Classroom Management Tip: Sharpening Pencils

Every day this week, I am featuring one of Annette Breaux’s classroom management tips and my experiences using them on the first day. I am confident you will take something positive away from at least one of these tips! (And if you do, make sure you let Annette know!)

Today’s tip: Avoiding the distraction of the pencil sharpener.

  • In theory: I really liked Annette’s analogy for this one: if you go to a great restaurant, you go for great food, but you also go for great service. Tell the kids that you want to give them great food (that’s what you’re teaching), but you also want to make sure they get great service. Tell them you want to make their lives as easy as possible. Tell them they don’t have to worry about getting up and going all the way over to the pencil sharpener to sharpen their pencils. Tell them, instead, to give you a discreet thumbs up. When you see it, you continue teaching as you retrieve a sharpened pencil from your desk and bring it to them. You swap your pencil for theirs. You sharpen their pencil (as you continue to teach), and then exchange pencils again. No more lines at the sharpener, no more distracted kids cleaning their personal sharpeners out.
  • In practice: I hadn’t planned for this one just yet, but it did come to mind when I saw a kid staring dejectedly at the pencil point that had just broken for the umpteenth time (the $0.01 packs of pencils at Staples truly stink, by the way). Rather than have him sit there doing nothing, I made a big show of saying, “Ugh! Your pencil broke?! Man, what a bummer! But don’t worry: I have plenty of pencils that you can use!” I got one from my desk and continued: “And you know what? Just because I care about you so much, I’m even going to sharpen your pencil for you! Don’t thank me, I just want to make things as easy for you as possible!” When I gave the student his pencil back, he was quite a bit dumbfounded. He seemed to be asking, “Who on Earth are you and what did you do with my teacher?” I felt a lot better than when I angrily say to him, “How many times have I told you you need to bring sharpened pencils to school?”
  • Remember: I shared this idea with a colleague. She loved it, but couldn’t overlook the obvious: “This means I’m going to have to start sharpening a bunch of pencils.” Uh, yep.

Try it and share with us how it went!

12 responses to “Classroom Management Tip: Sharpening Pencils

  1. This is an interesting approach to pencil sharpening and I am not sure I agree with it. What on earth could you be doing that is is so important that a child can distract you by sharpening their pencil? I think this tightens control over the students even more than before and once again cements the teacher as the person in charge.

    • Pernille, the point is not that the teacher is distracted from his/her work, but rather that the pencil sharpener – in many classrooms – becomes a way to dilly-dally. In places where there is a community sharpener, it becomes a place to congregate. The way this works, kids stay on task – even if their pencil is legitimately broken – because there’s no opportunity to say, “I have no pencil.” It isn’t about taking back control. It’s about helping keep kids on task. You know I’m not a dictator by any means – the kids have really enjoyed this trick.

  2. I think this is a great idea! I never thought to have a replacement pencil while I sharpen the dull or broken one. Like you said, it keeps them working instead of being off task. I think a good manager creates an environment that allows students to be productive. Also, this sets a good example for kindness and taking care of others. Thanks!

  3. What if the student uses sharpening their pencil as a mental break? Or as a way to simply stretch? While I know your intentions are good I do wonder whether this is necessary beyond having a couple of extra pencils in case a tudent doesn’t have one.

    • You’re right about the breaks – however I’m yet to have a student complain (albeit only 4 days in). If there is enough active learning happening, as you know, the breaks are often less necessary, too. These ideas can’t happen in isolation of an overall well-run, invested classroom.

  4. I had to take back control of my sharpener b/c every time ONE student got up to sharpen his/her pencil then at least 5 followed. They also tend to get up just as I’m beginning to give instructions or at other inopportune moments. I NEVER thought I’d do something as mundane as sharpening pencils for kids, but dangit if it doesn’t just make the day go wayyyyy more smoothly for us all. Now if I could keep the Pencil Monster out of our room….he visits nightly and eats all the extras…..sigh…..

  5. Hi guys. The pencil sharpening trick works wonders. That is, if you’re having trouble with students always up and sharpening pencils. But if you don’t have a problem with students sharpening pencils on their own, and if it creates no distraction in your classroom, then there is no need to implement this technique. Regarding the control issue, if you are clever with it, it simply appears that you are helping the students as opposed to not allowing them to sharpen their own pencils. It’s all in the approach!

  6. When I taught 1st and 2nd grades, I had a similar system, that did not require ME to do the sharpening: I had a “dead pencil” basket and a “live pencil” basket. If a student’s pencil was dull or broken, they put it in the dead pencil basket and picked a sharp one from the live pencil basket. This still gave them the brain and muscle break of walking across the room, while preventing the noise and “water cooler” effect of the sharpener. At the end of the day, a colleague’s 3rd grade son happily came and re-sharpened all the dead pencils for me, in exchange for the occasional sticker or borrowed book from my classroom library. I also had a few students from older grades who offered to help me with classroom prep during their lunch breaks, and they did some sharpening, too. Now, in kindergarten, I allow all the sharpening they want, but only offer the small, hand-held kind of sharpener – it is a great fine-motor task!

  7. Well I tried it today (I needed an extra day to sharpen the pencils), and it worked like a charm. My kids are pretty well trained not to sharpen while someone is speaking, but I have been getting aggravated by the use of the sharpener as water cooler. It has become a place for them to meet and chat instead of working. I do have several students who need movement and breaks and this in no way interferes with that. Anyone who needs that can still do so. It just helps keep everyone on task (in the nicest way). It is definitely a little harder with 23 kids – there was a moment when all the pencils seemed to be breaking at once – but it was a lot better than chasing groups of kids back to work. I agree that this is not at all about my control, but about creating a productive environment.

  8. Hey Matt, thanks for this tip! I struggle with pencil drama everyday in my class. Similar to you, I tell my students to bring 3 sharpened pencils to school but that’s always an epic fail. As a result, I’ll have students asking to borrow a pencil or sharpener from each other. I resisted keeping a pencil basket because I noticed some students getting up to borrow a pencil even though they had a perfectly useful pencil. So I decided they need to be responsible for being prepared. Well, after reading this, I can admit I will surrender and start keeping sharpened pencils on my desk. It’s just not fair or worthy to waste instruction time. I thought I was the only one dealing with silly pencil drama in the 5th grade.

  9. We have tables in our classrooms and we have buckets ( from the dollar store) on each table with sharpen pencils in the bucket so if one breaks they just pick up a different one. We ask our students to bring in two packs of pencils at the beginning of the year and sharpen them and keep them put away so pencils can be sharpened once or twice a week.

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