Sometime right around the dawn of the nineteenth century, teacher extraordinaire James Pillans, headmaster of Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, had a problem. He had a bang-up geography lesson to share with his students, but he didn’t have the most effective equipment with which to do it. Like teachers have to do far too often, he cobbled together what he needed from what supplies he could come up with, and in this case, it worked pretty well.
Like students as far back as the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, these eager young people had personal slates on which to write and re-write their work. But what Pillans decided he really needed was one much larger slate at the front of the room, on which he could present his lesson to the entire class at one time.
That’s just what he constructed. He connected the slates and hung them in the classroom. The chalkboard was born. It was such a simple, brilliant idea, that the concept grew quickly. In America the first classroom blackboard was used at West Point by instructor George Baron. By the middle of the 19th century, nearly every classroom in America had one.
And because of a surprise discovery last summer, we now have an amazing glimpse of just what kinds of things they might have been used for in the early part of the twentieth century. Because during a summertime classroom renovation project at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City, workers uncovered blackboards from 1917 behind classroom walls.
The really cool thing was that they actually had stuff written on them. The boards, found in several classrooms, were covered with lessons and drawings, and even the names of some students. One featured a multiplication wheel, unfamiliar to any of the teachers. There were beautiful drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys, lists of spelling words, and lessons on cleanliness, all beautifully preserved.
Of course as chalk is intended to be a temporary medium, the boards obviously present a preservation problem. Fear of breakage prevents them from being relocated. So the school has covered some of the boards with plexiglass for display, hoping to preserve the lessons for another hundred years. Others have been re-covered behind walls, as Emerson is still a school building in use, and not all of the space can be sacrificed.
This past January a few more old chalk boards were found and the staff and students are pretty geeked out about the whole thing. Math teacher Sherry Read, whose classroom contains one of the old chalkboards, is particularly delighted because she points out that the drawings were left intentionally.
In an era before so many schools transitioned to using dry erase boards and markers instead of blackboards and dusty chalk, it was pretty much standard procedure to clean off the board and bang out the erasers at the end of the day. I remember in my elementary days (which were not a hundred years ago), that was the classroom job we fought over most.
But when these chalkboards were to be covered up, teachers from back in the day decided to leave behind evidence of what was happening in their classrooms, because if by chance someday, the boards were discovered behind the wall, they would be a record of the kinds of things going on in the classroom years ago. What a cool lesson for future generations to learn.
And that, to me, is the very coolest part of this story. Teachers teach. It’s what they do. Their methods may change over time as they discover new ways to motivate and inspire their students, but teachers have always been an innovative, creative, inspiring, and self-sacrificing bunch.
I am sharing this story today not only because it’s awesome, but also because this is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. I hope all the teachers out there are having a great week as we rapidly approach the end of what I’m sure at times has been a very long school year. Because even though you are probably underpaid, overworked, and may generally feel underappreciated, your lessons last lifetimes; and your influence, centuries.