I recently was visiting the Mountain School in upstate Vermont. This is a program for students in their junior year of high school. The school offers its 45 students the experience of working and living on a fully functioning farm. There are goats, sheep, llamas, maple tree sap harvesting, greenhouses, collective meal making, shared chores as well as a super dynamic high school core curriculum taught by a group of inspired multi talented teachers that actually live on the farm the whole semester with the students. There is very little access to the Internet and basically zero cell service. For kids my daughters age, 17, this is the first time in their life that they have ever experienced what it feels like to not be spending a good chunk of their day texting and or face booking. I visited recently and my daughter Hannah pulled me into one of the small classrooms specifically to show me something. The classroom was empty and at first I didn’t know what she was so excited about showing me. It was basically an empty classroom.
It turns out that one of the really cool things this school has besides baby goats, a nearby pond with a real beaver and a recent arrival of croaking migratory frogs are real blackboards!
As I walked up to the blackboard, it looked somewhat familiar, but then I realized how long it had been since I had seen one in a classroom. Today, most of the schools at least where I live in the Bay Area, use white boards and an increasing number of them use hi tech computer screen boards.
But here it was. The blackboard. It had the tray with the different colored chalks in it. The mess, the soft erasers for erasing and that certain dry stone smell that for me always accompanied learning.
There is of course efficiency to computer boards. The teacher can instantly email to every laptop carrying student exactly what just appeared on the board so they don’t have to copy it down for themselves. Lessons can be used year after year so the teacher doesn’t need to re write the lesson every time. Bright glowing monitor colors and moving pictures are all good reasons I guess for schools spending thousands of dollars to modernize.
But I wonder sometimes. Not that new and modern is bad and old school is good but maybe the conversation should be around how we learn and what moves us to become engaged. Are we engaged from being emailed the teachers perfectly letter spaced classroom lesson plan? (The same one that has been used in the previous years.) Or is there something about rereading your own notes scribbled in your hand inside a math book margin along with doodles and bits and pieces of non related scribbling’s one might have done during the boring parts of the lecture? Do we feel more alive by having people, things and experiences that are somehow more authentic and personal? Do we learn and remember better? I think I do.
(As a side note: For me, doodling was a precursor to my career in art. I learned to draw in French class instead of listening because for some reason the teacher wasn’t speaking English and I just couldn’t ever understand what she was saying.)
There is something unforgettable about a teacher who suddenly starts talking and writing so fast that the chalk breaks in midstream. That moment can almost take your breath away. When you see someone in front of you upending the container of what he or she is passionate about directly onto the board for all to see. The excitement, the vulnerability of letting it all go is unforgettable. The breaking of the chalk from pressing too hard was always the signal to me that I was witnessing something remarkable.
There also is an auditory richness of mineral chalk being grinded down on the blackboard. I loved the delicate snowfall of chalk following the teacher’s hand across the board.
There is the first time that the shy student has to come up in front of the class and take a piece of chalk in hand and write on the board in front of the whole class. We all noticed it. His painfully slow writing compared to the teacher’s, and the wobbly, usually too small lettering revealing to his classmates his lack of confidence and self-consciousness. It is unforgettable stuff. It makes us hold our breath and as a result we pay attention. We remember from the richness of the experience.
The chalkboard with its dusty colored chalk has always been where teacher’s passion and student’s inspiration and wonder met. I love and carry in my own artwork, even today, the palimpsest of the chalkboard after it has been unevenly erased. Clarity of written words and numbers juxtaposed with the vague and out of focus remnants of the previous lesson. It seems to be a perfect way to be only slightly reminded of what came before so that it doesn’t disrupt and distract you from the lesson that is happening presently on the board. There is a sense of time and history with a chalkboard that is just not conveyed with a computer screen or even the slick manufactured shiny surface of a perfectly white board.
And then there is the eraser dust. If there is only one compelling reason to reinstate the blackboard then this might be it. My children never had an eraser fight. Their teacher never tossed an eraser their direction to wake them up and make them pay attention. Throwing an eraser at your friend at break as they hide shrieking behind their desk is a perfectly harmless but super fun way to release the sometimes-difficult tension of trying to sit still all day in class. Then there are the fingernails on a chalkboard and what it does to some and not to others. A totally compelling physics lesson in and of itself. Putting wax on the blackboard prank will never be experienced by the next generation.
Isn’t there something rich and engaging about being shown something by a live person instead of a video? Isn’t it cool to see the hand making a mark with something from the earth on a rough surface that happens right in front of you? I say this because as a fine artist, I believe so strongly in the engaging nature of raw materials. I am so hopelessly in love with the surprising juxtapositions of surfaces and art materials that make up my world. I just can’t imagine it otherwise. It would be like watching a video of someone brushing on a super thick coat of waxy cadmium red paint across a perfectly stretched canvas instead of experiencing it firsthand. It would be like watching a video of an old man telling his experience of the holocaust instead of sitting directly across from him and noticing the slight wateriness of his eyes, the cadence of his tired breath, or feeling the slight tremble of his hand through the oak table that separates you.
Its not that we should have one over the other—The computer/internet is probably going to make education available for everyone in our lifetime. A very, very good thing. It will save us countless hours of time most likely.
I guess I just couldn’t help feel a bit saddened by stumbling upon that blackboard. For me, the blackboard was always like a dusty, well-worn threshold that I was invited across into new inspiring worlds by amazing teachers. Teachers whose hands almost always were covered in a little chalk dust.
As we walked out of the room, Just before snapping off the lights, Hannah said “Dad, check it out, we even have those, and they NEVER break like the plug in ones at home.” My gaze followed where she pointed, and there, crookedly mounted on the wall from the very first day the school opened fifteen years ago, was an old, hand cranked, pencil sharpener.
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