Fifth-grader Colter Friess doesn’t think cursive is outdated or a waste of time. Instead, he thinks quality penmanship begets quality work.
“It’s like wearing formal clothes to a nice occasion,” Colter said. “It’s setting a high standard. If you’re writing something good it should be written in something just as good.”
Cursive goes back to ancient times. In medieval Latin it means “written with a running hand” and was the penmanship for official documents. But is it relevant to teach and write today?
Common Core State Standards don’t require teachers to teach students cursive. Some states, like Tennessee and California — but not Wyoming — have added cursive back into their requirements. Through legislation the state of Louisiana mandated that students in grades three through 12 get cursive instruction every year.
In Jackson public school students begin cursive in third grade and practice it throughout fourth and fifth grades. But at the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, Headmaster Polly Friess — who is Colter’s mother — believes in starting cursive lessons as close to Day 1 as possible.
“We find that’s a little late,” Friess said. “They’re ready for it earlier.”
Teachers begin teaching cursive in kindergarten. And from second grade through eighth grade graduation students are required to write all assignments in cursive. Students at the Classical Academy also learn typing skills.
Though typing tends to displace printing in educational and professional settings, a recent New York Times article says psychologists and neuroscientists find handwriting to be crucial for development.
When children learn to write by hand, studies show, they learn to read faster, generate ideas better and retain more information. Keep in mind: That doesn’t mean just cursive, but simply putting pencil to paper.
Other studies show that a unique brain pattern is activated by printing, writing in cursive and typing, and that each method results in a different end product. Yet another set of studies suggests students learn a lecture’s contents better by handwriting their notes.
Majola Koci, the Classical Academy’s dean of faculty and a teacher of music and medieval history, said she found learning cursive to be key even in college.
“I grew up with cursive, and I never thought twice about it,” she said. “It’s part of my brain; it’s who I am.”
In Heather Moulder’s third-grade classroom, students learn the story of “Androcles and the Lion,” a 1912 play written by George Bernard Shaw. They dutifully listen while Moulder reads a passage, and then write a summary of the story — in cursive, of course.
“It makes me feel good writing it because it’s fancy and I like the flow of it,” said Avery Ward, 9.
New to the Classical Academy, Avery had to catch up to her classmates who already had three years of cursive under their belts. She said she practiced the alphabet before writing smaller, then bigger words, then graduating to sentences.
“I like the process,” she said.
For new students like Avery who need some time to catch up to Classical Academy requirements, the school offers after-school study hall from 3:20 to 3:50 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Friess said 85 percent of students stay to work on homework. The themes vary by day. Some focus on math and grammar, others hone students’ penmanship.
Kindergarten through third-grade students take 20 minutes a day to copy one thing they know using their best cursive.
“It’s been amazing to see what they are capable of,” Friess said. “They rise to the occasion.”
Avery’s classmate Dune Mecartney, 9, finds cursive to be speedy.
“It’s quick and easy to write,” he said. “I like learning new ways to write letters, and it’s faster to write in cursive.”
Friess and some of her teachers find that cursive can help dyslexic students, who are prone to mixing up their Bs and Ds. But even cursive isn’t a guarantee.
“I thought the Bs and Ds would be easier,” Kimberly Morton, a first-grade teacher, said. “But still, some are reversed.”
Even so, Morton said that as her students’ handwriting has progressed, so has their spelling.
“It’s the best it’s been all year,” she said.
That kind of growth continues for older students. Sixth-grader Harry Marvin joined the Classical Academy this school year. He learned cursive letters in third grade in public school, but didn’t always connect them into sentences, paragraphs or papers. He’s working to get up to speed through “a lot of repetition.”
Something to be proud of
Across the hall Theodore Sawyer teaches his fifth-grade students Latin. Paschall McDaniel, 11, neatly copies her notes in cursive.
“I’ve always wanted to learn cursive,” she said. “When I was little I begged my mom to teach me cursive.”
Paschall likes the attention to detail that cursive forces upon the writer.
“I also like how pretty it turns out,” she said. “It’s something beautiful to be proud of.”
If she can’t read her own cursive, she deems it not good enough and crosses it out.
Colter is the same way. He didn’t learn to print until he was in fourth grade and now has two styles of cursive he switches between — formal cursive and a slanted, quicker form he uses when he needs to quickly take notes.
“A first impression is important,” he said. “If your handwriting is good, people will focus on the content of your writing, not the quality. I don’t think you should write something that is important to you and not be writing your best.”
Some students will write print notes if they are writing quickly, but never when writing assignments.
Although most teachers, including Sawyer — who has a background in Greek, Old English, Spanish, Latin, music and journalism — come to the school classically trained, not all have penmanship as flawless as their students when they begin.
“We help get them up to speed in the beginning of the year,” Friess said with a laugh.
Ben Walter, an eighth-grade literature and Latin teacher, had the opposite problem. He never prints — but would switch between European cursive and Italic cursive, a less embellished form.
“I’m glad we’re teaching them systematic cursive,” Walter said. “It’s really good.”
In addition to teaching third grade Moulder is responsible for implementing Spalding phonics — an educational philosophy and program designed to teach literacy — at the Classical Academy. That means teaching teachers and students the method and how it integrates with cursive.
“They should always be writing in cursive on the board,” she explained. “It always has to be neat and a model for students to form good habits and turn in their best work. If you can’t read your own chicken scratch, it shouldn’t be turned in.”
She hopes cursive will be her students’ “go-to handwriting,” and she writes her lesson plans and teaching notes in cursive.
A lost art
Cursive, along with the other parts of the Classical Academy that make it unique — like chess and reading ancient texts — appeal to many parents in the community.
Friess said the school started with 77 students. Next year, 94 students are registered, and she hopes to break 100 as the school expands into ninth grade.
She said that while it may seem revolutionary, what’s taught at the Classical Academy is nothing new.
“It’s not rocket science,” Friess said. “It’s what I had in public education 48 years ago. All of our Founding Fathers were educated in classical education. It works.”
She, too, writes everything in cursive.
“I write all my thank yous in cursive,” Friess said. “I think it means a lot to me to receive a handwritten note. It’s so much different than an email. It’s a lost art.”
Friess said she often thinks about historical texts, like the Constitution, that children won’t be able to understand if they don’t know cursive.
“We all share a common memory,” she said. “Think about your grandparents. They learned cursive.”