Opinion
Education Opinion

The Death of Handwriting

By Emmet Rosenfeld — March 17, 2008 6 min read

You know that amazing feeling of sitting at a picnic table on a riverbank with a light spring breeze, a cup of coffee beside your open marble comp book, and letting it all flow out through your pen onto the riffling pages? Or even being transported to the same sort of zone but under fluorescent lights and acoustic tiles in a standard classroom?

Your students don’t.

At least, it’s highly unlikely that their “peak writing moments” occur anywhere except in front of a qwerty keyboard, I’ve concluded, after doing a writer’s notebook assessment recently with my ninth graders.

The process left me thinking that most kids will never have the sort of fundamentally tactile relationship to writing by which notebook hoarders like me learned our craft. Writing by hand, for many of them, is a lost art.

First, let me explain the “notebook check.” It really wasn’t as punitive as it sounds. I frequently ask kids to “open their writer’s notebook” in class, and respond in writing to whatever we’re doing, be it a literary discussion or reflecting on an activity. The time I allow for writing ranges from 3 minutes to thirty, depending on the task.

The shorter bursts I call “quick-writes,” and constitute an essential part of my writing-to-learn arsenal. Instead of asking a question to the class and calling on the same old hand-raisers, I ask them all to write briefly, then share with partners or the class. Everybody writes, everybody thinks.

The longer sessions generally earn the moniker “freewrites.” The basic rules, a la Elbow, are keep the pen moving and don’t think too hard, at least in the sense of editing or organizing. Follow ideas where they lead. Discover.

Short or long, I always ask students to date their writing and put an entry in the table of contents. The first part of my assessment was, therefore, to ask them to list entries related to certain topics we’d studied over the past months: The Odyssey, Myers-Briggs, and creative nonfiction. At a basic level, this assesses their ability to hold on to a piece of paper and retrieve it when needed. “Organization” isn’t an end in itself or just a nice life skill; I think it’s crucial as a writer to be able to return to your work over time.

The second part of the assessment was a series of reflection questions that drew on the entries they’d collated (full text below). Some of the questions required synthetic thinking (Make connections between The Odyssey and [the book you’re currently reading] with particular attention to theme. Cite your own journal as well as specific passages or moments from both works.).

Others required self-reflection (In reviewing your strengths and weaknesses as indicated by interim and quarter grades and group project work, discuss your Myers-Briggs type.). One question is a pre-writing for the next writing project (Now that you’ve explored the genre of creative nonfiction more deeply, revisit writing territory #2 and think about how it would lend itself to creative nonfiction. Write a one-paragraph proposal for a creative nonfiction paper that you will write in this class including at least 3 possible sources.).

I collected the writer’s notebooks themselves to leaf through, and kids went home to work on their questions, which they submitted via digital dropbox on blackboard. Here’s where I noticed the rub.

In reviewing their handwritten work, I kept finding myself jotting comments, or at least thinking to myself, that it was hard to read. Fact is, a lot of their handwriting looks like a 4th grader’s (I wonder if that’s the grade they started composing primarily on the keyboard?). Most printed, for one thing, rather than using cursive. And often in large irregular letters and with excessive margins announcing the desperation to reach the bottom of the page and stop.

Along with more illegible handwriters than I remember encountering in previous years, there was damning evidence from the typed evaluations in the dropbox. Lo and behold, the same kids who seemed unable to achieve fluency by hand had typed responses that were generous and well-formed. They typed far better than they wrote.

Even messy handwriters, it’s worth noting, consistently saw value in in-class writing. Bart was one of the most enthusiastic: During class, I usually benefit from “quick-writes”. Usually, because I am so busy writing, I write at least as much as most of my peers do, if not more. They help me get my mind starting thinking and help me get some of my thoughts straight. The WNB entry that I felt I did my best job was my ENFP response. I got so much good information down when I was writing that one. I talked about my dad, my mom and tons of other things, things that signify a good WNB entry. I think that I have gotten better at free-writing now and because of the WNB, I can think about events relatively faster now. Overall, the WNB has really had a positive effect in all that I do, not just English class. Just think one WNB can really do a lot for a person.

Jason was another scrawler who gushed online: During class writing time I used to feel stressed and frantic. I felt like I didn’t write enough or fast enough. However I have become more fluent and faster at writing during quick writes. My entries no longer hide on just a page but flourish and span over several pages. They are becoming more in depth and detailed, and are, in my opinion, becoming more enjoyable to read, they are no longer boring. I feel that an entry that shows my increased writing ability is Odyssey themes books 7-10. This entry was a seven minute quick-write. In those seven minutes I wrote a lengthy work that conveyed my understanding of the Odyssey. I felt comfortable when writing that entry and I felt that did a good job with my writing.

The gap between what I see and what they see in their work makes me wonder if I should I should adjust how I teach in the future: Do I need to incorporate more direct instruction in freewriting? Should more generative writing sessions occur at computers?

I’ll keep tinkering, but it seems that my own kinesthetic memories of writing in a journal on a riverbank may be a daydream when it comes to giving my students the best chance to express themselves as writers.

Questions for evaluating the writer’s notebook

Make notes here to answer the questions. Your typed responses will be due in the electronic drop box before spring break. Please note: you are leaving the writer’s notebook with me, so your only resource in answering the questions will be notes that you make now.

Part I. Make connections between The Odyssey and your storm book with particular attention to theme. Cite your own journal as well as specific passages or moments from both works.

Part II. In reviewing your strengths and weaknesses as indicated by interim and quarter grades and group project work, discuss your Myers-Briggs type.

Part III. Now that you’ve explored the genre of creative nonfiction more deeply, revisit writing territory #2 and think about how it would lend itself to creative nonfiction. Write a one-paragraph proposal for a creative nonfiction paper that you will write in this class including at least 3 possible sources.

Part IV. Writing to learn

a) How do you generally feel during in class writing time? Do “quick-writes” help you think? Has your fluency increased? What is one entry in the WNB where you felt you did a good job, and why?

b) Our goal with the class blog this quarter was to deepen the entries, rather than just writing a summary of what we did in class. Discuss the degree to which you did that in your own post. Also, discuss a time when you either wrote or read the blog that helped you learn.

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