By Jeff Meade — January 01, 1991 6 min read

Stroke Of Genius

By the time students arrive in Cindy Streuer’s 6th grade classroom, most of them meet one of the criteria for membership in the Future Doctors of America: Their handwriting is indecipherable.

“Bad habits have taken hold,” explains Streuer, a teacher at Crestline Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash., just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. “Some of their letters are really big, they draw little circles over i’s, and they sometimes slant letters backward.”

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 straight-forward 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.”

You’ve Seen The Movie, Now Read The Book

Long before Willy Wonka made it to the silver screen, the story of his fabulous chocolate factory was the subject of a best-selling book by Roald Dahl.

Shirley Worden, a 1st grade teacher in the Houston area, gets children to read by using Wonka and the many other wonderful characters who first found life in the pages of a book before becoming stars of stage, screen, and Toys `R’ Us. Last year, quite by accident, she found that she could increase children’s interest in a book if she first showed them a movie of it.

“Another teacher, Jackie Griffin, and I were assigned to the lunch and story-time block,” explains Worden, who teaches at Gloria B. Samms Elementary School in the Aldine Independent School District, a multicultural melting pot in the Houston suburbs. “While one teacher monitors the kids during lunch, the other teacher goes off to eat. Then, when the kids’ lunch is over, the teacher who was monitoring goes to get something to eat, and the other teacher reads them a story.

“The problem was, we had two different classes; I was teaching pre1st grade last year, and Jackie had 3rd grade. Many of those pre-1st graders were immature, many hadn’t even mastered kindergarten skills. And some of the 3rd graders had the ability of 4th graders. How do you come up with stories that wouldn’t be too high for the pre-1st graders and too low for the 3rd graders?

“One Friday, as a reward for good behavior, we were showing the kids Disney’s Incredible Journey, and I happened to mention that it was also a book that you could get at the library. When some of the kids heard that, they wanted to check the book out. It made the children realize that many movies were based on books, and we began to compare the book to the video.”

From that point on, Worden and her colleague tried to show movies or television films that had some connection to a book: The Wizard of Oz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Meryl Streep’s reading of the classic Velveteen Rabbit. For the younger children, seeing the movie often made it easier to understand the book. And many of the older children, inspired by the movie, would then go on to read the story in its original form, comparing the author’s words to the dramatic rendering.

“It increased their comprehension; they’d look and listen for details,” says Worden. “The movie helped increase awareness of the book, but kids didn’t realize that they were having a comprehension lesson. All they thought was that they were having a `free’ day. They didn’t realize they were comparing and contrasting.”

Breaking Ranks

When the college admissions officer comes calling, the conscientious student often asks, “Which will improve my odds of getting into your college, taking an easy course and getting an A or taking a hard course and getting a B?” The kindly admissions officer always answers diplomatically: “Take the hard course and get an A.”

The student immediately responds by enrolling in “Intro to Lunch.”

Teachers at Maple Grove High School in rural southwestern New York had long complained about high-ability students who took this low road to higher class standing. Then, a few years ago, the teachers found a way to make a hard B carry more weight than a soft A.

“Until 1982-83, the student who ranked first in his or her class had more than likely taken earth science instead of physics and home economics instead of chemistry,” says Robert Plyler, for 20 years a social studies teacher at Maple Grove. “We’re a rural community with very few professionals or people with advanced degrees. I think the students didn’t see what they would get from taking a more rigorous course.”

During that school year, however, the faculty established a weighted grade index, giving some classes more weight than others. “For instance, an elective with no homework and no academic requirements, like chorus, counts for two points,” says Plyler. “A course that requires research or reading of college-level fiction—an elective like senior Western Cultures—is a 5.” To determine class ranking, Plyler explains, “A student with a B in Western Cultures gets a grade multiplied by a higher factor than a student who gets the same grade in chorus.”

Maple Grove teachers have also made it possible for more students to compete for a high class ranking by establishing an honors credit program. A college-bound student who isn’t interested in the traditional academic fields of math and science can design a yearlong special project in his or her own “major.” The project must be approved by a committee of teachers, and the student must report every two weeks to a teacher-adviser and attempt to meet objectives on a timely basis. If the student does so, he or she can earn points and a higher class ranking.

Some of those projects have been fairly ambitious. Says principal Ken Gaiser: “We’ve had acid rain studies in the local lake. We had a study of different types of architecture. One of the last ones we had was a girl who wanted to do a project about the impact of the French Revolution in economic and psychological terms, and she wanted to write it in French. We had to persuade her to scale it back a bit. But she went on to do it, in French. Of course, we had to have it translated.”

In Gaiser’s view, the program has increased the number of high-achieving students taking challenging courses and boosted academic competition. “This year,” he says, “we have three students, all with the same rank so far, competing for salutatorian.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 1982 edition of Education Week as Shoptalk