Many years ago, my dad salvaged two old classroom chalkboards that had been scrapped when Garfield High School modernized. He refinished the wood around the edges, and gave one to my mom and one to me. I’ve hauled mine around from house to house, using it for jotting writing ideas, and letting kids draw. My mom installed hers on the kitchen wall of the farmhouse my parents lived in for 20 years. That kitchen, like most kitchens, doubled as command central, and the chalkboard was soon an integral part of its operations. Phone numbers, reminders, doodles, plans, love notes from visiting aunties — what didn’t that chalkboard hold. And when my brother-in-law proposed to my sister by letter (and watercolor painting of him down on one knee) from Iraq, she announced the news (and her gleeful YES!) on that board.
In my classroom, a different kind of board has become a similar medium. We use the cardboard backs of old pads of paper as hard surfaces for writing when we want to sit on the couches, or heck, lie under them to write instead of going to a table. But you stick something in the hand of a child holding a pencil, and guess what? It gets written on too. And when those things get passed around between children, they become a visual conversation.
A written transmission of micro culture
So the boards are not just utilitarian rectangles of cardboard. They are canvases for intricate drawings, scribbles, polls, exchanges between friends in different classes, proselytizing about pet causes (Hamilton! Donuts! Pinocchio!), frustrations, and so much more. Sometimes a kid will add their flavor to every board. Pinocchio! Pinocchio! Pinocchio! And then at some point someone will get tired of it and scrawl STOP WRITING ABOUT PINCHO!!!!!!! Sometimes people will scribble over each other’s drawings, other times they will add to them. Sometimes a kid will (futilely) try to convince everyone to leave a board pristine.
What strikes me about both my class’s boards and my mom’s chalkboard, is that they function as cultural objects. I mean, they are vehicles for connection and expression specific to the people who use them. They also both allow people to speak beyond the present moment and the present crowd.
This is the power of writing: writing as necessary for cultural functioning, and simultaneously writing as a creative and silly social form.
Making a writing hub
I challenge you, as you settle into this school year, to think about ways to facilitate a similar process. How can you encourage a written exchange where writing becomes a functional and integral part of your family or class culture? Some possibilities:
Central hub whiteboard/chalkboard
A sticky note pad and a fridge
Whiteboards for notes on bedroom doors (was this common in your college dorms like it was in mine, when cell phones weren’t so much a thing?)
Sticky notes on the bathroom mirror
Lunchbox or backpack notes
Hidden love notes
And of course there are plenty of digital ways to have these conversations, though I think there is something about the physicality of boards and paper notes that is important, especially for kids.
Whatever it is, the point is that they are functional, and that there is the invitation for everyone to participate in their own way, whether that is by drawing or writing or altering what is already written.