Thursday, July 7, 2016

No More Pencils! Sooo Many Tips!

This is a post I've been meaning to write for some time now. I'm going to tell you WHY I don't use pencils in my classroom, WHAT I use instead, and HOW I make it all work. I'm also going to tell you why I value a very special new pencil sharpener... you'll see that pencil alternatives AND good pencil sharpeners go together later. Through all of this I will give many tips, both big and small, about writing tools in the classroom. I share my five points through the Five for Friday linky.


I don't use pencils in my classroom. I literally own about six standard pencils and I am the only one who uses them, and then only for recording assessments. There are several reasons why my students don't use pencils:
1. The sharpening of pencils is a PAIN... yes, I know all the systems to make sharpening easier, but I still don't think the various hassles are worth the time and effort on my part or my students'.
2. Pencils are difficult to write with. It takes considerable effort and strength to make a mark on paper with a pencil. I want my kiddos thinking about writing letters, writing words, and putting their thoughts on the page, not thinking about making the tool work.
3. I want to see my students' mistakes. Teachers glean a lot of insight into kids' thinking when we see the mistakes they make, like what their emerging skills are. And I don't want them working away at rubbing off or smearing their answers with the eraser. More wasted effort.
4. I find chewed on pencils with missing erasers depressing. Yes, that's my truth... maybe I had a bad experience with pencils growing up. When I see a pencil with a missing eraser I immediately pitch it in the trash.


So I bet you're wondering what I use instead. I have two main writing tool alternatives.

One is Crayola Classic skinny markers– no I don't use "Washable" ones because the ink comes right off the paper making a bigger mess of hands than the classics. And classic markers wash out of clothes and off of hands just fine. I have yet to figure out why any teacher prefers washable. I buy my markers at Target when they go on sale for a buck a box. And yes, I buy a lot... like fifty boxes. Plus some fat ones for drawing. Significant budget goes to Crayola markers, but not to worry, you'll see I save money later in the post.

Our other pencil alternative is retractable pens, or "clickers" as we call them. Yes, the kids will click them at the beginning of the year, and one or two curious little engineers with inquiring minds will take them apart to see how they work– I put some out just for that purpose. However, with regular daily use, multiple times a day, the novelty of the clicker pen very quickly wears off.

My absolute favorite student pens are the Staples medium point 1.0 mm retractable pens with a comfort grip. The barrels of these clickers are generously sized and the soft grip makes them comfortable to hold. This pack of fifty pens includes three colors– black, blue, and red, and the bin costs just $11.99. $11.99 for fifty pens means the price per pen is just TWENTY FOUR cents!

The Dixon Ticonderoga #2 soft pencil, in the 72 bulk size is $12 on sale. That amounts to seventeen cents per pencil. And how long will those pencils last... you'll have to tell me because I don't use them. With all the lead dulling, tip breaking, and repeated grinding to get a point, I'm betting that box of 72 won't last too long in the classroom... to say nothing of the annoyance factor.  

How long did my bin of 50 clicker pens last?? Come on. Ask me. You know you want to know. I still had some left when I packed up the classroom from the bin I bought TWO falls ago. YEP. We got two years use from them. The ink in those pens lasts a long time. I'll buy another bin this year, but really, six dollars a year for pens is a very good thing for a teacher's budget. 

I invest more money in the Crayola markers, even though they are just ten cents a piece when on sale. The marker ink does not last as long because it dries out quicker, and the kids do occasionally use them to draw with as well as write. I let the kids write with markers for the first month of the school year and then we officially switch to clickers. They still get to write with markers sometimes, but I am careful to distinguish that skinny markers are for writing and fat markers are for drawing. It just makes the skinnies last that much longer. And they always get to draw with fat markers or crayons when they are writing with clickers. 

3.  One more WHAT

I would be remiss if I did not say that we also use skinny dry erase markers on clear eraseable envelopes. The best deal I've found is on Amazon– the fine tip Expo markers are about seven dollars for a box of twelve. I've found Lakeshore and the dollar store brands at good prices, too, and they work just as well. No matter the brand, make sure you get the fine point as the wide felt chisel tip gets smashed in when little hands use them. (The tips can be pulled out with needle nose pliers, but that is a hassle.) 

We use the C-line Stitched Shop Ticket Holders– I believe these were the original dry erase envelopes although there are various brands in use in classrooms these days. You simply slip whatever activity sheet you want the kids to be writing on into the sleeve. The kids fill out the sheet, then erase the sleeve so the next student can use it. This method really cuts down on the number of copies you need to make. 

And here's an extra tip– on Amazon the neon colored ones are ten for $13, while the black stitched ones come in a box of 25 for $23. You do the math. And the residue from the dry erase ink will not show up as much on the black edged ones as it does on the neon, so they look nicer with less cleaning. I know the neon ones are cuter, but for the money, and the reduced dirt, I say go for the black.



Okay, there are a couple of HOWs that I need to answer. First of all, with no erasers, how do kids correct their mistakes? Well, we use what I fondly refer to as the baseball method– three strikes and it's out. We learn how to draw one line through the middle of the letter or word, then one strike across the top, and one across the bottom. Yes, I know we as adults know that one strike will do it, but the little guys just don't think it is "fixed" enough with only one line. To take away their tendency to scribble and completely obliterate mistakes, wasting ink and making holes in paper, I came up with the baseball method. With three strikes, the kiddos feel they have thoroughly identified and marked out the mistake.... and the baseball metaphor gives me another quick teachable moment (usually half the class does not know how baseball is played), and it makes it fun.

My tip for storing the clicker pens is to teach the kiddos to click the pen "closed" so the ink doesn't mark up the bottom of the caddy. This way the retracted ballpoint end points down and the ink stays at the tip ready to write for the next day. They get it. It works really well.

Another suggestion– I put both the black and blue pens out for writing right from the get-go, right after the first month of school which we spend writing with skinny markers. A choice of black or blue is good and eases them away from the full rainbow of choices. I save the red pens for the revision writing unit to use for editing. I'll add here, for any remaining skeptics, that when I went to Teachers College for a week of Lucy Calkins training, the kindergarten team recommended writing with skinny markers at the beginning of the year, too. They were not too fond of pencils for the same reasons I give here. I felt somewhat justified in my uncommon rejection of classroom pencils.

The HOW of how I store the dry erase pens includes several not-so-obvious tips, too. I stumbled upon this tray while looking for a pen holder of certain specifications. I wanted one that would hold a table group's worth of pens and leave the marker caps in plain view, so we could go hunting immediately for any that turned up missing.

This black tray (also available in blue) comes from IKEA. It is supposed to be for making long skinny ice cubes for water bottles. However, if you turn it over it holds five dry erase markers really well. It you leave it right side up there are six slots, and that's good if you have six kids at a table. I go to the trouble of labeling these markers, one for each kiddo– it leads to much more responsible use. I put colored binder clips on the trays to distinguish which table group the pens belong to– no type of sticker or tape would adhere to the rubbery plastic. And a bonus, they stack really well. The whole system is a good one for us.

5.  And now...

I have a pencil sharpener to recommend. Yes. You read that right. After a whole post on how I DO NOT use pencils, I have cause to talk about a pencil sharpener. You see, although we don't use regular #2 pencils in class, we do draw with colored pencils. I like the brands that have softer leads as they seem to hold more pigment. My favorite brand for special projects is Faber-Castell, and for everyday use we use Crayola, the best of the common school pencils, I think. The problem is that colored pencils need to be sharpened quite regularly. AND another problem is that they shouldn't be sharpened in an electric pencil sharpener– something to do with extra wear on the blades and motor.

Chances are if you read any blogs you already know that this really neat-o pencil sharpener from Classroom Friendly Supplies is all the rage. The sharpener holds the pencil in such a way that it feeds the pencil in just the right amount for a sharp tip, with no over-sharpening. The kiddos only need to crank the handle. It comes in groovy colors to coordinate with any classroom decor. It is surprisingly quiet, too. And the price is very reasonable at only $24.99, or if you go in with teacher friends and buy three, each one is just $17.99.

When I heard Classroom Friendly Supplies was looking for blog reviews, I immediately thought of a REAL pencil sharpener challenge for them. heh, heh, heh. (evil laugh) I emailed the company and asked how their groovy sharpener did with COLORED pencils.

Their response was a true one: "Colored pencils are the kryptonite of most sharpeners!" They rose to the challenge though, and sent me one, free of charge, to test it out.

My honest recommendation: It worked great! The kids figured out how to let it hold the pencil, it went in as promised and came out with a sharp point without being ground to bits. All this was as promised.

How many kids does it take to sharpen pencils? snort.

When customer support emailed their response to my question about colored pencils they added that it might be best to have the kids only partially sharpen colored pencils. When the tip of a colored pencil gets very sharp the tip is more likely to jam, they said. I don't know if it jams when you sharpen it all the way, because I modified the directions for sharpening our colored pencils for another reason. Drawing and coloring with colored pencils is better if there is a lot of lead exposed, but with a slightly rounded tip, not a sharp point. So I told the kidpeople to load the pencil into the sharpener then give it three turns of the crank. They were also instructed to only sharpen when the leads were about gone. When the pencil went into the sharpener in this dull state, three turns of the handle put a perfectly rounded tip on the pencil.

See the little cuties counting the turns of the handle
on their fingers. hee. 

Another little colored pencil sharpening tip is to sharpen both ends of the pencil. That way drawing can happen for twice as long before a sharpening is needed. You can't really see the pencils in the cup to see that this is usually the case.

Needless to say, the pencil sharpener was a GREAT hit in class, both with the kiddos and with me. I will be using it over in the art area for years to come. I can heartily recommend the Classroom Friendly Pencil Sharpener because if it can do tricky colored pencils so well, it can certainly do any regular pencils that you might stubbornly continue to use after reading this post. snort!

You can find the sharpener by clicking on the icon below.

Whew, thanks for staying with me through this rather long post. I hope I gave you food for thought! I have been asked several times to explain how I get away without using pencils and I hope this explained it. I encourage you to share your thoughts and ask questions in the comment section below. I also ask you to PIN! PIN! PIN! if you found some ideas worth remembering and sharing. I would be thrilled to see it shared on Instagram, too. I hope you'll try going pencil-less this year. I swear, you'll never go back.

Now scootch on back to Five for Friday. So many good things are out in the blog-o-sphere. Thanks, Doodle Bugs Teaching for your ever wonderful linky!

See you next time! By the way, next time is going to be Monday, and it will be a tutorial on a new photo app I've discovered. Don't miss it.

P.S. If you haven't already, quick click on the pic below and enter to win a $100 TPT gift certificate. You can have up to twenty chances and you'll also find twenty freebies of various kinds if you go through the blog hop. My freebie is a writing packet from my TPT store, but HURRY! The giveaway and freebies end Friday night! 


  1. That's a great post, Kathleen! Thanks for the information. :) You are so right about those colored pencils... Sharpening those is something else. And they ALWAYS need sharpening, too. I hope you are enjoying summer!

    1. Thanks, Carolyn! Glad you stopped by! See you later. Kathleen

  2. I bought the CFS sharpener a couple years ago and it is awesome. It is also hidden at school because if it was out the entire campus would try to use it (I'm the teacher librarian). How rude is that? I got it when our electronic one died just because everyone used it. In the middle of my lessons. :X This post was super interesting to me because 1)I'm tired of having to do all the sharpening; and 2)pencils walk out of the library like no one's business (crazy pencils and pencils with duct tape flags have not helped) so maybe different pens would work. Will be thinking on this a while ...

    1. Hmmm... I don't have a solution for pencils that walk away. Our librarian has the same issue. I fear pens would, too.... although if kids write with pencils once they get back to class, having a pen in hand would remind them it's not theirs. And if most of the time pencils walk just because the kids forget to put them back, and not because they really want to take them, then maybe that would be enough for you them to return them. If you try pens and they walk less, post about it. Librarians everywhere would like to know, and be sure to send me a line, too. It would be one more reason to switch to pens. There are lots of pens on the market, and B2S sales, too. In moving rooms this summer I found other bulk pen purchases I made and forgot about, so we might be using yet another set. GOOD luck! And thanks for stopping by. Kathleen

  3. You've given me some SERIOUS food for thought! I really do hate pencil-sharpening. And over-sharpening. It gets on my nerves! Despite that, I'm not sure if I'm brave enough to banish the pencils! I'll have to save your post so I can keep reading it. You might just convince me. Thanks for sharing!
    Laughter and Consistency


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