Harvard Educational Review
  1. I Am a Pencil

    A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories

    By Sam Swope

    New York: Henry Holt, 2004. 297 pp. $25.00

    I Am a Pencil offers a narrative account of one writer’s experiences with becoming an elementary school teacher in Queens, New York. Sam Swope documents the three years he was “reborn” as Mr. Swope, during which he guided student writing, confronted student realities, and actively hoped and pulled for student success and well-being. Organized chronologically by sections according to the yearly projects that he did with the students, Swope documents the ups and downs of his role as a volunteer writer-in-residence, beginning with his arrival in Mrs. Duncan’s third-grade classroom and ending with the students’ last day as fifth graders on their way to various middle schools. Quick to share his opinions and concerns, Swope recreates his insider-outsider experience in the students’ classrooms and homes as he engaged with both their writing and their lives.

    Swope, originally commissioned by the Teachers and Writers Collaborative to offer a ten-day writing workshop with the class, decided to “make the class my project and devote myself to teaching writing for the next three years” (p. 38). He did just that, and I Am a Pencil grew out of the experience. The book, a combination of his reflections, transcripts of various interactions with students, teachers, and parents, and examples of student writing collected over the years, is a moving narrative of one man’s experience with the realities surrounding schoolchildren’s complex lives and the layers of responsibility that teachers navigate daily. His insider-outsider perspective and his inexperience in the classroom provide an uncensored critique of different teachers’ styles, various parents’ expectations and attitudes, and diverse students’ approaches to life and learning.

    More in the style of a narrative self-reflection than a research project, Swope recreates the students, their families, and the teachers from his perspective. Rather than focusing on the ways that teaching strategies impact student learning, he explores the ways in which the realities that he faced as a teacher affected him. For example, he was invested in one student’s opportunity to develop one part of his imagination that the student’s religion forbade. Instead of thinking about the ways to help the student develop as a writer and observe his religion at the same time, Swope says his lessons provided an opportunity for the boy to escape the restrictions that religion, and the student’s father, demanded. After finding out that the boy was in trouble at home for participating in a school production of Peter Pan because it featured magic and fairies, he wrote:

    If Miguel’s father found Peter Pan sinful, so was childhood itself, and my heart went out to this poor kid whose need to be in a play was so strong he’d risked punishment for it. To show Miguel he had an ally, I lied, saying, “Well, I thought you were a great Peter Pan.” (p. 40)

    He then goes on to write, “In my class, Miguel’s [imagination] would be encouraged to run free” (p. 40). While he wanted to support Miguel and offer him the kind of childhood that Swope himself experienced, he did not reflect on the ethical implications of either colluding against a parent’s wishes or of forcing Miguel to navigate conflicting messages between his class and Miguel’s family.

    Likewise, Swope dedicates a chapter to “The Case of the Missing Report Cards,” a story that he uses to highlight fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Melvern’s shortcomings, celebrate the possibility that students might revolt against unfair systems with dishonesty, and suggest that he, more than the other adults in the school, had the children’s best interests in mind. As he tells it, a pile of report cards disappeared from the teacher’s desk. The story unfolds with one student bearing the brunt of suspicion from teachers and students alike. At the end of the chapter, though, he writes:

    Ever since that episode, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a short story I’d call “The Case of the Missing Report Cards.” The only problem is I can’t decide which approach to take. . . . Then again, maybe it would be best to tell the story more or less the way it really happened. But I wouldn’t let the reader know until the very end that the culprit was in fact the children’s writing teacher, Mr. Swope. (p. 144)

    Once again, Swope does not discuss the ethical implications of his actions, and it is difficult to know what really happened. Regardless of whether he stole the cards from a teacher’s desk to make her look inept, or if he is using the event to illustrate the struggles and challenges that he found wrapped up with trying to make a difference in the lives of thirty young people, such a tale begs some analysis. Presented without analysis and without a more thorough account, it is difficult to understand his motivations, intentions, and philosophy as a teacher in general.

    At the same time, Swope paints an animated and vivid picture of life in a diverse urban elementary school classroom, and he freely expresses the high regard in which he held each student. He weaves excerpts from various transcripts and journal entries into the text, bringing other voices to life alongside his own. He presents one account of a largely immigrant classroom population’s experiences, hopes, and struggles, and the challenges and joys that working with an immigrant population holds for teachers. I Am a Pencil offers an intimate look at the experience of a writer-in-residence who struggles with the constraints of the children’s life circumstances, the realities of public education in a large, underfunded urban system, and the limitations of being one person trying to make a difference in his students’ lives. His account, through selected student writings and conversations about their experiences with writing, presents a compelling case for the inclusion of the arts in the elementary curriculum and it offers an uncensored portrait of one man’s entry into the complex and “fascinating world” of teaching.

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