Revisiting Cursive

cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by opensourceway

A few years ago, I wrote a post about cursive handwriting, and it brought out several different viewpoints on the topic.  The one thing that I have learned is that many people are VERY passionate about this topic and are willing to talk about it for hours on end.  Because of the article, I was asked to talk about my viewpoints on a very short segment on Canada AM this morning.  I was extremely nervous since it was my first time on TV, but the opportunity was great because it actually pushed me to revisit the topic and my thought process a few years later from my original post.

My basic argument on the show was that we do not necessarily need to get rid of cursive in schools (it is still in the Alberta curriculum) but that teachers have to be very cognizant of how they spend their time with students.  Time is always scarce, yet more things are coming our way.  Would I be comfortable that schools produced a student did not know cursive but could effectively communicate using a computer or mobile device? Probably. Would I be comfortable if a student knew cursive but had no idea how to communicate over a computer? Nope.  Would I prefer they could do both? Absolutely.

As I thought more about cursive, it lead me to really think more deeply about reading and writing, how we learn, and how we can learn.  I thought that it was interesting that many people adamant about cursive being taught in schools used Twitter to communicate in real time with the show, host, and myself.  Do we take for granted the opportunities that we have to learn from one another?  Do we give these same opportunities to our students?  Sometimes we talk about school being the same for our kids, but ultimately, I want it to be better for our students as I think that we all would.  That is why we have to take a hard look at what we teach, and more importantly, how we (everybody) can now learn.

So from my research, I think that I focused more on literacy, learning, and creativity, than cursive specifically.

Traditional literacy is the foundation of learning

When I use the term “traditional” literacy, I am talking about how many people think of literacy which would be basic reading and writing (and talking as well).  Basically if someone cannot read and write, they are going to have trouble in all other areas of school.  Many people have the notion that if students aren’t cursive writing, they are not writing at all as displayed in a comment I read in this blog making a case for cursive:

“Writing is important and the less we start teaching our kids the more illiterate and lazy we will become.”

Although the tone is a bit much, I do agree that writing is important, but not necessarily cursive.  If I can get a student to write more that is better, and as David Crystal states, kids are reading and writing more than ever, just maybe not with the same tools that we used as kids.  One teacher I talked to this morning said she did not want to “torture” her kids with cursive and if they hate it, I wonder if it is really necessary if there are other ways to encourage reading and writing?  I remember having to read novels over and over again when I did not enjoy them at all.  I would sneak off to the library and read Sports Illustrated whenever possible but never allowed to read that in class.  Was the teacher trying to instill a love of fiction, or promote reading and writing?  If I didn’t have access to sports magazines as a child, I am not sure that I would have developed the same love of reading.

What if instead of having a student write in a “traditional journal” with cursive, they wrote in a blog?  Instead of the student writing in their book once, and the teacher responding, you ask the student to write a post and respond to five others? Instead of writing once, you have them learning from each other and writing a minimum of six times (if they choose not to respond to the comments they receive on their blog).  I hated writing as a child because cursive was hard and was physically exhausting yet I love writing in my blog (over 500 posts in less than three years).

Kids can still be writing (more), maybe just not always using cursive.

Literacy is continuously changing

As a colleague pointed me to a thought by Paulo Freire, he shared that (paraphrased) literate means better able to read the ‘world’ rather than the ‘word’ and that we must spend a great deal of time on developing literacies. The National Council of Teachers of English states:

As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.

I think of my niece Raine being able to create videos at a young age, yet not ever hearing that she is doing anything of the sort in school.  Isn’t she missing out on a huge component of literacy right there?

It was also interesting that on the CTV program they were actively sharing information on their Twitter account and then talking about an astronaut who is currently tweeting from space (which I know many Parkland Schools are following with great interest.  What are we missing out if we are unable to read hashtags and not understand what a Twitter handle is?  It was also interesting to see a school use NFL Player tweets to help kids understand spelling and grammar.  Doesn’t this make learning more real as opposed to continuously writing about a “lazy brown fox”?

If literacy didn’t develop, we would still all be using hieroglyphics right?

We need to spend more time on creative pursuits

One argument that many “pro-cursive” people talk about in using cursive in schools are the fine motor skills that are developed, along with the connection between the left and right brain.  I always find this interesting since this was a discovery after we have been using cursive in schools for years, yet it is still a very relevant argument.

So when I asked on Twitter, are there other ideas that we can still develop fine motor skills and connect brain hemispheres, there were many different suggestions on how this could be done, mostly in an art setting (making bead bracelets, clay, etc.).  I believe that art is something we do not do enough of in schools and that it can actually promote creativity in our students.  As Daniel Pink discusses in his book, “A Whole New Mind” (here is a great summary of the book), the future will belong to the creators and artists (along with empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers) and that products will need to be “physically beautiful and emotionally compelling.”  Design is an important element in our future so we need to be spending more time in classes giving students the opportunity to be creative.

“My contention is that creativity is now as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” Sir Ken Robinson

I know that many organizations are looking for creativity in new hires, not neat cursive.  I think the big question is though, would writing cursive help to promote creativity?

Learning needs to be personalized

As I stated this morning, it is not about getting rid of cursive, but about what is right for each student.  It is not good enough to say “we love teaching cursive to our kids”; you have to be able to justify why it is important.  With that being said, if I had a student that would benefit from using cursive to promote their writing, help them identify letters, and promote fine motor skills, I would be okay with that.  It is not an “either/or”, but about using whatever it takes to promote continuous learning for our kids.  Just as I hated writing in cursive as a kid, some kids might hate writing in a blog.  I am okay with that.  What we need to do as educators is not assume a standard solution works in a personalized world, and really help to develop kids as learners.  Teachers should know their kids first, and help them develop their learning, not focus on the curriculum first and help fit the kid into that space.

Concluding Thoughts

Many will take this as an “anti-cursive” stance which it really isn’t.  Whatever helps a student become not only literate, but fluent is great.  The major difference in our world now is that teachers have to prepare kids with so many aspects of literacy that they are going to have to choose their time wisely in the classroom.  I see many new teachers still write their notes in a book and then transfer it to a computer.  Do they do that because it is a better practice or because they have been conditioned to do that due to a lack of access to technology from when they were in school.  With devices becoming a lot cheaper and more prevalent in schools, is the best practice writing something on a piece of paper and then rewriting it on a computer?  Learning does not necessarily happen when I recopy my own stuff to another platform, but when I connect my learning and it becomes meaningful.  In a system where time is scarce, teachers will have to make some decisions about what is nice and necessary, which is probably why cursive often comes up in discussion.

Finally, host Marci Len talked about how sad it would be if there were no more handwritten cards, as they are extremely personal.  I get that and I always wrote cards to my staff when I was a principal.  Part of it was because I thought it was a nice gesture, but part of it was people knew that I did not enjoy cursive writing (I love sharing how great I thought they were!) and I wanted to show them that I was willing to go out of my way to do something for them that I struggled with.  That being said, it is not the only option for a kind gesture in our world today.  My brother Alec had a “birthday card” created for him on his 40th birthday, and although I have never seen him brag about any card that he has received, he has shared the video with others several times.  How many kids can create a video like that? (below)

As in life, we often focus too much on what we have lost, and not necessarily what we have gained.  Instead of lamenting on what we may be losing from our past, I will continue to look at all of the opportunities that our kids will have for school and learning to be better for now and their future.

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