I have watched with great interest the progress in the Legislature, of a recent effort to require cursive handwriting in our schools.
While the bill did not make its way out of committee this year, its introduction reminded me of how difficult it is for citizens and lawmakers to understand the realities and demands on teachers in 2016. I’m in a pretty good position to address this particular issue, given my 35 years in education in Washington state, including teaching third-grade students for fifteen of those years and my current role as the principal of a large elementary school in Snohomish County.
Cursive handwriting was a really big deal for third-grade students when I was teaching them in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. As a teacher, I devoted a block of time to the instruction and practice of cursive writing every day. The short, daily practice was essential for my students to develop their fine motor skills, to learn the strokes required and the muscle memory to write in cursive. So what’s different? When I think about the four teachers who teach third-grade students at our school today and compare to the years I spent in the classroom, much has changed. So here’s a few examples of why I think we’ve stopped teaching cursive for the most part.
First of all, when I taught third grade, computers weren’t a tool we used in schools. Third-grade teachers are spending time teaching keyboarding and navigation skills on laptop computers. These skills are critical for our students to access information, for communicating, as well as to be able to take tests that are mandated by the state, including the ELLPA for all of our English Language Learners, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which our third-grade students will take later in the spring. All online.
There are other mandated initiatives that may also be why cursive has dropped as a priority. For example, The Common Core State Standards are excellent guides for instruction. Relatively new, our teachers are learning these standards and aligning their instruction — often with materials that do not align perfectly. Our teachers meet frequently to sit down with student work, comparing the work to the standards and calibrating scoring. They score student work to a standard. When I taught, I pretty much followed the teacher’s guides and manuals and scored student work on a percentage. The rigorous instruction that is called for in these standards, takes time — maybe the time we used to spend teaching the art of beautiful handwriting.
Another example is in the rigor of instruction. I taught my students thinking skills, as a component of reading comprehension. Today’s students must learn critical thinking skills and apply them in a multitude of ways. Instructional time in third grade is spent to develop thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills. On the SBA students are required to take multiple pieces of text, compare and contrast them, and write a reasonable analysis of the two. Teaching our students these skills takes time!
Schools are very different today than they were even 35 years ago when I started my teaching career. I’m grateful that this particular piece of legislation didn’t gain traction and become a law. The teachers at our school and schools all across the state of Washington are conscientious in their efforts to do everything required, and they’re working very hard, every day. They follow the laws, even in a state where the Legislature has failed to meet Constitutional responsibilities and Supreme Court orders to fully fund our schools.
What teachers today do not need is one more law or unfunded mandate to teach a skill that is not relevant in the 21st century.
Susan Ardissono is a resident of Shoreline and is principal at Oak Heights Elementary School in the Edmonds School District.