Pencils gathered at the end of the day.

Academic year 2021-2022 was my hardest year in the classroom so far (and I started this gig in 1989). People predicted what might be difficult and one of the main things was the “learning loss” from 1.5 years of a pandemic where students were not recieving face-to-face instruction, were not held accountable for assignments, and were taking tests and quizzes unmonitored (online at home). Particularly with math, the fact that students would be 1.5 years behind seemed overwhelming. But in my classroom, this was not the main issue at all.

The main issue was how immature students were. In the past, sophomores in our district came to class with pencils and other basic materials for learning. They were able to keep up with their assignments and notes pages in a three-ring binder. But day after day I heard, I don’t have that. And worse, You didn’t give that to me. This made me ANGRY! I did give it to them! I would have to take time to help them locate materials that they had the day before. These same students showed up to my class without a pencil. So I would give them a pencil. And then I would think, Wait a minute, didn’t I just give this student a pencil yesterday? And so I started writing down names. I would say, I am happy to give you a pencil. But you have got to keep up with this pencil for two weeks. And they would reply, I don’t know if I can do that Ms. Cornelius. And I would say, You have to. You are sixteen years old. I know you can do it.

Ultimately this entire experience was infuriating. I spent a lot of my time on about 25% of my students who were chronologically 10th graders but had the executive functioning of a 7th grader. I know that it is my responsibility to teach them algebra, but I also see myself as trying to facilitate their “launch” into the adult world. If I just keep giving them a pencil each time they don’t have one, I am allowing them to remain in a stagnant state. If I don’t give them a pencil, then they bother their classmates for one or they just sit there and do nothing. They need to practice the math. That requires a pencil.


So this summer I had an epiphany while walking the dogs (it’s when all my good ideas pop into my brain). Each desk in my classroom has a little trough on it. I put calculators on each desk — I could put a pencil on each desk as well. In this way they would all have a pencil and they could decide to use mine or their own. This excruciatingly simple solution has worked wonders. Each student now ALWAYS has a pencil. Unfortunately, I may or may not be helping them launch into adulthood, but I am preserving my sanity. This school year has been MUCH better for me in my classroom in my school in my district, and I think a lot of it has to do with the pencils. I know some classrooms in some schools in some districts are struggling, and I am not naive to think my situation will remain copacetic, but I’ll ride this wave as long as I can.

P.S. I know exactly who might not have a pencil on a daily basis — the same students who don’t charge their chromebooks before coming to school. I still don’t have a solve for this. But we don’t use our chromebooks daily. We do use pencils EVERY DAY!

Edited to add: I gather the pencils every afternoon and sharpen them. If a student needs to sharpen a pencil in the middle of class, I exchange a pencil with them. If a student needs to sharpen their own pencil I tell them to use one of the pencils on the desk. This also prevents the “showboating” and distraction en route to the pencil sharpener.

Pencils in the troughs. Serenity!