By hand

One of the casualties of the standardization of education and learning is the personal connection to learning and work.  I spoke recently with two families whose children struggle with writing by hand. One sits every day and makes his way through the practice, with an occasional eruption of dismay, but the result is considerably less than what he’s capable of.  And when he makes a mistake, he is more interested in what the paper does under the eraser (he doesn’t hold the paper still while he writes or erases, so the process tends to generate a dark gray smear if not a tear in the page).  The other refuses to hold her pencil the way she was taught, which not only irritates her parents but also makes the work take much longer.  It’s all lose-lose.

If only we could just get them to realize that they’re making it worse, right? It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, that they practice, and we know they can do it if they just keep at it. But we often lose that battle. What if instead we decided that they’re trying to tell us that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, and could we please help them come up with another way to achieve whatever it is we’re after?

This second approach will get us better, quicker results than the first one so many of us were taught.  In fact, the first tends to compound, generating more and more resistance the harder the adults push and the more they insist on compliance and practice.  We don’t like it any better than kids do when things aren’t working, but we have a culture-wide commitment to being frustrated without making a serious effort to affect workability.  We get attached to how we think things are supposed to be, even in the face of profound unworkability.  So we just keep begging kids to try harder, to do it right, to believe us that it will be worth the effort they have to put in to what we’re telling them to do and how we’re telling them to do it.

Part of what’s missing for kids is a connection – their own connection – to what they’re doing.  And part of the reason that connection goes missing is that we cling to standardized methods and sequences at the expense of productivity and effectiveness.  We don’t want to reinvent the wheel with every child, even when we can see that that wheel isn’t working.

With writing, we do it like this: learn to write the letters by hand, then learn to write words by hand, write sentences and then paragraphs and then stories and then essays, learn to write in cursive somewhere in the course of that, then learn to type.  Write first drafts by hand.  Type final drafts on the computer.

It’s not as though there isn’t some wisdom to this sequence.  But along the way, typing started to show up for other purposes than tidying up written work.  And adults started to compose at the keyboard rather than by hand.  And there became fewer and fewer actual reasons to write by hand.  All of these realities have contributed to a growing befuddlement in young people at why we would cling to a single primitive way of doing things, even when it doesn’t work.

But handwriting is important!  Don’t forsake the tradition and lose the art!  Don’t rely on technology!  Any talk of modifying the way we teach writing (the physical act of it) inspires these cries, as though any modification will destroy young people’s will to do anything by hand.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If we keep our iron grip on how things have always been done, force kids to do all their drafting by hand, even when they can’t keep up with their ideas and they’re getting so discouraged that they stop bothering with the ideas, we actually dissuade them from owning the process.  We’re making sure it’s so unpleasant and frustrating for them that they won’t ever do it voluntarily.

If we want them to have any connection to tradition or to the different ways that the hand and brain communicate when fingers are moving a pen along the page rather than dancing on the keys of a machine, we’ll instead sit beside them and navigate the journey with them in such a way that they can own it.  We’ll say things like “Wow.  This part seems to be really tough for you.  What if we practiced the handwriting separately from the story writing for now?”  Or “How about if we did this the other way around?  How about if you did the draft of your thank you note on the computer and then copied it onto a notecard to send to your grandmother?”  In the context of this kind of language, kids can take the reins of their own writing.  They can feel as though they’re actually part of the club; they can have their own ways of doing things, their own preferences and tendencies. They can come to know themselves as writers.

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