This post originally appeared on the blog Math Dyal.

The classroom can never have enough pencils. Every period, at least one student doesn’t have/can’t find/dog ate their pencil. I used to fuss at them but it never really helped the situation. Then one day I overheard a kid talking about how he couldn’t wait to upgrade his cell phone… and my idea for free upgrades was born.

I keep a stash of brand new pencils with perfect erasers. When a student tells me he or she doesn’t have a pencil, I take a perfect one from my stash. The pencil-less student is momentarily excited, thinking he is going to get a perfect new pencil. But that wouldn’t be fair, would it? Instead I tell the class I am offering a free upgrade and I let someone with a shabby pencil with a worn down eraser trade it in for a sparkly new pencil. Then the pencil-less student gets the traded-in version. Everyone wins: Kids who bring supplies are rewarded with a new pencil and the students have an incentive to bring their pencils because they never know when I will offer an upgrade special. My middle schoolers love it, and they often ask if I have any upgrades available.

Pencil Update!  {August 2017} I wanted to share a little more about what this looks like in my classroom …

I regularly walk around and look for pencils in need of upgrades while students are working, and I switch them out. I have this straw holder that I made into a pencil holder for the freebie pencils that students have upgraded. Students who come to class without a pencil know to go directly there and get one, and many of them return it at the end of the period. This system works so well for me because I don’t have to get involved. If the cup is empty, I’ll ask if anyone wants to upgrade.

Of course I very highly value building relationships with my students, and I know that sometimes it’s better to just give a kid a new pencil. I do that regularly, too. But I think teaching them responsibility is important as well, and often a student will bring back a pencil the next day and ask to upgrade it.

I have also only ever attempted this strategy with middle and high school students. A lot of elementary teachers have commented on how this would not work for their students, and I completely agree. I have a son about to start kindergarten and he would forget to put on shoes if I didn’t remind him. But pre-teens and teenagers who are used to switching classes regularly and seem to always remember to bring their cell phone every where they go can also be expected to keep track of a writing utensil.


Mandy Dyal was tired of her students forgetting their pencils. So she developed a This will be Mandy Dyal’s 10th year teaching math in Jacksonville, FL — six years in middle school, and now her fourth year in high school. During the 2014 school year, she was chosen as her school’s Teacher of the Year and was then selected as one of the five finalists for Duval County Teacher of the Year — in a district of more than 8,000 teachers! Mandy believes in making her classroom fun and engaging— and loves using interactive notebooks and hands-on activities. Stop by her blog or TpT store anytime for some fun ideas!