Is the long tradition of cursive handwriting on the way out?

Remember cursive? It's that form of writing wherein letters are joined together in connective, riverine style that evolved from "printing" to make the process faster and easier — and the pen or pencil never have to leave the page.

Another way to think of cursive might be as an "endangered species."

Seemingly forever, learning to write in longhand was a routine part of a student's educational curriculum. But, starting several years ago, the Common Core State Standards education guidelines — a national initiative adopted on a state-by-state basis that determines what K-12 students should learn annually, no longer require teaching cursive — and the issue has become an occasionally heated debate nationwide.

The stripped-down argument against the discipline is that, in an age of modern and increasingly sophisticated technology, a student's fluency on keyboards and computers is far more important than time spent mastering a handwriting style. On the other hand — the hand holding a pen in it, one assumes — proponents say learning to write in cursive has many worthy benefits that are being flattened by the steamroller of progress.

In local school districts and across Connecticut — one of 41 states, the District of Columbia and four territories to adopt Common Core standards — the fate of cursive is in a sort of limbo. None of the area district superintendents responded to email requests for comments on cursive policy, but a few local educators spoke on the record.

"Whether we'll still have cursive going forward is a big question, and I have conversations about it on a yearly basis with colleagues, parents, and grandparents," says Joe Macrino, principal of Oswegatchie Elementary School in Waterford. "Part of the third-grade curriculum in Waterford is cursive instruction. It doesn't pop up again formally in curriculum documents; after that introduction, students have a choice to go further with manual writing or keyboards or speech-to-text."

Jeannine Barber, who teaches English and creative writing at East Lyme High School, says she has students from four different feeder schools coming into her classrooms and experiences a wide range in terms of how well, if at all, kids know cursive.

"A lot of my students say they just never learned," Barber says. "One way or another, I guess it shouldn't be so variable at this point, but it is. There doesn't seem to be a standard that says we value or should teach this."

Failing any specific state-wide policy, teaching cursive is at the whim of any given teacher or, as in the case of Waterford, mandated instruction on a limited basis. But, even with the acknowledged reality of our computer-based future, it seems there are still sound and competitive reasons to teach cursive.

Jean Jordan, who taught elementary school in New London for over 30 years and is now retired, says, "I really believe we need to keep teaching cursive. It helps a student develop motor skills, and there's a difference in learning when you have a pen or pencil in your hand rather than if you're typing. Some students with dyslexia or other disabilities have a hard time with print. Cursive looks very different and gives those students another way to learn and gain confidence. I was taught as a student — and it was only reinforced when I was a teacher — that handwriting puts you in a conditioned mode of thought that improves cognition."

Barber echoes this theme.

"Data suggests kids who learn cursive pay attention and commit things to memory autonomically when they're writing by hand rather than on a computer," she says. "I'm not sure how that information is gathered, but I have to believe practicing cursive improves motor skills."

There are also practical real world situations within some of the schools themselves. Barber remembers, "In the middle of administering the SATs and ACTs, when I was proctoring once, the students had to write the honor statement in cursive. It clearly said, 'DO NOT PRINT.' The whole thing shut down." She laughs. "That was maybe the hardest part of the tests."

There's also the fact that cursive isn't just another means of expression or a learning tool. Without an ability to read cursive, for example, those school field trips where students get to peer at "The Declaration of Independence" or the original handwritten manuscript pages of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" don't resonate in particularly dramatic fashion.

"One thing I distinctly remember about teaching fifth grade is that history is written in cursive documents," Jordan says. "By knowing that and making a decision to not teach cursive, you're leaving out parts of the past."

At the same time, cursive — and its more distinguished cousin calligraphy — have aesthetic qualities.

"Cursive is an art form," Macrino says, "and any time you take away the arts, the pitchforks come out. Cursive is reflective of personality, too, and personal relationships. You sign the big things in life with a cursive signature. Children instantly see their parents using it and recognize a rite of passage in learning to write it. If you get rid of that, we're turning our backs on the past a bit.

"Plus," he adds, laughing, "when I was a Waterford teacher, I was glad I got to teach cursive because the students could see my handwriting skills, and I got to show them I wasn't great at everything."

"Maybe it's just me, but you became a 'big kid' when you started to learn cursive," Barber says. "The trend seems to be — I don't know — that it's not important. Do we not value it or what? My daughter is in kindergarten and wants to learn it. And I want her to be able to learn it."

Jordan suggests there are even different degrees of each person's cursive skills that convey different attitudes. She shares an anecdote about intentionally tweaking her own longhand in a sloppy fashion just to playfully irritate her mother.

"I have what I call my 'classroom handwriting,'" she explains, "and the students would say, 'Oh, you write so nicely.' Well, my Mom doesn't think so — and of course I'd done that on purpose."

In that spirit, there's more than a little touch of nostalgia to the idea of perpetuating the cursive tradition.

Macrino says, "We don't want to remove ourselves from human touch. Hand-signed Christmas cards from kids, friends who took the time to write a letter ... these things deepen meaning and the idea of friendship. So, when we're inundated with technology, in my district, at least, it's important to treasure human touch as a priority.

"There's a Peter Pan element to what we do," Macrino continues. "I understand that we're preparing our kids for jobs that don't even exist yet, and we can't live in the past. We're trying to prepare them socially and emotionally as well as academically, how to be good humans as well as educated humans. There's a magic to childhood, and cursive is part of that. Maybe knowing cursive won't get you a job, but it adds to your personality. I can only speak for my district, but we treasure that."


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