Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thinking with a Pencil

“The ability to think with a pencil is the core of surviving in a 3D world,” illustration director Chuck Pyle told me. “We’re not here to train them for today or tomorrow. We want to give our students the skill set they can use forty years out.” ---James Gurney (of Dinotopia fame) reporting on his visit to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

The ability to "think with a pencil" is at the core of training writers, too. I'm doing a writing workshop for eight classes of sixth-graders next month.

I have hundreds of shiny red pencils to give out,
with the words READ*WRITE*BELIEVE on them.

What I have to do now is figure out the best way to show them how a simple piece of wood can help them THINK.

Here's my preliminary brainstorming:
  • Thinking with a pencil is more fun than thinking only inside your head. (How to show this? A video of me as a cavewoman, trying to "use" a pencil for the first time? Blow bubbles to illustrate how unwritten thoughts evaporate? Learn how to flip a pencil?)
  • There are many ways of thinking with a pencil: The free write. The story map. The doodle. The list. The cartoon. The sketch. The outline. The interview. The poem. The short story. The mechanical drawing. The essay. The novel. Even MadLibs can be a way of thinking. (I thought I might show some great examples from great thinkers.) The important thing is that thinking with a pencil is both visual and kinetic. It makes your thoughts visible and physical.
  • If you get stuck, you can always chew on your pencil. Or sharpen it a lot. Or tap out your poem to see how the rhythm runs. Do NOT, however, poke someone with it. (I can show the pencil lead stuck in my right hand as a cautionary tale.)
  • The more you think with a pencil, the better you will get. (I can illustrate this visually by using my old sketches from drawing class. Also, I could show the sketch that began Letters From Rapunzel and show how it turned into a book.)
  • We could take a boring sentence on a giant sheet of paper, and use a pencil to think out loud and improve it. (Maybe we could use a GIANT pencil?)

I still have a lot of work to do on this idea.

Better get out my pencil.


  1. You sound like you've really got this into a good place!!! The thing is, the kids will have some ideas/input too. I look forward to hearing more of your adventure. What fun!

  2. Nice pencils! I want some! Are you selling?!

  3. Nick, I'll email you.

    If anyone's interested in having their own pencils made, I had them printed at Write On Pencils. There are cheaper places, but I liked the quality of these.

  4. I L-O-V-E, LOVE a newly sharpened pencil. There is something magical that takes place when holding one.

    I still remember the movie "You've Got Mail" and her description of a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils.

  5. I had some pencils made at Write on Pencils. They say "Gekkards Rule!" and the kids love em. Thanks for recommending Sara.

  6. Joey, I was wondering if you'd ordered some. They sound fun and I bet the kids you visit love them!

  7. GREAT idea! I am helping out in January with a writing workshop with a group of 5th graders. This workshop is for the kids that the
    5th grade teachers have targeted as needing help with their writing. I am meeting with the assistant principal on Monday about this, so I am going to bring up your pencil idea - I think the kids would really connect with something tangible like a pencil to help the THINK before they WRITE.

  8. The pencils are beautiful! Can't wait to hear about this. Good luck!


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