Pencils and Privilege

What happens when a resource becomes a privilege?

I was speaking recently with another Maker Educator  about class routines,  rules, and establishing consequences for unsafe behavior.  As a side-note, she mentioned that access to their makerspace is often framed as a “privilege” at her school. Before using the space, a teacher might say something like this to their class, “I want to remind you that we have to be safe in this space and follow the rules. It’s a privilege for us to be in this space and if we want to keep coming here, we need to behave appropriately. If you can’t behave, you’ll be asked to leave and you won’t be invited back.”  As we continued our conversation, something about this idea of the makerspace as a privilege kept bothering me.

I’ve heard this language before, regarding technology. There are iPad, Chromebook, MacBook and tablet initiatives where students are told if they don’t bring their devices to school fully charged, if they damage them, if they lose them and/or if they are caught using social media instead of taking notes in Notability or Google Docs, that they will lose the “privilege” of access to that device for the day – or longer.

I remember years ago reading this article, Give the Kid a Pencil, in Teaching Tolerance. As one simple step towards dismantling barriers to learning, it has stuck with me.  The “I forgot my pencil” scenario is often used as an example in classroom management discussions in pre-service teacher programs (because it happens). A student “forgets” their pencil or does not have one, creating a barrier to their ability to work and participate in class. All the reasons a student might forget or not have a pencil are complex enough for another blog post. But, in short, the classroom management dilemma is this: do you give them another pencil, direct them to the bin of pencils, trade them something for a pencil, engage in a confrontation over their habit of forgetting a pencil, tell them to ask a classmate for a pencil, create an accountability system for lending pencils, treat this missing pencil as a “teachable moment” about responsibility and preparedness?  The author’s solution, you might guess from the title, is to just give the kid a pencil. Every. Time.

If we purchase devices and fund makerspaces, if we utilize monetary resources to create these other learning resources, it leads me to believe that they fall into the category of “right” and not “privilege”.  If a school has decided that students need Chromebooks and a makerspace to do their best learning, then those tools are essential. They are not a bonus, they are not a “nice to have”, they are not something to incentivize “good behavior” and they certainly should not be framed as a privilege. The goal is to do everything we can and everything we know to get and keep these resources in the hands of students. They are, essentially, no different than a pencil.

Certainly we can’t give out endless iPads, or charging cables, or makerspace materials, and the reality for too many teachers and schools is that they truly can’t give out endless pencils. However, what both the author and I are trying to illustrate is that there are *real* and *true* barriers to learning (both personal and systemic), there are the  barriers we perpetuate, and barriers we inadvertently create.  Rather than create a psychological barrier by framing access as a privilege and tying it to behavior –  can we instead give out endless invitations? Endless chances to improve; to try again tomorrow? Can we give out endless opportunities for students to show up, as they are, and participate to their fullest ability – knowing that participation might look different from one day to the next and one student to the next? How do we support a student who can’t, for any number or reasons, charge their device at home, or consistently forgets their iPad? How do we ensure access to spaces, devices, and tools without making that access contingent on behavior – or worse, grades?  How might we intentionally design our technology and makerspace programs to account for the “forgotten pencil” scenario?

I want to be clear that I’m not implying that students have the right to break safety rules, abuse a tool, or Chromebook, or anything else for that matter. There is a need for clear boundaries and clear consequences for deliberately harmful actions (unpacking that is yet *another* post in itself).  However, I wonder if this language of “a privilege to be in the space” has the intended outcome (behavior incentive).  I wonder too what unknown impact it might be having. Is a student hearing “you can be here.. IF…” as another barrier to learning? As a denial of their rights to resources? If a student will “lose a privilege” that is dependent on them being able to remember to charge a device, or fight the social media addiction that we ALL grapple with, I wonder how those words land. I wonder how a student in a Title 1 school, (where access to resources makes a significant impact on student lives) will feel when they are told that they could lose access to a resource before they’ve even had the chance to explore it? I wonder how those words land with neurodiverse students who are not motivated by the threat of consequences and often struggle to prove and *feel* that they are “good enough” to participate and access resources in their everyday lives?

Makerspaces, among many other things, are a petri dish of intense social emotional learning. I wonder how we might create emotionally and psychologically safe spaces that every student has the right to access? I wonder if by assuming the best, having high standards, and insistently inviting students in as their perfectly imperfect, usually squirrely and often in need of a little time-out selves, we will see more growth and creativity than we ever thought possible – rather than threatening to close a door just as we are opening it.

Schools that have makerspaces and makerspace programs could be considered fortunate compared to those that don’t – and the path to getting one varies from bond money to special funds to entrepreneurial teachers  and librarians who hustle to make it happen. There are plenty of folks, and we could use more, who have made it their mission to get makerspaces, or even access to art classes or supplies, in every school. There’s lots of work to be done; an equity issue for yet another post. So, if you are at a school with a makerspace, art room, or technology program – what language do you use around your space and resources? What methods do you use to teach safe behavior? Is there a benefit to framing the makerspace as a privilege? What can we do to just give the kid a makerspace?

2 thoughts on “Pencils and Privilege

  1. Thank you for this post!! I so appreciate you turning the privilege talk on its head and asking us to think it over from other angles. I know that during the course of my career I gave the “its a privilege” talk. We want our students to appreciate their good fortune, don’t we? And yet, is using the idea of privilege to ensure compliance the best way to achieve that goal? I really don’t think so…especially not with people so young in life. Telling people that what they have is a privilege is not what gives them the perspective of or appreciation for their good fortune. And, yes, there are just so many reasons a kid doesn’t have a pencil.

    I love your focus invitations to learning. I love the whole post. I love this: “Rather than create a psychological barrier by framing access as a privilege and tying it to behavior – can we instead give out endless invitations? Endless chances to improve; to try again tomorrow? Can we give out endless opportunities for students to show up, as they are, and participate to their fullest ability…”

    thank you for writing!


  2. HI Michael,

    I love that you are doing this writing and it inspires me to go back to the blog that I wrote for years and think about jumping back into that mix again. However, I do want to respond to this post because I think it speaks to a deeper underlying issue that your ideas bring up.

    As I was reading I was thinking about WHY there are confrontations around “pencils” or any other resources. Often our response as educators is “you have to be responsible for stuff and spaces” and the lesson we want to teach is “if you are not responsible you don’t get it.” The deeper question I was wondering about is around how we really support kids to become responsible. Usually, for any of us, that isn’t about fear of loss. Fear usually doesn’t generate real responsibility. Real responsibility comes from a real care for something. For most people in western communities writing tools are pretty ubiquitous and the loss of one usually means that you will find one easitly . At this moment I am sitting in the Maker Space and there is a Prismacolor Ebony Jetblack Extra Smooth pencil on the table next to me with a broken tip. I didn’t even notice it until just now. In fact, the broken tip made me think it was “not useful”. And that makes me think about the time I was in Kenya AND in India when I would be surrounded by young children asking for pens. I knew that any pen that I would give them would be treasured, would be valued, and would probably NOT be lost.

    Last night my son Huxley asked me for a “really good pencil”. The reason? He has become completely head over heals passionate about D & D and he spends most nights in bed copying spells from his precious Dungeon Masters Guide onto player sheets by hand with a pencil. That pencil AND all the his D & D books have HUGE value for him. He cares deeply about them. THAT deep caring is what makes him responsible enough to care about a pencil and keeping it safe.

    For me your question about resources grows into a question about how do we allow kids to care so deeply about things that they will be completely responsible for them. Giving them a scolding ahead of time just doesen’t seem right. Because most kids haven’t built up a real care for the item or space that we are asking them to be responsible for. What if we turned over that space to the kids, made them in charge of it and really care about it. We not only are giving them a reasource that we know they need but we are also saying, we know that for you to take care of this you will be doing things here that you REALLY CARE ABOUT.

    In general most kids are not doing things in school that they care about. It’s just a place to pass time, not someplace to give your heart to. We need to be giving out countless invitiations to really become engaged learners so that we don’t have to worry that they are learning the “lessons” about being responsible pencil users.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.


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