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Stroke of Genius

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None of which sits well with Streuer, who leans toward the neat side--not out of fussiness, but out of an overriding concern that her students' written words be understood. "I'm kind of a visual teacher,'' she says. "And I'm very particular about the final product.''

Although visions of good penmanship dance in Streuer's head, other visions dance in the mind of the average 6th grader: usually adenoidal teen rockers with big hair and improbably clear skin. Trying to teach these kids with straightforward lessons in cursive writing is, like, you know, a joke.

So instead, Streuer borrows a page from a very old book and tries to appeal to the artist in each student: She teaches them italic writing, a softly swirling form of the ancient art of calligraphy. Using nothing more exotic than a number two pencil, its point worn down to a sharp wedge by rubbing it back and forth across a bit of scrap paper, the students learn handwriting from a whole new angle. Once they are proficient, she offers them the use of pens designed for this letter-perfect art. She also keeps instruction books around, which students may use to further refine their technique.

"It's more interesting than penmanship classes, and it demands a certain level of skill and attention to detail,'' Streuer says. "Once they've learned to write in italic, they write straighter on unlined paper because they're so focused on the shape of the letters, the sizes, and the spatial relationships.''

Streuer's students get lots of practice because she has them work on compositions every day in class. "They do rough drafts, edit them, and then publish their work in a book, which they sew together,'' Streuer says. "Italic writing allows them the opportunity to have their published work look even better. And the kids are noticed because of their writing. Other kids comment on it. It has a visual look that stands out from cursive handwriting. They're very proud of their work.''

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