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Give up my blackboard? "Never!' teachers insist

Barbara Trombini is so fond of the chalkboard in her first-grade class, she has refinished it three times.

Teacher Barbara Trombini knows change will come.

She survived Whole Language, accepted computers and lives with FCAT. But she draws the line when it comes to where she can draw a line.

Her chalkboard.

"I'll never give it up," Trombini says of the chalkboard in her first-grade classroom at Mittye P. Locke Elementary in New Port Richey. "It's nostalgic to me. A classroom needs a chalkboard."

She is among a small but determined minority of teachers resisting the invasion of "erasable marker boards" or "white boards." Their struggle began in 1991 when Fox Hollow Elementary became the first Pasco school to be built sans chalkboards.

But nowadays, few teachers use anything but white boards, and the unreformed minority laments the loss of yet another educational icon and all its trappings: clapping erasers together to produce a billowing cloud; the spine chilling screech of fingernails on slate; the joy of being chosen by a teacher to erase the boards at the end of the day.

Or, in the case of Gail Reynolds, the heartbreak of not being chosen.

"I remember the lucky kids in third grade who got to wash the blackboard," said Reynolds, a veteran English teacher at Zephyrhills High. "It was such an honor. I've always been short, so I was never a candidate . . ."

She mourns what the new technologies have done to students' appreciation of metaphor: phrases like "nails on a blackboard" or even "you sound like a broken record" will soon mean nothing to children.

"In that sense, I miss it," Reynolds said of her chalkboard. "I even refer to (the white board) as a blackboard."

Trombini clings to her blackboard like a life preserver. She's even partial to chalk dust, musty erasers and those weird wire-fingered chalk-holding contraptions for drawing lines across a chalkboard. (She has two of them, in fact.)

"The day I retire, the next teacher will probably want a white board, and they'll be gone," she says wistfully.

Trombini is so smitten by her chalkboards that she has refinished them herself. She's sanded the boards, and slathered them in a special green paint that restores a chalkboard's worn surface. More sanding and a "seasoning" coat of yellow chalk completes the restoration.

"It makes a mess," she said of the project, which she has undertaken three times. "I would have loved to have used a real slate board."

Northwest Elementary art teacher Sue Dieteman does have a real slate board.

It stands in the rear of her classroom, a venerable three-by-five board in an upright, easel-like frame. Its low-slung chalk rail has been worn smooth by the fingers of hundreds of students and teachers.

Dieteman shuns the new white boards. You can't sketch with markers, she says. You can't shade with them or blend their colors.

"I will never give this up," Dieteman says, running her finger down the slate board's wooden frame. "We're not putting it in storage because if we do, we'll never see it again."

Fans of the new marker boards say they're easier to write on, they clean up better than chalkboards and they can double as the classroom's movie screen. Kids like the colorful markers, and few miss all that allergy-irritating chalk dust.

Except, of course, the kids who got to clap the erasers together.

"One of the greatest joys was cleaning out those erasers," said Woodland Elementary Principal Randall Belcher, who has been around long enough to remember both authentic slate blackboards and the slide rule. "And if you held the chalk just right you could really make it squeak. Boy, can't you just feel that in your fillings right now?"

Nostalgia is fine, but for Susanne Jones, the issue is performance. And yesterday's technology just doesn't work with today's kids.

Last year, she taught in a portable classroom outfitted with white boards. Now she's in the main building at Mittye P. Locke Elementary in New Port Richey, and her new classroom is one of the few with nothing but chalkboards.

She has already asked that they be replaced.

"If I'm not entertaining (students), I'm losing them, and that thing," she says, pointing at her drab green chalkboard, "is boring."

At the request of a Times reporter, Locke teacher Margaret Hawley asked her third graders if they prefered the white board or the old, wood-framed blackboard that still hangs behind her desk. All but two children said they preferred the new white board.

Of the chalkboards that remain in Pasco classrooms, most hang forgotten in the back of the room or have been converted into bulletin boards. Many teachers simply have smaller white boards installed over their old chalkboards, drilled into place with screws that bite through slate. Worn wooden rails that once cradled chalk now hold magic markers and baby wipes, for cleanup.

Ever clap a couple of baby wipes together? It's not the same.

Chalkboards ages old

Chalkboards stood at the center of learning since Roman times, and they endured for centuries. Their downfall began when New York City began stomping out spit.

Like schools everywhere, New York City used to assign students their own individual slates, and kids used to spit on the little boards to clean them. In the 1940's school officials feared a health hazard. Their solution? Ban the boards. Other districts soon followed suit.

"That was a bad decision for the slate industry," said Ken Lerch, who helps run Structural Slate Inc., located near Slatington, in the heart of eastern Pennsylvania's slate belt.

"This area used to produce more than a million square feet of slate for blackboards," he said. "Now, it's not even 1 percent of our business."

School construction slowed to a crawl in the 1960s after the baby boomers graduated. With few districts building schools, the demand for slate blackboards went "down, down, down," Lerch said.

In the 1960s porcelain-enameled steel boards began replacing traditional slate blackboards. You still used chalk on them, but they were lighter and cheaper than slate, plus they were magnetic.

The 1970s brought the overhead projector, one of the first electric threats to the chalkboard's classroom supremacy, but the chalkboard held on, especially in elementary schools.

No one at Pasco's central office could recall precisely what prompted the switch to white boards in the early 1990s.

"I have no idea who came up with white boards," said Mary Giella, a former assistant superintendent of instruction who spent 29 years in Pasco public education. "It probably came from architects and contractors because educators, in those days, didn't have a whole lot of say in facilities and construction. I don't ever recall being asked, "Would you prefer white boards or chalkboards?' "

For the record, she takes a traditionalist's view on the issue:

"I felt the same way when I first saw the white board. I said, "Geez, why'd they have to go and change that?' "

The chalkboard held on for a while, mostly in schools where old boards were refinished or replaced with new ones.

Nevertheless, the white board seems certain to do for chalkboards what Atari did to Pong. Chalk dust gunks up classroom computers and asthmatics alike. Allergies, too, can be compounded by chalk dust.

While the new white boards are dust free, they are not without their dangers. One teacher recounted how she accidentally sprayed herself in the face with white board cleaning fluid. She's since switched to baby wipes.

And, as time marches on, even some of the old guard concede that it may be time to retire the chalkboard.

"I was one of the last to let my blackboard go," said Ruth Cottingham, a 38-year veteran at Hudson Elementary. "I thought I couldn't live without it, but we're in the 21st century now. We have to roll with the punches."

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 800-333-7505, ext. 6241, or at 869-6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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