Remember that one section of the SAT? No, not one that required filling in answer bubbles – that agreement on the back of your answer sheet that you had to painstakingly rewrite … in cursive?
In elementary school, most of us were told that cursive handwriting would form a vital part of our high school and adult lives. So we continued to practice forming those loops with our pencils. But these days, we rarely use cursive – rewriting that agreement on the SAT being one of the few instances – so should children continue to learn it?
Personally, I type far more than I write. So I ultimately find my lessons in keyboarding in middle school more useful than my cursive handwriting education. In fact, it was only upon taking the SAT and rewriting that agreement for the first time that it struck me how little I used cursive nowadays. But surely there was some point to learning it?
I began my quest for the rational behind this large portion of my elementary education by searching “why learn cursive” in Google. I found a number of arguments involving brain development, speed and efficiency, and even security risks.
A study at Indiana University claims, “Neuroimaging research … has revealed that brain activation in preschool children changes depending on how they learn,” and that writing letters out by hand helps children recognize them better. An article by William Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D. explains many cognitive benefits to using cursive. For example, “Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that do not participate in keyboarding.”
A New York Times article brings forth another interesting issue: “Might people who write only by printing — in block letters, or perhaps with a sloppy, squiggly signature — be more at risk for forgery?”
With that information under my belt, I contacted Catlin Gabel Middle and Lower School faculty about their thoughts on the merits of teaching cursive, and handwriting in general.
Mariam Higgins of the Lower School says that cursive is alive and well in the classrooms: “I teach fourth graders cursive italic; they spend between 30 and 45 minutes a week practicing the formation of the letters, then apply it on all handwritten classroom and homework.”
Third grade teacher Marcelle Donehower says that “handwriting is important because it helps reinforce expectations about quality of work and it teaches students about aesthetics.” She has found that her students value the experience: “My students really enjoy the time during the day that is designated to handwriting practice. It is meditative and very gratifying for them to see their growth and improvement from practicing something every day.”
I met with Lower School head Vicki Roscoe, to discuss her many ideas about handwriting. In fact, she has herself written an article about the merits of teaching handwriting, entitled “In a Day and Age When We Are All Using Computers – Is Handwriting Still Relevant?”
In her article, Roscoe writes, “There is something so utterly delicious, so empowering, and so dynamic when oral language and written language converge!”
She continues later: “An increasing number of high schools now require laptops and this makes sense to me. But is this what we want for our youngsters? Just because it may be what we are doing with the older students does not make it right for our elementary age learners.”
What are the benefits of the physical act of handwriting? “Kids need to FEEL the letter ‘T’, which is distinctly different from a ‘S’ or a ‘D’,” Roscoe explains in her article. “No matter what letter or symbol you press on the computer keyboard, the ‘feel’ is exactly the same.”
For Roscoe, “sometimes the sheer act of physically writing helps me to clarify my thinking and work through my ideas in a way that is more satisfying than whipping it off on a keyboard.”
As I talk with her, Roscoe tells me about her opinion of digital versus physical written communication: “Email messages – let’s face it – they’re communication, but they’re not aesthetic, and sometimes in a rush they’re not very well written. Tone can also be an issue.” One can convey a lot more beauty and emotion through a handwritten letter.
Apparently this need for speed in communication could be a manifestation of a much larger societal issue. “Faster is not always better,” says Roscoe. “[The decline of] handwriting is only one small example of a much larger picture of a culture obsessed with efficiency and quantity. Indeed, a society that is in such a hurry may forget to savor.”
Roscoe ends her article with: “You cannot tell me that handwriting will ever go away.”
Lower School art teacher Peggy Schauffler was a calligraphy teacher at Oregon Episcopal School for a year before coming to Catlin 19 years ago. Schauffler learned handwriting from Inga Dubay, who, together with Barbara Getty, wrote and distributed many of the italic books that are now used at Catlin and a number of Oregon public schools.
“In my own life, I find that I keyboard a lot for information,” explains Schaffler, “but you can’t beat handwriting for personal things. When I’m, say, making signs in a meeting because we need to put up posters, people always call on me because I have nice handwriting. And I take pride in it, and I’m flattered!”
Schauffler also simply admits, “I enjoy writing! Something different happens in my brain when I’m writing in [a] journal than when I’m typing.”
But she also believes “there’s a place for both. You can use a computer all the time, but there’s nothing like sitting down and writing [an] actual letter, or writing in a journal to reflect on life.”
Schauffler concludes, “I think my main idea is that if we were to just go to that [keyboarding], it would just leave too many people out. The poor, some of those in other countries, the elderly…”
This information successfully bolstered my hopes that I did spend my elementary school time learning cursive for good reasons. And even though I don’t use it that much these days, I honestly sometimes wish I had more time to explore the art of beautiful handwriting.
Schauffler agrees with the pleasure aspect of calligraphy and cursive: “When I bring out the nibs and ink, the kids just gravitate towards it! They love the experience, and have lots of fun.”
So, the next time you write a letter, break out a pen and go for those flowing lines – maybe some loops if you’re really daring – write something graceful and exquisite.