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Penmanship: Forgotten? Lost?

Posted by on in Education Resources
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Why bother teaching penmanship when you have all the pressures of that alien organization, CC, hovering over your head? Teachers and parents alike shouldn't turn away from this skill. Why? Cursive writing is not just about learning how to write "the letters," in fact, it's a lot more.

In NYC public schools penmanship became a forgotten art when newspapers began publishing reading test scores according to districts and principals felt pressured to "scoring high," and that stress, of course, fell on teachers and students. Then you had NCLB and CC: bye, bye penmanship...

Before education changed, I began each day with a brief 20-minute lesson: from Monday to Thursday I taught smalls and caps, one new letter daily, and on Fridays I had, believe it or not, a penmanship "test." And kids loved it because it gave them a chance to see if they improved and mastered their handwriting by week's end. Children crafted letters during the week and took pride in the results staring at them. The "test" was more of a fun exam compared to standardized tests.

Cursive writing is a self-motivating  activity similar to sports learning where students can "see" improvement. If the handwriting doesn't look "good," they are intrinsically motivated to "correct" or "perfect" it. To further inspire my classes, I would say, "Penmanship is art." But they didn't look at it this way, it was more like drill work to keep them busy, so this creative idea presented a new perspective to cursive writing.

In a typical lesson, I modeled the "letter of the day," e.g., the small/big "a" on the board, and asked kids to come up and do the same for their classmates. This was enjoyable and appealing as others watched their friends drawing the letters. Collaboratively, we critiqued the drawings in a light-hearted way. When the demo ended students routinely practiced writing the letters of the day followed by words and sentences with the same letters in them.

To amp up the repetitive act of practicing letters, I made up, and printed, real and absurd sentences/paragraphs on the board for the class to re-write in script. An example of a ridiculous sentence using the small "a" is: The boy grabbed his hat and suddenly began flying into space laughing all the way, ha, ha, ha. Kids laughed the silliness, yet became energized to write freely, relaxed, and also, learned the strokes for each letter.

Students appreciated handwriting at the beginning of the school day because it immediately focused their attention, especially first thing in the morning when concentration and emotions were a little distracted and scattered. Penmanship, in this way, became a de-stressor and calming agent. Add music to settle kids even more.

From practicing letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs to develop handwriting skills, you can advance to a more complex skill: dictation. Find a captivating passage from a novel, short story, or create an absurd paragraph and read it out loud as they listen and write in "good" penmanship what they hear. In an age of distractions, dictation teaches several vital skills simultaneously: listening, handwriting, concentration, self-control, and hand-eye coordination. Focusing one's attention in a composed manner is another skill created through penmanship.

An enrichment activity connected to "penmanship-as-art" is calligraphy. Present and draw some letters in calligraphy style to inspire kids to develop "beautiful" handwriting, and also, to motivate creative writing.

Yes, cursive writing and creative writing go hand-in-hand because, in my experience, "you can't have one without the other." Practicing the art of penmanship connects children to the art of creative writing. When writing a fictional or non-fiction piece, the mind and imagination are activated: thoughts, ideas, meanings, experiences, mind-pictures, feelings, reflections, fantasies, dreams, and reveries travel from the brain down the arm to the hand where narratives are born and physically re-created. Crusive writing sets up the muscle memory to make the act of creation move smoothly along so inner worlds can be translated onto paper. You don't want that "flow" from the mind and imagination interrupted because a child can't "write" his or her experiences.

Can all the above translate into a mom/pop-child/children situation at home? Here are ideas to help parents implement classroom methods at home:

(1) Model the letters. Emphasize that "penmanship is art" and that you're actually drawing the letters, trying to follow the bouncing ball of the letters' strokes. It can be an open, enjoyable, educational, collaborative, and communicative experience. Practice, review, and evaluate the letters together in an easy-going, non-judgmental way. And no one is excluded from the analysis: everyone partakes in these processes.

(2) To excite kids, throw in silly sentences and short, absurd, and real paragraphs, first to practice handwriting, and second, for dictation purposes. Creating funny sentences/passages gets children distracted and handwriting can fall off. Stress the importance of staying focused while writing "correctly" despite the goofy interference.

(3) Continue with dictation, another "cool tool": dictate paragraphs from novels, and also, make up original surreal passages to spike their enthusiasm for handwriting and potential creative writing, plant some seeds here...

(4) Expand penmanship into an art form by presenting calligraphy charts to show the different styles used for the letters. The whole family can practice writing letters, words, and complete sentences--even great quotations--in various calligraphy styles.

(5) And if you really want to take a trip on the wild side, talk about and describe graffiti artists and the amazing writing styles they create in all the wrong places. Check out images on the Internet and everyone can play around with their own imaginary graffiti worlds.

So is penmanship lost? No, not really. It's just forgotten for now, but will be revived from the vault of education's amnesia memory bank.



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Jeffrey Pflaum has been an inner-city elementary school teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, for thirty-four years (NYCDOE, retired in 2002). He worked as a creative writing, whole language, social studies, gifted/talented, physical education, and mentor teacher in grades K – 6 and special education. Pflaum coached middle school boys and girls basketball teams and one of his players became coach of the Pace University team. Tennis was also taught on the elementary school level to lower grade kids as part of the NY Junior Tennis League Program founded by Arthur Ashe.

Pflaum considers himself a teacher-developer-researcher experimentalist who created successful education projects in emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning, reading, writing, poetry, thinking, creativity, vocabulary expansion, concentration, and intra- and interpersonal communication skills. He has written articles for professional newspapers and publications about his curricula. Various programs appeared on web sites such as ERIC and CASEL/Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (“Experiences, Reflections, and Insights”).

One program was featured at the International National Council of Teachers of English at NYU as one of the best examples of English Language Arts in the NYC Public Schools, K – 12. His students’ poetry and prose have been published in college, writers’, gifted secondary, and children’s literary journals, magazines, newspapers, and by major commercial book publishers; read on public radio (Poetry-In-The-Morning, WNYE-FM, sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative/NYC); and, won honors and awards from PBS, Channel Thirteen/NYC. One student, Noel “Speedy” Mercado, became a top NYC disc jockey on WKTU-FM.

Pflaum published an inspirational book about adolescent reading lives titled MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS: HOW TEACHERS AND PARENTS CAN LEAD THE WAY (Rowman & Littlefield Education). For book reviews, go to http://www.examiner.com/review/motivating-your-kids-to-read to see Kecia Burcham's response to the book, and also, The Teachers College Record for Karen Polk's insightful article. For Karen Polk's review (8/24/12), from the Teachers College Record, google "MOTIVATING TEEN AND PRETEEN READERS - Teachers College Record."

Go to www.JeffreyPflaum.com for more articles on "Contemplation Writing," Meditative Writing Ideas, Internet radio interviews, published student poetry, and newspaper articles about his book on motivating adolescent readers and Inner Cities Arts Project. His recent interviews on Contemplation Writing can be found at these "Pure Imagination" links: http://prn.fm/2012/07/14/pure-imagination-071312 and Pure Imagination - 07/13/12 | Progressive Radio Network. A second interview on "Connect With Julianna" (Toginet Radio Network) about "Contemplation" or "Music" Writing can be found at these links: http://bit.ly/iTFbk7 and http://bit.ly/t5FA0W; or, Connect with Creative Educator and Author, Jeffrey Pflaum.

Pflaum is currently a regular blogger on The BAM Radio Network's blog, ED Words, where posts about a plethora of his projects can be found at: www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/blogger/listings/jeffpaul. Also, he is a contributing writer for EDUCATION VIEWS at: www.educatnviews.org/author/jeffreypflaum/

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