Monday, January 25, 2010

"Handwriting Without Tears"

My wife tells me that in the NYC public school system, they use a text book entitled "Handwriting Without Tears", the implication being that the old way of teaching kids to write script in school was so painful that it could actually cause them to cry. Excuse me! What are these kids made of that learning to write can actually cause them to get so upset? There are children in the world who are forced to eat what they can find in the streets, and don't know what terrors the night will bring. They are entitled to cry, but learning handwriting?

Some parents are so afraid their kids will be exposed in life to things that are hard. What they seem to forget is that striving to overcome things that may be initially difficult, for them, and finally succeeding, teaches perseverance, and builds the toughness that will give them the grit to face the hard things in life. I'm not against helping kids when they really need it, it's just that if we constantly hover over them and try to smooth out all the speed bumps, how will they ever learn to cope on their own?

I can remember learning to write in grade school. (You might be tempted to make a smart remark like: Sure Jim, but back then there were only 18 letters in the alphabet, but I would just ignore it.) We had the added disadvantage of having to use a blue, plastic quill pen dipped in ink. We wrote on paper whose quality was so poor that you could see small pieces of wood in it. As the pen scratched across the raggedy paper, the ink would rapidly be absorbed and start to smear in a spidery line. We used a blotter, a square of special paper designed to dry the wet ink, before it ran. Later the fountain pen came into use and we rejoiced, although a cheaply made fountain pen would leak, leaving a blue splotch on the pocket of your white school shirt.

Penmanship lessons probably started as early as first grade with the cranky Miss Langin doing the teaching. I think it was called "cursive writing", and the Palmer Method was its bible. We did exercises like making "loops and whorls" to get the feel of how script writing flows. We also made straight slash marks to practice slanting our writing, The slant they wanted us to learn favored right-handed kids, and leftys had a bit of a hard time, but I don't remember anybody stepping out onto the window ledge over it.

Then we moved on to practice sheets where they had pages of alphabet letters in script style lightly outlined, and we would trace over them. We did this every day until we were able to do it easily on a blank sheet. There were rectangular, green and white cards mounted around the classroom, with the upper and lower case versions of every letter of the alphabet written in beautiful Palmer script. Probably by second grade, every kid was proficient at writing script. Did some of us struggle? Sure, but we didn't whine about it. Parents didn't come running to school to castigate the teachers like they do today. Eventually, everybody GOT it, and even as we grow older, what better feeling is there, after having struggled with something, then to finally get it and enjoy that AHA moment.

Whether it's penmanship, sinking a free throw, balancing a checkbook, mastering another language, or just developing a golf swing that works, learning is one of the most satisfying experiences in life. We shouldn't be so anxious to rush in and do things for our kids just because we get frustrated at their rate of progress. It's hard sometimes to hang back, but in the long run, the learning will be more lasting, and certainly more gratifying for the kids when they get it on their own.


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The Whiner said...

Our school uses that program too. Sure they make a big fuss if they cry over penmanship, but no one cares if they're stressed from memorizing math facts!

Jim Pantaleno said...

At this age they shouldn't fuss over any initial difficulty a kid may have; eventually they will get it if they get off their backs.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Old Miss Langin was the beginning of my career in writing script that could be read. I am forever grateful for the lessons taught in grade school. When I moved out to the Island, my teachers would comment on my good penmanship, and it served me well, to this day. Tears? No, that was a sign that we as children where growing up!
Nice blog!

Anonymous said...

Yes the name is kind of a bummer..Kind of reminds me how my grandmother used to tell me that she would have to write pages and pages of connecting O's however...Its a wonderful program. It is very concrete and detailed. It takes the student throughout the steps starting with the basics. So many kids cry and cry and cry for trying to write. It breaks it down into logical sequence and steps. I also have noticed that many students no longer no how to write in cursive.