This article originally appeared in the October 1991 issue of The Teaching Professor. We're republishing it as part of a 35th anniversary retrospective of some of the newsletter's best writing. Look for more classic articles throughout 2022. We'll pair them with short commentaries from our editors or, in some cases, the original authors.
You may be wondering, Why in the world are we reprinting a 1991 piece from The Teaching Professor on using the blackboard? Hasn’t the use of blackboards (now mostly green, sometimes white) declined to the point of insignificance for all but a few of us? Digital alternatives abound and offer an array of options not possible on a blackboard.
The title of the piece does signal its topic, but the content is larger than what gets put on the blackboard. Author Reloy Garcia writes about ways teachers can help students organize course content. Garcia makes use of these techniques on the blackboard, but they’re approaches that can be applied however content is presented and discussion of it facilitated.
Garcia’s approaches masterfully involve students in making sense of content. For example, he uses the blackboard as a “sidekick” or partner that helps the class keep track of a discussion. The teacher briefly writes down key comments, questions, and opinions. The teacher listens, records, and talks less so students talk more. “What better way of refereeing a debate than to draw a line on the board between opposing sides to record the arguments. At times a teacher must stand back to make room for students to argue.” A written record of what’s been said makes it easier to connect ideas, to see how they relate and where they overlap.
Students tend to fixate on content details. They fill their notes (if they’re taking notes) with bits and pieces of information. They don’t have time (or aren’t given it) to put the parts to together, to make of what’s separate a whole. Garcia doesn’t do that for students, but he uses the blackboard to show them how they can organize, structure, and preserve content details for future use.
I wish I remembered more of what’s appeared in the newsletter. So many teachers have written so many good things. Some articles have stuck with me; they changed how I thought and the way I taught. This timeless piece is one of those.
In this high-tech era teachers often look askance at blackboards, most of which aren’t even black any more. Blackboards are something math instructors still scribble on, and are good for leaning against, although they dust your clothing and make you sneeze. And we all cringe when badly angled chalk buzzes our teeth and jars our ears. This sometimes snobbish, always unfortunate attitude closes off many teachers from what can be a most effective and flexible aid to teaching through discussion methods.
In the first place, the blackboard as a table of contents or tour guide is an excellent shorthand way to alert and focus the class, and to provide a visual structure of the overall class design, making it easier for students to follow a discussion, thus encouraging participation.
A student can more easily grasp the logical progression of the class when its X-ray is on the board, and even use the visual aid to structure note-taking. The shorter and more memorable the “leaderettes”—and the closer to what I call “student shorthand”—the better. This is an excellent focusing device, which every teacher knows who has sensed a class become quiet as written material appears on the board.
I see two alternatives for handling the “tour”: to write the whole thing out in advance (it takes only seconds to write leaderettes) or two write the leaderettes for sections as they are taken. These options work equally well but, surprisingly, give a different “feel.” One seems inductive (the one-at-a-time), the second deductive. The former allows the student to see how a plan is realized according to a scheme, the second how it is built brick by brick.
Whether one is posting the results of small-group discussions or of responses to questions, listing troublesome questions, listing “truth statements,” key symbols and images, or examples, collecting student reactions or questions, or posting shorthands of critical interpretations, the blackboard is a perfect basket. Further, one can arrange or rearrange them as they are recorded, in whatever order suits the teacher’s purposes. Let’s say you ask, “What would you say is the key theme of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher? What’s the principle within his subject matter?” Student responses to questions serve as excellent starting points for discussions, particularly when labeled with their names: “Philip’s Thesis,” “Beth’s Argument,” etc.
A variation of this listing strategy employs the blackboard as window, for venting purposes, to open discussions of particularly difficult concepts or ideas. Students often harbor resentments or criticisms against demanding work and it’s best to get these reservations out early to trace the causes of the resentment.
One can use the blackboard as a “Portrait Gallery,” listing the names of key characters if personalities are a relevant part of the content and recording student impressions and observations.
This is the age of film and television. Why not exploit the modern addiction to screen images and use the blackboard as TV? A chart or diagram, what I call a “Dramatic Tree,” which shows how the concepts relate to one another, clarifies an otherwise muddy situation.
And I’ve used the blackboard as a theme or motif guide, to trace an image, phrase, or metaphor, or to track a concept such as “fertility and barrenness,” or “guilt and responsibility” as it cuts across the material we’re discussing.
Certain words hook the reader and concentrate the class, and the blackboard can be used to hook and magnify, just as some phrases, metaphors, themes, characters, etc. need magnifying to record their singular importance. In discussing Oedipus Rex, for example, you can’t avoid the concepts of Fate, of collective obligations and individual responsibility. “Fate” and “Responsibility,” written on the board, are good hook words. Inevitably a student makes a striking insight, which I write an abbreviated version of on the board. Occasionally, I underline or circle it for double effect, or write “Bingo” by it.
Sidekick, explainer, and referee
The blackboard is an excellent sidekick. Here the blackboard is a recorder, posting key points of an evolving discussion, greatly abbreviated, of course, so as not to slow its momentum. Often all that is needed is the key word of the student’s question, opinion, or comment, perhaps tagged with a name, ready for instant playback later for deeper discussion. Once there are several of these, one may connect them to show their interrelationship.
In discussing difficult concepts, the blackboard is an excellent explainer. A chart or scheme on the board is an excellent way to show the relationships.
The blackboard makes an excellent referee. At the core of so much of what we teach in the college curriculum squirms human conflict. This must produce arguments and debates in the class; if these don’t emerge under their own power, they must be dragged out with “forced debates” or with “reverse thinking” exercises, where students are forced to champion views they oppose. What better way of refereeing a debate than to draw a line on the board between opposing sides to record the arguments? At times a teacher must stand back to make room for students to argue.
A teacher probably can’t summarize too much. I can think of no better aid for this than to use the blackboard as a summarizer to review the key elements of the discussion. Or, better, I erase whatever was on the board before and ask students to summarize from memory. At the end of a discussion, I commonly circle the pertinent phrase or concept on the board to focus attention on what we are summarizing.
Similarly, I often use the blackboard as a transition device, either between sections or between classes. At the beginning of a class, I say, “Tell me one major concept we discussed last class.” This connecting strategy is especially useful over a long weekend or when vacation has interfered with the continuity of a discussion.
And a final few points
Incidentally, to write something that takes more than a handful of seconds, I get to the classroom early and write it out before my students arrive. I don’t waste valuable discussion time writing extensive notes on the blackboard. Cursed with bad handwriting, I try to remember to print, and I always abbreviate to avoid slowing the class momentum. I say aloud what I am writing, both to eliminate confusion and to reinforce the point.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the blackboard, used properly, can encourage or extend class discussion, which is perhaps its chief virtue. Helping to start discussions, to record key points, and to summarize, the blackboard facilitates discussion because it opens up and involves the class in a common pursuit.
Perhaps because it poses no threat to the student, the blackboard helps to shift the burden of the discussion to students. Partly this is because the teacher is working for them, helping to record or shape their observations. What students think and say, the blackboard attests, is worth a public record.
Thus, the board doesn’t substitute for class discussion; it forms part of a coherent classroom discussion and questioning strategy. Interestingly, the board deflects the teacher’s impulse to lecture, drawing the teacher out from behind the lectern or desk, which is an added benefit—although it is an excellent complement when one does lecture.
One last thing: When you’re done, clean the board.
Reloy Garcia, PhD, is a professor emeritus of English at Creighton University.