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The art of penmanship

In days gone by if you were told your handwriting was worse than a doctor’s penmanship that was considered a definite insult. In today’s world that phrase can literally mean nothing as the medical practitioner’s handwritings seems to have improved while the legibility of the common man continues to slip.  In this technological age of laptops, PC’s, tablets, and the cellular phone, an old-fashioned art form known as penmanship, which is the technique of writing with the hand using a writing implement seems to be lost among the new generation.  After more than a century of composing words on machines — first on typewriters, then computers — little emphasis seems to be placed on legible longhand and the manuscript text that children are turning out today leaves much to be desired.

“My suspicion is that persons teaching penmanship today have not been properly prepared in the field of penmanship to teach, or to pass this on to the younger generation,” says Sister Annie Thompson, a member of the St. Martin Monastery, who has taught the art of penmanship during her days in the classroom in the Catholic education system.  “In times past, people took it [penmanship] very seriously because it was the way to communicate, because you didn’t have typewriters … you didn’t have computers and all these other machines to assist.  The only people who had poor penmanship in times past were doctors because they had to scribble so much and so quickly.”

The nun said during her years in the classroom and even when she herself was taught how to write, that teachers took their time and taught manuscript (print) first to their students.  Once students had mastered printing, toward the end of their second grade year as they prepared for grade three, teachers started them on the course of cursive writing.

Agatha Sands, 62, is not among the category of persons who “scribble.”  Educated in the Catholic system — starting out at St. Anselm’s School before transferring to St. Francis and moving on to Aquinas College for high school, she says learning the art of penmanship was a must for people of her age group.

“Penmanship was something you had to learn.  We used to get rapped on our knuckles if we didn’t write well,” she recalls.  “And just like they now have classes for Math, English, Chemistry and Foreign Languages, we had classes for penmanship.  And you had to write in those books that were specifically geared towards forming letters properly and how to write.  And if we went outside the lines, we got cracked [on the knuckles].”

Today, this mother of four, who is also a grandmother of three, has a handwriting that is actually quite beautiful and which makes her the envy of her co-workers.  Whenever anyone needs something addressed in longhand, she says they ask her to do it.

She believes the decline in penmanship among the younger generation including her children who range in age from 40 to 32 is due to the lack of penmanship classes in schools, as they no longer have classes specifically geared to the practice of the art-form.

Sands said she tried to help her children learn the art of writing properly and legibly — the way she was taught, but says they did not seem to catch on.  “With children today, whatever the teacher says is always right and everything today is computerized, anyway,” she said almost dismissively.

Sister Annie says the teachers that taught first and second graders took time with teaching penmanship back in the day and that proper, legible handwriting was taught to the students by the Sisters of Charity out of New York.  But penmanship was not only taught in the Catholic school system but to all students, including those that attended public school.  Sister Annie herself whose formative years from grades one through four were in the 1950s learned how to write legibly and properly at Quarry Mission School, taught by Thelma Gibson who in turn had been taught penmanship by the Sisters of Charity.

In today’s world, Sister Annie says in some instances she has noticed that some children, whether they are private or public school educated can only write script and take that throughout their life because they don’t know how to write cursive because they haven’t been taught.  Then there are the students who she says cannot do manuscript at all, and you can hardly understand the print.

George Rolle, 31, who attended a private school on the eastern end of the island does not remember having to take penmanship classes during his formative years the way Sands or even Sister Annie had.

He thinks he remembers being taught how to do manuscript. “I remember doing something cursive … probably in grade three, but that was brief.”  His main concern is that as a result of a lack of penmanship classes he does not write the kind of signature he’d like to present.  “In terms of my signature, I just write my name very plainly.  People do all this fancy stuff, mine isn’t fancy.  I basically just write my name. “

A first grade teacher at a public school who did not want to be named said technically teachers are supposed to teach penmanship which is scheduled into the Language block of the curriculum.

“The teaching of penmanship is on the timetable and we [teachers] are all still supposed to do it.  It is not there everyday as it used to be back in the day, but it is there now twice a week,” she said.

Unlike Sands’ day when the teaching of penmanship was a class unto itself, the public school teacher says in most instances the teaching of penmanship is incorporated and integrated into other subjects and teachers look for that penmanship from students in every subject.   In the twice per week scheduled classes, teachers she said are now just teaching the formation.

“Some schools do it [teach penmanship] more and less, and it then depends on the teacher.  Some teachers don’t even worry about it and don’t do it,” she says.

The first grade teacher says the problem is that most students go into grade one not knowing how to write as the government pre-schools don’t teach it.  So they enter first grade not knowing how to hold a pencil, and not knowing how to form letters.  As a result she says those children are at a disadvantage because teachers have to focus on the penmanship along with other things in the short nine months of first grade.  She says some students get it and some don’t.

The educator says if the first graders don’t form letters in the correct manner, when it’s time for them to begin cursive writing, which is introduced at the end of second grade, beginning of third grade it becomes a headache.

“If children are forming their letters correctly, they are supposed to be able to write the alphabet without taking the pencil off the paper, because every letter flows into the next, and the only thing they have to remove the pencil for is to dot the I and cross the T — and that’s where the saying don’t forget to cross your I’s and dot your T’s comes from.

The public sector first grade teacher says unequivocally that penmanship is on the decline and that the handwriting of today’s youth is deplorable, which she also attributes to the computer age.

“If you take 10 minutes in this computer age, they have enough online things where you can practice with that writing — ed.com, writing, manuscript, so therefore when they come in [to first grade] they will know how to hold a pencil.”

Sister Annie says she doesn’t know if it’s fair to say that penmanship is a lost art, because she says the teaching of it depends on what the teachers have to do.

“In the past we had to copy a lot from the board so you had to have it written clearly so that you could understand what you wrote.  Nowadays they have textbooks in many instances and the children are only filling in the spaces and barely writing one or two words.  There are a lot of textbooks that only allow them to fill in the blanks, so unless the teacher is very fastidious and when she sees this thing on the blank looking like it’s some sort of scribble and makes the student correct it, it doesn’t get done.

Sister Annie believes teachers are doing the best they can because she realizes they are also overburdened with too many children in the classroom, especially in the public education system.

“I think they [teachers] need assistance and if they want to get some help with manuscript and cursive writing, call on the elders like myself who know how to do to it, and who know how to get the children to do it and let them assist them.”

Sister Annie who is no longer in the classroom says the basic problem is that those teachers who are now teaching (who she says are teachers under the age of 40) have not been properly taught.  But she says the blame can’t be placed totally with the teachers.

“If you don’t know something, if you haven’t been taught something, you can’t teach it.  So we are to blame most likely, because once the technology moved in, we slackened up, and did not pressure people to do proper penmanship.”

In recent times she has had the opportunity to look at homework from children coming from a number of schools around the island, in the lower levels from grades one through six, and said she was horrified at the handwriting, event though she understands the different variables that now come into play in the modern day classroom.

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