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August 19, 2011

This is a chapter from my book on teaching. It’s a not-so-nostalgic look at the technology available to teachers when I started back in 1970. If you have teacher friends or if someone in your family teaches, send this to them—they’ll enjoy it. For that matter, you will too!


I have a cartoon I cut out and saved many years ago. The first drawing is of a middle-aged male teacher sitting at his desk correcting papers, a harried look on his face. The caption, like a voice-over, reads, “This teacher has various teaching aids at his disposal.” The next several drawings enumerate them: three pencils, four large erasers, one bottle of ink, one ruler, a box of white chalk, one straight pen, one hundred sheets of white paper, a dictionary, a box of thumb tacks and a chalk eraser. The final drawing shows the teacher again, looking off absently into space with the follow-up caption: “Plus forty-seven students in his classroom . . . At moments he still feels inadequate, even with all this technological backup.”

Teaching has changed in many ways since I started in 1970. For one thing, we no longer have anything like forty-seven students in our classes. (Heavens! I hope no one does!) Classroom technology has certainly changed, and radically, even when compared to the reality of 1970, let alone what our poor cartoon teacher could claim. Let me share with you the changes I’ve seen. For you veteran teachers, this will be a walk down memory (or maybe nightmare) lane. For you younger teachers, count your blessings.

The first big change for me was the advent of copy machines. I took a sabbatical in 1985 to pursue doctoral work at the University of Washington and when I returned to the classroom, I was amazed: Copy machines had replaced the ubiquitous ditto machines that I had previously used. For those who have never experienced the thrill of using a ditto machine, let me digress here for a moment and give you some idea of what that was like.

First, the ditto masters. There were many commercially-produced workbooks with the ditto masters all ready to crank out copies. But if I wanted to make my own, I was on my own. First were the blank ditto masters. These were 8 1/2 x 11 papers, slick and heavier than bond, attached at the top to a heavily purple-inked under-sheet. To create a ditto master for math, for example, I had to write the problems on the top sheet, bearing down hard so the back of the top sheet would pick up the purple ink underneath. For some assignments, or for a letter home, I could use a manual typewriter (remember those?), always keeping in mind that I had to strike the keys hard in order to make an impression. From this I learned that you can type fast or you can type hard, but you can’t do both.

Making ditto masters was a slow process, not even taking into account the many times I had to start over after making a mistake – there was no way to correct or erase. It was also messy: It was hard to avoid getting the purple ink on my hands and on my clothes, and equally hard to get it off.

After school, I could easily spend one or two hours laboriously making ditto masters for worksheets in three core teaching areas plus homework and a letter home to parents for a class of thirty. Then I was finally ready to make copies and it was off to the book room where the ditto machines hung out. Every school had at least two, sometimes more. These machines were about the size of a small piece of carry-on luggage and sat on a counter or table. There was a heavy metal drum at one end, a crank (until they replaced the manual ditto machines with new-fangled electric ones), a paper feed and a receptacle tray. This innocuous description, of course, doesn’t begin to convey just how unreasonable, even nasty, ditto machines could be.

Ready to start, I first had to make sure there was sufficient reactive fluid in the drum to make my copies. When there wasn’t, I had to take a heavy one-gallon can from its fireproof metal cabinet (does that tell you something?), take off the cap, attach a spout, and fill the drum through a small opening. It was awkward and many were the times I sloshed the fluid all over. (Many of us suspected the ditto machine somehow nudged the can, causing the spill.) When this happened, there was fluid everywhere: the machine, the table, my clothes, me and, worse, my stack of precious ditto masters. After the first couple of times, I learned to keep the masters away from the machine, like on the other side of the room.

I don’t know what that fluid was, but it was toxic, with noxious fumes. The first time I spilled it on myself must have given the ditto machine considerable satisfaction. It sloshed all over my hand and arm (worse: my masters I’d labored so hard over!) and I instantly experienced a freezing, numbing sensation, as if my arm were being flash-frozen. Then, as the liquid evaporated and feeling returned, my skin felt dry and cracked, as if moving it would cause the skin to split. And, to add insult to injury, I was left with a thin film of white residue on my arm. There was one small blessing, though: it evaporated so quickly I didn’t have to worry about cleaning it up; all I had to do was blow on it.

The next step was trying to actually make copies. To do so, I detached the master from the purple ink sheet and clamped it to the drum, giving the drum a slow turn to make sure the master was smoothed out, another lesson hard learned. If I didn’t take this precaution, the ditto machine would cheerfully crease and wrinkle the master as it rotated, cutting off some of the text or numbers. Then it was back to my room for ten, twenty, thirty minutes to make another master. Or, and this was much easier, I’d just think of something else to do for that class, something that allowed me to avoid the ditto machine altogether.

So, the drum is loaded (and I’m feeling a little loaded myself, from breathing in the fumes) and the ditto master is in place, uncreased and unwrinkled. I grab a small stack of white paper, slide it into the feeder tray and commence cranking and counting, wondering what else can go wrong.

Well, ditto machines had a whole book of things that could go wrong: The paper feeds crookedly. The master tears on the drum. Several sheets are picked up at once, instead of just one. The copies aren’t centered properly on the paper (fixable only through much trial and error). Too much fluid spreads on the master and my copies come out wet. It was a never-ending challenge to stay a step ahead of the ditto machine.

But, if all goes well, my master produces all the perfect purple copies I need and I can file it away till next year. And maybe next year I can squeeze out another thirty copies. After that, the purple ink starts to fade badly, producing copies too faint to read. More copies than that and it was back to square one.

Like cod liver oil, roller skate keys and fifteen-minute newscasts, ditto machines are now in the museum of what-used-to-be. Thank God!

Another piece of technology teachers take for granted today is the classroom telephone. Until relatively recently, most schools I was in had five, maybe six, in the whole school: two in the main office and one each in the principal’s office, the nurse’s office, the staff room and the custodian’s office. It was a hassle to make or receive calls. And forget making a private phone call—there was no privacy. Now, there’s a phone in every classroom and one in every pocket or purse.

Nor did most schools have a PA system. If the office needed to contact a classroom, a system of buzzers was used. One buzzer meant there was a phone message for the teacher. Two, send a messenger to the office. Three, custodian to the office. Four long buzzers signified rainy day recess. (A quick aside here: Rainy day recess is as common in the Great Pacific Northwest as fights at a hockey game. Teachers dread them because it means students take their break in the room, usually with the teacher supervising. It’s hard to say which is worse: the noise level or not being able to go to the bathroom.)

I spent several early years teaching in a big double portable. Other than “big,” I don’t know the exact dimensions but I had a lot of space. And a lot of space to heat in winter. The heating system (such as it was) was maybe two steps up from a bonfire. It consisted of two free-standing oil heaters, one in front and one in back. They were UPS brown, boxy, and stood maybe four feet high. During the cold weather months (October through April in Seattle) I had to turn them off when I left at the end of the day and fire them back up the next morning. This meant priming the combustion chamber with oil by vigorously depressing a small plunger several times. Next, I opened the door to the chamber, lit a piece of paper and tossed it in, hoping the oil would ignite. If not, throw in more lit pieces of paper until at some point the heater conceded defeat and I could see flames. But it still had its ways: It withheld heat for at least thirty minutes; that’s how long it took to begin to radiate warmth, even with the blower on full blast. (This, of course, made conversation in the immediate vicinity difficult, if not impossible.) After a cold weekend or after the four-day Thanksgiving break or, worse, after the two-week winter break, those heaters were really stingy. One year I had to take my class into the library for the first two hours; the temperature in the portable was forty-seven degrees.

And now? I don’t know about portables, but all the new schools built in Seattle have computer-controlled heating and cooling systems, controlled, I might add, from a central location somewhere downtown. Nobody knows just where and the custodian isn’t talking. If the room is too cold, someone calls downtown for more heat. But, teachers being the resourceful folks we are, we found a shortcut: put a wet paper towel over the thermostat and the heat would come on.

Computers? Document cameras? Overhead projectors? No such things when I started. We did have a monstrously large, heavy and cumbersome piece of equipment called an opaque projector. You could insert maps, photos, books, whatever, into it and it would project a weak image of the object onto a wall or a screen or you could trace it on butcher paper. No TVs (or VCRs and DVD players, of course.) We did have 16mm film projectors (and we had to attend a training session before they trusted us with it) and film-strip projectors. These have all joined the ditto machine.

Not surprisingly, our classrooms today are technology-rich compared with all those years ago. The technology in my double-portable back then consisted of . . . Wait, wait . . . I’m thinking. Lights. Two electrical outlets. The two heaters. A small, portable tape player. Oh, and I could check out a filmstrip projector or a 16mm film projector from the library, assuming no one else already had. And today’s classrooms? Technology is everywhere. New computers. Printers. TVs with VCR or DVD player. Telephone. Document camera. Motion-controlled lights. (In reference to this last one: Not all today’s technology is a boon. Do you have any idea how annoying it is to be sitting in the back of your room after school, correcting papers, and all of a sudden the lights go out? Every fifteen minutes I had to get up, walk to the front of the room and wave my arms at the sensor to make them come back on. Embarrassing when a parent walks by and sees this teacher mindlessly flailing his arms.)

But does technology always mean better? Are we better teachers now because of technology? Or, at moments, do we still feel inadequate even with all this technological backup? Perhaps Seymour Papert has put it best. He is an MIT mathematician, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and an educator. He asks us to imagine that a doctor and a teacher are transported from a century ago to the present. Technology has so changed today’s medical landscape, with new tests, drugs, knowledge, techniques, and equipment, that the doctor would be unable to practice medicine. Nevertheless, beyond a few small adjustments, a teacher from a century ago would fit well into today’s classrooms. Technology, he says, has been a huge expense for schools as well as a big disappointment. That assessment may be a little harsh, but I think we can agree that it’s still the teacher that makes the difference. Would you rather your child be in a class bereft of technology but with an experienced and inspired teacher? Or in a technology-rich class with a mediocre one? For me, the choice is clear.

Yep, it’s time for some more “If Only I Could Draw!!” humor.


Cartoon #36: Scene: A climber is puzzled by two signs he sees while struggling up a mountain. One has an arrow pointing up and says “UP. The other an arrow pointing down and says “DOWN”. Caption: Mountain climbing for dummies.

Cartoon #90: A father and son are looking at a statue of Gen. Lee. Father is saying to son, “Yes, son, General Lee was a great Southern adverb!”

Finally, a rather risque photo (for the time anyway) from Life magazine and an ad that was perfectly acceptable at the time. To men anyway.























2 Comments leave one →
  1. NRJ permalink
    August 19, 2011 9:40 pm

    Boy things were pretty cool when you were teaching! As a student of the 1940s and 50s, I think you had it good. I was on the “movie crew” in grade school, and when they wanted to see a movie I had to go down to the auditorium and set up a projector there. One teacher actually did bring his own slide projector one time so we could see pictures in our room. My portable experiences were all in high school – the small one unit kind – and we also had an oil furnace but no blower that I remember. Being a native Seattlite, not one of you California transplants, we toughed it out most of time by wearing warm clothes. I don’t remember much being done on the ditto sheets, but I do remember the smell of the thinner (probably some form of acetone or laquer thinner) which had a slightly sweet after-odor and hung around on the papers for quite some time. I took typing on a manual, but I thought that the schools would have started using electrics by your era. I was one of the rare ones who could actually use a camera (film) because not many people had decent cameras back then. I do agree that teachers are the big difference in education in any era. I had plenty of bad ones and a few really good ones that I remember. I tend to forget the ones in the middle and the mediocre. I can remember many bra ads in the magazines back then, and they always did seem to be aimed more at men than women for some reason – maybe so the husbands/boy friends could convince their ladies that they would be more attractive trying to imitate Annette Funicello. Not sure what your final picture is about. Getting ready for girls’ gym? A sex education class?

    • August 20, 2011 3:05 pm

      Do you remember how many students were in your grade school classes, more or less? It was probably a pretty high number. I count 33 in my third grade picture. And in secondary school in Mexico there were up to 50 in a class in the private school i attended. But it was a Catholic school and discipline, respect and order were never a problem.

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