Writing off cursive? Not in Catholic schools

Nissa LaPoint

The writing may be on the wall for cursive. But Denver Catholic schools refuse to type up its obituary.

While more of the nation’s public schools adopt standards lacking cursive requirements, educators in the Denver Archdiocese said they won’t write it off.

“It is dying even in the state of Colorado,” said Mary Cohen, associate superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools. “But we’re committed to teaching children in the art of cursive writing.”cursive 2

Forty-five states, including Colorado, have adopted through its state legislature or school boards the new Common Core State Standards for English, a framework for education standards that rarely mentions handwriting—stylistically referring to both print and cursive styles—and excludes cursive altogether.

“We’re focusing less on writing and more about the content of what they’re writing about in preparation for college and a career,” said Melissa Colsman, executive director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Department of Education.

While school districts may choose to teach cursive, state standards don’t require it, she added.

The antiquated skill, opponents say, is unnecessary in an increasingly digitally-centric world and waste of classroom time better spent on other academic subjects.

Proponents counter that beyond its historical significance, cursive boosts motor skills, brain development and correlates with academic achievement. Cohen said cursive is a timeless skill which shows reverence and enhances dignity.

In the midst of debates, Denver Archdiocese Catholic school administrators are revising its curriculum—completed every five years—for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Cursive objectives will be maintained and a required skill by the end of third grade.

“Given the research we have, we’re going to keep it,” Cohen said.

Literacy skills

Keeping cursive in schools has literary benefits. According to research presented at the January 2012 “Handwriting in  he 21st Century?: An Educational Summit” in Washington, D.C., oral and written language is interconnected to effective communication.

Educational psychology professor Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington said she found second-,fourth- and sixth-graders who used handwriting wrote more words, wrote faster and expressed more ideas than those using keyboarding. A separate examination of 144 pupils revealed improved handwriting correlated with improved reading skills, word recognition, compositional abilities and memory.

Third-grade teacher Regina Hombs of All Souls School in Englewood is adamant about teaching the dying skill.

She said cursive, especially for special needs children, makes it “easier for them to recognize a word rather than a bunch of letters.”

The flow of cursive aids in pronunciation, too, she said.

Cognitive and motor benefits

Handwriting also supports brain function.

“When we (handwrite), there’s something happening neurologically that’s beneficial,” Cohen said.

In a research study, Indiana University’s Karin James, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, found the act of writing by hand caused a significant increase in children’s brain activation. Using an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scan, James showed students who wrote well engaged more of their brain’s visual regions than typing.

Recognizing its importance, Catholic teachers on the Office of Catholic School’s curriculum committee board gave  unanimous approval for its continued use in the classroom.

Enhancing humanity

Hombs said she’s noted learning cursive will boost her student’s emotional development.

“They’re very proud it,” she said when her students handwrite. “It’s very good for self esteem. Now they’re writing

like an adult.”

Cursive also contributes to intimacy and is considered proper etiquette for occasions like sending thank you notes and birthday cards.

“People think we don’t need this anymore because we have technology, but we still want to able to write in cursive. It’s polite to handwrite a note because it’s a way of reverencing them,” Cohen said. “You leave your DNA on paper.”

Cursive, she said, will stay in Catholic schools.

“It’s really an important part of our humanity.”

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.