Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Little Educational Good News

In the Tuesday, May 8th Detroit News is an article on how some Michigan "Schools bring back penmanship classes" by News writer Jennifer Mrozowski. The article starts out by identifying the new reality:
In the age of e-mails and text messages, penmanship may seem like a thing of the past, but students shouldn't throw away their pencils just yet. Handwriting is gaining new credibility as high-stakes exams, like the SAT college entrance test and the Michigan Merit Exam, couple impromptu writing and essay sections with multiple-choice questions. Michigan also spells out handwriting requirements, along with a greater emphasis on writing and reading, as part of the state's revamped content standards.
There is a problem however:
But despite a renewed spotlight on the subject, primary school teachers say they feel ill-equipped to teach handwriting -- whether it's cursive or printed -- and that could spell d-o-o-m for some students.

"It's something they don't teach you in college," said Jeanine Diener, a second-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary school in Fraser. "It's a skill, and it's something we should practice to learn."
So why aren't teachers taught how to teach handwriting?
Decades ago, schools devoted hours to teaching penmanship. Children diligently traced and then repeated letters on lined worksheets. Districts pulled back on handwriting in the 1970s, as state and federal mandates increasingly dictated what must be taught. The increase of computers, cell phones with text messaging capability and other electronic devices made handwriting take a back seat.
For me, the key phrase here is "federal mandates increasingly dictated what must be taught." This needs to be put on a banner on all schools in response to teachers who insist that it is the parents who decide what gets taught. I've heard this many times in the past and while it is true that if parents form a large enough gang and scream loudly, local boards can make some small changes to some curriculum, what gets taught is largely determined at the state level and in Washington by the Dept. of Ed and their chief lobbyists the NEA. Also, federal mandates by implication mandate what doesn't get taught. (I would have been willing to forgive Ronald Reagan a lot of things if only he would have followed through on his promise the abolish the Dept. of Ed.)

Before applauding the return of handwriting classes, the article gives us this hint as to how bad writing education actually became:
But some districts, like Birmingham and Northville, have revamped and updated their handwriting programs in the past two years as part of their overall English Language Arts curriculum. Like Fraser schools, the districts use a program called Handwriting Without Tears.
Now, does this mean that handwriting was so bad it drove students to tears? If so, how can teachers, their teachers, politicians and even parents claim to be concerned about the proper education of children? They can't be. They may have strong emotions but a rational concern would require a thought process, not just feelings.

Supposedly, this problem is now coming to an end and if so I'm glad of it. I'm not a teacher so I really don't know how much good this program will do for kids not taught any phonics. I've always believed that the ability to hand write is critical to not only communication but for the entire thought organizing process.

Now if we can only get education out of government hands there might be a chance to reincorporate phonics back into reading curriculum and devise a more structured math curriculum.

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