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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

Danika's picture

Thank you for your blog. I like the idea of incorporating trends into classroom instruction. As teachers, we try to find ways to connect our lessons to the real world, but we also do not want our students bringing certain trends into the classroom. I try to keep up with trends so I know what my students are talking about and to be able to relate with them, but I am also one of those teachers that do not want to see it in my room. The way I see it if I am able to find a link between current trends and instruction why not use it as you do?

I also enjoyed how you allow students to differentiate their own instruction. Differentiation is something I struggle with in my classes and I never thought about allowing my students to do it on their own. This will lessen my stress when trying to find ways to differentiate instruction, while giving students ownership when it comes to their educaiton.

Barbara Clamage's picture

This gave me a great idea! I teach 1st grade. When school begins I send home a form for parents to fill out to get to know my students. What I need to know from them now is "What trend is your student following?" so I may keep them motivated and build standards based lessons around these trends. Last year, the trend in 1st grade was Pokeman cards. I had a box full of cards that I had confiscated because they were not allowed. I could have incorporated these into a lesson somehow. Can someone explain what "Pen Spinning" is? Thank you for the great idea.

Meredith's picture

This is my first time ever blogging! I am taking a class for my masters and the assignment this week was to find an educational blog and comment. I am so glad that I did. There is a wealth of knowledge in these communitites.

I really enjoyed reading about using current trends in the classroom. I am one of those teachers that goes both ways: I want to understand the current trend, but depending on what it is I don't want the trend in my classroom. Although after reading this blog and all the comments I have gained some insight that could be useful in my class (reward system, get to know you activities).

As for "pen spinning". I have never heard of this one and am sure it will be something that my students will pick up over the summer so I plan on doing some research on it and incorporating the idea into my classroom. I teach Health/PE and this would be perfect to do as a brain warm up or even as a hand eye/fine motor skill lesson. If my students have never heard of it then I will be ahead of the game and can teach them something new that is not in a textbook.

I am all about building relationships with my students. Most of the time our relationships have started because I knew what they were talking about in the "trendy" world. Thanks for the wonderful ideas everybody!

Pamela Perez's picture

You are a 21st century teacher! I teach 11 and 12th grade English and I think I will develop a review exercise they can do while they pen spin. Perhaps I will pick a student who excels at pen spinning and have him teach the class but his "fine art" as long as he/she incorporates literary terms etc.

I commend you for not being one of those teachers who have "conniption fits" but rather choose to be forward thinking.

Bree Lauffer's picture

It is so important as a teaching professional to stay current on trends. This can be trends in strategies or new fads attracting our students' attention. In order to keep your lessons relevant in their minds, you have to know what they are interested in at this time. I have never heard of pen spinning until I read this article and googled it. I can easily see how this activity could be a way for students to escape mentally if they are bored with a lesson in class. I really like the idea of using time in class to allow this behavior in a productive way, whether it is during review time or as a how to speech. Sometimes just showing that you are excited in a student's interest and hobbies can make all the difference in the world when trying to manage classroom behaviors. Thank you for posting about interesting topic.

Melisa Nelson's picture

I found your blog to be very interesting. Every year it seems there is a new trend that has my students excited. They are always bringing their latest interest to the classroom. In my second grade classroom I allow my students to use their interests in their writing. Topics for writing is something that children always struggle to identify. Allowing my students to use these trends or interests gets them excited for writing.

Tara Komatz's picture

I whole-heartedly agree with incorporating the trends into the classroom curriculum. I have just completed my undergraduate degree and student teaching, so I have not had my own class yet, but I definitely see the benefits of this. Sometimes students use things such as pen spinning to occupy themselves when they become bored with the curriculum. I am not saying this is true of all students, but I was a student who use to doodle on the paper to occupy myself. By incorporating students interests (i.e. the current trends) you are able to efficiently communicate with students. Students may even become excited that you know about it, in a world where too few people care for our children. You seem very caring and concerned with our children! Thank you!

Laura J Meyer's picture
Laura J Meyer
8th grade Language Arts teacher in MN

I've been doing some thinking about authentic assessments lately, and this blog post caught my eye because I think it ties into the core idea behind authentic learning: student investment and interest. What a great way to give students' interests a place in the classroom! I admit that I YouTubed pen spinning and watched in awe for awhile after reading this post. You can tie this specific trend into so many classroom learning opportunities!

I teach 8th grade Language Arts, and I can definitely relate to the antsy boy factor of classroom atmosphere. Next year, I will look for those trends and incorporate them into my lessons. Thanks for the great ideas!

Kris Petrelli's picture

I found your blog to be very refreshing. I teach third grade and try to stay on top of what is trendy for kids in this age bracket. Fortunately I have two elementary aged children of my own to keep me in the loop. Using trends or issues that are of interest to students keeps them engaged in the lesson and shows the students that you are involved in their lives. I try to keep up with the latest cartoons, kids' shows, and movies so I can integrate them into my lessons. Using the latest trends or other items of student interest could be the connection a student needs to understand a concept in class. I am sure there are many elementary teachers out there that will be incorporating silly bands into a lesson or two this year!

Jennifer's picture

I consider myself a young and hip teacher, but the fads that students are into now are far from the slap bracelets and the pocket digital animals of my school days. I have seen my students pen spinning and it drives me crazy, but I have realized that I have to pick my battles and this is one of the battles that I have chose not to fight. Many of my students are masters of the dance "the jerk", and I have tried to incorporate that into some of my lessons. One of my boys actually taught the class how to jerk for a project and everyone loved it. I love your notion of having the students individualize their own curriculum and while it may be scary at first, I think that it can and will work the more the students get use to the routine. Why not try to incorporate lessons with more of the students' interest that obviously engage them than think of ways that we think will gain their attention?

I teach 7th grade language arts and my school wants teachers to use more technology in the classroom, so I have tried to figure out ways to structure my lessons around the internet and blogs. It's hard sometimes to open the world of the computer and feel that students will be learning the content and not playing games. I stress myself out so much thinking of how to differentiate instruction for my students, but if I could tap into their interests and see what is popular I may have an easier time accomplishing this. I try hard to have my students take ownership for their work by having them decide their assessment, but wouldn't it be more engaging if they could decide how to learn?

I am so glad I came across your blog and will continue to follow you to get the much needed inspiration and sounding board every teacher needs! Thank you so much!

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