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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Student Trends to Engage Learners and Differentiate Instruction

For those of you not in the pen spinning loop, I'm talking about a craze that's preoccupying tween fingers all over the known universe, or at least in my district.

Of pen spinning, or object manipulation, as a sport, Wikipedia says:

"Called 'ronin mawashi' in Japan, where it is popular among the pre-collegiate community, pen twirling has its stars, as does any other performance or skill. Accomplished masters of the art form that are well-known -- at least among those who follow the sport -- have developed a reputation for creation of certain signature 'moves'. David Weis is credited with creating numerous 'back' style moves, such as the 'BackAround.' Hideaki Kondoh is generally credited with giving the pen trick 'Sonic' its name, because of the way the pen would blur in his fingers."

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Pen spinning only recently saw a rapid increase in recognition due to the emergence of Internet media Web sites such as YouTube. From 2006 onwards, the art of pen spinning has developed subcultures in many countries of the world, including the Asiatic regions and Europe.

And as the school year closed, I noticed an increase in modified pen spinning. So naturally if there's an obsession in my class that has little to do with our content, I look to my own practice and what the addition may say about my level of engagement (or lack thereof.)

I wonder if I feel the same way that teachers must have felt about the Rubik's Cube or the Hacky Sack when those items came on the scene -- that feeling of, "what's going on around me? When did this start? And why didn't I get the memo?"

In the past, when trends like these occur, I normally become somewhat efficient in the activity so I can join in on the conversation. (I've gotten a lot of play out of my own World of Warcraft obsession, after all.)

But in this case, my fingers just can't do the darn tricks. My dad has always said he can't press the little buttons on the iPhone because of his Eastern European immigrant fingers. I'll chalk it up to that with my inability to do the pen-spinning thing, too.

Engagement and Lesson Ideas

But even though I can't do it, at least I can learn about it. And I can touch base with those kids who I may not have reached yet, and when I ask them to put it away ("If you're spinning your mods, you clearly don't have pen to paper") I get more smiles and buy-in because the kids know I'm not after them personally.

I hear of teachers practically having conniption fits when the propelling blurs begin. But I'm pretty calm about it. I mean, I have to ask the bigger questions when the whirring begins:

  • The students claim that they are merely thinking, but really are they just bored?
  • Are more of them kinesthetic learners than I thought, and this is a true visual indication of just how many students are antsy in their seats each day?
  • Are they desirous of a shop class back on the schedule, something that is about creating, supping it up, in this case, pimping their pen? Or are they just struggling to find individuality in a standardized prison, actually showing their own desire for differentiation by modifying anything that they can get their hands on?
  • It's also kind of a boy thing, right? And we're all looking to reach out to those tween boys. Girls have been showing their individuality for a while now: stickers on binders when they are younger, and magazine collages inserted into the binder plastic by middle school. But this pen craze seems more like a boy-centric version of the same thing: the need for attention, the need to create their own machine, the need to show off the variables that they changed to accomplish something better than the other guys sitting next to them.

    So when I see a tween obsession, my most important question is how can I harness it? Do I have them do a step-by-step assignment on how to modify your pen for ultimate spinning possibilities? Do I have them write a guide with links to pages for further resources?


    Students will find ways to differentiate themselves. While we all know that tweens desire to be part of a group, they also desire individuality, and the knowledge that they are being evaluated as individuals. So whether it's whole group or small group work, I need to make sure there are outlets and evaluations for the individuals as well. And even when I have the students working alone, I ask myself how I can allow them the opportunities to tweak their own learning to make it applicable for themselves.

    So many teachers are intimidated at the thought of individualizing the curriculum for each student, but maybe the students need to take ownership of that job; let's call it curriculum modification rather than differentiation, and then it is really up to us, the teachers, to give students the opportunities to modify for themselves.

    Back to pen spinning: What do you think, dear reader? Since I don't want to fight something that should be exploited, how do we tap into a current obsession of students and make it something applicable in the classroom?

Comments (54)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

T Traylor's picture

What a fantastic post! Many times I have watched my students do these interesting things, but I have never thought to incorporate it into a lesson.I feel that by including something they enjoy into our lessons will make it more meaningful to them and at the same time show them that we do care about them. So in a way we also be developing that teacher-student relationship we need. I agree by giving our students the responsibility of modifying the lessons themselves. We will be teaching them how to be responsible and take ownership of their work. Great blog!

Jessica's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog. As a recent college graduate who is looking for a teaching position, I try to keep myself updated with techniques and methods that I can use within my own classroom someday. While I was student teaching, I tried as often as possible to incorporate activities and trends into my lessons to help engage my students. Some of the teachers that I came into contact with tried pulling these ideas into their own classrooms. However, I also faced teachers who considered it be more "playing" than constructive learning time. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and ideas. They have inspired me to continue with this and to share with others within my school.

Leah Karaffa's picture

The big craze this year in the district I teach in was "Silly Bandz." If you are unaware of what silly bandz are, they are rubber bands that are made to look like a shape of a certain object, i.e. words, fruit, and even people. Some schools around my area even went as far as not allowing silly bandz in the school, posting signs that read, "No silly bandz allowed." The school districts look at them as a huge distraction in the classroom, which most times they are, but not if the teacher knows how to incorporate them into her lessons. Like you said, "So many teachers are intimidated at the thought of individualizing the curriculum for each student, but maybe the students need to take ownership of that job; let's call it curriculum modification rather than differentiation, and then it is really up to us, the teachers, to give students the opportunities to modify for themselves."

In your blog post, you mention pen spinning which you said was a popular craze in Japan, which spread on to the students in your classroom. Instead of looking at pen spinning as a distraction to learning, you could teach a lesson on Japanese culture and incorporate it into your lesson. It is an easy fix for students who are sometimes hard to engage in lessons. I always make sure to keep up on what the students are talking about, i.e. shows, music, etc., as well as what they are interested in at the time, i.e. pen spinning, silly bandz, etc.. Some might look at these things as distractions, but I look at it as an opportunity to incorporate it into teaching my lessons, as well as further develop my relationship with my students. I remember one time, my students were lining up to go out to the school buses and a student had his iPod out. He was listening to a song that I knew and I said you like that artist, and the whole class looked at me in amazement. They burst out saying, "Ms. Karaffa, you know this song?!" They were amazed by the thought that I had the same interests as them.

To answer your question, I think it is a great idea that you try to get involved with what your students are interested in, such as pen spinning. This can definitely be used to your advantage, because like I said before, not only can you incorporate it into your lessons, but the students realize that you are making the effort to get to know what they like, and they appreciate that. Once you have the students trust and respect, you pretty much have their attention from that moment on.

UGAGIRL's picture

This blog is great! I never really thought about integrating the new fads into my lessons. This will for sure gain the attention of my students.

Katie Delp's picture

Whenever I read your blog post, my mind when through a catalogue of student fads I've seen over my three years teaching experience. I am a Social Studies teacher, so when you explained Pen Spinning and it's orgins my mind went to culture lessons.

One of my students favorite days from my class in the past has been our Japanese POPULAR Culture lesson, where the students encounter more of the less traditional aspects of Japanese culture. They love seeing examples of modern music, tv, snack foods, styles of dress, popular technology, etc. It gives them a broader picture of the culture. If my students were interested in Pen Spinning, I wold probably try to capitalize that on looking at where it originated.

I loved an earlier posters suggestion of a dance-off. Maybe a spin-off is in order?

One of the best things I took away from this post is that some of these fads can be indicators of learning styles. If you have class sections that are very interested in Pen Spinning, doing more hands on activities where students are manipulating or building seems like the best way to keep them focused on the content.

Thanks for the heads-up! I'll be looking for my Pen Spinners later this month.

Jennifer Wallace's picture

Wow, I just viewed some pen spinning on YouTube for the first time. It's not a craze at our school. Those SillyBandz are all the rage. Although I teach middle school and haven't noticed many of them wearing/trading them. I do agree with you that paying attention to students' interests is a huge part in motivating them and capturing their attention. Since the Winter Olympics were held this year, I incorporated them into my Health Unit about activity and exercise. The students researched a sport from the Winter Olympics and presented using various methods to the class. They loved it! I think they learned a lot and it was timely and interesting to them. Another thing that I did this year that was a huge success was a school newspaper written, edited, and created by my 6th grade Lang. Arts class. I was beginning a unit on non-fiction and they all said they were sick of biographies. They had been there and done that! So I offered a newspaper to them and they had a ball. It was extremely well received by the entire school community and we turned it into a service project by donating the sales of the paper to a school we "adopted" in Haiti. While these two examples aren't fads or trends, they do illustrate the point that we must be aware of the things our kids care about and follow. This will only enhance our relationships with them and also improve their understanding and learning.

Monica Jones's picture

This blog was right on the money. Times are ever changing and things that interested me in junior high school do not interest the middle school students of today. In order to reach the students, we must meet them at their level and eventually heighten that level. Incorporating the latest fads, including technologies, is an awesome way to differentiate instruction. You will always have those few students that do what the others do yet they all need to learn the same thing. I recently read an article and it asked stated that education is not about how you teach but are the students learning. If they learn better from association with things that they are most familiar with at the current time, why not provide quality instruction on a level where they can appreciate it as well as benefit from it. Great blog!

La's picture

As a special education teacher, it is critical to be able to incorporate differentiated instruction into your classroom; in an attempt to reach all students. The methods have to be varied because not all students learn the same, and it is the teacher's responsibility to find ways to help students experience success in the classroom. There is no one-size fits all model in education, and teachers have to be committed to being life long learners to stay abreast of the new trends in education.

Sherard's picture

I agree with using trends in the curriculum. This will engage student's attention more. The tren in my area is listening to an iPod. I feel that this is simle enough that it will not be a disturbance during class. Once the teacher is done talking then I feel that students should be allowed to listen to iPods as long as they have good behavior. Many of our discipline problem come from thing of this such. I think that student would come to school more often and focus on the task at hand because if they do they know that they could listen to music while actually doing the work. Many people function better with music. This will differientiate learning greatly in my area.

Jessica Braley's picture

What a great post! I quickly learned during this last year teaching that there are some things to just go with instead of fighting.

Pen spinning has not made it out our way...yet. School starts back on Monday, so we'll see! I agree with working their trends into their learning. If it is something that already grabs their interest, they may as well learn from it, too. Last year when I was teaching my students about tagging sentences with dialogue, I compared it to Facebook. "You know you have to tag a picture to show who is in it, and sentences need tags so we know who said it." As soon as I compared it to that, it clicked with them.

When things that my kids are becoming interested in start to bother me, I just remember that, at one time, I was also that kid. Thanks for such a refreshing post!

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