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Using Student Trends to Engage Learners and Differentiate Instruction

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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?

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Michelle De La Cruz's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog and knowing that there is someone else out there having the same issues. Trend setting ways sometimes are ways for students to procrastinate. Many times I have found that a student is lost. sometimes they are just trying to perfect something and in order to that it takes time and practice. I tell my students they spend so much time at perfecting certain things that they already know how to become better at Reading, math, science and social studies; it takes time and practice. I often ask my students to show things they are interested in during passing period or lunch. Unfortunately, I have run into the problem that the students are then focused on wanting to teach me when its time to teach them. I fixed this by visiting with them at conference time or after school. They have become aware that I want to understand them. I think its teachers like us who try to use what is going on with our tween world that have students feeling their sense of individuality.

Micaela's picture
High School EFL Teacher in Argentina

Hi, I'm a high school teacher from Argentina, and I totally agree with your opinions. My students' ages vary from 11 to 17 and they all share this desire to 'introduce' something from the 'external world' into the classroom, say a magazine everybody loves, a tv show, a gadget, a finger-skateboarding game. It is really challenging for us to get away from the 'comfort zone' of our well-known tricks and techniques, and get to listen to what our students really want to say by 'smuggling' these items into the classroom or talking exhasutively about them. I strongly believe bonds are constructed by trust, dialogue and raising awareness of the importance of bulding a nice and motivational context for learning.
I totally agree with the other teacher that described the situation about Pokeman cards in her school. I think elements like these give us golden opportunities to negotiate how we want our classes to be, what we demand from our students, what our students demand from us.
They also open up a great window for the 'external world' to get into our class and to be able to link all our tasks to real life, which in my experience, has proven to be really valuable, especially with teenagers. Here in Argentina, for instance, we've just had the same-sex-marriage law passed, and some teachers at school (me among them) discussed and produced visual organizers and posters with information about it, and we even participated in a formal debate mimicking the real ones at our Senate! This gave my students a lot of courage and engagement and it even lowered the level of verbal agression, especially regarding sexual matters (here it is really common to insult a boy/man by saying he's gay, with a really offesive word, 'puto').
This is my first comment on a post, since I am a new member, and I'd really like to keep on reading and commenting. Happy week!

Gary Walton's picture

I am a retired high school teacher in my 70's and I can still vividly recall a snobbish teaching-assistant who made his pain at having to stoop to teaching freshman English abundantly clear to us. When it came time to write research papers I was excited to write about jazz music. His response was rolled eyes and a sarcastic, "How original!" He took a good deal of the fun out of the project for me. I swore I would never be guilty of that response to a student's enthusiasm for something I might consider pedestrian or trivial.

Gary Walton's picture

You don't have to simply re-inforce a student's current pre-occupation, you can widen their horizons. In preparing a drama program I introduced a student who was only familiar with top 40 music to bluegrass. He is now a professional artist writing music for his own group.

AndreaV26's picture
Special Education Teacher from Jackson, MI

All I have to say, is that I found a fluency passage about Justin Beiber, and I had all the tween girls wanting a copy!

Maureen Burton's picture

I found your article very enlightening. I work in a rural district so we are behind on trends. We are just starting into Silly Bandz. I teach a group of remedial students who I have a very difficult time getting engaged in learning. They are all about rewards, but I am not big on supplying candy and other treats to students. First, becasue many are over-weight and secondly, I don't want to spend my money on things like that. I had never seen pen spinning so I went to youtube and found some great clips and tutorials. My plan is to introduce the trend to my redial students as a reward. If they are engage during the lesson portion of the class, I will show them clips and tutorials to learn new moves at the end of the class period. I really think this will work to motivate them. I am not sure if the other teachers will like it when it shows up in their rooms, but hopefully they'll just see it as another opportunity as well.

Heather's picture

Way to go! I agree. I have been in the same boat about certain fads. Silly bandz is the latest one at my school. I work at a private school where the students where uniforms but are allowed to wear jewelry. I have no problem with the bandz as long as they are not a huge distraction. I feel it gives the kids at least a little bit of self-expression with their appearance. I also find that keeping in touch with trends allows me to develop a personal relationship with my students and get to know them better. Thanks for your post!

Tori Collins's picture

I loved this post and comments! I think as teachers we feel that anything that students enjoy outside of learning (books, notes, worksheets, ect) is bad and does not need to be done in the classroom. Yet teachers in today's society must realize that with all of the available technology we have to find ways to keep student interest. Yes it may be more work, but the payoffs are worth it. If something is popular among students, as teachers we must find a way to incorporate it into something educational. Using our professional knowledge and resources to combine education with things that are popular among students is something that all teachers should try within their classroom.

Kyle Ague's picture

I thought that this was a great post. I have always found that the students in my classes are shocked to find out that I am in touch with what is going on in their world. Sometimes it leads to great discussion and sometimes it doesn't, but I believe that it shows the students that I care enough to know what is going on in their world. They also become excited to tell me or show me something that is new to them when it comes about, and I love developing those relationships with students. It gives me great insight to what makes them tick and allows me to be able to maximize their learning by knowing them.

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