Friday, December 15, 2017
Education

Proposal would let cursive writing live on in schools

TAMPA — Every day, for most of the day, she stands in the back of the kitchen and wishes happy birthdays to strangers. The head cake decorator at Wright's Gourmet House, Rosa Malpica uses frosting to congratulate couples on anniversaries and junior partners on promotions. And because she believes it looks elegant and because she loves to do it, Malpica writes in cursive — except when a customer requests print.

"I think those are when the cakes are for the children," she said one recent workday, walking into the freezer. "The children can't always read the cursive."

Like typewriters or cassette tapes, cursive still exists but its use has diminished in the digital era. Now, Florida education officials are poised to decide whether cursive handwriting should still be taught in elementary schools.

The Common Core State Standards, which Florida schools have been gradually adopting, omit cursive. Pasco no longer requires schools to teach cursive, while Hillsborough and Pinellas educators say there's much less emphasis on the looping script than in the past.

But last month, seeking to quell fears of federal overreach and make the standards unique to Florida's needs, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart recommended nearly 100 tweaks to the Common Core — including the revival of cursive handwriting. The State Board of Education will take up the issue at its Feb. 18 meeting.

Mary Jane Tappen, vice chancellor of standards and instruction for the Florida Department of Education, said parents and educators asked at public forums and through email that cursive still be taught. The state received 19,000 comments on the Common Core, many dominated by a desire for cursive, Tappen said.

She spoke of the Constitution.

"There are historical documents written in cursive, signage is in cursive," Tappen said. "It's important students be able to read and recognize documents written in cursive writing."

The advent of the computer and its nifty little keyboard has created two worlds of writing: that of the school, where writing by hand remains sovereign, and that of the rest of the world, where typing has relegated handwriting to the realm of cake decorators and grocery lists.

"Primarily the reason for that is schools and teachers, with the exception of some places, just don't have that many computers in the classroom," said Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and a nationally-recognized expert on cursive handwriting.

Keyboard typing has trumped handwriting because it's quicker and guarantees legibility, freeing up cognitive space for the content of the message, Graham said. Cursive in particular has been hit because it's viewed as "formal." Now, important documents are typed.

The organizations that created the Common Core standards did not return phone calls seeking comment on the omission of cursive. The federal standards place heightened emphasis on writing and keyboard skills. Florida schools finished their transition to the Common Core this year.

Pam Moore, associate superintendent of teaching and learning for Pinellas County Schools, said cursive is informally taught in the third grade, but it does not have a reserved time of day, does not receive its own grade, and the district no longer orders workbooks on cursive handwriting.

Temetia Creed, Hillsborough's supervisor of elementary language arts, said the district's current reading program does not include cursive. She said students can write in either cursive or print, and teachers help students struggling with cursive.

Pasco schools encourage students to practice cursive on their own, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. "Some even have cursive clubs."

Researchers have said cursive appears to improve reading and other learning skills. The literature is mixed on whether writing in cursive is significantly faster than printing.

In a 2013 online poll by Harris Interactive, 79 percent of adults and 68 percent of children said cursive should still be taught.

The inability to read cursive has even proved fodder for headlines. When 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel testified that she'd been on the phone with Trayvon Martin just before George Zimmerman shot and killed him, the takeaway wasn't so much her testimony — but that she couldn't read a lawyer's document written in cursive.

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego is pushing for two new elementary schools that would function as technology magnets, issuing an electronic device to all students.

But Grego said the district won't altogether eliminate cursive no matter what the state rules. "Even though with technology there might be less of an emphasis, it's still important to have a grasp on it."

State board member John Colon of Manatee County said he would support cursive at this month's vote. "Sooner or later people do run out of batteries, you know."

Most arguments for keeping cursive in classrooms are grounded in romantic notions of long letters and prim invitations, said Graham, the handwriting expert. "This is an issue about older people being afraid of losing something from their world."

As director of the National League of Junior Cotillions' Tampa chapter, Elizabeth Ayers, 56, spends her days teaching teenagers ladylike and gentlemanly ways. She tells them to write thank-you notes by hand.

"But it's interesting," said Ayers, "My students are in middle schools, and they don't write very much. I say, 'Does anybody do anything in script anymore?' And they all look at me, and they don't know what script means."

Recently, she put a big piece of paper on an easel and wrote out cursive letters. "Everyone go home and practice cursive," she told her students. "It looks too juvenile when you print."

Over at Wright's Gourmet House, Malpica said cursive adds a special air to the occasions her customers are celebrating.

Back in the kitchen, she wishes a happy birthday to Joy in cursive on a 9-inch round cake. Then she wishes a happy anniversary to Mom and Dad, also in cursive, high peaks on the "A"s, exaggerated curls on the "y"s.

To Mark — who, she thinks, must be a child — she wishes a happy birthday in print, as requested.

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected]

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