Contented Reader

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How to Sharpen Pencils

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How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening

David Rees

Melville House Publishing

I am a junior high school teacher, which means that pencils, and the sharpening of them, is a large concern for me.  At my school, as in most public schools, students take a truly shocking number of standardized tests.  Every year, there is the year-end state standardized test, a high-stakes test.  High-stakes for the school, that is, which stands to lose reputation and funding depending on scores.  There are no stakes at all for the students taking the test; there is no reward for doing well, no penalty for doing poorly- indeed, the test does not even appear on a child’s report card.

In addition to the year-end test, there are three pre-tests, administered at the beginning of the year, just after Christmas vacation, and about a month before the state test.  These are as long as the state test itself, and take about three days to administer- more than a week, when one includes the make-up testing of students who are absent.

In addition to those, there are ‘benchmark tests.’  These are shorter tests, which take only one full class day to administer, and they are given once a month.

That’s a lot of number 2 pencils.

There is a nationwide move toward computer-based testing, which is coming in with the Common Core Standards.  However, my school, like so many public schools, but unlike most businesses, is ill-equipped to supply every person with a functional computer.  So the tests, for now, still use number 2 pencils.  Many, many number 2 pencils.

In the past, I have used an electric pencil sharpener.  But the heavy use by hundreds of tweens is too much for any electric pencil sharpener in a public school teacher’s budget.  The sharpeners break quickly, and cannot be repaired.  They are expensive to replace.  Electric pencil sharpeners are also noisy, and get much louder as they approach the end of their miserable life.  They are not, I think, a good solution for my classroom.

In the wall of my classroom there is a small piece of wood.  It is clearly meant to be the installation point for a hand-cranked pencil sharpener.  However, the construction of the building used up all of the budget, and my school, when deciding how to furnish the building, had to do without such luxuries as pencil sharpeners, clocks, and American flags.  So my flag-stand stands empty, and the wood pencil-sharpener base remains sharpenerless, and many of my students, accustomed to cell phone displays, are unable to read an analog clock.


Small things matter.

If this book has a purpose beyond humor, it is to remind us that there is pleasure to be taken in small things, and that, the closer we pay attention to anything, the more important it becomes.  There really is an aesthetic pleasure in a simple wooden pencil, well-sharpened, and it’s a pleasure that I rarely enjoy, with my Pilot G2 pens and my mechanical pencils.

I enjoyed reading this book.  It made me smile.  It also taught me a few things I did not know about pencils and their sharpening.

Inspired, I have installed a small hand-held single blade sharpener in my classroom.  Its manufacturer intended it to be used as a key ring, but I have attached a chain to it and hung it near my trash can.  It is virtually silent.  It will last for years.  It cost less than $5.  As far as I can tell, it is superior to my long line of loud, short-lived electric pencil sharpeners in every way.  I feel proud for having solved a minor problem so neatly.


Written by Contented Reader

January 17, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Posted in Reviews


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