Worrying about the Old Ways

Tennessee’s SB 1881 has quietly turned into law. It’s a traditions law, one that probably hits home to any student who has gone through elementary school until a few years ago:

The course of instruction in all public schools shall include cursive writing so that students will be able to create readable documents through legible cursive handwriting by the end of the third grade.

This act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it.

One old adage of teaching goes this way: never take student gossip at face value. There are always rumors or different perceptions of events that crisscross the hallways, and it’s the teacher’s job not to believe it, until the appropriate time when the hearsay can be discussed with the proper people.

It’s not that one should inherently mistrust teenagers, but one must always remember that teenagers are extremely social creatures. Ragging on a teacher is a thing of camaraderie among classmates. Students are still learning about judgement and the complications that age creates, both on the teenage end and the adult end.

But there is one rumor I’ve heard in my years as a student and a teacher that has become mythology: middle and elementary school teachers make a big deal out of learning cursive.

Frequent student declamation: “We were told if we didn’t know cursive, we wouldn’t make it through high school.”

I remember that saying in my own middle and elementary school years, but I didn’t ascribe much fear to it. Just the normal neurotic emotions concerning doing things the way I’m supposed to: teacher says must learn cursive for high school, so, ergo, learn cursive for high school. But I actually wanted to learn cursive. It seemed like such a new technology, something of a hallmark of my age. I was growing up and learning the secrets of society, the secrets of all that scribbling on receipts and the margins of books and, well, most work-related adult notes and so forth. I wanted to be inculcated into the culture. I wanted to improve the chances that I could read anything anyone wrote down. No secrets please; I want to be an adult.

I remember when I first started learning cursive, it was quite grueling. The D’Nealian cursive script was too perfect and foreign to replicate. It took me a while to put in the effort of having my hand slow down while writing thoughts that I was used to just slopping down on the page. It was an agonizing period to know that my head was going much, much faster than my hand was used to. I hardly remembered what it was first like to learn to write letters, and I sometimes felt indignant that I had to do it again. But after a while, I felt good about my cursive. Then my family and I moved, and, among other things, I realized that cursive was not required at my new school, let alone the high school I would later attend.

Perhaps this was my first clue that educational philosophies differ from place to place. I was actually quite horrified that my new school didn’t have a thing for cursive. I soon scrapped the cursive for my original scrawl, dipping my pen into some cursive connections of letters when a need for speed found me ditching the unwieldy and slow block letters. I remember it was a conscious decision. No one else was writing in cursive.
So it wasn’t long after I learned cursive that I stopped using it. Instead, I put myself on a new mission: emulate my father’s regimented engineering print, which is all capital letters with little variation on letters and spaces. I wanted to be exact and simple. I was more interested in legibility, not the art. I marveled at other studnets, mostly girls, who could change their penmanship at will and stick with it. I took such achievements as indications that I would never be able to write longhand with anything remotely close to a calligraphic esteem.

And then there was typing class. I became fed up with all these new ways of writing when I saw the speed of a typist. I had been a good two-fingered typist in my youth. I had bugun typing when I was about 8-9 years old but typing papers on a computer wasn’t required back then. I wrote most everything by hand and since computers were still special and scarce, I learned how to type properly, and then, like my cursive habits, I lost the proper way to type and reverted back to my comfortable hunting and pecking with two fingers.

It took me two years to relearn to type the proper way. First, the advent of papers on the computer made me frustrated at the slow speed that I typed at. My friends could all splash their fingers over the keyboard and punch out pieces of writing. So I got Mavis Beacon and started teaching myself. I still have trouble using the correct shift key, but I think that’s a socially accepted thing.

Since my real push into typing, writing longhand had always frustrated me because of it’s inferior speed. The world had been filling out with computers since I last used longhand, and college essays were much easier and more expedient to type up than write out by hand. And that’s basically the mantra I’ve held in my brain since the start of college, about 14 years ago.

But it’s odd that I would come back to my cursive just this last year. It was a natural thing for me. I’ve always thought of longhand writing as a traditional staple, and I have always find myself wondering if I should go back to it and feel the patience of the slowness and the beauty that cursive or longhand writing demands and produces. I’ve bought multiple iterations of Moleskines and various “nice” notebooks to dedicate to keeping a journal or writing longform work, but I never stick with them for long. With typing, I can get everything down on the page while the sentence runs through my head. Some lag, but some lag is good. Let’s you correct. With longhand, the lag is too long. I get frustrated when I misspell something and then forget the rest of the sentence I had just forged in my head, making me reforge the darn thing.

So here we are, living in a scholarly world where cursive has been quite threatened by teachers and professors because they no longer require it in their essays. In fact, if something is not typed out in all the various academic formats, some professors and teachers don’t take it. In my school, we told the middle school teachers in our county that cursive was not a thing we were interested in. Even with it being taught as it is, most of my students use the block letters of their formative years. Rarely do I have students that write in cursive. Out of 140 students from last year, I think only one of my students regularly write in cursive, and I noticed that he converted to block letters in a couple of his last in-class essays. It’s hard being among the “other.”

As computers have changed the way we work, more experimentations have sought to uncover how these new forms of technology can streamline the academic world even more. For instance, cubby holes were a former generations email accounts. Paper inbox sightings on a teacher’s desk are happening less and less. Teachers use a whole swath of ways to collect papers now: Turnitin.com, Google Drive, Edmodo, etc. Whiteboards are being replaced by computer or tablet controlled projectors. Seating charts are getting more digital every year. Grades are now available on mobile apps. Calls home to parents are happening less and less; emails to parents more and more. Tests are happening on mobile phones using Google Forms instead of Scantrons. And, quite happily, the copy machines are less huddled over now that students have mobile devices to view content.
But the change is slow. I still see colleagues happily plotting out lesson plans on tried and true spiral lesson plan books; writing down grades in grade books; taking notes with notepads or notebooks; having students write down notes with pen and paper, in-class essays on pen and paper, tests with pencil and Scantron.

The fact is that technology isn’t quite the game-changer that it is being espoused as. Counties are happily going the way of BYOT, but not all students or the people who foot the bill for student technology, the parents, trust a child or a teenager with an expensive device, and many believe that these devices create more distraction than help. And as the new CCSS tests loom, schools are still very much far away from having the necessary computers to allow each student to take a test on a computer.

I have been on technology teams in my school and have done tons of professional development in order to teach faculty about the use of digital devices. At first, much like my teaching vision, I was idealistic, thinking that teachers and students are happy to streamline their lives with technology. That’s the case, but technology is a taboo thing sometimes. And that’s because teachers want to spend their time working on lesson plans, grading, working on student relationships and so and so forth. In short, teachers and students just want to teach and learn. Technology learning, on top of all the things that teachers and students learn during the course of the year, takes extra time.

Each year I’ve taught, I’m constantly reminded on how much my teaching can improve. Lessons are mulled over, assignments, seating arrangements, tests and units. Adding more to the plate, especially something that helps process and not product can be frustrating, especially to those of us who don’t have time for it. Teaching and learning are demanding jobs and those that are not technologically inclined get frustrated when something is being replaced by something that has worked for years.
For instance, their are tons and tons of apps for productivity management. The Apple App store has many: Wunderlist, Clear, Asana, Trello, Workflowy, Any.Do, Things, Remember the Milk, etc. All work to help people organize themselves. But if you surf the Internet, one finds that there are just as many people using pen and paper to organize their lives, and valid arguments could be made for both digital productivity management and analog productivity management.

The point is that the old ways are still good. The process is being eyed really heavily right now because ubiquitous digital use seems the logical next step, but it’s still more of a dream than a reality.

Recently, there has been an outcry that losing longhand will constrain our thinking abilities when we write. This is just romanticism. In a The New York Times article in question, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” by Maria Konnikova, Konnikova writes that cursive activates more areas in the brain, which can help adults think more when writing. But, largely, in a letter to the editor her sources at University of Washington denied this as a result. Of course cursive or handwriting may activate more ares of the brain–it is more of an art than typing–but does that small action really necessitate a theory that handwriting, drawing artistic communication, really makes a difference in thought?

Another thing Konnikova points out is that two scientists at the University of California state that people who take notes with a computer usually just write down what is being said and not think and edit efficient notes. This makes sense. But it also makes sense that the person who is just writing everything down didn’t learn how to take good notes. The point is, handwriting is slow and necessitates good summary or room for more thought as the pen plots along the paper. So if you are bad at taking notes and don’t trust yourself to think before you write, then use pen and paper. But if you have learned rightly to be engaged in a lecture and think while writing down notes or use necessary revision and editing skills when writing, the old pen and paper isn’t necessary. In essence, use what works best for you.

But I do conceed the point that annotating in real books is easier, simpler and more precise than annotating on ereaders, even iPads. Colleagues agree. But that’s anecdotal. Would be an interesting study though.

The point is, everyone is trying everything out, looking for the magic setup. But the only magic setup is one that works for the professional, in this case the teacher or the principal, and one that works in tandem with students.

School is a busy place for everyone, faculty and students. In the morning, I focus on completing all activities that should be done alone: planning, grading and housekeeping things. Then the students arrive, and I get torn in different directions. Some students are absent the day before and need to be updated. Some students have a problem with their grade. Some students need help with a particular assignment. I need to teach. I need to walk around and make sure everyone is on task. I need to make sure groups are being cohesive. I need to make sure my lessons are relevant and effective. I need to monitor student participation. I need to observe, observe, observe. I need to be ready to deviate from my lesson if needed (I’m always looking for teaching opportunities). How is my time? When does the bell ring? Do I have time for this? I write down notes constantly to remind myself what needs to come next and which classes got to where in the day.

I use technology constantly, but I’ve found that the best technology is the most practical technology. The simple bits of technology that help me manage my time well. And there is always something new. That’s why it’s best to be conservative. Learn something a little at a time. Don’t overwhelm. It’s the mantra I give to my students too. And why not practice what I preach?

There is still a place for cursive and longhand print. I still use it when I quickly jot things down in a notebook during class or when I’m reading a book that I want to take notes on. Not all students have tablets or a reading device, nor should I expect them to. Books are still very much reliable and convenient, especially because of their uniformity of page numbers and ease of navigation.

And as the digital age continues, I still see my students use books of their own. And, of course, the majority of them still write longhand. Computers have not overtaken the world yet. And there is something zen that I like about the nondigital world. The digital world nags at us. I have massive amounts of notifications going on through my phone during the day. My Twitter feed never sleeps. Facebook is full of friends. My personal and work email tally up the notifications all day. It’s good to get away from that world and focus for a bit. To not live in the craziness of multitasking my digital devices while multitasking the immediate responsibilities of my job. And that’s why, more than ever, we have to work on our blinders, on focusing on a couple things at a timeso as not to get too overwhelmed.

There is also a little bit of horror that I feel of digital things overcoming the beauty of the past. When I think of the beauties of cursive or handwriting in general, I think of the Chinese calligraphy masters with their ink daubed paint brushes and their patient strokes across a beautifully oblong page. Or James Joyce sitting at a mahogany desk, dipping his pen over and over again to find the right sentence. Or the beauty of my Grandmother’s cursive script on the simplest of grocery notes that I’ve spied in her kitchen. We mustn’t forget those who still thrive off of handwriting. A lot of my students still do, and it’s not because of the beauty of the past, but of the practicality of the now.

In essence, handwriting doesn’t rely on tradition in as much as conversation does. I say this even though there is a third contender for the written word, one that is quite a bit faster than cursive: tapping things out on a touchscreen. But I’m confident that even the convenience of a mobile phone won’t stamp out handwriting. It may, like the newspaper industry, drop some in usage, but it won’t be entirely stamped out. And in some ways, it might change form with styluses and iPads.

So is there a need for a law that requires cursive? Probably not. Cursive isn’t that hard to understand. It may be at the 3rd grade level, daunting and all that, but what isn’t at that level of human development? The most important things in life continue to be the product and not the path to the product. Sure, there are definitely paths that are better than others, but with hard work, usually we find our own ways to that path. Does that mean that we shouldn’t teach cursive in 3rd grade? I don’t know. It’s really hard to have a good argument for or against. That’s how unimportant the conversation is. There are definitely more important conversations to be had at the educational level.

And what happened to my latest experimentation in the old ways? Well, I relearned cursive and am quite proud of it, but I only ever see it in the notes I write down in class, the annotations I write in books and the signatures I scrawl out after a credit card purchase. So I guess I’m no luddite, but is it so bad being a luddite? Plenty of people succeed in that luddite realm, and many of them are my students.