I distinctly remember Mrs. Yang’s high school chemistry notes. Do I remember the formulas? No. Nor the various chemical bonds or the differences between nitrates and nitrites. What I do remember is her process. She would start her notes on one side of a two-sided chalkboard and talk while we copied down the material. Then she would wipe the board down with a wet sponge before flipping to the other side where the next round of notes awaited her eager chemists. Meanwhile, the wet side of the board dried so that she could repeat this process as many times as necessary to get through the lesson. Besides the glorious efficiency of this method, Mrs. Yang had another important reason for using the sponge: she was allergic to chalk dust. I still remember how she handled this seemingly insurmountable problem in the days before dry-erase boards.
The chalk allergy is no longer an excuse but the board can still cause consternation to teachers in our age of marvels: markers in a multitude of colors, and tips (chisel? bullet? fine?). Don’t forget to pick your scent. But let’s just put it out there: writing by hand is a pain. It is a physical pain as the muscles in the hand and wrist take on the strain of forming perfect letters…or pay the price for poor form. It is a mental pain as the imperfect spelling or deficient vocabulary or morning-muddled brain—perhaps your secret mortification—is exposed before the keen eyes of your pupils. It is a psychological struggle as ideas previously so clear are clouded by countless nagging doubts racing across your synapses as you attempt to conjure back that clarity.
Technology to the Rescue?
The obvious answer to all of these difficulties is quite simple: technology. With the use of slides, prepared in the comfort of the home or office, one can prevent the muscle ache with the typing method of your choice, auto-correcting your problems away and perhaps even pulling up a digital thesaurus to temporarily boost your presentation. Now those nagging doubts can be assuaged by coffee and the clinical conditions one finds most conducive to such work.
But is this an answer to the problem? In fact, are those aches we spoke of a problem at all? Are clinical conditions a reasonable expectation? Not surprisingly, the modern world does not hesitate to scoff at such questions. Why should we suffer throughout our lecture with the fickle ink of a marker, dirty cuffs, and the implicit risks of turning away from the roving eyes of the students? A well-planned slide show can present the proper information “complete” and clear before the pupils under our careful eye.
But the teacher’s task is not to click into existence numerous notes and citations for a student to blindly copy. The liberal arts, we know, are best learned and taught in hot debate and the same effort to collect one’s thoughts for discussion can be used in selecting just those few notes that will capture the conversation in the moment. The occasional necessity to slow down and consider the proper spelling of a word (even an easy one) is a sign of humanity and the teacher should not consider it a chink in his metaphorical armor. If even one’s notes cannot call back the clarity one had before, perhaps that clarity was not there at all. What more is needed to prove that clarity is hard to teach? And often discussion is the best aid to understanding.
Within the context of my own art and natural history classes, the white board poses additional challenges. Nothing humbles a teacher more than trying to make an accurate drawing in front of a pack of critical eyes—and then erasing it away in time for the next teacher. If writing notes keeps a teacher honest in his expectations for note-taking, drawing will certainly keep one honest in what to expect from a student’s drawings! However, seeing the process of drawing happen in front of their eyes also allows for a learning not accessible from a slide, digital image, or book. Watching this process helps students better grasp the simple shapes and humble beginnings of nearly anything they would try to reproduce in art. Meanwhile, the teacher will see more clearly those critical spots to nudge the students into greater accuracy.
One Teacher’s Process
When it comes to natural history notes, I will often make a first pass at the subject in which I draw the answers out of the students. Because it is difficult to know in what order the information will come, I will ask them to look and listen, but not write. This way, in a subsequent class I can put the notes into an ideal order and can even expect them to help in accomplishing this.
For example, on Monday I might ask the students to give characteristics of mammals and this list may start in many different places. The discussion will help clarify what traits are unique to Mammalia and which are not. Then, on Tuesday, I can expect them to help by giving those traits first. Now, as they copy the notes, less obvious traits of mammals can be expounded on or stories can be shared. This also is important to fill the gap between the slower writers and the fastest.
At the end of class, I will often snap a photo of the notes. This is to ensure that other sections of the same class get the same notes because this can pose a problem when testing if the students have been engaged in generating the information. If one class comes up with more examples of rodents, I can quickly have the other class add a few words into their notebook.
Of course, a teacher of biology, chemistry, mathematics, grammar or even literature and logic may put various digital tools to use for the purpose of imparting the formulaic aspects of that field. However, it is good to remember, as many a good coach has, that taking part in the efforts expected of the pupil will keep us honest – whether that be wind-sprints or wordy notes. The written note, however well or poorly scrawled, crafted, or spelled, is often the best way to show that we are all learning still.