Teacher’s Tools: Blackboard and Chalk

well-worn chalk on blackboard tray

well-worn chalk on blackboard tray

I enjoy unexpected topics on random subjects that bring back memories or open a new horizon. Such was my experience last week as I read the weekly edition of The Chronicle Review (May 23, 2014) in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The back page had an article titled Ode to the Blackboard. It was written by Professor Michael McFee from UNC Chapel Hill English department. I’ll attach the link here: (although it is probably locked without subscription access)


He prefers to teach using the classic blackboard with chalk even when white boards, dry-erase markers, and high-tech devices with PowerPoint have replaced it in most classrooms. I agree with Professor McFee. Technological advancement is not synonymous with pedagogical advancement. Some things don’t need upgrades to newer versions; blackboards and chalk version 1.0 work just fine.

My school home 1968-1976

My school home 1968-1976


“The blackboard is part of a classroom’s theater, part of the stage for a teacher’s performance.”          Michael McFee

I was fortunate to attend Nebo Elementary School in Nebo, Kentucky starting in the late 1960s. Nebo was a small, rural town situated between the farms and coalfields of western Kentucky just four miles from the smaller village of Manitou, my home. The school had been K-12 at one time; my parents and three older brothers all passed through its doors. I was the last of the family to receive an education there; the greatest challenge saved until the end.

The teachers performed miracles with chalk on a blackboard, depths of patience, and great intelligence. The constant classroom feature was the blackboards that stretched across the front of the room with another one down the side wall. To this day, I remember the names of most of the teachers.

There was Ms. Tucker in 1st grade where I learned to spell my name for the first time–I didn’t know whether to write Sammie or Sammy although my name was Samuel. Third grade was Ms. Barron who taught multiple generations of students including every member of my family from the 1940s onward. She would hand a piece of chalk to each student to practice cursive letters on the board. Ms. Martell took the stage in the 4th grade in a classroom that opened into the gymnasium, somewhat of a noise issue.

The 5th grade was Ms. Hocker, the only African-American teacher in the school. As the 5th grade spelling bee champion I advanced to the county competition in Madisonville in 1973. She drove me to the county competition in her Volkswagen Beetle–I was the first contestant to sit down when I misspelled ‘separate’ by saying S-E-P-E-R-A-T-E. I was disappointed but it didn’t seem to bother Ms. Hocker much. She even bought my lunch before we drove back to the school in the afternoon.

By the time I reached the 7th and 8th grades, all my teachers were men for the first time. There was Mr. Cannon, Mr. Dunville, and Mr. McFadden. The volume of blackboard usage and chalk dust was greatly increased as the math, science, and social studies required extended formulae and explanations to be written on the board.

“…I appreciate what it leaves on my fingers. It’s like having sawdust on your skin after working with wood: a sign of honest industry.”                                                         Michael McFee

The chalk dust was a sign of work on the hands of the teachers after presenting the world of knowledge to the audience of young minds. Much like a carpenter building a house or a coal miner bringing anthracite out of the earth, each exhibited the residual dust on their hands indicating productive labor.

At the end of the day the teacher needed the felt erasers cleaned. The student or students chosen for the honor were usually ones with good behavior for the day. Even I was chosen, occasionally. There were four acceptable methods of getting the chalk dust from the erasers. The clapping method of hitting two erasers together worked fine, but created too much dust close to the face. I preferred the other three methods which involved beating the erasers against a tree, the brick school wall, or the concrete sidewalk. It allowed us to burn off some energy at the end of the day.

chalk eraser


“Writing on a blackboard is like writing a letter, or a poem, by hand. For one class period, what you’ve written is your holograph.

Then it goes away. Like all writing. Like us.

Except it doesn’t, not totally.”                       Michael McFee

Michael McFee is first and foremost a poet. The sentences quoted above, although written as prose in his essay, are poetic. The days of old blackboards and chalk dust are fading rapidly as the digital age continues to expand. As with any teaching tool, whether chalk on blackboards or stylus on computer screens, the tool is not the most important item. The teacher controlling the direction of the tool is the genius that drives education. I’ve been fortunate to have some of the best.

Thank you, Professor McFee, for taking me on a trip down memory lane.

Happy Birthday, Miss Jones. Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post, March 17, 1956.

Happy Birthday, Miss Jones.
Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post, March 17, 1956.




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W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Photo Essay, ‘Country Doctor’

World Family Doctors Day: Celebrating the family doctor around the world. It is well worth the time to revisit photojournalist W. Eugene Smith’s ‘Country Doctor’ photo essay from LIFE in 1948. The thirty-eight photos document the challenges faced by Dr. Ernest Ceriani in rural Colorado.

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Key West: The Ferry and Seasickness

view from the Key West Express before departure--serene

view from the Key West Express before departure–serene


The early morning hours of May 8th were beautiful as we drove up Estero Boulevard along the Gulf coast toward Ft. Myers. The sun was rising and we were excited about our trip to Key West via the Key West Express, a ferry to the island. The trip would take about four hours in the comfortable three-level cruise ferry equipped with refreshments, movies, sports bar, sun chairs, and beautiful scenery of the southern Gulf of Mexico. The poem by Masefield describes the feeling as Lincoln, Anita, and I started the adventure.

Sea Fever


 John Masefield


I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

from Ft Myers to Key West

Key West Express from Ft Myers to Key West

The first hour and a half went by smoothly. The coastline from Ft. Myers, Estero, Bonita Springs, and Naples began to fade away and finally, south of Marco Island, nothing but the sea was visible and waves. Up and down slowly and more waves, up and down waves of water, then waves of nausea, then waves of sweat. I was smart enough to bring Dramamine for the trip. I wasn’t smart enough to take it before the trip.

The details of the last two hours of the trip are not necessary for the general public. Needless to say, Anita and I were sitting on the floor, heads down, eyes closed. Lincoln wasn’t affected by the rock and roll of the boat; his years of rock and roll tour bus rides apparently good training.

So, although I started with the poem by John Masefield, the parody, Sea Sickness, by poet, Arthur Guiterman became most appropriate.

Sea Sickness


Arthur Guiterman


I must go down to the seas again, where the billows romp and reel,
So all I ask is a large ship that rides on an even keel,
And a mild breeze and a broad deck with a slight list to leeward,
And a clean chair in a snug nook and a nice, kind steward.

I must go down to the seas again, the sport of wind and tide,
As the grey wave and the green wave play leapfrog over the side.
And all I ask is a glassy calm with a bone-dry scupper,
A good book and a warm rug and a light, plain supper.

I must go down to the seas again, though there I’m a total loss,
And can’t say which is worst: the pitch, the plunge, the roll, the toss.
But all I ask is a safe retreat in a bar well tended,
And a soft berth and a smooth course till the long trip’s ended


Sunset Key across from Key West

Sunset Key across from Key West

The beautiful Sunset Key with calm waters was a rewarding end to the ferry ride across the Gulf. The waves of nausea resolved and the week of fun in Key West awaited. Lincoln was ready for the networking with friends and colleagues at the Key West Songwriters Festival and Anita and I were ready for rest and relaxation.

It was appropriate to start with poet, John Masefield, and I’ll end with him, too. His poem Trade Winds is a soothing entry for days on a tropical island.

Trade Winds

In the harbour, in the island, in the Spanish Seas,
Are the tiny white houses and the orange-trees,
And day-long, night-long, the cool and pleasant breeze
Of the steady Trade Winds blowing.There is the red wine, the nutty Spanish ale,
The shuffle of the dancers, the old salt’s tale,
The squeaking fiddle, and the soughing in the sail
Of the steady Trade Winds blowing.And o’ nights there’s fire-flies and the yellow moon,
And in the ghostly palm-trees the sleepy tune
Of the quiet voice calling me, the long low croon
Of the steady Trade Winds blowing.

Author Notes

From SALT WATER POEMS AND BALLADS, edited by John Masefield, published by The MacMillan Co., NY, © 1921, p. 54; first published in SALT-WATER BALLADS, © 1902.




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Hey, doc! When are you going concierge?

doctors bag

I’ve been asked this question many times in my twenty-three years of practicing medicine, although mostly in the last five years. Concierge medicine, in a nutshell, is when a doctor asks for an annual pre-paid fee to give his/her enrollees more direct, convenient, timely, personal care compared to the traditional model. For example, most of us in primary care practice have 2000 -3000 patients under our care. In a concierge practice, the doctor would send a letter to all his panel of patients describing the new practice model and telling them that the first 300-500 who sign a contract and submit the fee will be on-board while the remaining patients will need to look for a new doctor. The annual fee per patient can vary from $1500 to $3000 and that is in addition to insurance billing.

Most concierge doctors I know are great doctors. The patients seem happy with the personal attention and ease of access to the doctor. The financial benefits to the doctor are usually better in a concierge practice, although some concierge practices have failed due to mismanagement.

Everyone wins, right? Wrong! Only a few winners come out in the concierge model. The physician and the patients with the financial means to enroll are the winners. The roughly 85% of the rest of the patients have lost. The primary care shortage is made worse as the residual patients are left looking for a doctor still accepting new patients.

Concierge medicine is a good thing for very few. I am interested in a healthcare system that expands coverage and primary care access. I didn’t choose family medicine to get rich, so from that standpoint I succeeded. I chose family medicine as a service industry not a profit industry.

The following article by author and Boston Globe columnist, Alex Beam, gives a personal story about concierge medicine.


The answer to the question, “Hey, doc! When are you going concierge?” is, “It is not in my foreseeable future.”

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Live Oak and Moss

Live Oak Bonita Cemetery

At the end of a busy day at the office the drive home is often routine. It’s easy to focus on the traffic and news on the radio. Sometimes a diversion will literally fly across the road in front of the car in the form of a Wood Stork or Great Egret. Bald Eagles live here too and seeing one soaring above the hustle and bustle of civilization always takes me to a different frame of mind.

As I came to a stop at the corner of Imperial and Bonita Beach Road, I glanced toward the west with the sun in my eyes and was struck by the beauty. The small cemetery is fronted by a very large Live Oak tree draped with Spanish Moss. It’s always there, but I don’t always ‘see’ it as I did today. Serene would be the best description of the scene–a tree, gravestones, and the setting sun. Being in the moment is the key to ‘seeing’ things in a different light.  It was brief–the stoplight changed to green–but the day was changed, forever.

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YJHM: Samuel K. Parish, “All Saints House”

YJHM: Samuel K. Parish, “All Saints House”.

This essay was published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine. It is one chapter from my novel pending publication, The Blind Caduceus.

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Reading — Keep Calm and Carry On

The photos of people reading in London after WWII bombing blitz. Making the best of a bad situation. I wonder what books they are reading? ImageImage

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