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.
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.
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.
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.