235. Handwriting

In 1973, the principal of the school in which I taught came to my classroom to demonstrate for me the “correct” way to teach handwriting. She felt that handwriting was being given too little emphasis in my class. Back then, I was a young, inexperienced teacher who didn’t think teachers should be so obsessed with handwriting. Now I’m a seasoned veteran who doesn’t think teachers should be so obsessed with handwriting.
The principal stood in “front” of the class (there wasn’t actually a front of my class, but this principal’s presence created one), demonstrated the correct way to form the letter d, wrote a sentence on the chalkboard, and told the children to copy the sentence in their neatest handwriting. So far, so good. Not my style, but a style I could adopt without much difficulty.
Then the principal walked around, watching children copy her sentence. She came to a child who was not writing as neatly as she expected the children to write. She took the child’s paper and tore it up, quite conspicuously. The child fought hard to hold back tears, but the tears came. This was a child who cared very much about doing what was expected, but had trouble with fine motor control. I firmly believe that he had been doing his best.
I have seen teachers who were able to get children to write neatly without oppressing them. I know it can be done. I know and respect many teachers, administrators, and parents who consider handwriting more important than I think it is. In fact, I don’t know many who consider it less important than I think it is. I compromised on this issue during my years as a teacher; I don’t feel that I have a sacred duty to get children to have messy handwriting.
But let me tell you the story of one person who hardly ever had neat handwriting. Throughout elementary school, his report cards indicated that he was careless about handwriting. His parents and teachers tried various techniques to get him to write neatly. He was able to do it, but he just didn’t consider it important. Later, he found himself in a position where he was supposed to teach children to write neatly. He could do it, but he didn’t like it. And then he started losing his fine motor control. Luckily, by then computers were compensating for such difficulties. And then he wrote. He kept writing. Neatness was no longer an issue; the computer took care of that. You’ve probably figured out who I mean. You’ve just finished reading his two hundred thirty-fifth article.

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