Majestic cursive makes a comeback
FRANCESCA Curatilo attended three camps this summer: wilderness, martial arts and – cursive. Yes, cursive.
On a sunny morning, Francesca sat in a room practising the majestic swoop of an F. “I love how, at the end of the day, you see all the amazing stuff we can do with letters,” said Francesca, 6.
At home, she practised her favourites: capital R, P, Z, Y, G and A. “When I’m older, I can sign my name on contracts in cursive.”
Cursive in all its flowing permutations – the opal-shaped calligraphy of Spencerian, the simplified and precise Palmer Method; the spare D’Nealian, distinguished by its saucy “monkey tails”; the stolid and reliable Zaner- Bloser – was once a staple of American elementary education. In the classroom pantheon of reading, writing and arithmetic, cursive was the writing.
In recent decades, cursive was declared moribund, if not dead, after it was shredded from the Common Core in most US states. Typewriters, copiers, computers, phones, a veritable Murder on the Orient Express of culprits, had conspired to kill it. Today, many adults utilise a mash-up of cursive and print that often can be deciphered only by the author.
Brigid Guertin, executive director of the Danbury Museum & a cursive camp. Surprisingly, children and parents flocked to it.
The campers, aged 6 to 14, spent their days under the guidance of teacher Kathleen Johnson creating their own ink, scratching their names on paper with quills, or with Q-Tips on paint-filled bags, or with their fingers in generous shmears of shaving cream.
They created hat ads in cursive (Danbury is “The Hat City”, having produced a quarter of the nation’s toppers a century ago) and pored over postcards from that era penned in script. Similar camps are popping up across the country and in Great Britain.
In the early 20th century, cursive was sometimes taught for an hour each day, and all the way through high school. Cursive was “all about conforming to rules, other people’s rules”, said Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo history professor and author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. “Your signature was the one place where people could express themselves.”
The Palmer Method dominated much of the century’s teaching, said Thornton, though “it wasn’t so much a particular script as a method of teaching” that deployed “your whole arm in penmanship calisthenics”. It wasn’t art; it was exercise.
Back then, the preferred hand-
Because cursive required a level of fine motor skills not typically accessible before third grade, printing was embraced as a way to get younger children to express themselves through writing.
Now that technology has routed children to communicate via typing or emojis, experts are finding more to recommend about pencil and ink. Handwriting – print or cursive – increases development in three areas of the brain, according to a 2012 study.
Any kind of writing “is going to have massive benefits for the brain”, said Indiana University professor and co-author Karin James.
Other studies demonstrate that students retain more information if they write their notes, instead of typing them. For all the challenges of cursive, young children acquire the skill “very fast, as soon as they get exposure”, she said.
Johnson said: “Now that we have email, no one writes letters any more.” In camp, though: “I can teach it my own way. We can have fun and be messy the way you can’t be in school.”
Cursive’s resurgence, Thornton argues, is tied to politics. “Society has (become) nervous about deviating from what is the norm,” she said, and cursive “tends to make a comeback when conformity is threatened”.
Thornton said: “Handwriting is about nostalgia. It’s about the past, and how we feel about our present and the future.”
To children, “cursive is an unknown, a secret language”, Guertin said.
“If we don’t build a connection to history, and the study of history, how will we know where we came from?” – Washington Post
Pupils practise writing cursive on paint-filled bags.PICTURES: THE WASHINGTON POST
Pupils write cursive in smears of shaving cream.
Historical documents at the Danbury Historical Society, handwritten in script.