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: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”