The Labor Day holiday has come and passed, marking the unofficial end of summer; children have returned school for another year. In our day it was pretty common for the dreaded first day of school to be the day after Labor Day. That specter always loomed large over the holiday weekend, prompting boomers to want to extract every last bit of their summer fun before the holiday Monday was over. Today the start date varies by state, and can be as early as the third week of August to the week after Labor Day.
When we examine the experience of kids in school today and compare it to our boomer school days, many striking differences appear. In fact, it’s changed so dramatically in some ways that the stories we might tell our grandchildren would seem quite ancient and primitive to these young students. One simple, yet influential education tool that has changed — or rather, evolved — is the blackboard, or chalkboard as it is more frequently called today.
Many boomers born in the late forties and early fifties, like Mister B, are old enough to remember the blackboard. As its name suggests, it was black, and usually a long rectangle stretching across most of the front wall of a classroom. Sometimes a classroom had an additional blackboard on a side wall. Teachers would write on the boards with sticks of white chalk. The chalk could be erased with a small block of wool felt called the eraser. The process of writing and wiping produced a fair amount of chalk dust circulating in the classroom. Mister B would watch the chalk particles drifting through beams of sunlight emanating from the one wall of windows. Like following water as it journeys down a waterfall, time slowed as the particles, suspended in air, swayed back and forth and meandered, ever so slowly, toward the floor.
The origin of the blackboard is unknown, but the man most credited with its implementation is James Pillans, a Scottish headmaster in the late 1700s. The prevailing teaching tool of the time was “slates,” which were individual hand-held pine boards. Early slates were composed of a board with a shaped handle to grasp. Attached to the board was a translucent animal skin sheet on which the teacher would write the lesson of the day. Later, boards could consist of small sheets of stone or be painted black. A form of chalk was used to write on them. Aside from being a laborious task for a teacher to have to repeat the lesson, writing for each pupil, not every student could afford their own slate. Pillans sought a way to relay his lessons in geography in a way that all students could see in one, unified glance.
Blackboard history in American schools began in 1801. George Barons, an instructor at West Point, used a wall-based blackboard to teach math. Early blackboards were made of slate, which was mined in Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New York. By the mid-1800s, the growth of the U.S. population was increasing the size of classrooms across the country. The need for more and larger blackboards became apparent. The advance of the railroads made shipping these boards practical, and by the late 1800s, every school system in the country was using blackboards.
Cloth rags were the initial tool used to wipe chalk from blackboards. In 1863, the wool felt eraser was invented to supplant rags. With that invention, things pretty much stayed the same for the next hundred years.
By the 1960s, new technologies began taking shape. Blackboards were thought to convey a stark atmosphere to classrooms in an era when the education process was being examined. The gap between what was taught in schools, and what was perceived would be needed for the coming modern age, was becoming a topic of concern. Blackboards had, according to some, too much contrast and were too dark for young eyes to best see and comprehend. Due to advances in metal and ceramic technologies, the green board was invented to address the situation. No longer black, a new name was used to differentiate the new boards from their predecessors: chalkboards. Green was chosen as the board color, to be easier on eyes while still providing enough contrast to view the writing. They were made from steel covered with layers of porcelain enamel. Lighter than slate slabs and cheaper to produce, the boards quickly made their way across the country by the mid-60s. These are the chalkboards most boomers will recall from their youth. Indeed, they are the boards used in most classrooms to this day.
Mister B recalls blackboards in the early days, then the green chalkboards replacing them. In both cases, chalk dust and erasers play the biggest role in his memories. Boards would require a thorough cleaning every now and then to remove residual dust that had clouded the surface. First the board was wiped top to bottom with a felt block eraser, then water and a rag was used to remove any remaining chalk dust. When the board dried, it was good as new. Sometimes a teacher would perform the maintenance, but more often than not, she (teachers were almost all women in Mister B’s experience) would enlist the help of students to complete the task at the end of the day or at the beginning of lunch time. To “clean” the erasers, students would walk outside the building and repeatedly clap two erasers together, like beating a rug to get it clean. The process produced an explosion of chalk dust. Kids would turn their heads and cough to keep the dust from their nostrils and throats. Imagine that being allowed today!
Since erasers were an excellent repository for chalk dust, they became a favorite projectile for classroom bullies. These boys would, when a teacher left the room, grab erasers and fling them at their victims. The resulting patch of white dust on the subject’s clothes reflected the pattern of impact. Mister B recalls one particularly ruthless attack where a classroom bully slapped erasers on the sides of the face of one of his favorite targets. No student would dare interfere lest they become the next victim.
In the 1980s, the whiteboard was invented; businesses and offices embraced the technology first. In this system, a white, plastic board is the base to write on with special markers. A special eraser was used to remove the writing from the board. Sensitivities toward allergies and health concerns over airborne particles prompted educators to look at whiteboards as a way to supplement or replace chalkboards. Even though “non-dust” chalk had replaced its earlier incarnation, dust was still created; it was just technically designed to fall faster. Since the new boards, though inexpensive, required special markers and erasers that needed replenishing, whiteboards were not universally employed in classrooms in an era when cutbacks were ordered.
Today, chalkboards are once again evolving with new technologies. Joining the green chalkboard and whiteboard is the smartboard (also known as e-board). These computer-based boards have all the convenience of a wall-based space for writing, yet none of the inconvenience of chalk dust or expensive consumables. In addition, they are completely interactive. Where a boomer student could walk up to a chalkboard and complete a math problem or diagram a sentence, the smartboard allows today’s students to do the same by way of dragging and dropping words or problems, plus the ability to electronically write on the boards.
Is the future already here? Boomers may be around long enough to see the replacement of the chalkboard.
What memories of chalkboards do you recall, boomers?