The modern wood pencil was created by Joseph Dixon, born in Massachusetts in 1799. When he was thirteen years old he made his first pencil in his mother's kitchen. His sea-going father would return from voyages with graphite in the hull of his ship, which was used simply as ballast, or weight, when there was no cargo to transport. This graphite was later dumped overboard to make room for shipments for export. Joseph Dixon got some of this excess graphite, pounded it into powder, mixed it with clay and rolled it into long strips that he baked in his mother's oven to make the "lead" for his pencil. This dried the "lead" and made it firm. He then put a strip of "lead" between two grooved sticks of cedar and glued them together to make a sandwich. He chose cedar because it is soft, can be easily sharpened, and is relatively free of knots. All you had to do was sharpen the pencil with a knife and it was ready to write.
Then you have to answer the following multiple choice questions:
1. You can tell from the passage that it was important for ships to be
a.) heavy enough b.) fast enough c.)wet enough d.) big enough
2. Dixon got some graphite that had been used to replace
a.)cargo b.)powder c.)clay d.) wood
3. What happened to the graphite that Dixon didn't use?
a.)It was thrown away b.)It was used for ballast c.)It was shipped as an export 4.) It was used to build houses
4. Why did Dixon heat the mixture of graphite and clay?
a) To harden it b.) To melt it c.)To turn it into a powder d) To make it dark.
5. Dixon chose cedar because it was
a.) easy to shape b.) firm c.) long d.) cheap
6. How did Dixon get the "lead" inside the pencil?
a.) He glued it between two pieces of wood. b.) He poured it in when it was melted c.) He slide it into a hole he had drilled.) He rolled it in a mixture of sawdust and glue
7. In this passage the word knots refers to
a.) hard spots in wood b.) difficult problems c.) a measure of the speed of ships d.) tying ropes
Now, here are some questions that might interest you about the test questions.
1. Where did I get this information? From a contract asking permission to use the passage from a book I wrote (The Secret Life of School Supplies.)
2. What are the chances that the students read the actual book in their test prep? Nil Ever? Close to nil.
3. Did the students find the passage riveting reading? Probably not. It was taken out of context.
4. Why is it important for students to regurgitate information from the passage in their responses? I have no idea. If they have no real interest in the invention of the pencil, if the story isn't interesting enough to repeat to someone else, it is a manufactured trap to give anxiety to students, parents and teachers. It's the previous paragraph in the book that describes the problem that the invention of Dixon's pencil solved that makes the test paragraph more interesting and memorable.
I would hope that the passages selected by the test creators would be stand-alone attention grabbers. But apparently two paragraphs would be too long. FYI, The pencil happened to be an extremely useful invention for land surveyors. They had to be able to write outside with a permanent dry writing instrument, since at that time, most writing was done with quill and ink, which wasn't suited to noting down critical information in the wind and the rain.
Do you think preparing to answer this kind of question is a good use of your time or your students? I can tell you it's not one of my better paragraphs. Maybe, if they had read more of the book, they wouldn't need test prep to get the answers right.