Much Ado About Pencil Sharpening

6 02 2011

When I was in Grade 9, my dad and I built a cedar strip canoe together. He came home with this proposal after three other teachers on his staff decided this was a project they wanted to embark on. That night, we talked about it, I agreed, and the building began almost immediately. Although one of the other teachers taught woodworking, none of these gents (aside from my dad) had built a seaworthy vessel before. They scoured the plans, came up with a strategy, purchased the wood and the cutting of cedar strips began. Anyone who has smelled the scent of fresh-cut cedar will understand the tug to built something with this raw material. It was magic.

Almost every week night for months we would travel to the wood shop where the four canoes were being constructed. It was collaboration at its finest. Sometimes we would all work on one boat and other times we would all do our own thing. The endless jokes, the steady supply of cookies, the blueprint reading difficulties, a few swear words and the way I was included in the quartet fraternity (being the only kid among the builders) is a special memory of mine. We estimate that it took about 140 hours to complete this labour of love. The canoe still gets out most years. It hangs today in the rafters of my parent’s garage and almost 30 years later, it’s still a conversation piece for anyone who dare enter in.

My love for woodworking had an interesting start. Even before my first birdhouse project with my Poppa, and before the “let’s see how many nails you can pound into the scrap wood” boats I would make, came the introduction to wood shaping that many of us share. If you’re like me, your first interaction with a woodworking tool was probably with a pencil sharpener.

Remember the first time you took the cover off the wall-mount variety? Fascinating. The six-holed cover would hide those spiral, gear-like blades that would rotate in harmony and transform our dull, large red pencil (Bill Cosby described these “as thick as a horse’s leg”) into a thing of beauty worthy of any blank page of foolscap. Since the plug-in variety of pencil sharpener hadn’t been invented in those days, my fellow students would line up for their turn to use the Transformation Machine and impromptu contests would spring up each week as to who could become the scribe with the sharpest scribbler.

Since becoming a Teacher On Call, I’ve seen some interesting rules implemented as to when and how pencils are sharpened in the classroom. Many students have a “pocket version” that gets carted around in their stash box and therefore, it’s not an issue how pencils get sharp. Some teachers don’t allow this, (what’s with that?) and students with wretched writing devices are forced to use the classroom one. Some rules make sense to me, (e.g. “Don’t sharpen pencils when the teacher is teaching – pick a transition time instead”) while other rules don’t make sense at all. In more than one class I’ve been in, students must bring their pencils to the teacher for him/her to sharpen. Not sure I follow that logic.

Can you sharpen my pencil?” (Uh, sure, but don’t you know how?)

Our teacher won’t let us – you have to do it for us.” (stunned silence)

Since when did the act of sharpening a pencil become such a refined and developed skill? Is it a power thing that teachers hold over their students? Do teachers possess vast amounts of pencil use expertise that elevates their abilities so that lowly students can’t possibly grasp this task on their own? What happened to the “learn to do by doing” motto that 4-H clubs around the world ascribe to? Don’t teachers have enough things going on in their day? Couldn’t this be a delegated task?

As a boy fascinated with mechanical wonder, I understand the attraction to use machines and to create something with my own hands. I have to admit that the sound of grinding wood is downright cool and strangely inviting. I also understand that people have different preferences for “pencil sharpedness” and how sharp or how dull a pencil becomes can become mildly problematic for students. I get that. Tracing and graphing and shading and writing all require a different shape and texture of graphite to attain the desired result.  There are probably times that are best for sharpening tasks and times where it’s best to wait. But really, not allowing students to do this at all? What would the SPSPSS say?  (this would be the “Society for the Promotion of Student Pencil Sharpening Skills” – an organization that I just created).

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe in extreme circumstances these rules need to be applied. Please, someone let me know why in this age of increased student-teacher collaboration and partner learning communities must rules like these exist.




5 responses

7 02 2011
Karen deNevers

I have this file beside our computer.. It’s at the ready if I ever find myself with a spare couple of minutes (enter: rousing sarcastic guffaw) that I can peruse its contents of websites of interest I would like to visit. In the file was the Hagkull Christmas letter with an invitation to friends & clan to peruse your blog. Being a blogger of a number of different journals-both personal and prof, I am always interested in reading on people’s passions.
I finally had a chance to read over your education adventures (thus far!).
Your connections to kids, BJH-even when being one!-has always been undeniable. It now is showcased in this thought-provoking blog, anchored in a historic talent for speech writing (shall we review the video tape of “The Heart”~Grade 10~198..mumble..mumble.. 😉 I mumble the end of that to protect the innocent (age of the) author of this comment box ), coupled with heartfelt sermons (regrets I didn’t get to hear more) and now rooted in a true passion for educating and affecting children.
Just proud to know you.. always have been..
and I’ll be checking in for the odd read now and again. I just wanted to say that I look forward, as do all of your followers- I’m sure-to future storytelling.

7 02 2011

You are too kind KP. Thanks for the note. It was notably . . . especially . . . wonderfully . . . congruent with a Lester comment. I was proud to say, “Hey – that’s friend of mine” when I heard you were involved in the Kate Simpson wedding coming up this summer. The timing of your note was especially impeccable since I had your Hannah in a Gr. 6 Math Group at Promontory this afternoon! Too funny. And wow, does she ever look like her mom. Might want to blog about that one someday . . . (or not to protect the innocent). Thanks for checking out my blog KP – your note means a lot!

8 02 2011
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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brad Hagkull, Brad Hagkull. Brad Hagkull said: "The sound of pencil wood crunching and grinding is cool and strangely inviting" from my latest post #bced #caned […]

9 02 2011

I’ve been in classrooms where this rule was warranted, but not in many. I think most are from about Grade 5-8. The reason – some students will do anything to wander around the classroom. Not many, but some. The pencil sharpener becomes a battle ground, and believe me you don’t want to lose that battle. Now, is there a better way? Maybe. That depends on the class and the teacher. It would be interesting to know if that teacher had the same rule every year.

9 02 2011

Brad: I tried to respond in the appropriate place at the end of your blog but it would not recognize your site. What a wonderful, creative talent you have of committing to paper details that most of us have long since forgotten. I often wondered how you felt as a Grade Nine student working alongside a group of teachers you did not know, listening to language that shouldn’t be coming out of their mouths, and watching as they they at times, threw caution to the wind and handled power machinery while under the influence of the grape. And finally, in 1992, we had it finished, after starting the project in your Grade Nine year ( 1983 ??) Keep up the great work on your blog – it could very well become a best seller in the future. – dad

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