Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Penmanship, Progress, and Possibilities

It's important to know how to read cursive writing.
Reading cursive is not important in the age of computers. Most of us type, anyway.
Knowing how to spell words properly is important so that students can clearly communicate what they mean.
As long as a student can right-click and select the appropriate word, he or she will be alright.
Writing legibly is imperative and indicative of eye-hand coordination and a sophisticated mind.
Doctors are notorious for writing sloppily and are successful nonetheless.

These are just a few of the differing viewpoints shared by teachers of different grade-levels and content areas during our writing workshop today. Clearly, we are in an age of transition, but isn't education always in such a state of flux? The rapid rate of technology growth since the computer revolution is responsible for many of the dilemmas we face in education today, but teachers have grappled with similar changes since long before the digital age.

My daughter recently shared a 19th century professor's quote with me that denounced the evils of writing on paper in the classroom. There would be too much waste; students would write careless notes to their friends with no regard to the precious resource that paper represents. Students were losing the ability to write well on slates. Some ended up "with chalk on their elbows!" Two centuries later, few people lament the loss of classroom slates. In fact, we've almost come full-circle with the use of personal white boards when they fit the lesson plan.

Therein lies the real lesson about the fear of letting go of traditions in favor of new ones. Human beings create new tools to make life easier. In fact, I challenge anyone to define what it means to be human without including the use of adaptable technology on that list of defining characteristics. As educators, we must prepare our students for the world that awaits outside school boundaries. In reality, most communication will occur through digital media. Let's get our students blogging, typing research essays, citing sources using helpful online tools, file sharing, and creating infographs, videos, and Prezis. Too often, we hold on to traditions because they represent how we learned. Some even view laborious handwriting and spelling practice as a rite of passage. As we suffered, so shall you all. I say that tongue-in-cheek. I don't believe that teachers intentionally perpetuate outdated practices out of any sadistic or lazy tendencies. Rather, it is difficult to know when it is time to shift the focus to new areas.

The first teacher to ditch the slates in favor of paper probably seemed crazy to some, not the least of which the afore-mentioned professor; however, look at all that we gained in that process: the ability to save work and track progress, the ability to transport ideas from one location to another without fear of smudging or wiping away, and the option to craft longer works. After all, a slate allows only so much space for brilliance.

Imagine the possibilities that await us as we shift away from a focus on penmanship and writing on paper to the exploration and utilization of a variety of available media. I'm not saying we should abandon cursive or tell students that spelling doesn't matter. For the record, one of my favorite memories consists of practicing calligraphy and cursive with my grandmother. I also won a spelling bee or two in my day. Rather, I'm proposing that if we place less emphasis on those talents in order to focus on newer needs, the benefits could be greater than we can imagine.

Ultimately, if students find that they need a stronger mastery of traditional skills, they will work to improve on their own. Students learn best when they have authentic need for information. With standards to meet and limited class time, teachers must carefully choose which skills to focus on within their given confines. It is important to remember that tradition is rooted in the past - not the future. As author and former teacher J.K. Rowling writes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
          Every headmaster and headmistress ... has

          Brought something new to the weighty task of
          governing this historic school, and that is
          as it should be, for without progress there
          will be stagnation and decay. There again,
          progress for progress's sake must be

          discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions
          often require no tinkering. A balance, then,
          between old and new, between permanence and
          change, between tradition and innovation ... (11.92)
Let us take care to keep what is truly important and move in new directions where progress could lead to inspiration and innovation. We cannot fear change, for it will happen whether we will it or not.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing! I love how you said "we must prepare our students for the world that awaits outside our school boundaries." I agree with you--this is why education is always changing; because our world is always changing. As teachers we need to continue embracing change--see how it fits into what we are doing and how it can change what we are doing (for the better).