Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cursive writing.

One of the newspaper stories I read when I was up visiting my parents discussed cursive writing. (They still have a viable newspaper in their town, I don't, really - I let my subscription lapse because I was sick of it not showing up/showing up when I requested a "vacation hold"/finding it was six pages long with four of those pages being local sports/not having any of the Sunday sections any more)

A lot of school districts are choosing to drop the teaching of it. Apparently Indiana has either cut it from their list of required topics to learn, or has totally cut it out.

I am not sure it's a good idea to drop teaching cursive writing. The argument being made is that that time can be "better spent" teaching kids to "keyboard" (Ugh, I hate that usage of that word...I don't like it when nouns are made into verbs) instead.

I will say one other argument that could be made against cursive is that a lot of kids struggle with it. I HATED "penmanship" class when I was a kid. I don't write neatly. I have never written neatly. But I can read my own writing and most other people can read it as well. What frustrated me about "penmanship" was:

a. That you had to write exactly as the model alphabet, including that funky ugly capital Q that always looked like the number 2 to me. And if you found an easier or more efficient way to write, if it left out loops or flourishes, it was wrong, and had to be redone

b. Because my handwriting was messy, I got pulled for special "extra remedial work" in penmanship. You know what's worse than being known as a little brainiac egghead? Being known as a little brainiac egghead who still has to do remedial work in one area. It gave the kids who hated me (which seemed like most of them, some days) justification in calling me "retard."

(And an aside: I almost feel now like I should write that as "the r-word" or "r*****" - the way people do with the infamous n-word. But that word is such an ugly word. Actually, another topic for another time: how kids have (always, it seems) used words that serve to "cut individuals from the herd" as ways of demeaning things or people they don't like: "That's so retarded!" or "That's so gay!" And how ugly it is to call someone - or something - by those words. (Though really the only time I ever heard the n-word in my life was one black person using it jocularly with another. But even then it makes me cringe, all arguments of "but it's okay because we're 'reclaiming' the word and taking away its power" aside)

So I admit, if I had, in fourth or fifth grade or whenever, be told, "We are not going to focus on penmanship any more," I would have breathed a sigh of relief.

Then again, there were a number of arguments made in the article that tend to put me in the camp of being in favor of continuing to teach cursive.

One my mother brought up, and I think that makes sense: If the children don't know cursive, and they go on to work with old handwritten documents (e.g., they become a historian), or they have old letters or something from their family, reading those documents will be much harder if the person has no experience with cursive. (She may have thought of this because she was a history major before she became a biology major. And also because when she and my father took reading German in graduate school, they had to learn the old German script as well as the modern typefaces, and I remember her saying she found that challenging to do).

Another argument in favor of cursive: several of the teachers noted it helped the small-motor skills of the children improve. I think this was actually kind of the issue that gave me problems with handwriting, even though I could embroider and hand-sew and manipulate tiny beads and stuff...well, that, and the problem that I was impatient and didn't like having to slow down to write all the flourishes.

Another argument in favor of writing things by hand in general: you remember things you write better than things you type. I find that is true for me. It's another way of getting into the brain. Most people have some form of "muscle memory" and having written something often means you learn it better. (And you definitely learn something better if you write it as well as hear it, as opposed to only hearing it).

I'd also argue that it's still a meaningful skill. And why drop it? Why not, if more time is needed, drop something else? Sometimes I wonder what kids are learning in schools these days; we see so many students coming in who are poor at even basic math, or who can't write a well-reasoned paper. I haven't really looked at school curricula but I wonder if there's more emphasis on multiculturalism and recycling and feeling good about yourself and "get up and play at least an hour a day" and less emphasis on reading, math, writing, doing research, argumentation...I'm sure rhetoric is not taught in schools any more and perhaps it should be.

It just seems, I don't know, kind of cutting ourselves off from our past if we're going to replace handwriting with "keyboarding." (And: way to make a generation gap. I guess that means I will have to, in the future, print in block letters everything I write on the board, so I don't leave behind any students who didn't get familiar with cursive)

But a reason and an argument I had not thought of, but which I find kind of interesting, came up in the article.

Several teachers, and several parents, expressed dismay over the dropping of cursive writing because the children looked forward to learning it.

I don't remember really how I felt about learning cursive (we started in second or third grade), but it does seem plausible to me that some children would really look forward to it. It seems "grown up." It's how their parents write. It's a rite of passage. (I remember that it was a big, big deal when we were first allowed to use ink pens in class. Before that point, we could only use pencils. Ink pens were for "older kids" and being allowed to use one to write in class meant you were now more grown up). And I think it's wrong to take away something kids actually look forward to learning - there are so many other things that the fun seems to have been taken out of already. To me, that seems like almost the most compelling argument in favor of it - that a certain percentage of the children look forward to it, see it as a hallmark of being "more grown up," and seem to WANT to learn it.

At any rate, I guess I would say that I'd like to see cursive stay in the schools. (And in the district in the town where my parents live, they are keeping it, for now).


Kate P said...

I learned the Palmer method in a Catholic grade school, but somewhere along the way it got really messed up. I blame college lectures and timed, lengthy essay exams. Part of me wishes I had beautiful handwriting, but the other part of me knows that the way I write now reflects my personality.

The other thing is that kids don't understand what a signature is. I remember seeing that when I worked at a high school two years ago. I saw a lot of paperwork with students' signatures hand printed, not handwritten. It struck me as odd. A handwritten signature is distinctive and proprietary.

I find it hard to believe we will be signing everything digitally sometime in the future--digital stuff is going to be easier to fake (or harder to verify?) than handwriting, don't you think?

Justlittlecajunme said...

I had the best penmanship ever whether it was cursive or as I grew up knowing it, "print." Just the other day I was writing something and realized how sloppy my handwriting has become due to typing everything.

I often wonder, if everything becomes digital what will happen if we get an attack from terrorists or idiots and shuts down our digital world. I vote to keep teaching kids handwriting!

Dave E. said...

I was taught the "get it right or Sister Mary Theresa might whack you with the pointing stick" method. Thankfully my parents removed me from parochial school soon after we started because my penmanship was awful and has been ever since. I almost went into medicine just because it was the one profession where I could hide my shame.