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Omaha Magazine

Chalkboards to iPads: A Look Back at School Classrooms Through the Years

Oct 01, 2021 01:34PM ● By Jeff Lacey
iPad with chalked text on screen

Illustration by Derek Joy    

Depending on age, one might remember coming home from school covered in fine chalk dust. Or, they might remember the class heading to ‘the pit’—a recessed angular depression in the floor—in elementary school for story time or show-and-tell. Public school design has gone from box-like classrooms with rows of independent desks and chalkboards, to wide-open spaces with communal pits and overhead projectors, to modern-day flex-spaces and media rooms. Omaha Magazine looked at how schools have changed through the decades with the help of Pat Carson, principal architect of the new Westview High School being constructed on 156th and Ida streets.

“I will not chew gum in class. I will not chew gum in class…” 

Many over age 60 attended classrooms with large chalkboards fixed to a wall in the front, complete with a chalk tray and fine layers of pink, orange, or white dust settled in its grooves. These faithful standbys were believed to have been invented by a teacher in Scotland named James Pillans in 1801, when he innovated from the individual slates commonly used in that era. In the 20th century in the United States, these boards often came from slate quarries along the East Coast. 

Others, particularly those who taught for a living, might be familiar with the dry-erase boards used today. Teachers use these glossy white boards to write notes and reminders and construct educational games, employing a colorful array of erasable markers. 

According to Carson, the future of public writing in schools is the ability to write...everywhere. Desk surfaces that allow students to work out lessons in real time and collaborative work spaces on entire walls, or even columns, are being integrated in modern school designs in an attempt to facilitate creativity and learning. “Today, adaptability of the spaces in schools is important. Both students and teachers need, and want, a ton of options,” Carson explained. “Lots of writable surfaces help.” 

“Class, please pass your papers forward…”

The architecture of classrooms has varied through the centuries. School design is always evolving—from stick-framed, one-room school houses (in 1986, Nebraska had 385 one-room schoolhouses, the most in the country) to the open-plan concept schools of the ’60s and ’70s, complete with conversation pits and nary a door in sight. Those who walk into a modern classroom might find it loosely resembles the rows of desks they remember, but that might have less to do with tradition than with the needs of the work being done that day. The modern classroom is designed with flexibility in mind; administering a standardized test requires a different classroom configuration than group work or art projects. Carson said, “One of the things we try to keep from school design of the ’70s was the flexibility those kinds of spaces offered. Flexibility, but the ability to close a door if you need to.” Rest assured, the sound of a tote tray sliding back into place can still be heard from time to time. 

Big Chief Tablets to iPads

Trapper Keepers, spiral-bound notebooks, and pencil cases are still around (as the school-supply frenzy that begins every late July can attest), but the tools teachers and students use to do their work have evolved. The satisfying grind of a pencil sharpener bolted to the wall might still be heard in some classrooms, but one is even more likely to hear the dings and pings of email notifications. “Pretty much every person in a school will have at least one smart device for learning or work,” Carson explained. According to Carson, one of the most important things a student needs in order to get a 21st century education is “bandwidth.”

Not Your Mother’s Dodgeball Game

In the modern era of school design, there is no longer simply the ‘main gym’ and the ‘aux gym’ some might remember. A wooden pegboard might still lurk in a corner to claim its next victim, but with most high schools offering dozens of competitive athletic teams every year, PE facilities have come a long way.  OPS’s new Westview High School, for example, doesn’t just have a ‘gym.’ OPS has partnered with the YMCA, and the new school will be connected to a shared YMCA facility. The structure will house a fitness center, a six-lane pool, and multiple workout rooms along with gymnasiums, and the school and the YMCA will coordinate access for the community and students. According to Carson, this is a growing trend in school design: multi-use and co-located facilities. “Again, it comes back to accessibility and flexibility,” Carson said. “Partnerships like this are great opportunities for everyone in the community.” 

A state-of-the-art weight room that can be accessed by all members of the community is a far cry from the single, thick stranded jute rope hanging from the school ceiling, with faded red tumbling mats situated below it, waiting to catch the fallen. 

Class Dismissed

Schools being designed and built today are done so with care and consideration for the needs of teachers, students, and the community at large. “Communities deserve schools that work,” Carson said. “We have learned that we don’t want the building to get in the way.” 

This article originally appeared in the 60+ Section of the October 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.