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10 Things Disappearing from Elementary Schools

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Modern technology has changed the American classroom in many ways, as have parental attitudes. Here are some elementary school essentials that are either long gone or starting to disappear from the classroom.

1. Blackboards

The first classroom blackboard was reportedly installed at West Point in 1801. As the railroads spread across the U.S., so did chalkboards, as slate was now easily hauled long-distance from mines in Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania. By the 1960s, though, blackboards began to go green—literally. Steel plates coated with porcelain enamel replaced the traditional slate boards; the green was easier on the eyes and chalk erased more completely off of the paint. In the 1990s, though, whiteboards began creeping into classrooms. Turns out that even “dustless” chalk annoyed kids with allergies and got into the nooks and crannies of the computers that were beginning to become classroom fixtures.

2. Recess

There are many reasons why some schools are eliminating or shortening recess: students need every available moment for academics in order to prepare for standardized tests, too much liability lest a child gets injured, not enough budget to hire sufficient playground supervision, etc. Some schools that do still have recess have banned dodgeball or games like tag. Other schools have Recess Coaches who provide structured play and conflict resolution (Rock-Paper-Scissors rather than Pink Bellies) on the playground.

3. Cursive Penmanship

Who could have predicted that one day cursive handwriting would become a hot-button issue along the lines of school prayer and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? But thanks to computers and texting and all that fancy technology, script handwriting is slowly going the way of the abacus. Many educators believe that legible printing and good typing skills are all today’s students need to learn to succeed in the world, and cursive is a non-essential skill. I recall feeling quite grown-up when I started learning cursive in the second grade—I could now read all that “secret” stuff my mom and other adults were writing down!

4. Wall-Mounted Hand Crank Pencil Sharpeners

Maybe teachers were made of sturdier stuff Back in the Day, or maybe they just had a stock of Valium in the teacher’s lounge…how else did they survive without the “Classroom-Friendly Pencil Sharpeners” that are all the rage? Some are electric, some are manual, but they are quiet and many have a pop-out feature to prevent over-sharpening. Sure, these old-style sharpeners were awkward for southpaws to use, but to take away the fun of grinding a pencil down to a stub just for the heck of it? Sheesh.

5. Paste

Many school supply lists today require glue sticks, not the good ol’ white paste in a jar with an applicator that smelled so minty good it always inspired at least one kid to eat the stuff.

6. Film Projectors

The really fancy models came with a playback device that “beeped” when it was time to advance the filmstrip to the next frame. And it always seemed to take forever to get the picture just right on the screen (propping it up on one book, then two…then focusing…). But we didn’t mind the delay—it was just that much more time that we didn’t have to spend actually studying or paying attention.

7. 16mm Movie Projectors

The A/V captain had to turn the volume up to 11 most of the time, due to the poor sound quality of the ancient films and the clack-clack-clack noise of the sprocket holes moving through the machinery. Sometimes a series of holes were broken and the film would get “stuck” or skip. The projectionist knew then to stick a pencil in the lower loop and pull it just so to get the classic Coronet or Jiminy Cricket “I’m No Fool” educational short back on track.

8. Pencil Sharpeners with Exposed Razors

You probably don’t see many pencil cases with built-in times table cheat sheets any more, and even pocket pencil sharpeners have undergone a transformation in recent years. The models sold for student use are much more safety-oriented, with the blade concealed in a plastic cup or enclosure of some sort. In fact, in 2008 police were summoned to a school in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when a student was “caught” possessing a small razor blade. The police report stated that the “weapon” was obviously from a pocket pencil sharpener that had broken (the kid had the broken plastic pieces, too), but the school was obliged to call the law due to their “zero tolerance for weapons” policy.

9. Cigar Boxes

Even back in the 1960s, you could buy “school boxes” that were the same size and had the same hinged lid as a cigar box, but they had cutesy pictures of the alphabet and school supplies painted on them. And they cost money. So when kids brought home that list of necessary school supplies every year, many parents went to the local drugstore and got an empty cigar box for free. There was something rather soothing about opening that box up during the day to retrieve a pencil or ruler and getting a quick whiff of rich tobacco aroma. By the end of the year, of course, ol’ King Edward had an eye patch and warts drawn all over his face. Thanks to the decline of smoking in the U.S. and the idea of a tobacco product being near a first grader’s desk, most students bring those store-bought boxes to class these days.

10. Mimeographed Sheets

Sometimes called “dittos” and technically referred to as a spirit duplicator, they reproduced multiple copies of an original document in dark purple ink for the teacher to pass out. But the most important thing about a ditto sheet was the aroma—a fresh one smelled heavenly. It was pretty much a reflex—as soon as you were handed a freshly mimeographed paper, you lifted it up to your face and inhaled that delicious, indescribable fragrance.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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