In Holly Martin’s third-grade class at Saint Columbkille in Brighton, the old-fashioned chalkboard has been replaced with an electronic screen. But Martin uses the screen to teach her students a concept older than the one-room school house: how to write in cursive.
“Two humps, like a camel,” she says, as she forms a lowercase “n” and then, echoing a point made by a student, added, “some camels have one hump.”
A tendency toward precision helps when writing cursive. These kids practice daily, and at least once a week Martin does a deep dive in penmanship.
“Some of the kids wonder why we’re learning it,” she said.
Unlike the generation of kids who grew up staring at chalkboards, they’re growing up in a time when most people tap out their thoughts on a keyboard.
Yet there is among students, like eight-year-old Jabez Lubega, an appreciation for it.
“I think it’s more fancy,” he said. “Like, if you were writing a book and you wanted to use cursive, it would look more fancy.”
Cursive, said Martin, offers creativity and an opportunity for self-expression. It’s a skill she said her students will use all their lives, from writing letters to reading old documents to signing their names.
The importance of a legible and consistent signature was brought into sharp relief in the aftermath of the midterm elections. Thousands of ballots were discarded in Florida because election workers were unable to match mail-in ballot signatures to the ones on file.
“I would say it’s important to sign your own name,” said Martin, “and even the students in my class know that they need to know how to write their own name and write it in a signature, because you’re going to use that. It’s part of your identity.”
Teaching cursive has long been a hallmark of Catholic schools, like Saint Columbkille, but until about 20 years ago it was also standard practice in Massachusetts public schools. Modern state education frameworks call only for students to be able to write legibly in print or cursive and to be able to sign their name. Given the demands of a 21st century education, many schools have largely cut back on teaching cursive. Some have cut it out of the curriculum entirely.
“We are definitely going against the tide,” said Saint Columbkille Head of School William Gartside. He grew up going to Catholic school, where he said he spent countless hours learning cursive. “My writing is not so good,” he admitted, though he believes learning cursive writing has value.
“It trains the students to have a mind that’s really attentive,” he said. “It slows them down, it makes them more reflective.”
Still, he said it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep cursive in the curriculum.
“The tide’s washing over the wall,” he said. “In the 21st century, you absolutely have to spend more attention [to] technology and also making sure students have art and physical education.”