Sunday, July 26, 2015

Executive Functioning #3: Pencils

Picture this: It's the start of class and you are introducing your new lesson. You look great, your lesson matches perfectly with your objective, and your instruction is interactive, collaborative, and darn right perfect. You are feeling good, gosh darn it. Standing in front of your class of eager, bright eyed children you explain the agenda for the day. Midway through instructions you hear the distinct sound of whispers and feet thudding against the floor. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a student standing over another student's desk. They appear to be having a serious conversation. "What's going on, young learner?" You ask. The learner looks up at you and sighs, "I need a pencil."

Sound familiar? Many teachers struggle with the management of pencils. This can be frustrating and time consuming. If students are trying to find a pencil during class, they miss important instruction. If they talk to their peers about borrowing a pencil, those students miss instruction. If they borrow pencils from you, you could lose dozens of pencils. If you implement a policy where students can't borrow a writing utensil, that student loses instruction. If you implement a policy where a student is expected to use a crayon or give you a shoe, they are unable to do quality work and risk public embarrassment. Worst of all, if you do put a management system in place you end up spending your limited time as a teacher counting and dealing with pencils of all things. There just isn't enough time in the day to care that deeply about pencils! So what's a teacher to do?

My solution is three-fold: Create an easy to implement pencil management system, teach the student self-advocacy skills, teach the student material management skills.

1. Create an easy to implement pencil management system

The best pencil management system that I found was from some clever teachers that buy washi tape (Who knew that's what it was called? Man, there's a name for everything!) and put it on the top of a pencil like this. I like it because it's visual, cheap, and takes very little time. The example pencils that I made below took me all of 10 seconds to put together. It's an easy way for students to remember that the pencil belongs to you. Do this with 50 pencils, stick them in a bucket in an easy to access place in the classroom, introduce the bucket to the students, let them know that they can take a pencil if they need it, ask them to return it when they are done, and then forget about bucket. Don't worry about it. Refill it when it gets low but that's it.

Students will accidentally take your pencil with them to their next class. They might even lose it in the shuffle from one subject to the next. Don't spend your time policing pencils. It will become exhausting and honestly it's not worth it. Check out this post that I read a few months ago. The teacher, Mr. Donohue argues that you should give a student a pencil every time that they ask for it and not make it a big deal. He explains that children learn best in a "psychologically safe environment" and that putting undo focus on the student's pencil usage can be humiliating and is not beneficial for the classroom community or the individual student's learning. I agree.

2. Teach the student self-advocacy skills

Now that we have wasi tape on a bunch of pencils, we have a class wide solution to That Pesky Pencil Problem. As a teacher, the next thing I'd think about are the students that need more support. Most students will be able to take pencils and return them without any prompting or further instruction. However, there will still be a few students that will continue to ask their classmates for a pencil or sit without a writing utensil until you notice and ask them what the deal is. These students will benefit from learning self advocacy skills. You can do this by creating visuals, like a giant sign that says, "Need a pencil? Go here!" with an arrow pointing to the pencil bucket. You can also also help the student to problem solve by saying, "Looks like you are missing something that you will need to complete this activity. What are you missing? How can you solve this problem?"

3. Teach the student material management skills

Teaching material management can be done in many different ways. You can implement a self management checklist system. You can also give a student two pencils at the beginning of each week, give them time to put the pencils into their pencil pouch, and tell them that their goal is to hold onto these two pencils for five days. This gives them time to put their pencils in the same location each week and practice material management. You can use a reinforcer if they make it with two pencils until the end of the week. As students become better and better with managing materials, you should fade out supports by decreasing the reinforcer or the number of pencils you give each week. If the student loses their two pencils, they can borrow one of your pencils with the wasi tape.

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