Pencil Problem Fifth-grade class turns writing-tool frustration into 14,400 free pencils

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

If a local elementary school gets 10 cases of free pencils, and a case contains 120 boxes, and a box contains 12 pencils, how many free pencils did the school get?

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

That's a math problem a group of Harborview Elementary School fifth graders is working out after getting frustrated with pencil tips that kept breaking. They got proactive, called pencil maker Dixon Ticonderoga Co. and got 14,400 free new pencils for their trouble.

"We always ran out of pencils," said Angel Sanchez, a student in teacher Steve Byers' class. "Finally Mr. Byers called the pencil company people."

It was student Jade Kalk who guessed the closest to the number Byers was holding behind his back. Her reward: a chance to speak with Director of Sales Kristen-Lee Derstein of the pencil company.

Kalk, answering Derstein's questions, told her the pencils broke constantly and that it was frustrating.

"It was really fun talking to her," Kalk said.

Kalk got art supplies and a personal letter; the classroom got the pencils and art supplies.

Byers said the older pencils were bought by the school and are all part of a particular batch that might have been bad.

He turned the episode into a classroom project. The students wrote the company thank you letters and recycled boxes to make personal art kits for their new art supplies. And the kids have additional problems to solve: How to pick up all the bad pencils, how to distribute the new pencils, how many to give each student and writing letters to each teacher to let them know what's happening. Byers' classroom covers writing, math, reading and general academics.

Kalk said it was a good learning experience.

"Writing letters is a lot harder than writing things in class, because you're actually sending it out of town," Kalk said. "It's really fun to know that you're going to get something for it. And at the same time, we're all really happy about it."

Byers said he's seen an increase in enthusiasm and a decrease in acting up during the project.

"We're trying to get the whole school involved, and these kids, show them that there's problems, and how to solve them," he said.

The kids said they learned teamwork, and, added Sanchez, that "one phone call can get you a lot of pencils."

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or

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