A history of the blackboard: How the blackboard became an effective and ubiquitous teaching tool.


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Apr 26, 2023

A history of the blackboard: How the blackboard became an effective and ubiquitous teaching tool.

Photo by Thinkstock Excerpted from Blackboard: A Personal History of the

Photo by Thinkstock

Excerpted from Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom by Lewis Buzbee. Out now from Graywolf Press.

The blackboard is a recent innovation. Erasable slates, a cheap but durable substitute for costly paper and ink, had been in use for centuries. Students could practice reading and writing and math on their slates, in the classroom or at home. But it wasn't until 1800 that James Pillans, headmaster of the Old High School of Edinburgh, Scotland, wanting to offer geography lessons to his students that required larger maps, connected a number of smaller slates into a single grand field. And in 1801, George Baron, a West Point mathematics teacher, also began to use a board of connected slates, the most effective way, he found, to illustrate complex formulas to a larger audience.

Although the term blackboard did not appear until 1815, the use of these cobbled-together slates spread quickly; by 1809, every public school in Philadelphia was using them. Teachers now had a flexible and versatile visual aid, a device that was both textbook and blank page, as well as a laboratory, and most importantly, a point of focus. The blackboard illustrates and is illustrated. Students no longer simply listened to the teacher; they had reason to look up from their desks.

Like many of the best tools, the blackboard is a simple machine, and in the 19th century, in rural areas particularly, it was often made from scratch, rough pine boards nailed together and covered with a mixture of egg whites and the carbon leavings from charred potatoes. By 1840 blackboards were manufactured commercially, smoothly planed wooden boards coated with a thick, porcelain-based paint. In the 20th century, blackboards were mostly porcelain-enameled steel and could last 10 to 20 years. Imagine that, a classroom machine so durable and flexible. In my daughter's schools, computers, scads of them, are replaced every two to three years.

While black was long the traditional color for blackboards, a green porcelain surface, first used around 1930, cut down on glare, and as this green surface became more common, the word chalkboard came into use.

Chalk, of course, predates the blackboard. The chalk with which we write on boards isn't actual chalk but gypsum, the dihydrate form of calcium sulfate. Gypsum is found naturally and can be used straight out of the ground in big chunks, but it can also be pulverized, colored, and then compressed into cylinders. My most important high school teacher, Mrs. Jouthas, used a variety of neon-colored chalk to help us differentiate the parts of speech, or follow the rhythms of a Mark Twain paragraph.

The last time I saw a real blackboard in a classroom was during a visit to a still-functioning one-room schoolhouse near Hollister, California. The blackboard had been faithfully reconstructed as a souvenir of the school's past, while the teacher and students mainly used the whiteboards that covered the other walls. Whiteboards are the rule these days, and all to the better, it seems, if only for their lack of screeching. But the whiteboard disallows a long-standing classroom rite: cleaning the erasers.

Slates and chalkboards were often cleaned with dry rags, and no doubt sleeves, but in the late 19th century, erasers were developed for this task, blocks of wood (later pressed cardboard) covered with tufted felt, usually black or gray. These erasers needed regular cleaning to knock loose all that chalk crammed into the felt's pores, and while it was occasionally a punishment to clean the erasers, it was most often, at my school, a privilege. Often it was the student with the highest score on a test who was invited to pound two erasers together, happy in a billowing cloud of quite possibly lung-damaging dust.

Another aspect of this privilege was cleaning the blackboard itself, wiping it with a slightly damp rag to a chalkless sheen, making it once again a tabula rasa. But the real joy rested with the erasers, the unalloyed childhood love of making a sanctioned mess, as well as permission to hit things together really hard. But I cannot overlook the "teacher's pet" factor. When I was asked to clean Miss Babb's erasers, it was for her that I did so.

Miss Babb's fourth-grade classroom was arranged in the classic manner: a grid of desks aimed at the blackboard. When I visit elementary schools today, I find that the classic grid is rarely used. Instead, there is a seemingly endless variety of classroom arrangement, but pods of four desks facing one another and laid out in a pinwheel design seems to be the most popular alternative.

The classic grid is often called, rather pejoratively, "the sage on the stage" or "chalk and talk." The disdain lurking in these descriptions implies that such a design puts the teacher first and somehow threatens the students’ opportunities for more intimate, self-governed learning. It's true that in the pods-and-pinwheel design students can more easily work in smaller groups, but such pods, of course, also offer more opportunity for subterfuge and mutiny.

The blackboard-centered classroom offers more than pedagogical efficiency; it also offers an effective set of teaching possibilities. In such a classroom students are focused on the teacher (on a good day), but most importantly, they are focused. The teacher is not the focus of the class but rather a lens through which the lesson is created and clarified. The teacher draws the class toward her, but she projects the lessons onto the blackboard behind her, a blank surface upon which smaller ideas may be gathered into larger ones. The blackboard is the surface of thought.

At Maddy's middle school, Smart Boards are now front and center, and on these interactive whiteboards, she and her fellow scholars and their teachers can connect to the Internet and display bits and pieces of information, work out problems and ideas, annotate and edit their work, shuffle digital objects spatially in order to find new connections. The Smart Board is futuristic, yet it serves the same purpose as the blackboard of my childhood. It gives the student more than something to look at; it provides a necessary focus.

During science lessons, when Miss Babb drew the solar system or the structure of a molecule on the blackboard, my mind became inflamed with new ways of seeing the universe. The school provided, of course, a science textbook, with lovely illustrations and photographs, some in color, and detailed descriptions in prose, of the very same things Miss Babb drew on the board. But it was not the textbooks that made science infiltrate my brain; It was Miss Babb and a piece of chalk, her writing on a blank field. With her there, describing the shape of an orbit as she drew it, or clicking the chalk on an atom's nucleus and saying "nucleus" at the same time so we were sure not to miss it, she brought science to life for me in a way a textbook could not have.

There is a theatrical element to teaching, and it is necessary. The physical dramatics of the classroom—all those bodies and brains ritually focused—can create a new and singular mind, and foster in the individual student an urgent hunger to learn. A good teacher, like Miss Babb, can, with a nod or a wink, or by simply repeating a key phrase slowly and with certain emphasis, maybe leaning toward her student body, deliver a chapter's worth of information instantly and unforgettably. Otherwise, we might as well stay home and read to ourselves. The teacher commands her audience, conducts them.

As terrifying as it can be, there is value in the student being told to go to the board alone. The real terror, for me at least, in standing before the blackboard, came during class, when I might be called on to "show my work." At such moments, the student is completely vulnerable—to public failure, to private anxieties, to an absolute freeze on all thought.

I recall a precise moment of blackboard terror in Miss Babb's class, one I may never forget, and of course, it involved math. It was a silver-bright afternoon, and I was directed to the blackboard to solve an equation as part of a contest, the left half of the class versus the right. Some of the equations were long division, my nemesis, but some were multiplication, in which I was fluent. Please, God, I silently prayed, or whoever is in charge of math, please let it be multiplication.

I stood at the board, chalk ready, and sensed my classmates waiting gleefully for me to fail in a gossip-worthy manner. As with most spectator sports, failure is often the more alluring outcome.

Miss Babb called out the first number—I don't recall the exact number, but it was four digits long—and my hope rose. But then she called out the function, "divided by," followed by a three-digit number. Not just long division: impossible long division. A collective gasp filled the room.

I was OK through the first column of division, but during the next, I saw that I had already screwed up. I motored on, though, as if stubbornness would win out. Growing desperate, and wishing only to be finished now, I faked the ending. I looked to Miss Babb: Was I even close?

"That is incorrect," she said, ticking her score sheet.

Titters all around.

Miss Babb joined me at the board, and we worked out the problem together. I erased everything but the equation and started over. I got it right this time: half a point. Errors were made, but I had not failed.

From behind me, I heard a collective sigh of relief. While my fellow students were at first thrilled by my "failure," they also knew their turn was coming and were relieved, it seemed, that the contest was not lost yet. Math wasn't black magic, and there was hope for us all.

The blackboard is a wonderful place to make a mistake. School wants to put us in unique situations, frightening ones sometimes, and to be able to perform in front of others is a valuable skill. School drags us, sometimes kicking and screaming, out of our shells.

The clichéd image of a child alone at a blackboard is seen each week during the opening credits of The Simpsons, when Bart writes his lines, repeating one sentence 100 times, punishment for his high jinks.

Bart has lovely board skills, and his printing is immaculate.

As a teacher, I have never been a gifted board worker; Miss Babb, while she might be happy to know I’m a teacher, would be ashamed of my chalk skills. I don't have the patience for color-coding, and my handwriting, I see when I step back, is practically illegible. My "the" frequently looks like "tle." I attack the board, I don't write on it. And the thing is, I don't really need to use the board at all. My graduate writing classes are small seminars with rarely more than 10 students. We sit around a large table (or smaller tables smooshed together) and we talk. We read from books, we read from manuscripts, we suffer through small silences, but mostly we talk. The ideas build up in the air above our heads.

But every once in a while I can't help myself and have to go to the whiteboard. I scribble on it and draw pictures, try to "illustrate" my points. In an early class discussion on the history of the novel, I frequently bring up Stendhal's phrase "the mirror in the roadway," which the critic Frank O’Connor uses to describe the form of the novel. For me this phrase is key to understanding that a novel is about the journey of its characters, but a journey that is also a reflection of the world through which the characters pass. The mirror in the roadway is a strange but effective metaphor, yet I cannot do it justice with words alone. So I get up and draw a roadway, and a mirror in that roadway, and moving toward that mirror, a wagonload of characters. I’m not a draftsman, and unless I tell you what I’m drawing on the board, you would never know there was a horse-drawn wagon, much less a mirror or a roadway.

Once I start on the board, I often can't stop and continue to add phrases, strange pictures, the titles of books, sometimes just marks, a kind of visual punctuation. The ham of my left hand will be covered with red or blue or green dry-erase marker by the end of the evening, and when I stand back to look over what I’ve written, nothing makes any sense. My board work looks more like a foreign language than literary criticism. But it's still effective board work. I’ve been able to draw connections; I’ve been able to drive home key points. I’ve made the students look beyond me, themselves, and our little room.

Excerpted from Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom. Copyright © 2014 by Lewis Buzbee. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom