Thursday Classroom Fast

In this unexpected year of teaching 8th-graders about essay construction and American History, I’ve also been doing some non-textbook instruction on how to be responsible, what it means to be a decent human being, and being a person who is willing to give.

A couple of weeks ago there were three broken pencils on my classroom floor at the end of the day. Someone, or someones, had purposely broken them. Perhaps it was meant to be a show of strength, a moment of impressive brute-ness that would shock the knee-high socks off the young lady sitting at the next desk. Or maybe it was a contest between two entitled thirteen-year-olds who believe the world should come behind them and clean up their chaos.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t happening for me! I did a mini-rant the next day to indicate my confusion about the purpose of such an act and to make the point that it was not to happen again. If it did, there would be consequences.

But you know how eighth-graders are. Some have short memories. Some of them like to test the currents, sticking their finger into a light socket and then doing it again two weeks later to see if the result is the same, kinda like a bad science experiment. So…on Wednesday morning, what did I find on the floor? A pencil broken into three parts. Someone hadn’t gotten the memo, or had buried the memory underneath their pile of meaningless meanderings.

“Tomorrow,” I announced in my most judicious voice, “we will have a Thursday fast. No food will be consumed in the classroom for the whole school day.” I held up the broken pencil pieces. “Someone left this in the back of the classroom this morning. A pencil. A broken pencil. A broken pencil that never did anything but be there to help you put your thoughts on paper. A pencil willing to have its head ground to a sharp point so you can be clear on the point you are making. A pencil whose bottom has always been there for you to erase the mistakes you’ve made. So tomorrow we will fast to signify that it is a day of classroom mourning for the loss of something that was taken from us at such a young age, barely out of the pencil box, just beginning to realize its purpose. So sad and so unnecessary.”

Some were on the verge of tears. I could not, however, discern whether the possible moistening of the eyes was about the pencil or the realization that they would not be able to consume their Ding-Dongs and beef jerky the next day. A few eyes rolled to express their displeasure in the group penalty because of the sin of one. What were they to do with all those Jolly Ranchers weighing their backpacks down? One student, half-jokingly, said I should be charged with war crimes.

But I wasn’t done making my point. The class is in the midst of analyzing and writing argumentative essays. Why not make it a teachable moment that, back in our day, used to make us cringe. Why not give them an assignment in which they could make their argument for the reason food should be allowed in the classroom? Why not have them do an “argument organizer” work sheet to help them clearly plan their flow of thought?

Some pounded their keyboards, attacking the letters to form expressive words and unpunctuated sentences. Others stared in disbelief that a broken pencil was coming back to haunt them, as if it was a bad sequel to a Halloween movie. But for some students, the best writing comes as a result of being outraged. A moratorium on Airheads has the potential to bring increased intellectual functioning.

P.S. Each day in my classroom I put a question on one of the whiteboards for students to freely comment on. Friday’s question was “If in Mr. Wolfe’s high school class he was voted “Most Likely To…”, how would you complete the statement?”

One anonymous student’s reply caused me to chuckle: “Most likely to get mad over a pencil!”

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