Thursday, October 12, 2006

Disappearing ink

Turns out that handwriting lessons in elementary school have become shorter and less frequent, if taught at all.

My initial thought upon reading this was GOOD! Handwriting was my least favorite subject in the early grades, not least of all because I never managed to get above a "Satisfactory" mark in it--as opposed to the "Highly Satisfactory" mark I aimed for in everything. My handwriting just wasn't pretty. Even when I painstakingly shaped each letter, taking three times as long as usual, my cursive would never be the example my teacher picked out to show the class, as one of my friend's often was. Of course, I later learned that at her previous school, they had learned cursive a year earlier and her teacher had required them to trace the letters hundreds of times.

I also quickly figured out that there was no real academic content to handwriting lessons, that writing was the tool through which I could capture the many thoughts and snippets of stories I wanted to share with others. Once I got over my hyper-competitive desire to have the best handwriting, simply so that I would be the best, I began to see it as good enough.

Once I got past the point where my teachers required everything to be in cursive, I settled into my current style of half-print, half-script. I actually find it quicker than committing to one or the other. For a long time, I would apologize for my messy writing, though I realize now that what I was apologizing for is the fact that it is not feminine. I'm not sure I can fully articulate what characteristics I would classify as feminine or masculine, but perhaps you have a sense of what I mean. I know that as a teacher I could guess the gender of an assignment's author with about 90% accuracy (before I looked at the name and before I got to know all of my students' handwriting).

That's the long way of saying that handwriting lessons* were one of those little traumas of my tender years; as I read the article yesterday, the little kid in me thought of how much happier I would be if I'd been spared those moments.

On the other hand, I found interesting the study that said students who are more proficient at forming letters write more complex thoughts and sentences. Now, there does not seem to be any study looking at how keyboarding might fit into the equation, if there's any correlation between skills and the writing process. And I do not know that there's a great difference in the complexity of what I compose at the computer versus what I write out first--at this point.

But I do know that there's a certain sensual pleasure I get from writing with a nice pen. In fact I have several journal entries that wax rhapsodic about the physical process of setting pen to paper and watching the words and clauses and sentences flow across the page. It is why I own several fountain pens and why I love one particular pen more than any other I've ever used. With the right pen, writing is a meditative, therapeutic, transcendent activity.

And that's the experience I want to pass on to my son. I know that he'll probably do much of his schoolwork on the computer; that's an inevitability at this point and not necessarily a bad thing. So now, I'm resolved to make sure my son gets at least some handwriting training--not the type that will beat the interest out of him, but the sort that will help him find the pure joy of writing.

* I also feel it necessary to point out that there wasn't much particular teaching. I realized many years later that I grip, still grip, my pen incorrectly. I rest it one finger further back so that my writing bump is on my ring finger. There's a chance I picked up this habit even before I started school since I learned to write at least a little before kindergarten, but I never had a teacher correct me.


bubandpie said...

Does the fact that I am still haunted by the "C" I got in cursive writing in grade three mean that we're kindred spirits? (I think it does.)

I was loyal to pen and paper for a very long time - I wrote all my essays that way right through my M.A. degree, before the advent of email got me used to thinking through the keyboard. (I had always been a very quick typist, but somehow I just needed that blue Bic pen between my fingers to get the creative juices flowing.)

Now, it's been so long since I wrote anything by hand that I've almost entirely lost my cursive writing. When I try to write, my hand cramps up and the result is incredibly messy. When necessary I now rely mostly on printing. It's a sad loss, really.

sunshine scribe said...

I am a half-print-half-cursive kind of girl myself.

My son goes to Montessori school and their teaching philosophy is that they teach cursive before printing because it is a more natural hand motion or something. So my five-year-old writes well in cursive already ... its a little freaky.

mad_hatter said...

I still tell my left from right by feeling for my writer's bump on my middle finger. I don't think I have had a writer's bump since I bought my first computer in 1985 but I still feel for it several times a day, wishing it to be there.

Ack, I just tried to write cursive and couldn't at all. I feel like I've lost a big part of my past. And yes I know what you mean about "feminine" vs "masculine" handwriting. I was raised to believe my writing needed to be "pretty." When I couldn't manage pretty I switched to printing everything b/c I could at least strive to be "neat" with my printing.

Mouse said...

One of my "so there" moments came a couple years ago when I was teaching. I apologized to one of my classes for my writing, and several of them, very sincerely, said, "What are you talking about? Your writing is so much easier to read than..." and they listed about a dozen teachers. I think that may have been the moment that I started to realize 'pretty' is not nearly as important as 'comprehensible.'

And it's funny how computers are changing all of this. In one of my classes recently, we got onto the differences that came about when there was a switch from the scroll to books and how we're in the process of switching back with computers.

Liza said...

I had teacher upon teacher try to "correct" the way I held a pen, and blame my "poor" penmanship on my grip.

I did eventually learn to hold a pen and write with it the way I was "supposed to" when teachers were looking, but as an adult, I hold it the way that has always felt natural to me.

In retrospect, I think my penmanship was relatively poor because I was a year or so younger than most of my classmates, and my fine motor skills were probably not as good as theirs.