The Chalk Award was not pre-meditated. It arrived into my consciousness as a lark. I put the date at 2005. But don’t hold me to this. I was always enchanted by the chalk dust that was left at the end of a good day of teaching and learning. I remember banging my erasers against the chalk ledge (I still do) and creating the clouds of dust. But there was something about that residue that was important. Like sands on a beach that record the chipping away of time, the chalk dust represented the finite pieces of coded symbols that make up our language of learning. I recognized the implication of that dust but I needed a further stimulus to latch on to its importance.
That stimulus was the age of technology that began to push aside the chalkboard for LCD Projectors, Smart boards, wipe boards, etc. As a history teacher, I was enamored by the hornbook of yesteryear. It was clean, environmentally positive, and long lasting. It was steeped in the tradition of public education in the United States (Satan-Deluder Act, 1640 Massachusetts). And chalk was the simple ingredient that was needed for students to display their mental processes and understanding and ultimately, their learning. Chalk had dominated the process of education for over a century and a half in the United States. It was identified with school and learning just like the yellow bus; it was an industry almost in and of itself for teachers.
It clicked! Chalk was associated with school and learning for over a century and now its presence in schools was beginning to wane because new technologies made it arcane. We were digitized and distancing ourselves from that archaic past. So, chalk was going to be an artifact from the history of education just like the hornbook of the 19th century. It was going to be a museum piece. It was simple, unnoticed implement of education. It began to appear less and less in classrooms and when I ordered some boxes of chalk, I felt the stigma of being outdated.
Then, one day (I cannot precisely identify it), near the end of a class that had been particularly stimulating for both the students and me. They had asked some tremendous questions of depth and we had entered that exhilarating stage of the “teachable moment” where the sense of wonder is acute and the entire class is engaged and I am fired up because my students are so fired up. I stopped, looked at the small, gnarly piece of chalk in my hand, turned to the class and announced that there was a ‘chalk award.’ If I had met any pooh-paah-ism, I would have retracted. But the sets of willing eyes stared at me in anticipation. I explained that what I held in my hand was a worn piece of chalk that could hardly be used again in the classroom but it was an artifact of the class for that day. To preserve this small piece of a tool and to revisit it 10, 20, 35 years from now would be awesome. It would represent a piece of a student’s learning on a specific day in time. It’s even believable that chalk would not exist as a learning tool, 10, 20, 35 years from now; it would be passé. So, I continued to improvise. I said that it needed to be put into a small plastic baggy for preservation. On a small piece of paper, there should be the date of the class and the topic discussed placed in the baggy. And then, the crowning glory of the award was where it was to be kept for perpetuity. IN YOUR JAMMIE DRAWER!!! (aka the Pajama Drawer) WE had now created a ritual!!! I asked facetiously if everyone had a ‘jammie drawer’ and there was some self-conscious looking around. I asserted that everyone had a jammie drawer (even yours truly) and that if you didn’t, you needed to make one. You are not cool if you don’t have a jammie drawer.
In our overly sophisticated world where kids grow up fast in their attitudes, their forms of communication, their relationships, and their quickened pace of establishing themselves with a focus on “I,” chalk and jammies were simple symbols that made a surreal appeal. There was a comical side to it all as we laughed about the process of labeling and securing the “chalk award.” But somehow, I had created a brass ring. Students began to ask when the next chalk award is; what are the criteria for getting one; will we all have the opportunity to receive one? My answers were vague because I was creating along the way. There were no set patterns for the award. The piece of chalk had to be small and gnarly and the product of a class of genuine engagement. The criteria are eclectic: a good question, a great test, an act of kindness, super work on a team, great comportment; the criteria evolved. (Note: One of my first recipients of the chalk award was a young man who asked some great questions in class. I didn’t know him or his reputation. When I gave him the award, students stifled some laughter. The student asked me days later why I gave him the award. I told him that he was really involved in the class and had asked some true questions of wonder and that merited a chalk award. His eyes said it all. Here was a kid that I later found out, was somewhat of a class clown. His peers knew that and found it funny that he would be awarded with anything. But the chalk award had endowed him with an accolade that perhaps had never been recognized in this young man. He graduated from CV, joined the navy and is stationed at Pearl Harbor. Each year since graduation, he has come back to visit me on leave at CV. And, one of the first things that he tells me is that he still has his chalk award, it is with him at Pearl Harbor.)
The answer to does everyone get one is No. Too often today, we give kids awards for the purpose of “self-esteem.” Self-esteem comes from within. Human beings know when they have done something meritorious to be recognized and awarded. And although, most like, want, and expect an award for the public exhibition of it all, in the quiet moments of self-reflection, there is a personal self-evaluation of the worth of that visible manifestation of accomplishment. Being a member of a team is an achievement in and of itself. It does not need a token to signify your worth. You participated and perhaps gave your best but that does not mean that you get a trophy. No again. Maybe you did not warrant a chalk award. Maybe that will tell you that life is unfair or that it is what it is.
Since the chalk award was established, I have endowed hundreds of students with the honor. Without any provocation, applause occurs. The ritual has grown into the last recipient now telling the new recipient the rules of the award: plastic baggy, date and subject studied, placed securely in the jammie drawer under the jammies. It has taken on the ritualistic significance of graduation. Students have e-mailed me from college and walks of life that they still possess their chalk and express the significance of it to them. I envision a generation of CV students sharing the fact that they have a chalk award into their middle years and beyond. I could see conversations arise about their days as a high school student and what growing through life has meant to them. I hope that I am right. Grounding yourself in where you came from is critical to living an honest, true, and meaningful life. Read the stories on the Internet and the newspaper and there is a wealth of accounts of good people who went wrong. They began to see themselves as infallible, unable to be caught, and deserving of an extravagant life. The lawyer who misused the funds of his dementia client; the doctor who prescribed drugs believing that he was above reproach; the teacher who took advantage of his/her underage students; the policeman who saw the opportunity to improve his life financially; the plumber who stole clients unethically from his competitor by using a technological quirk. Were all of these people bad people? I don’t know but I expect not. I expect that they began to get away from homeport and strayed from the very basics in life that got them to a point where they could make that decision to step into unethical waters.
The chalk award is complex in its simplicity. It is Poor Richard’s Almanac. It is Marcus Aurelius. It is commonsense.