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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

TLD's picture

I absolutely agree with you. Silly bands are huge in the middle school I work at and some teachers have a fit over them. I personally do not mind them unless students start flinging them across the room. I actually bought some at the dollar store and use them as positive rewards. We are not allowed to give food anymore, so I thought since they are interested in them, why not! Many of the students trade the silly bands and I even see students who normally don't socialize starting to get involved. I think we should try to incorporate their interests whenever possible!

Ann Marie Hyatt's picture

I can really feel for you and the current trends. I teach 9th-12th grade US Government and Current Issues. Trust me, if there is a new trend those students in Current Issues are going to inform me of it. The Silly Bandz craze is going on now. If we allow it to bother us, the students will pick up on that and make it even worse. "Pick your battles" as one commenter mentioned. Now how do we use the fads in class? As rewards or as discussion starters. I like for the students to tell me why they think a fad is popular. That really invites the students into the discussion. High school students have an opinion on any issue. Give them free rein to discuss it and let the fun begin. Not all learning comes from a book.

Danise Newell's picture

I agree that it is important to stay on top of the current trends. When I mention something popular to my 5th graders it seems to amaze them that person as old as I am is "into" some of their fads. It brings me closer to my students and I am able to use this to enhance a lesson or during a quick teachable moment. I have not noticed any pen spinning in my school yet, but being from Wyoming we are slow to catch on to what others are doing. I am not so much interested in the pen spinning, but I am intereseted in the fact that the movement does seem to help some students. I allow many of my students to have fidgets as long as they are using them appropriately.

Laquantis chevis's picture

I completely agree with what you are saying. You kept my attention the entire time. As for us being teachers, there is a need for us to stay abbess of what is new and current. We have to know what our students are focusing on and why. In my classroom, I tend to relate my examples to what they students like. I ask students different questions to see what they like and what they are interested in and I write it down for each of my classes. Then, as the year goes by, I tend to relate my examples to their interest. I teach math, so I think of things on the spot. I try my best to incorporate a lot of things within my lessons. I watch some of the shows they like so I can show them that I am interested in them. By doing these things, I've found that students are more interested in me and what I teach them.

Jennifer Minton's picture

I really enjoyed your blog! How true is it, that in order to capture our students attention we need to be "hip" to the newest craze! The biggest thing right now in my community, as I am sure it's other places as well it the crazy of silly bands. They are everywhere and kids go nuts about them. I haven't wquite figuredout what the big deal about them is really. I think it has somethign to do with the different shapes the bands come in and collecting them, but my kids are obsessed with them. I have goten a few adn wear them, adn the kids are always wanting to talk about them with me and love asking me which ones, I have, etc. I have began to use them as a reward in my classroom. This really helps to keep the kids engaged in my lessons because they never know when and why I may pass some out. By doing this though i am running into a problem. They are constantly asking "Can I get a silly band" after just about everything. If they answer a question, or if I compliment them on thier work or following the directions, it's alwasy folled by that question. Does anyone have any suggestions on how I cna still use them as a reward, but how I can stop getting them to ask for them, after things that they should be
"expected" to do?

Lindsay Gray's picture

I absolutely agree with the above stated comments, especially about Pokemon cards, silly bandz, and if you can't beat 'em join em'! First, that is a way to connect with your students on a more personal level. Showing interest in the things that interest them give you a common bond, something to talk about, and absolutely a reward to use. I bought silly bandz for me treasure chest, it is amazing how hard students work for that one band they get to pick out of there. I definitely do not discourage those kinds of things in my classroom as long as they are not interfering with their learning as well as others around them. That's is why I don't discourage doodling. I doodle when I am being talked at as well, but that doesn't mean I don't hear every word. That is where the teacher comes in and assessing how engaged students are. I love getting into all that stuff with my students. I had a group of girls that we read the Twilight saga and every Monday they would report back what they read, and what I thought about what was happening, I loved it. It shows my students I care about them and their thoughts.

Sarah Goho's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog. Many students at my school wear the live strong bracelets and one of my students had the great idea for us to do a German Club fundraiser by selling "ich liebe Deutsch" bracelets. It went over huge and now everyone at school knows how to say "i love German" in German! I think it is important to take what the kids are interested in and incorporate into my lessons. Being a young teacher, I feel that I can relate well to the kids. The best decorations I have in my classroom are advertisements for Public Viewing Soccer games or Disco Party posters that I took down from bus stations (after the event had happened). This way my students get German Input from the moment they enter the class to when they leave.

Lindsay Gray's picture

I agree with the above stated comments. I think if you should absolutely show interest in what the students are interested in. It creates a tighter bond, and they realize you are more than just someone there to discipline them and teach them "stuff." I use Silly Bandz in my treasure chest and it is amazing to me how hard students will work for that one band they get to pick out of there. School should be more then just about teachers talking at students for only learning purposes. It is getting to know each other and forming real relationships. I had a couple girls in my class reading the Twilight series. After the weekend they would come in and we would talk about what was happening in the book, and our opinions. This is a wonderful tool for assessing what interests them and can help drive instruction. I'm all for allowing students to be individuals and show their interests as long as it doesn't interfere with their learning or others around them.

Tammy's picture

I found that your blog really fit exactly what I am faced with daily. Being a special education teacher myself, I feel that I am faced daily with finding different ways to teach the skills that my students need. This is not only for the students with special needs, but for general education students as well. If seems as if somewhere along the way some of the students have lost their motivation to learn. I found your blog interesting and helpful and feel that I can apply at least one more thing into my classroom for my students.

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!

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