I recently read Pencil Me In: A Journey in the Fight for Graphite, by John T. Spencer. It was a very quick read, but also entertaining. The story follows a fictional teacher, Tom Johnson, as he tries to integrate pencils in the classroom in the late 1800’s. Some of Johnson’s fellow teachers and administrators are skeptical or even leery of the new pencil technology. They wonder if these new technologies could be dangerous. They fear students writing to pedophiles on the “pen pal network”. They see students playing with pencils and paper and wonder how they could get the students interested in using these tools for education. “Pencil Me In” is an allegorical story of technology in education. Like the internet filtering at my school, guards are placed around the city to deny students access to “sites” that could be used improperly. At one point in the book, Johnson has to sneak a phonograph through the backdoor due to limited band width (the width of the hallway used by the school band). While the story of pencil integration is amusing, there is an underlying message to the book. The story shows not only the great ways technology can be used in the classroom, but also the struggle the teachers have to endure to get the technology to be a help and not a hindrance. This is not a book giving you the top ten reasons why you should use technology in the classroom, but human story of humility that shows how difficult teaching can be with all the successes and failures that go along with the job.
While I enjoyed the author’s thoughts on technology integration, reading his book made me cringe. Thankfully I read his book on my Kindle Fire; otherwise, the book would have been marked up with my red pen and turned back in to Spencer for revision. It is very obvious that he did not re-read any of what he wrote before it was published. There are way too many spelling and grammar errors in a book about teaching. Also, the dialogue in this book seemed very contrived. It reminded me of my style of writing in middle school. I was very surprised to find out this was not the first book he wrote. I would be more likely to recommend the book to someone else if the spelling and grammar errors were corrected.
What I did like about the book was Spencer’s thoughts on teaching and schools. I certainly agree with the comparison of our current schools to factories. Spencer writes, “The whole system is built like a factory from worksheet packets to school bells to students in tidy little lines marching mindlessly to class”. I also agree with Spencer’s sentiments on school corporations spending tons of money on curriculum and school reform. He asks, “What if we stopped investing in curriculum and started investing in our children’s minds? What is we quit treating the students as a resource that we own?” He also writes about the teaching profession, “teaching is a really hard gig and no amount of techie tools will fix that”. I also agree with what he writes about what makes an effective teacher, “Avoid the thoughts about reform. If you want to be effective, teach well.” While this book had some great one-liners on education and technology, it did not really increase my interest in the subject.
The reason, I believe, why “Pencil Me In” has received as much attention as it has is due to social media. Spencer wrote a blog called “Adventures in Pencil Integration” and eventually turned it into a book. Then, once people read the book, they started a discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #pencilchat. This discussion, which is still going on, consists mainly of educators venting their frustrations over schools lack of technology use and budget cuts. By starting out as a blog, “Pencil Me In” shares the thoughts and stories of many educators. I am in the same boat with these educators and would like to see technology integrated in education. I would just like educators to spell-check their work before letting others read it in a book.