Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Teaching Tip #2

This complicated little marvel came into my life some three weeks ago as a result of the frustration I was enduring thanks to the small plastic sharpeners my students were using. These often come in packs of ten for only a few bht, sometimes in the shapes of animals like rabbits and elephants. Before they break, which is typically on the third of fourth pencil, they perform exceptionally poorly.
 Part of this lies beyond their shoddy materials and construction, since many of the the pencils sold here are also sub par in both respects and so as the lead is finally approaching a near state of non-bluntness it falls out, or the wood (or what would normally be wood) crumbles or tears. Often the lead does not truly seem to break so much as to be packed into these inferior pencils in short, pre-divided segments, as if there were a factory somewhere in China reusing all the leftover bits from the nice Ticonderogas they are sending to the RDHS Math team - here is the Wikipedia bit on that: The Ticonderoga is a pencil model distributed by the Dixon Ticonderoga Company, founded in the 18th century, which was originally located in downtown Jersey City, New Jersey. Recently they have ceased US production of the Ticonderoga Pencil, but own and operate facilities outside the US in Italy, France, Asia, Latin America and Germany.- On a side note to the side note, I had the great misfortune to spend a year or so of my life in the pit hole, Jersey City, a year, as the saying goes, I can never get back. Anyhoo, these brittle pencil sharpeners usually snap in half, even in the relatively weak hands of a diminutive 7 year old Thai girl as she doggedly cranks her shitty pencil down to an elliptical nub. We had snapped our final sharpener mid-alphabet coloring page so I went next door to Kru Boom's room (that would make a nice children's show title, yes?) to borrow, as I often do. Boom pulled the marvel out of a cabinet, saying, "I buy this but the kids, they break it on the first day." There was indeed a jam in the mechanism which draws the pencil in automatically, but it only took a moment to clear, after which she insisted I take it to my classroom. I could not believe my good fortune. Other than the poorly thought out desk attachment, not up to the task of keeping the rear of the sharpener grounded (for obvious reasons since the torque is on the back end in turning the crank) it is a marvel. The front draws away from the body and then those two black knobs are squeezed together to put in the pencil. One then lets go the pencil and turns the crank, the pencil drawn in at an automatic pace which ceases precisely and automatically when the pencil attains an exacting sharpness. And in fact this is one machine that honestly does "put too fine a point on it" for the purposes of coloring...
Yet how could I complain over a job too well done? I inserted Taliu's broken tipped Aquamarine Blue Polycolor Horse #2080 pencil, let her watch its magic disappearing act, and we both Ooooed looking at the hair-fine point. What I had not anticipated (and these 5 words sum up my teaching career, or I guess you could say my life in general) was the resulting stampede once Taliu returned to her table and held her prize aloft. Too busy with coloring to notice my new gadget prior, I was immediately besieged like the city of Carthage in 149 B.C. I had to choose between allowing them access to my new prize, and they did manage to jam the mechanism within 2 students, just as Kru Boom had experienced, or, when I had unjammed it again, I could sharpen each pencil myself. Since needle sharp was the new standard in colored pencils, anything shy of this became unacceptable. The line for my services grew exponentially. When I turned a customer or two away with the admonishment, That pencil is already sharp enough to color,  the same students turned up moments later, their tips somehow mysteriously snapped off. I thought about the pricey Apple laptops dropped into my American high school last year, like some kind of corporate drug, the politicians lauding Maine schools as cutting edge, the teachers bemoaning the piles of money spent, and the students using them for every possible reason except academics. A kind of insane havoc ensued all school year long, all because adults had thrown a technology at students without a realistic plan or genuine purpose. I am not against technology per se. I am glad Frank Gehry has the materials and means to create his architecture and Radiohead can tamper with their sounds, but a teacher would do well to ask just what the real advantage to acquiring skills and knowledge a particular tool offers. I always tell my students that Shakespeare didn't do half bad with a pen and paper. I suppose if I was one of the teaching greats I would have called everything to a halt, sat in a circle, crafted and taught a lesson in the appropriate use of new technology, about care and responsibility, about restraint and freedom. An undeniable "teachable moment" hung in the air like phlegm in the back of a Newport smoker's throat. Instead, I jammed the machine on purpose, shrugged my shoulders, dismantled it, and told the children today they would have to use whatever colors still had points on them. That night after school I rode down to the market and bought four of these little sharpeners made in Japan for 15 bht each. A little pricey, but they are cute, do a pretty decent job with a little elbow grease, and they have lasted now for almost a month.


  1. Sure, Fifi has always produced a quality sharpener. Still, I can't wait to upgrade to the Fifi 2 (it's Bluetooth, you know). Do you guys have SmartBoards?

  2. I had a similar challenges with pencils when I was here the first time. Before I came back I went to The Home Depot and, among other things, bought a big package of pencils that came with an industial strength sharper.

    I'll send you a picture of the "standard" Thai pencil sharpener.