaginary students, these students did NOT want to write in notebooks.  They didn’t see the benefit in writing.  It was boring and it was work.  We kept notebooks in class, but my students weren’t thoughtful in their writing.  They’d write a sentence, then stare at the wall until time was up.

Halfway through last year, I read Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, anpromptsd I started experimenting with journaling alongside my students while they responded to my prompts.  I gave them a prompt, and then I sat in a desk with my notebook and wrote.  The very first day I did this with my freshmen last year, they wrote FOR 30 MINUTES without stopping.  Until the bell.  It was an actual dream come true.

I used to be a total jerk. 
Before I sat next to my students and wrote next to them, I’d force them to keep moving their pencils until time was up.

I’d say thingsjournaling like, “Think while you write!  Write the same word over and over again until you think of your next idea! Don’t stop your pencil from moving on the page!”

I didn’t realize what a jerk I was until I sat and wrote with my students.  When I actually did what I was asking them to do, I realized how much I naturally pause, stare, and think before writing my next thoughts on the page.  As I did this, I noticed my students doing the same thing as they were writing.

They weren’t off-task, they were thinking.  Just like me.

Now, I tell them to pause and stare as much as they want.  If they don’t get where they want to go with their piece during our writing time, they can just continue during our next class.

If they go off prompt, that’s okay too.  I do the same thing.  I just want them to write.


We’ve been spending ten minutes in writing journals after choice-read time. I write with them when I’m not being a weirdo photographer.

Fitting this into our daily agenda.
After last year’s successes, I’ve decided to incorporate quickwriting into our class agenda every day.  This is completely new for me in class this year.

I teach in a funny schedule.  We have a six day rotation, with two of my classes meeting for 80 minutes every other day, and the others meeting four times per rotation for 60 minutes.

For the last two years, I’ve started all of my classes with 10 minutes of choice reading.  As I work to adopt a full-press readers/writers workshop model, I’ve started to incorporate 10 minutes of quickwriting after our reading time every.single.day. It might seem tedious, but my thought is: the more they write, they better they’ll get.

I also know that more I read and comment in their notebooks, the more they’ll write, but I have a hard time figuring out how to respond to 100 notebooks on a regular basis.  This year, I’m giving myself a schedule of reading certain classes on alternating weeks and sticking to it.

Finding the time to read and comment on student notebooks in a timely manner has been my biggest struggle.

Finding the time to read and comment on student notebooks in a timely manner has been my biggest struggle.

Don’t have time?  Make it.
Know this:  my goal with quickwriting is to help my students become better writers, but…journaling is therapy, too.

I’m always going to respect my students’ privacy when writing about our class (and their pieces) here.  With that, I can say: I was in literal tears after reading some pieces this afternoon.  These kids need quickwriting for reasons beyond a formal competency-based education.  These students need a voice, and they need me to listen.

Do I have time for this?  These students are worth (more than) ten minutes of our class time.