Friday, June 13, 2014

Here We Go Loopty Loo

On April 24, the Tennessee state legislature passed House Bill 1697, which requires public schools in that state to teach cursive. You read that right. At a time when most middle- and high-school students aspire to text faster, Tennessee has revived handwriting, loops and all.

Let’s hear it for the Volunteer State.

I don’t advocate a Stepford-like sameness in penmanship or script that leans exactly 10 degrees to the right. I do, however, believe cursive allows for greater speed of expression, which, in turn, may lead to better flow of thought.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about thedisappearance of cursive. It followed my reading of many student essays, some of which featured manuscript writing (printing) that seemed tortured. That post has had almost 2,000 hits. Clearly I’m not the only one who believes cursive teaches more than how to loop and swirl.

Better eye-hand coordination is one benefit of handwriting instruction. Another is the ability to read the Declaration of Independence as penned, manifests from ships that brought relatives to America, and letters from grandparents.

The most valuable benefit, however, is the link between handwriting and cognitive development.  A recent New York Times article looks at the research:

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Coll├Ęge de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”
Doesn’t the same kind of thing happen when we learn to play chopsticks, ride a bike, and swing a golf club?
An NPR segment on handwriting and brain activity corroborates the link between writing and cognitive ability, but the researchers interviewed found no difference between cursive and manuscript writing.  That segment ended with a call for writing in schools, meaning more crafting of sentences, paragraphs, essays and papers and fewer multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank tests.
Cursive still has detractors. Here’s Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor of Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education: “…teachers would be better off focusing on the skills and knowledge that will impact student success in the future. These include printing and typing, but not cursive. As we have done with the abacus and the slide rule, it is time to retire the teaching of cursive. The writing is on the wall.”
The next generation of Tennesseans will be able to print, type, and sign their names. They’ll learn to link their letters but, as this is the 21t century, they’ll be free to unlink them. They may take to oval o’s or reject them. What they'll do is develop individualistic handwriting that will serve them well.
Where do you stand on the cursive versus manuscript debate?
Do you think we should incorporate more writing into the school curriculum, for example one paragraph answers rather than one word answers on tests?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot

This spring, two magnificent blossoms rose from an agapanthus plant I’d given up for dead. They remind me, in a bittersweet way, of a former neighbor.

The neighbor, a Navy wife whose husband was on his last posting before retirement, stayed less than a year in my landlocked part of the world. Her husband had chosen the house, and she found it forbidding, her mother was dying, and her daughter was expecting a baby in a far-off state.

“Can’t” didn’t have a place in my neighbor’s vocabulary although her husband’s postings had uprooted her and their children many, many times. She knew how to make a house a home via rugs, pillows and family pictures. She prided herself on her organizational skills and always had a list going.

She was a familiar sight pushing her wheelchair-bound mother up and down the street until the summer heat wilted them. She flew stand-by to visit her daughter for a weekend every six weeks or so. In other words, she coped.

She’d adapted to different locales and languages by following the adage, “Bloom Where You’re Planted,” and had embroidered that saying on a pillow cover. Imagine, then, how her failure to bloom at her husband’s final posting knocked her off balance. Here, circumstances had drop-kicked her into survival mode. She made the best of a tough situation but didn’t have the energy to flower. After several months of struggle to get her bearings, she opted to leave the state and live with her daughter, her mother in tow. Her husband would follow once he'd finished his last assignment.

“Bloom where you’re planted” is meant to inspire but puts a lot of pressure on the trailing spouse, the transferred worker, rotating doctor, interim department head, or any of us caught in a situation not entirely of our making.

Roughly five years ago, I planted an agapanthus in a sunny corner of my front yard. It bloomed its first spring but barely made it through the first summer. Too much sun (yes, such a thing is possible), a drought year, and a spot that drained too well meant the plant struggled to stay alive. Blooming was out of the question. The following year, I dug it up, intending to throw it onto the compost pile. I don’t know why I didn’t. At the last minute, I replanted it in the backyard’s dappled sunlight.

The plant greened up and spread but didn’t bloom until this spring, when it put on its over-the-top show.

I believe in making the best of situations we can’t change, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better situations out there. A different location, different job, different coworkers or friends may be what we need to reach our potential.

My neighbor had bloomed many times until she hit her personal Sahara. When her willpower and familiar routines didn’t work their customary magic, she chose to transplant herself.

I’d like to think she’s blooming.

What about you? Do you believe in blooming where you’re planted or in planting yourself where you’re most likely to bloom?