No More John Hancocks?
Recently, one of my students—a junior in high school—raised his hand and asked if he really had to sign the back of his test form. I asked him why he was asking.
He replied, “I don’t know how to write in cursive.”
Part of the new Common Core requirements is the elimination of teaching cursive handwriting. This change was in the process of happening anyway, but institutionalizing it as part of the Common Core has only hastened the death of writing in script. Still, as PBS reports, at least seven states have moved to make teaching cursive writing mandatory.
The argument against teaching cursive handwriting is that as long as students learn basic manuscript in kindergarten and first grade, they have writing skills, so after that, the Common Core requirements shift to keyboarding skills to train students to survive in this 21st century technologically driven world. Never mind that some students might not be able to afford to have computers at home and may still be working with pencil and paper, or as PBS reported, students are graduating without the ability to sign their name to do basic tasks in the adult world such as open a bank account, which still requires a signature, not a thumbprint or retinal scan.
An article in Tuesday’s The New York Times, however, suggests that handwriting is much more than Common Core standards might have us believe. Researchers are discovering new evidence to show links between taking handwritten notes and greater memory, recall, and even creativity. According to the article, some of that comes from the nature of handwriting itself—learning to recognize that all the different ways one might write the letter “a,” from the neatest to the messiest, and the most elegant to the most chicken-scratchiest—creates powerful neural connections in children’s brains.
Buzzfeed also reported recently on research that shows that taking notes by hand helps people remember better. This study involved participants who listened to a TED talk and either took handwritten or typewritten notes. Afterwards, both groups responded to a series of factual and conceptual questions based on the talk. The group who took the handwritten notes did far better than their laptop counterparts in answering the conceptual questions, although both groups performed equally well on the factual questions.
Maybe you are wondering at this point—all of this is interesting, but what is so existential about it?
Here is my thought, albeit, one that I am admittedly composing from a laptop keyboard. I sometimes write by hand and sometimes by keyboard. Writing by keyboard is far more efficient in today’s society—assignments are done faster, emailed faster, published faster. Faster, faster, faster. When I write by hand, the process is a little slower. I cannot do word counts. I am often away from Internet connections. But I feel much more connected to what I write. On the keyboard, my fingers might get ahead of my brain. On paper, my hand and brain work together. I feel the mind-body split on the computer while I feel the entirety of being involved in the writing process when I write by hand. By hand, I have an I-Thou relationship with what I write. Of course, that doesn’t mean that what I write by hand is always brilliant—it’s not. But it comes from a deep place, even if I am writing test questions.
Recently, I downloaded for my iPhone an app for Moleskine notebooks—my favorite writing books. I thought I would use it all the time on my phone since I love those notebooks for writing handwritten notes for all sorts of things. But I have a very different relationship with writing on my iPhone. I worry about where my fingers are on the keyboard. I worry about what the auto-spellcheck is going to do to my word if it is not in the dictionary. I worry about going back and inserting a missing word. All of these and more interfere with the flow…. I never had that problem with pen and paper.
So, call me old-fashioned, call me a Luddite. I can take it. I like cursive writing. In fact, I love it. I want to see every student learn it. I want them to know how to sign their names. I want them to take handwritten notes and remember more of what they learn in class. And while there are very few things I agree with that the state of North Carolina has done, they have a Back to Basics program to teach students both cursive writing and multiplication tables. I’d put my signature on that!
-- Sarah Kass