Selicia Kennedy-Ross and Wesley G. Hughes, Staff Writers
Article Launched: 09/08/2007 11:33:48 PM PDT


It doesn’t take much skill to mark an x or put a check in a box.

That’s
just about all of the handwriting required in this age of computers and
word processors. Good penmanship has fallen on hard times in the new
millennium.

Poor Miss Nell Atsberger would be devastated if she were
around today. Miss Atsberger practically carried Hubbard, Ohio’s,
Roosevelt School on her own shoulders to three consecutive National
Penmanship titles during the Great Depression. Each one of those years,
children worked with ink-stained grammar-school fingers and sometimes
tear-stained faces.

You see, Miss Atsberger was more than a wonderful teacher. She was a terrific saleswoman.

She sold parents on the idea that you didn’t have to be rich or landed to be somebody special,
like someone who wins a big contest for doing something well in school.
Those parents expected nothing less than excellence.

Many’s the night the children hunched at their kitchen tables
with straight pens, ink bottles and stacks of ruled paper, doing
writing exercises: AaBbCcDdEe, on into the night.

Frequently the pen would catch in the paper and deposit a
big blob of ink on the page, ruining it for submission in the contest.
More than once, it happened on the last line of the page. Nine-year-old
chins would tremble because they knew mom would make them do it again
before bed.

But as the Miss Atsbergers of today spend precious
instructional minutes teaching what children must learn to pass the
ubiquitous state standardized tests, good penmanship plays a dwindling
role.

"I think it’s more of a lost art," said Neal Waner, a board trustee for the Redlands Unified School District.

The
district’s curriculum is geared to support achievement on the
standardized tests, and penmanship is not a priority, he said.

"As a father, I noticed with my own children there was much
less attention given to penmanship, and a tremendous amount of
attention given to the keyboard and keystrokes," Waner said.

"My generation had typing in high school, but our kids are
typing on the keyboard early on in elementary school. Frankly, I’m fine
with that. Communication is an important skill, but more and more it’s
not done in longhand written form, it’s done via e-mail, phone, even
text messaging."

Rebecca Hedrick, administrative director of elementary
education for the Pomona Unified School District, said penmanship is
still a subject in the primary grades.

Students earn grades for forming letters legibly in
kindergarten through third grade, Hedrick said, and penmanship is
taught in grades 4 through 6, though grades for it are not included on
report cards.

"What we focus on is the writing process," she said. "I
appreciate nice penmanship, but it is not a skill that is a high focus
for us. We have so much to work on with reading comprehension, writing
and math skills, I feel it is slipping a little bit, but it is taught."

Sherry Kendrick, superintendent of Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District, echoed Waner’s sentiments.

"I
think penmanship is a lost art, and computers are part of the reason,"
Kendrick said. "We have so much technology at our fingertips that
handwriting is becoming a thing of the past.

"Just look at Generation Y. By the time they are 4, 75 percent of them have had access to a computer."

Thus, it stands to reason that penmanship will not be as important in the future, she said.

Young
pupils in Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified still practice penmanship and
writing, and they still get the large-lined brown paper that helps them
learn how to write legibly.

"We want them to know how to write, but flowery penmanship is a thing of the past," Kendrick said.

Another
reason penmanship isn’t a priority is because students aren’t taking
pride in cursive lettering anymore, said Rebecca Harper, a 17-year
teaching veteran and vice president of the San Bernardino Teachers
Association.

Harper, who teaches first-graders at Lankershim Elementary
School in San Bernardino, said she has noticed interest in penmanship
waning over the past decade.

"When I first started teaching, students took a lot of
pride in writing letters legibly in cursive," she said. "Even 10 years
ago, the second-graders were really excited about learning to write in
cursive, but in the last five years, it seems like they’ve lost the
desire to do that."

Harper said she fears "beautiful penmanship is slipping away.

"In
the past, teachers and parents praised kids for beautiful penmanship.
Now they don’t get that anymore – except maybe from their teachers –
but not from society in general, which doesn’t value it."

Aside from helping build muscle coordination in hands, good
penmanship helps develop good habits that lead to success and help
eliminate careless errors, educators say.

But the digital age of instant gratification is working against the younger generation’s work habits, Harper said.

"They
don’t like taking the time to learn to do things slowly. They don’t see
the advantages of learning how to write properly," she said.

Cursive writing requires a great deal of discipline, said
Gonzalo Avila, principal of Elizabeth T. Hughbanks Elementary in
Rialto.

"Letter formation, proper spacing, it all requires
patience, and the skill develops over time," Avila said. "You can’t
just rush through it."

Hughbanks Elementary still puts a high emphasis on
penmanship, especially in the younger grades, he said, mainly because
students in the upper grades tend to make a lot of careless errors in
writing.

Today’s high school students can’t completely escape the
brain-to-paper process. Today’s SAT begins with a 25-minute,
handwritten essay. It needs to be readable – a first draft.

Penmanship is also part of the third-grade California standards. Students at that level must know how to write in cursive.

Students can write on a computer, print or handwrite their assignments as long as the objective is achieved, said Hedrick.

If
a student turns in a paper that is excellent in every other way and
articulates thoughts well, but the handwriting is not as neat as
another student’s, Hedrick said, penmanship shouldn’t count against
them.

"You would not mark a child down for that," she said.

Miss
Atsberger would have. She taught the Palmer Method, a practical,
graceful, almost Spencerian script created by Austin Norman Palmer.
Neatness counted. Writing was supposed to be easy to read, and pretty
to look at.

Palmer had a mantra: "Teachers cannot teach what they do not know."

Miss Atsberger passed that test.

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