National Writing Project

Book Review: I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories

By: Mike Rush
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Rush reviews this text, which chronicles the author's transformative experience working for three years with a class of children in Queens through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.


In the summer of 2004, I participated in the Central Arkansas Writing Project's Summer Institute. It was a time of discovery and, as if to celebrate my professional growth, my wife did something she'd never done before. "I read in Parade magazine about a new book I thought you might like, so I ordered it for you," she said, after one of my return trips from the institute. A few days later, Sam Swope's I Am a Pencil arrived.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Swope's book, when it came time to organize my thoughts for a review, I faced a difficult decision. At first it's difficult to determine the story that Swope tells in I Am a Pencil, because he tells several stories at once. Of course, there is the story of writing and how imagination plays a role in children's writing. There's also the story of immigrant children and their public school classrooms. Finally the book is the story of teaching, its difficulties and rewards.

I appreciated all those stories, but I found another one, a better one. It's the most compelling story of the book—the story that kept me turning pages. I found the story of Sam Swope, "the man who would be teacher." The stories about the children and their writing are interesting but predictable. At the book's end, the children have matriculated through three grades, dealt with the experiences of their lives as immigrants, written touching, yet sometimes disturbing stories, and learned a great deal about writing. This is an inspiring story of change, but one that has been told before. However, it is Swope himself who goes through the greatest transformation, one I was moved to emulate.

It is under the auspices of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative that Swope takes up his classroom duties. Years before, he had come to New York from his home in Pennsylvania by way of Middlebury College and Oxford University. He worked for a few years as a prop man in the film industry, but by the mid-nineties he had established himself as a children's author. He published The Araboolies of Liberty Street, which was adapted into an opera and a musical; The Krazees, which will soon be released as a film starring Robin Williams; and Gotta Go! Gotta Go!, which he claims is his favorite.

The Teachers & Writers Collaborative was founded in 1967 by a group of writers and educators who believed that professional writers could make a unique contribution to the teaching of writing. They established "residencies" in which a writer works ten to twelve days with approximately three classes. The group places Swope in what is supposed to be a routine residency in an elementary school in Queens. The school has more than sixteen hundred children who are from dozens of different countries and speak many different languages. There are too few teachers and not enough supplies or classrooms. It seems like a typical New York inner-city school.

At the time, Swope is in a self-confessed professional slump. "No book had taken shape in much too long" (23). He goes into the classroom prepared to spend a brief tenure and be on his way. But as his time in the school draws to a close, Swope realizes his "connection" with a specific teacher, Mrs. Duncan, and her third grade class.

I'd stumbled into a fascinating world I had to write about. My workshop, though, would only last another couple of weeks—not nearly enough time to get to know these children enough to do them justice on the page. So I decided to make the class my project and devote myself to teaching writing for the next three years. (38)

Swope makes great personal and professional sacrifices to attend to a class of students for three years. Along the way he grows into a teacher.

Swope Develops an Educational Ideology

Swope had previously led workshops with kindergartners through adults, but he soon finds that regular teaching in a public school requires a philosophical framework from which to work. A fundamental truth about teaching comes to Swope shortly after his second year has begun. His students have matriculated to Mrs. Melvern's room, a class not nearly as well managed as Mrs. Duncan's third grade classroom. Swope continues to work with this group of students, but he can tell his teaching is suffering. He recalls his experience in Mrs. Duncan's room:

When I presented a new project to the class, she was always there, gently making sure all the kids understood what was going on. I was like a kid who thinks he's riding a bike brilliantly, unaware that his parent is holding him up, and once Mrs. Duncan's guiding hand was gone, I crashed. (106)

Like other fortunate teachers, Swope began his career under the guiding hand of a knowledgeable mentor, a seasoned teacher who could steer the ship, keeping the crew focused on the destination. But Swope eventually discovers what all new teachers must, regardless of the training received or the quality of the practice-teaching experience: "I'd have to learn how to teach on my own" (107).

One of his key understandings is a negative one: There are limits to what a teacher can achieve. Reflecting on why he couldn't motivate a particular student to care about her writing, Swope writes,

I'd hoped Su Jung would fall in love with words, that language would become her haven, but that didn't happen. Su Jung read, but not obsessively; she wrote, but not with joy. It was hard for me to learn that a teacher can only show his passion, not give it. (281)

Swope also learns a corollary principle, one that I have come to understand only recently after twenty-five years in the classroom: A teacher does not need to control everything. Toward the end of the third year Swope suggests that the school celebrate Arbor Day by having each fifth-grader make a book and give it to a kindergarten student. However, as it turns out, Swope's students have to create an extra hundred books to make up for other teachers' classes that waited too long before becoming involved in the project. But the books are made, even though Swope has to give up control of the project. He demonstrates his growing professional maturity, saying,

In truth, most of the books were just fine, and many were more than fine. They were charming, heartbreaking, beautiful. I was proud, but also chastened to discover that I wasn't essential. The children made these books without me. I told myself this was a good thing, the whole point of teaching, after all. But still. (266)

Swope Learns to Teach Writing

Perhaps because he is a writer, Swope, from the beginning, seems to understand the importance of recognizing the work of his young charges. On the day he has students compose their first writing, Swope captures the class's attention, telling them about the story written by one of the students. He has the author assign parts, and the class acts out the story just written. In this way, Swope celebrates writing and motivates students to finish their work, and also links other disciplines to writing.

The annual projects that Swope's students carry out make great classroom models. The first year they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get ideas; then they each build a box to their liking. Next, they write a story about their box; then they make a book in which to "publish" their story. Finally, they place the book in their box. Swope tells the children that they can keep these boxes forever so that "your children can one day find the box, open it, discover the book inside, which tells the story of the box that holds the book" (80).

In his second year, Swope gives his students what he calls the Island Project, an idea inspired by his reading of Stevenson's Treasure Island. Again, one of the strengths of this project is its interdisciplinary nature. The students use their bodies to make maps of islands and then use math to draw a smaller-scale model. Finally, they draw in the details of their island and write a story about what happens there.

In his third year, Swope introduces his tree project. His students spend many days in class and in Central Park learning about trees. They write about trees all year long and create the Arbor Day books mentioned earlier. Swope takes his students to the park and asks them to observe and write. He has them all adopt trees—either one close to their home or one in the school yard. The students write their tree a letter. Then, on a night when there is a full moon, he asks them to go outside and write about their tree in the moonlight.

Swope Learns to Love Students

On the last day of the first year, Swope expresses his feelings about missing his students over the summer.

I wanted to be pals with them and now that we were parting for the summer, I was sad. I'd miss hearing about their lives. I'd miss their stories. I'd miss the way they smiled when I walked into the classroom. (94)

Swope visits his students' families in their homes, getting to know the culture they bring with them from their homelands. As the students' elementary school experience comes to a close, Swope invests countless hours investigating middle school options for them. He convinces parents to allow their children to take tests that might qualify them for special programs. He makes contacts with principals of the better schools. He does it all because "it was obvious that if I didn't make this my mission, no one would" (206).

Swope captures a moment I have enjoyed many times in my own classroom. His students are writing in the park and he stops to take it all in.

I watched the children settle in, each kid alone, composition notebook open, pencil in hand. The sun glowed through the yellow maples, and gusts sent ginkgo leaves fluttering among us like butterflies. It was magical, and so intensely beautiful I felt a pang. It hurt to look at it; my eyes brimmed tears. (223)

There are two aspects of I Am a Pencil that left me wondering. First, I wanted some information about how Swope pulled this off. I questioned how he could invest so much of his time in this not-for-profit enterprise. I wanted to ask how he got permission to take so much time for teaching writing and how he was allowed to take the students on so many field trips.

Secondly, Swope's experience seemed to me to be pretty surreal. His work teaching writing did not include grading papers, phoning parents, averaging grades, making bulletin boards, or any of the other innumerable tasks required of classroom teachers. Sometimes as I read I felt a pressure to emulate his work, and then I calmed myself by remembering that he didn't have a true teaching assignment.

But although Swope managed to escape many of the less-than-pleasant chores that accompany teaching, his classroom experience was for him redemptive. He tells a student:

I was lost in my life three years ago. I felt my life was pointless. But then I decided to do something about it. I found your class and I made a commitment. No, it was more than that. I made a vow. I told myself that for the next three years I'd devote myself to you guys, do whatever I could to help. And it's been an amazing experience. You children changed my life. (287)

I'm certain that Swope never intended to write a story primarily about himself, but that's the most intriguing of the stories I found between the covers of I Am a Pencil—the story of a man who became a teacher.

About the Author Mike Rush teaches mathematics at Vilonia High School in Vilonia, Arkansas. He is a teacher-consultant with the Central Arkansas Writing Project.

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