Boomers and Education Tools: Time for a Clean Slate?

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?


Is the Handwriting of Our Boomer Youth a Relic of the Past?

It has recently come to Mister Boomer’s attention that there is a debate going on in education circles about the teaching of cursive writing. That’s right, the handwriting standard of our childhood is being re-evaluated for the twenty-first century student. Does this mean the writing is on the wall for the handwriting style of our youth?

Cursive writing has been around hundreds if not thousands of years. Practically every culture developed their own form and style. The idea was a simple one: create legible words out of a single, complex line. By not having to lift the stylus or quill from the receiving medium, the chance for smudges was diminished while writing speed was gained.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cursive writing of Western civilization was raised to a high art form. Possessing a beautiful handwriting style was looked on as a symbol of status and literacy. As such, it was mainly practiced by the privileged. Yet by the time Abraham Lincoln became president, handwriting acquired a more utilitarian feel than the flourishes of John Hancock a century earlier.

After all, that was the point; for hundreds of years all government and business transactions were recorded by hand. When Christopher Latham Sholes introduced the first commercially-made typewriter in 1867, not much changed for cursive writing. Then in 1878, Sholes received a patent for a new keyboard layout that was instantly known as QWERTY, since those were the characters of the top alphabet row on Latham’s keyboard.

Early typewriters held keys arranged in alphabetical order. When struck, the keys sent a metal arm that held a letter die on its end in an arc that ultimately struck a ribbon containing ink, thereby transferring the letterform to paper. Typists could strike the keys faster than the mechanical arms could move, which caused frequent clashes of the key arms. This resulted in lock-ups — the nineteenth century version of our digital crash. Since Sholes stood to gain financially by the sale of his typewriter, which was manufactured by Remington, he sought to diminish the clashes in an effort to speed up typing. He placed the keys in the QWERTY configuration for the simple reason of separating the mechanical key arms to avoid the problems. That did the trick, and the sale of typewriters rose dramatically. It wasn’t long before the by-hand cursive writing that was used for centuries for documenting government and business transactions was replaced by machine-generated writing, powered by the hands of skilled typists. It is worth noting that while many have tried to replace the QWERTY keyboard, itself a relic of a mechanical rather than digital era, Mr. Sholes’ keyboard layout is the de facto standard to this day.

Despite the success of the typewriter, cursive writing remained an absolutely necessary part of every educational system, until today. We boomers recall the drills in second and third grade that taught us to form letters, connecting each with an efficient swoop that flowed through to the next. First we made disconnected letters of the alphabet that held half-connections, using lined paper as our guide. The teacher would swing her arm in the air, mimicking the graceful strokes we were to make with our pencils. Though results did vary, somehow, we all managed to learn the process, and went on to create actual words from our roller-coaster letterforms.

Mister Boomer was never great at cursive writing, but his level of dexterity served him well enough through his school years and into college. At that point, his family bought their first typewriter for the task of making term papers — a used 1929 Underwood. Ultimately, Mister B’s handwriting, like that of many boomers, devolved into the chicken scratch it is today. Yet Mister B still writes “snail mail” letters and cards, and even the occasional blog entry starts out as scrawls on paper.

Now some teachers and educators are saying that the time has come to abandon the teaching of handwriting altogether. Teachers complain that with everything they are required to teach, there just isn’t time. Education professionals are saying in a world where kids are sending e-mail and texts at earlier and earlier ages and machines display our written words, it has become obsolete. Still others point out that the law does not require cursive writing for the signing of legal documents. Indeed, they argue, a good many of us have already developed our own form of writing that combines the elements of separate print-block letters with cursive connections in select combinations. You’ll find this type of writing prevalent in many office memos tacked onto bulletin boards or Post-It notes stuck to printouts of e-mails by boomer-aged managers and professionals alike.

On the side of keeping with the traditional teaching of cursive writing, one argument is that learning the discipline teaches hand-eye coordination and dexterity. It is often the defining time a child encounters for certain whether they are right- or left-handed. Once upon a time, even in boomer school years, writing with the left hand was greatly discouraged, and frowned on. Fortunately, ancient superstitions (the Latin word for “left” was “sinister”) have slowly disappeared and we now know it’s just as “normal” and “human” for a person to write with the right or left hand. Teaching handwriting can continue to dispel the myths. Others argue that children will also be required to read historical documents as far into the future as we can see, and they should be able to do so without a historical interpreter. Therefore, children at least need to read it if not write it. Hand-written notes, though certainly diminishing in numbers, are another big reason cited to keep teaching the method. They argue that nothing is more personal, or appreciated, than a hand-written note, whether it’s an invitation, thank you or personal sentiment. Still others point to the inability to write in a cursive manner as yet another indication of an overall decline in literacy skills.

Add a flickering projector noise and let it burn through partially into it, and this video wouldn’t be out of place with the educational films we saw in our boomer school days. But stick with it in its entirety, because the content is the key, and there’s an interesting twist in the end.

Cursive writing isn’t a relic of our youth just yet. It’s still being taught in a majority of state school systems, though several have de-emphasized it. How about it, boomers? Where do you weigh in on this debate? Is the cursive writing taught in our youth unnecessary for the world of today’s youth?