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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2001 / 17 Teves, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

White boards taking over classrooms -- "MY GRANDMOTHER," a friend told me, "could diagram a sentence on a chalkboard in perfect Palmer Method script, writing behind her back while facing a class and telling the kid in the second row from the back of the classroom to sit up straight."

She sighed heavily. It all sounded so distant and foreign.

That kind of eyes-in-the-back-of-their-heads teaching skills seem as quaint as a yellowed class photograph. We are the unworthy descendants of a people with better penmanship, more exact grammar and astounding fine-motor ability who taught our ungrateful parents so that one day we could be even more ungrateful students.

Penmanship diminished even as pens improved and then it disappeared altogether with the click of a mouse.

And now, even the chalkboard is on its way out.

That last development hit me last week. The school my children attend opened a new building when the students returned from holiday. Reports were that it is new and beautiful and modern and cool.

And, following a trend that first swept colleges and then hit the public schools, it does not have blackboards. It has white boards.

This, my sources noted approvingly. They saw it as an outward sign of progress in their backward community.

Me, I'm not so sure. White boards are those glossy surfaced things I associate with refrigerator jotting boards and tedious meetings.

We are a graphically spoiled people. Given the choice between black-and-white script in precise Palmer Method lettering or indifferent grocery-list cursive in five colors with arrows and circles and a chart that seems to sum it all up -- but actually looks like nothing more than a child's drawing of a spider -- well, we'd pick the latter, thank you.

It may or may not tell us anything, but it does feel like more information. And more information is good. Always.

Speaking only as one who fled a promising substitute-teaching career, I will be sorry to see this changeover move into the classroom.

A chalkboard forces one to write bigger. There are no fine-point chalk sticks in a 12-piece, $1.25 box. A good thing in a larger class. And it forces one to write in several subtly different styles as the end rapidly wears down at different angles. When it goes down to an inch, you can then turn it on it side and draw large letters to great dramatic effect. More lost skills.

A dry-erase marker, by contrast is a sadly unvarying instrument. Its inviting, smooth surfaces work against the discipline of penmanship. And so do your cheaper, mushy-point markers.

If chalk forced one to be concise on the board, the gliding ease of a marker tempts teachers into essays, over-elaborate diagrams and print that gets tinier as it approaches the bottom and edges of the board.

White boards tempt teachers into time-consuming multicolored artistic endeavors. Be warned: Half of a lovingly rendered footprint-shaped paramecium -- ringed with cilia, complete with vacuoles and swirly trichocysts -- can transfer to some punk's denim jacket in an instant.

On the other hand, teachers may no longer be identified outside the classroom by smudges of chalk on their backs and sleeves. They may now go home with five colors rubbed on their backs and sleeves.

This is progress. Still, I wonder. White boards are cool, but they encourage us to expect snazzier presentation from teachers. And snazzy presentation has a way of distracting a teacher from actually talking with a class. As well as spotting what the kid in the second row from the back is doing.

But I'm consoled by the thought that apple-polishers no longer will weasel cheap brownie points by cleaning erasers. That and the sheer awesome beauty of five-color sentence diagraming.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2000, M. R. Lane