Monday, June 9, 2008

Frindle and the Pen Permit

On a recent afternoon at the park, I overheard my son and some of his friends discussing their pen permits. Several days later another group of third graders at the bus stop was overheard quizzing each other to see whose teachers had issued pen permits yet. I had to ask: What is a pen permit? Apparently, if you can demonstrate good penmanship, mastery of certain basic spelling words, and some level of responsibility (the requirements vary from teacher to teacher), you are issued a pen permit. A pen permit allows a student to complete classwork and homework in ink. Hitherto, these kids could only use pencil in school. They all told me that they still must use pencil for math.On this point, it seems the teachers were all clear and in agreement.

This buzz about pen permits put me in mind of Tom Sawyer tricking kids into whitewashing the fence by pretending it was fun and not work. At least for a few weeks, the third grade teachers have used the novelty of ink to get their students enthusiastic about schoolwork. The use of subterfuge, coupled with ballpoint pens, put me in mind of Andrew Clements' Frindle, a near perfect chapter book for second through fifth graders.

The protagonist, Nick, is a genial, mischief making fifth grader. He likes to "liven things up at school." He could be called a troublemaker. I suppose that depends on what side of the teacher's desk you sit on. Nick decides to introduce a new word into the English language and common usage. The word is "frindle," and it means pen. What begins as a bit of fun, develops into a battle of wills between teacher and student and moves outside of the school, involving local politics, businesspeople, and national media.

There is lots of good stuff going on in this book. The tension between characters is believable, the plot is clever, and Brian Selznick's illustrations are terrific. There is a bit of a surprise ending too. I especially like how Clements gets readers thinking about language and the power of words. My own children and the high school students I used to teach have asked me numerous questions along the lines of Nick's, "Who says dog means dog?" Frindle taps into the interest in language that many kids have.

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