Can We Please Please Please End The Pencil Debate, Fellow Teachers?


To give or not to give a pencil? That is the question.

And it makes me want to stab myself in the forehead with a sharp #2.

For those of you not in the classroom, here’s the debate: when a student asks for something to write with, should you always give a pencil or pen to the student?


The struggle shouldn’t be this real.

This Google search will make your head spin.  So. Many. Articles.  Considering we have so many  important things to talk about like the school-to prison-pipleline and the high-stakes testing debacle, it’s astonishing pencils get this much air time.   And as much as I adore Teaching Tolerance and consider them to be one of my best teaching resources, I think it’s totally understandable to tell a student to ask friends first. It doesn’t make you a jerk at all.

Here’s my evolution on the “Yo, Miss, you got a pencil?” saga:

  1. The Oprah Effect


I used to give all of my students a pen or pencil. Gladly.  No questions asked. It kept them on-task and working.  And then I ran out constantly.  And I was constantly buying more. And then I was resentful that my students weren’t coming prepared  and that I was spending so much money on stupid pencils. I wondered if I was enabling them. So then…

2.  The  Hammer Factor


I put a moratorium on giving out writing implements. There’s something to be said for offering opportunities to be responsible.  I told my students to ask a friend, saying that when I forgot a pen at a staff meeting, I didn’t raise my hand and ask the principal; I asked a colleague.  It worked, for the most part.  Students almost always ended up with one somehow; if not, I would let them sweat it out a little bit and then slip them a Bic.  It was fine, but sometimes a little distracting when a student, the one who always forgot a pen, had to ask six people in a row because the first five were totally over giving her another one.  It was also uncomfortable when a co-teacher or a paraprofessional didn’t think along the same lines as me. So…

3. The Most Interesting Idea In The World


I work in an urban school district where about 90% of our students live at or below poverty.  I also serve students of color and am working really hard to be a  strong white ally. Learning about trauma-informed teaching really made me think about making how making one thing go easier in the day for a student  could make a difference.  So, I came up with Borrowing Boxes.  I went to The Dollar Tree and bought plastic containers for each table to hold pencils, erasers, paperclips, etc. so student could ideally borrow and return at the end of  class.Students has access to pencils, I didn’t have to stop class, or spend much more money on supplies. Win, win, win!  It worked well, but when I transitioned from middle school to high school, I discovered 9th graders aren’t as careful with the Borrowing Boxes as 8th graders.  My containers were scribbled on and picked apart.  They used pencils and pens but forgot to return them.  The boxes were often empty and we were back to Square 1.  So now.

4. My Current Solution


One Borrowing Box.  Just one, at the entrance to our classroom in a place where students can easily access it.  We’re entering Week 3 and the box is just as full as  Day 1, thanks to responsible students who return the pencils, a few stray pencils and pens found on the floor, and classmates naturally sharing their supplies with each other.

No drama.  No fuss.  Super-easy.  Students solve their own problems. I spent a total of $2.  Everybody wins.

Ultimately, it’s up to you.  Do what you think is best for your students. You’re a professional.  I trust you. Let me repeat. I trust you.  We don’t hear that enough in our profession, do we? And don’t agonize over it like I did.  Spend more of your time thinking about fun lesson ideas and how much awesome sauce you have to offer your students.

Heather Harlen is in her 18th year of teaching and finds something to smile about each period. She has degrees in English, education, and creative writing.  Heather has taught in Russia, Northern Virginia, and currently teaches in an urban district in Eastern Pennsylvania.  She has served all types of communities of learners, from elementary school through college, to fellow teachers. She is proud to be a National Writing Project Fellow and is also a professional writer.




About Heather Harlen

Heather is the writer of the HOPE YOU GUESS MY NAME: A THRILLER (Book 1 of the Marina Konyeshna Thrillogy) and teacher who is trying to make every day count without burning out. Look for SHAME, SHAME, I KNOW YOUR NAME (BOOK 2 of the Marina Konyeshna Thrillogy) in early 2017 (Northampton House Press).

4 responses »

    • Thanks, Teri! I meant to tell you – on an episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey (I know, I know…), two of the cast members go to a spa for a massage. At the counter, there’s a basket of yogamats and the sign says it costs $2 to rent a one! That’s not very yoga-spirited THEY need a borrowing box, too, like you have 🙂

  1. I am so proud to call you my colleague, my mentor and most importantly, my friend! You have such an amazing gift and your heart is as big as your smile! I love everything about this article, especially your ideas Heather! I’m going to implement my own borrowing box ASAP. Thank you!

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