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The lost art of cursive writing

Retired educators take a walk down Memory Lane

The words flow beautifully across the page. The penmanship — now more than ever — catches our eye, as the letters interlock with each other, creating a script that for many, has become a thing of the past.

Technology, keyboarding, electronic devices have often asked the art of cursive writing to take a backseat to the fast-paced keyboarding of today’s world. In fact, many schools across the country no longer teach cursive writing, instead focusing their efforts on technology and using the keyboard.

Is cursive writing on the endangered list — perhaps headed for extinction? Across the nation, some think it is, but some educators in the area still believe cursive handwriting is important for a host of reasons.

“For 25 years, I worked as a computer applications teacher in two middle schools which had a dedicated computer curriculum. Until just a few years ago, the cornerstone of a computer class was to teach keyboarding, also known as touch typing,” said retired educator Chris Isaacson of Princeton, who taught at St. Louis Catholic School in Princeton for 12 years and at Midland Middle School in Sparland for 13 years.

“While I was teaching keyboarding, my days were consumed with typing, but we do not live in a world that is all digital all the time,” Isaacson continued. “In working with young people, I observed that students who do not learn to write cursive, do not know how to read cursive.

“Without cursive, students cannot read any instructions written in cursive. Without cursive, young people cannot read family artifacts, such as a grandparent’s letter. Without cursive, students cannot read the Declaration of Independence,” she said.

Isaacson said she believes many principals and teachers don’t think there is enough time in their school day to teach cursive writing.

“With the passage of time, I suppose all young people will just be printing or using a computer, and the issue will fade away,” Isaacson said. “(But) let’s consider that cursive writing and reading is another tool an individual may use for communication. Perhaps the bigger issue is how to communicate clearly, however the means, and we should have all tools available to do so.”

Former Neponset resident Marty Golby, who now resides in rural Geneseo, just retired in June 2016 from United Township High School in East Moline after 33 years of teaching.

“I have noticed a significant decrease of cursive writing in high school students in the past 10 years. At first, five to 10 years ago, my students didn’t necessarily write in cursive anymore, but they could still read cursive writing. In the past five years, fewer students can even read it,” Golby said.

“If I would write on the Smartboard in cursive in recent years, many had no idea what was written ... and these were juniors and seniors in high school,” he said, adding his students came from five different elementary/junior high schools.

While students from the smaller schools usually had a basic knowledge of cursive writing, the ones from larger schools did not, except to possibly be able to sign their names in cursive.

“Every so often, I would have one or two students who would consistently write in cursive. They seemed to be the more artistic types,” Golby said.

“Many believe it’s a lost art, an unnecessary art, but from my own experience, a person can write a lot faster — for example, when taking notes — in cursive. I often wonder if anyone will be able to read those important significant historical documents from our country’s past in the coming years.” he said.

Phyllis Johnson taught elementary school children for about 30 years, most of them from the Bureau County area. At 90 years old, she’s not exactly sure what is being taught in today’s classroom, but she still has a passion for good penmanship.

“I am an old educator, but I think it’s important for people to learn to write, at least their name, in cursive handwriting,” Johnson said, adding good penmanship is still important to her. “But I’m not sure they even have time for (cursive writing) anymore; I don’t know how much emphasis is put on penmanship.”

Even though she’s been out of the classroom for many years, Johnson said she still notices good handwriting. In fact, at a recent 90th birthday party, she said she received about 100 cards that were “predominantly handwritten. That was good to see,” she said, adding she still believes cursive writing is important. “Even if they don’t use it much, they still need to be able to sign their name.”

When it comes to teaching children how to write in cursive, retired Princeton Elementary School educator Elaine Bolatto taught for 33 years — 31 of those years she taught second grade, where students began the transition from printing to cursive.

“I loved to teach cursive writing. It was a slow process ... We first started talking about the similarities and differences between printing and cursive,” Bolatto said, adding she wasn’t the only one who enjoyed cursive writing in her second-grade classroom.

“Oh, they looked forward to it; they could hardly wait,” Bolatto said of her students. “it was a big deal for second grade. They felt so grown up and proud of their accomplishments.”

Bolatto still remembers the manner in which she taught cursive writing, starting with the lowercase letter I, followed by the lowercase T. She talked about teaching students to slant their handwriting, and how practicing each letter over and over again helped her students commit the process to memory.

Bolatto still thinks cursive writing is important, and she cited an article she had just read on the subject. She talked about the importance of people being able to read historical documents like the Gettysburg Address or even something so simple as signing one’s name when they go to the polls to cast a ballot.

As an educator, Bolatto prides herself on her own handwriting, and she always notices nice penmanship on envelopes she gets in the mail — though many of those envelopes and the contents inside don’t display cursive writing.

“I have noticed in the past 10 to 15 years, when I get a thank you note, say for graduation or a wedding, they are always printed; they are seldom in cursive,” she said.

Today's educators weigh in on the importance of cursive writing in their classrooms

Brody Spencer, 8, takes great effort to move his pencil on the paper. His strokes are slow and methodical. He's not easily distracted. Who would have thought the letter L could be so mesmerizing?

Brody is a second-grader in Jeanette Scott's classroom at Jefferson Elementary School in Princeton. The students have been working on cursive writing since late October.

Scott said the second-grade staff and administration is 100 percent in favor of continuing cursive writing in the curriculum. While she understands the art of cursive writing has been kicked to the curb at many suburban and metropolitan school districts, Scott said the Princeton Elementary educators are committed to keeping cursive writing.

"Our second-graders just love cursive. It's something they're so proud of," Scott said, adding she allocates 15 minutes a day for three days each week for lessons on cursive writing. She begins teaching the lowercase letters, and then incorporates the uppercase letters into her teaching plan. Once all the letters are learned, she then integrates cursive writing into her spelling curriculum.

Scott touted some of the benefits of cursive writing, including the cognitive benefits students receive when they actually write something down versus keyboarding it.

Jefferson Principal J.D. Orwig said the technological revolution has lessened "the demand for the formality of cursive writing," however, the district has no plans to change their approach to it.

"I still think there's something to be said (for cursive)," Orwig said. "It's still an occupational and life skill that's important."

On the east side of Bureau County, Dalzell Grade School has discontinued teaching cursive writing to its students. Superintendent Dr. Bruce Bauer said technology has basically changed the way the school approaches things.

"Cursive writing just isn't used anymore," he said. "It's out of date. Basically everything we do no longer uses paper and a pencil. It's a skill that is no longer a life skill for kids."

He said students do a lot of transcribing on the computer. And the district does work heavily on writing and printing.

"Schools are required to do so many things now, and basically, we have to prioritize now. It (cursive) is no one thing we emphasize," Bauer said.

At Ohio Grade School, fourth-grade teacher Jill Thompson said cursive is initially introduced in second grade; it's practiced in third grade, and by the last quarter of the school year, it's used for most everything. And then the students proceed to Thompson's fourth-grade class.

"I require it (cursive) from Day 1, except for spelling," she said. "They write everything in cursive for me. I am a traditionalist ... I do a little handwriting practice with my students every morning. It takes five minutes."

Thompson, who has taught for 30 years, said she's seeing more and more articles about the benefits of writing versus keyboarding, including brain balance, recall and more.

"I've been at this a long time. I think it's becoming a lost art, but it's a way to set yourself apart. ... It's important to have your own signature. I think it's worth teaching," she said.

Shelly Nauman is the curriculum director at John F. Kennedy School in Spring Valley. She said the district still teaches cursive writing in second grade, using the Zaner-Bloser curriculum — the same curriculum kindergarten students are started on for printing. She said the Spring Valley second-graders are always excited about learning to write in cursive.
Nauman said the district still teaches cursive writing for a host of reasons.

"You have books kids are reading where some of the text is actually written in cursive, and there are older people who write in cursive — (the students) need to be able to read that as well," Nauman said. "Ultimately, they have to be able to sign their names."

At Bureau Valley South, Principal Kristal LeRette said the district uses the D'Nealian style of handwriting to teach cursive and manuscript writing.

"I think (cursive is) important. When you have to sign a check, you use cursive. When you have to sign for a house, you have to sign in cursive. It's your signature," LeRette said, adding the flow of cursive writing where one rarely has to lift up his/her pencil is easier for some students versus printing.

Tom Odell, principal at the private Princeton Christian Academy, said students at the school are still taught cursive.

"We continue to teach cursive writing and work on penmanship; some of our teachers are pretty committed to that because it is an art that has been lost, unfortunately, and probably will be even more with keyboarding. We remain committed to it," Odell said.

Of the other area schools which responded to the BCR's question about whether or not they teach cursive writing, Ohio Grade School, Malden Grade School, Ladd Grade School, Neponset Grade School, Van Orin Grade School (LaMoille District), Dimmick Grade School, DePue Grade School and St. Louis Catholic School in Princeton all confirmed they still teach cursive writing in their districts.

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