Dancing on the way to the pencil sharpener

Have you seen the sign carried by a 90-year-old woman at a civil rights event that says,


“I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit?”


I was feeling like that today when I had forwarded to me by people who, correctly, thought I would find interesting in a depressing way, a number of articles like this one that highlighted the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of minority students.


It was depressing because I remember this exact issue being in the news when my daughter , Ronda, who is now 29 was in middle school. The types of things that African-American children in that case were being suspended for doing were just ludicrous to me. I remembered it particularly  because one of the incidents for which a child was suspended was


“dancing on the way to the pencil sharpener.”

It just so happened that Ronda and her friend, who also happened to be African-American and about 12 years old, came into my office with me the day after I had read this article. I was working in Riverside and I stopped in to check on some program on our way up to taking the girls snowboarding. I happened to look up from my work and out of the corner of my eye see her friend doing a little dance as she walked over to the pencil sharpener and sharpened pencil.

Now, I don’t know the teacher or student who was involved in the incident that was in the paper that year. What I do know is that sometimes teachers take offense because a child has ¬†broken other classroom rules and is now just getting on their last nerve. Teachers are people, too. The teacher might say,

” Dr. De Mars, you don’t know the student That kid is so disrespectful and disruptive. ¬†I know that dancing was to get the other students laughing and challenge my authority.”


Two  things.  First of all, if your authority can be challenged by a kid dancing to the pencil sharpener maybe you better check yourself.   Next, you should be smarter than a sixth-grader.

As a public service, let me give  3 options if a child in a class is dancing to the pencil sharpener or in line or any other danceable situation.

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  1. If dance is reasonably good, say, “Nice dancing”
  2. If it happens to be true, comment, “You dance better than me.”
  3. ¬†If it happens to be true, say, “I like dancing, too.”

For those teachers who might respond,


“He/she is just doing it for attention! Now you’re reinforcing that child by providing attention.


Let me just say this, sending a child out of your class to be suspended is also disrupting the class and providing attention. Also, there are a lot worse and more disruptive things a child can do than dance on the way to the pencil sharpener, so I would rather reinforce that. If what you are telling me is that this child feels the need for attention then you would just fill that need in a way that took about 3 seconds away from  your teaching. You have provided that child positive attention in an honest way. You have also redirected the interaction to be teacher-directed.


Now you might say,

“What if all of the students start dancing when they go up to sharpen a pencil?”

My response is,


“What if they do? What if 10 students each day go up and sharpen a pencil while dancing and you have to make 30 seconds worth of positive comments? Isn’t that a good thing?”


In fact, after awhile, this will get old. Your lack of rising to the “challenge” will make it far less interesting. Your positive response will also improve your relationships with your students. Even in the highly unlikely event that dancing student A is a lost cause, other students in your class are¬†thinking about the fact that their teacher likes dancing or is willing to admit to not being as good a dancer as someone else or complements students dancing. All of those are positive for you.


Do you have better advice? I would love to hear it. Honestly and truly. Either post in the comments or email info@7generationgames.com

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