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Making the Write Choice

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Last October, The Washington Post published a story, "The Handwriting on the Wall," about the decline of handwriting instruction in elementary schools and the likelihood that future generations will not learn cursive.

The story cited research suggesting that writing by hand may be important to cognitive development, and that messages written in long hand create a greater sense of personal authenticity. But a growing number of educators just shrug. They are busy with other priorities in an increasingly digital world.

As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

The Post story stirred a surprising amount of lively, even passionate, conversation among members of the Teacher Leaders Network who participate in our daily online discussion.

Here's what some of them had to say:

Gayle: I started teaching 40 years ago in a 3rd grade classroom. In those days, cursive writing was mandatory in the curriculum, and it was the 3rd grade teacher's job to teach it. In a recent issue of Edutopia, the editor describes today's students who listen to iPods, text message, and watch TV all at the same time. Multi-tasking is the norm. Imagine me standing in front of a 3rd grade class today, saying: "Now, class, everyone sit down and slant your letters as we write in cursive." There is a disconnect.

Gregg: I teach 3rd grade in South Carolina. The current state standards require me to "begin cursive writing." When the new and revised standards are released next school year, they will state: "Begin using proper letter formation, print OR cursive." Handwriting will no longer be apart of the 4th and 5th grade standards.

If my students can sign their names in cursive, then I am a happy teacher. I am so glad that cursive is becoming a passing fancy. In today's world, students really don't need cursive writing. Everything they read, from e-mails to textbooks, is in print.

Cathy: An ingrained memory springs forth from very long ago, of a 3rd grade teacher loudly berating me in front of the entire class for the messiness of my cursive writing, which resulted in my inability to get the required "stating of the math problem" in the allotted space. I was mortified. My cursive is no better today, many years later, and I'm delighted to use it as little as possible since that memory never really faded.

Susan B: When I told my mom I was going to switch careers to become an elementary teacher, she said, "You can't! You have TERRIBLE cursive!" Mom acquired beautiful "Palmer Method" script in one-room schoolhouses, and bemoaned the inadequate cursive instruction my siblings and I received way back when. I never could turn in acceptable cursive papers without painstakingly copying them over at least once.

When I was 12, I bought myself a typewriter with babysitting money, taught myself to type, and never looked back. Over the years, what little cursive I had virtually vanished. Recently, I discovered my state's leadership exam requires handwritten essays and responses. Even though I believe cursive is more professional and likely to positively influence scores, I printed on the exam, and I did pass.

Susan G: I continually surprise myself with my rather romantic connection to cursive writing, diagrammed sentences, and geometric proofs. I remember 5th grade, when we got our first writing pens. In the back of the room, by the sink, there was a bottle of ink with a blown-glass well on the side of the interior. It was an impressive ritual to take your pen, lift the lever that depressed the ink bladder, dip your pen into the well, and release the lever, filling the pen with ink.

The power to create words is pretty amazing—it connects us to the past and the future. I would still recognize the elegant hand that filled a book of poetry from an old boyfriend. My maternal grandmother died before I was born, but I got to know her through her handwritten journals. It occurs to me that my grandchildren may not feel as intimately connected to my email archives.

Is there something to be gained in learning to actually form those words without a keyboard? Yes, and there is legitimate learning theory that says writing by hand helps us imbed and retain what we write.

Rick: I hope I'm pretty progressive when it comes to education ideas, but I'm going to register an "old fogey" opinion on the handwriting topic. Let me make my case for why teaching the next generation cursive handwriting is still wise in a high-technology world.

First, cursive handwriting helps numerous students with fine-motor skills that are not otherwise developed by pushing keys on a keyboard.

Second, handwriting is still useful. What do we do when the electricity goes out, or there's no easily accessible electricity source or machine to do our writing and printing for us? Do we really want to be so reliant on having to type and print everything electronically?

Third, a personally written, cursive note of thanks, encouragement, or explanation has a lot of currency in today's e-mail and text-messaging world. That someone would take the time to select paper or a card, write the note in cursive, then send it or drop it by your office, classroom, or mailbox carries a lot of weight.

Fourth, that personal note, written in cursive, creates a connection that printing our letters and words usually doesn't produce. My own kids go to camp each year, and I take time each summer to hand write, in cursive, long letters to each of them. It's a quiet, reflective process, a little slower than typing, but contemplative and personal. It's one way I give something of myself to them.

Fifth, cursive handwriting has prestige and allows us to check authenticity. Claims can be made on all sides about anything stored electronically. Why are personal signatures still required on all important documents—contracts, major purchases, diplomas, doctor's prescriptions, etc.? Our written hand is our personal testimony and record of authenticity.

A year after my grandfather died, I wore a coat of his that my grandmother passed along to me. He was a wise and compassionate man, and I missed him terribly. I put my hand into one of the coat's pockets and felt something. It was a note he had written in cursive. My grandfather had touched this paper and formed these letters. As silly as it may sound, I felt like he was there, and I was connecting to him.

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