As an educator for 25 years, I have taught a broad range of students, from the enthusiastic yet panic-stricken seventh grader to the battle-worn, educated military veteran. I have tried to be sensitive as I endeavor to maintain a contemporary style that meets students’ needs.
As I continue to hone my skills as a teacher for the demands of today’s global market, though, I find that my students’ prerequisite skill-sets are changing over time too. Things that I once took for granted as a part of my own education, things that used to be cornerstones of pedagogy, are fading out to make room for other, more modern skills.
Take, for example, handwriting. When I was a tiny kid (read: “Back in my day…”), we learned basic letters at home. Most kids could print their own name and some letters of the alphabet by the time they started kindergarten. First grade was spent learning to make words into sentences. The big step was third grade: cursive writing. I couldn’t wait to learn how to write like my mom, who has very neat, flowing handwriting. We used a model called “Nellie Thomas,” which, if you went to elementary school before the 1990s, you saw as the perfectly scripted cursive alphabet hung in a string across one wall of your classroom. We were made to imitate the Nellie Thomas style as closely as possible all the way through sixth grade.
Unfortunately, my motor skills were terrible in this regard; my fourth grade teacher had to give me a Number 5 pencil because I pressed down too hard. In fifth grade, my teacher sent home handwriting homework, which I had to practice an hour after school every day. I hated it, and I never got much better until I took a calligraphy class in high school. It was then that I figured out why the letters all needed to be uniform, and that flow and style of one’s handwriting adds beauty to it, rather than extra work. I also had a class called “Modern Living” in junior high that included the creation and practice of our own signature. We were instructed to include some unique feature that made it our own, something hard to duplicate (we were told forgery horror stories as motivation). Because of these two classes, I put a huge amount of time into my signature and cursive handwriting during my final months of high school, creating what I think is a very readable cursive. In college, I had a class called “Materials and Technology” where, besides learning how to run four different kinds of film projectors (you never know what you’ll end up with, the professor said), I had to learn how to write legibly on a chalk board both in print and in cursive. This was a graded assignment. Was I glad I had that calligraphy class!
You can imagine my shock when, one day last year, as I wrote the day’s lesson on the board in perfect script, a student said, “I can’t read that.”
“What?” I said.
“I can’t read your handwriting. Could you print it?” Oh my gosh, I thought. What has this world come to? And what if this student isn’t the only one who can’t read cursive? It turns out, many can’t—and many can’t write it, either. When I send around a sign-in sheet the first few weeks of class, I ask the students to print their name, then sign next to it. The older students print and sign. The younger students print and print again. They do not have a signature! It is a bizarre and serious breach of personal security not to have one’s own signature.
Students tell me that cursive is no longer taught in schools. I feel old saying this, but, what are people thinking? Why would such an essential skill be abandoned? The answer is simple: keyboarding. Kids need to learn how to type, and they start as early as first grade. When I was in high school, we learned how to type on brand new IBM Selectrics. I typed all my college papers on my high school graduation gift, an electric typewriter that I still own; I had no real need to type outside of schoolwork. Still, I didn’t learn to type without looking at my fingers, or with any speed, until chat and texting came around.
Kids nowadays type everything. This year, for the first time, state testing will all be online, and students will be asked to compose writing samples on a keyboard rather than in a booklet with a Number 2 pencil. No more “fill in the oval completely.” Students with little or no computer skills will be found lacking compared to those who have them, even if the non-tech kid has better language and math skills.
One of my current students said that she got a note from her child’s kindergarten teacher which expressed concern that my student’s daughter lacked experience with an iPad. Testing on the iPads was coming up, the teacher said, and she didn’t want the child not to be able to take the test. My student was asked to take home an iPad and spend some time teaching her five-year-old daughter how to use it. Never mind that my student up to this point had deliberately withheld technology of this kind from her daughter to avoid the habit-forming nature of handheld electronics.
It’s not just handwriting and signatures, either. I’ve had college-age students tell me they can’t read an analog clock. When I made a joke about limiting the time for class discussion a few weeks ago, I said, “We’ll stop when the big hand gets on the eight.” After I got a few confused looks from some younger students, I was asked to instead say, “You have ten minutes” or “We’ll stop at 10:40.” Analog clocks in the classrooms where I teach are slowly being replaced with digital ones. Since I often use the second hand to time activities, this has not been an easy transition for me.
What if there is a need for these essential skills? Studies have shown that writing in cursive can stave off Alzheimer’s. Having a distinctive signature can help prevent identity theft. Being able to read an analog clock means that, in the event of a no-power emergency like a hurricane or tornado, people can wind a watch and know what time it is. These things may have had to move aside in our school curricula to make way for modern technology, but in the event of an apocalypse, only the “old school” people will survive. And we will be the only ones able to write a check!