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An ode to chalk. Yes, chalk. [Commentary]

As the school year ends, teachers reflect, reminiscing about their favorite students, reveling in their successes. Nostalgia lingers as books are packed, lessons stored, and students' notes of appreciation are scanned and filed on a flash drive as "artifacts"— an outcome of the Common Core.

While this year brought complaints from colleagues over everything from teacher accountability to lavatory access during school reconstruction, I realize my year lacked something much more poignant than political policy or bladder relief: chalk.

Call me old-fashioned, but chalk is integral to education. It is definitely among the top five symbols of education. How many Back to School ads will feature text in a chalk-simulated font? Practically all movies set in schoolhouses, from A Christmas Story to Mean Girls, feature backdrops of blackboards scrawled with chalk. But there are no blackboards in my school anymore. We have whiteboards. What's the big deal? Plenty.

First of all, there is something rooted in the brain of American school children that registers the sound of chalk on board as the start of class. Sure, school bells ring. But everyone knows that instruction begins with the first tap of chalk on the board, followed by the smooth scratching as words form. Oh the suspense! What will the teacher write? Read all of chapter 6 tonight? Test on Friday? What?! The slow revelation of information creates a palpable energy.

Alas, this is a memory. A purported benefit of whiteboards is that they double as screens, allowing teachers to project drills, homework assignments, entire lessons even. While I'm all for using multimedia in class, I need a chunk of board space for what I call "Organic Tangents." These are little sidebars of information that relate to my lesson; often they define terms or visually illustrate written images in a text. In the good ol' days, I'd grab a nub of chalk and, a few gestures later, (much like Edward Scissorhands) reveal an image worth pondering.

Chalk responds immediately to pressure and makes marks consistently. Whiteboard makers do not. Ideally, writing utensils work best when the ink drains down; whiteboards demand markers be held horizontally. This means that ink does not flow fluidly from the moment of contact. Nothing negates the energy created when underlining a word for emphasis than to have the marker fail. It inspires laughter instead of respect for the subject.

Another great thing about chalk is you can see how much you have. To write a lot, grab a big piece. A quick note? A little stub. One never knows how much ink is left in an EXPO marker. How frustrating to be mid-sentence — in front of an audience of 30-plus teenagers — and have a marker run out. It knocks the wind right out of your sails. It's the markers' lack of transparency that makes them untrustworthy.

When markers do work, they work too well. When you erase chalk, it's gone. But markers are stubborn; they don't wipe clean with a swipe. They require a noxious chemical cleaner to completely erase, and who has time for room-cleaning in the middle of a lesson? Consequently, new words are written on faded words, distracting each other, minimizing the impact of fresh information.

Essentially, chalk is an artist's tool, and to consider teaching anything less than art is to reveal ignorance. Chalk, like paint or clay, can be manipulated for effect. Chalk can be held so the tip forms thin lines or rubbed sideways to quickly create swaths of color. Chalk can be glided gently to make subtle marks or pressed firmly to show intensity, even creating drama when breaking. Oh how many times chalk underscored my passion, snapping in the heat of my sentence writing as I modeled absolute phrases, words scrambling from brain to board! When chalk breaks, there is still more chalk in your hand! No need to stop the flow of thinking, just more writing and drawing and performance art.

I'll acknowledge chalk creates dust, and I've had my share of sneezing spells, but my school has had multiple asbestos abatements this year, which concern me a lot more that chalk dust. I know I must adapt to changes in education and that good instruction can happen in any environment, but I feel my lack of chalk symbolizes our constant struggle with education reform: Politicians keep trying to fix aspects of education that work just fine.

Mary Beth Stuller teaches English at Hereford High School in Parkton. Her email is mstuller@bcps.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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