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The Death of Handwriting

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You know that amazing feeling of sitting at a picnic table on a riverbank with a light spring breeze, a cup of coffee beside your open marble comp book, and letting it all flow out through your pen onto the riffling pages? Or even being transported to the same sort of zone but under fluorescent lights and acoustic tiles in a standard classroom?

Your students don't.

At least, it's highly unlikely that their "peak writing moments" occur anywhere except in front of a qwerty keyboard, I've concluded, after doing a writer's notebook assessment recently with my ninth graders.

The process left me thinking that most kids will never have the sort of fundamentally tactile relationship to writing by which notebook hoarders like me learned our craft. Writing by hand, for many of them, is a lost art.

First, let me explain the "notebook check." It really wasn't as punitive as it sounds. I frequently ask kids to "open their writer's notebook" in class, and respond in writing to whatever we're doing, be it a literary discussion or reflecting on an activity. The time I allow for writing ranges from 3 minutes to thirty, depending on the task.

The shorter bursts I call "quick-writes," and constitute an essential part of my writing-to-learn arsenal. Instead of asking a question to the class and calling on the same old hand-raisers, I ask them all to write briefly, then share with partners or the class. Everybody writes, everybody thinks.

The longer sessions generally earn the moniker "freewrites." The basic rules, a la Elbow, are keep the pen moving and don't think too hard, at least in the sense of editing or organizing. Follow ideas where they lead. Discover.

Short or long, I always ask students to date their writing and put an entry in the table of contents. The first part of my assessment was, therefore, to ask them to list entries related to certain topics we'd studied over the past months: The Odyssey, Myers-Briggs, and creative nonfiction. At a basic level, this assesses their ability to hold on to a piece of paper and retrieve it when needed. "Organization" isn't an end in itself or just a nice life skill; I think it's crucial as a writer to be able to return to your work over time.

The second part of the assessment was a series of reflection questions that drew on the entries they'd collated (full text below). Some of the questions required synthetic thinking (Make connections between The Odyssey and [the book you’re currently reading] with particular attention to theme. Cite your own journal as well as specific passages or moments from both works.).

Others required self-reflection (In reviewing your strengths and weaknesses as indicated by interim and quarter grades and group project work, discuss your Myers-Briggs type.). One question is a pre-writing for the next writing project (Now that you’ve explored the genre of creative nonfiction more deeply, revisit writing territory #2 and think about how it would lend itself to creative nonfiction. Write a one-paragraph proposal for a creative nonfiction paper that you will write in this class including at least 3 possible sources.).

I collected the writer's notebooks themselves to leaf through, and kids went home to work on their questions, which they submitted via digital dropbox on blackboard. Here's where I noticed the rub.

In reviewing their handwritten work, I kept finding myself jotting comments, or at least thinking to myself, that it was hard to read. Fact is, a lot of their handwriting looks like a 4th grader’s (I wonder if that’s the grade they started composing primarily on the keyboard?). Most printed, for one thing, rather than using cursive. And often in large irregular letters and with excessive margins announcing the desperation to reach the bottom of the page and stop.

Along with more illegible handwriters than I remember encountering in previous years, there was damning evidence from the typed evaluations in the dropbox. Lo and behold, the same kids who seemed unable to achieve fluency by hand had typed responses that were generous and well-formed. They typed far better than they wrote.

Even messy handwriters, it’s worth noting, consistently saw value in in-class writing. Bart was one of the most enthusiastic: During class, I usually benefit from “quick-writes”. Usually, because I am so busy writing, I write at least as much as most of my peers do, if not more. They help me get my mind starting thinking and help me get some of my thoughts straight. The WNB entry that I felt I did my best job was my ENFP response. I got so much good information down when I was writing that one. I talked about my dad, my mom and tons of other things, things that signify a good WNB entry. I think that I have gotten better at free-writing now and because of the WNB, I can think about events relatively faster now. Overall, the WNB has really had a positive effect in all that I do, not just English class. Just think one WNB can really do a lot for a person.

Jason was another scrawler who gushed online: During class writing time I used to feel stressed and frantic. I felt like I didn’t write enough or fast enough. However I have become more fluent and faster at writing during quick writes. My entries no longer hide on just a page but flourish and span over several pages. They are becoming more in depth and detailed, and are, in my opinion, becoming more enjoyable to read, they are no longer boring. I feel that an entry that shows my increased writing ability is Odyssey themes books 7-10. This entry was a seven minute quick-write. In those seven minutes I wrote a lengthy work that conveyed my understanding of the Odyssey. I felt comfortable when writing that entry and I felt that did a good job with my writing.

The gap between what I see and what they see in their work makes me wonder if I should I should adjust how I teach in the future: Do I need to incorporate more direct instruction in freewriting? Should more generative writing sessions occur at computers?

I’ll keep tinkering, but it seems that my own kinesthetic memories of writing in a journal on a riverbank may be a daydream when it comes to giving my students the best chance to express themselves as writers.

Questions for evaluating the writer's notebook

Make notes here to answer the questions. Your typed responses will be due in the electronic drop box before spring break. Please note: you are leaving the writer’s notebook with me, so your only resource in answering the questions will be notes that you make now.

Part I. Make connections between The Odyssey and your storm book with particular attention to theme. Cite your own journal as well as specific passages or moments from both works.

Part II. In reviewing your strengths and weaknesses as indicated by interim and quarter grades and group project work, discuss your Myers-Briggs type.

Part III. Now that you’ve explored the genre of creative nonfiction more deeply, revisit writing territory #2 and think about how it would lend itself to creative nonfiction. Write a one-paragraph proposal for a creative nonfiction paper that you will write in this class including at least 3 possible sources.

Part IV. Writing to learn

a) How do you generally feel during in class writing time? Do “quick-writes” help you think? Has your fluency increased? What is one entry in the WNB where you felt you did a good job, and why?

b) Our goal with the class blog this quarter was to deepen the entries, rather than just writing a summary of what we did in class. Discuss the degree to which you did that in your own post. Also, discuss a time when you either wrote or read the blog that helped you learn.

8 Comments

Emmet, I am not a teacher yet, but I am going through the process to be certified to teach ELA in high school. However, I have been a writer for 44 years. Do the math. I've been writing in journals for a long time. I still write in journals. I "write from the Center" when I write on a fresh, lined page, next to a window where the light coming in through the tree creates patterns on the page, my hand, and the paper. Maybe students can expereince this same pleasure at a computer. I cannot. I'm wired to write with my hand with a wooden pen touched to a fresh white page. I can write in laundromats, parking lots and doctor's offices. I suppose students can do that too, with wireless technology. The experience of writing from the Center of one's Awareness is what I will try to foster in students. Natalie Goldberg writes about learning to write anywhere, with anything and on anything, in her book Writing Down the Bones. Keep tinkering. Reaching the place from whence all writing flows is the goal.

The internet always gets the rap for teaching kids improper grammar, spelling, et cetera. http://ssshotaru.homestead.com/files/aolertranslator.html
Even the internet die-hards seem to think so.

Actually, from what I found in your class last year, my notebook significantly improved after you allowed us to type our entries. I'm assuming you remember what they looked like before that point.

Then again, that could just be my ENTJ talking.

PS. You can't beat my cursive, I was taught it at age four by scary nuns. Just try and beat it.

Emmet
I think you touch on an interesting question. I remember many years ago (actually about 30 - terrible thought), when I was an undergraduate student in communications, we debated the idea of whether the medium is the message. You seem to be leaning towards the opinion that it is. Personally, I am torn on this topic. I find myself using pencil (not even pen) and paper when I do creative writing, but when I do academic writing, I prefer the computer.

As teachers, I think we have to decide what the purpose for an activity is: Do we want our students to experience writing by hand in journals, or do we want to encourage thinking and clear expression? Are the two mutually exclusive?

I would love to see brain research on a possible link between hand-eye coordination and language production, or creative expression, etc.

I find Patricia's comment telling: "I'm wired to write with my hand with a wooden pen touched to a fresh white page." Do you think perhaps people's wiring change with the advent of new technology?
Do you think the ancients lamented the use of clay tablets rather than carving into stone?

I don't know, but it could be an interesting question for your students to ponder in their journals.

Hi Mr. R,
I'm probably not the only one in our class to say this, but I feel a definite difference in writing by hand and typing.

Typing is a lot less tedious, and it's much faster and easier to get your thoughts down. When I write by hand, I feel like I don't have enough time to get my thought on paper before moving on to the next thought. I will often have a great idea, but if I write it by hand, the idea will seem to fade away faster than I can jot it down.

Or perhaps it's because I have bad memory.

~JANE~

Mr. Rosenfeld,
Sorry this is a kind of really long comment. You got me thinking... and at a computer, no less!

For me, I do prefer writing by hand and I feel like I think better that way, like you said. And I take pride in having nice print and cursive (with pencils, at least; pens don't seem to like me). I think it's because although I use the computer a lot, I've grown up intermittently keeping diaries and other notebooks. And since I don't have a laptop, typing limits me to my basement when my better thinking places are my bedroom and of course outside.
But I agree with the other students, typing is faster, and it's nice to be able to change words and move stuff around as I'm researching something. (Although traditional rough draft processes serve the same purpose, but take longer.) It's also handy when doing research on the computer to have everything in the same place, just a couple of clicks away.
So I tend to use pencil and paper when I'm writing something creative (and perhaps type it later), and I type when I'm writing something more research-based and less personal.
I can see how if other kids have grown up using the computer to write, then they'd be more comfortable with that method.
As I think about it more, typing seems to encourage getting ideas down and then going back to re-order and refine. But with handwriting, what you write is pretty much concrete (especially when using pen, as both you and my English teacher at Hayfield have told us to do), and you have to put more thought and effort into it the first time around, and there's no spellcheck. That might be why people with messy notebooks had better responses online.
If typing becomes the prominent method of writing, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, although I expect there are writers who've thought otherwise and written futuristic stories speculating this in Fahrenheit 451-esque societies. Creative kids will be creative wherever they're most comfortable. Perhaps your students will bring their laptops and join you at your riverside picnic table? (That might actually be a neat thing to try, go on a mini field trip, let everyone bring their preferred medium and just write for a while...)

And re "quick writes", I agree with those who said it helped them organize their thoughts. Sometimes I'm afraid to raise my hand because I'm not good at finding the right words when I'm speaking, but jotting down my ideas helped me hesitate less. I found freewriting a great way to keep the ideas flowing. I really should write that way more often.

Wait wait, one more thing, Mr. R, you should see if there's a link between Myers-Briggs and handwriting/typing preference! I don't know if there necessarily would be, but it seems possible.

-Kathleen

PS- AOLer translator, eh? I'll have to try that sometime.

After reading the posted comments: You have some truly awesome students and it is a great reflection on your teaching skills, Emmet.

I'm a big fan of the pen-and-paper form of writing. Honestly, I spend as much time as possible away from my computer. Why? Because computers can't talk. They provide no comfort. They are cold and desensitized. When I write in my writer's notebook, I can look back at my huge, loopy "writing script" and say, "That is me." Because you know what? It is. My words are the physical embodiment of my thoughts. They're made all the more better if they have that extra touch of Katie that can only be found in my script. I'm making my mark on the world when I write. My hand soars over the page, never stopping. My thoughts never stop, so why should my pen? It's a great feeling, that departure from the world, if only for a few minutes. For those few minutes, there is only me, head completely submerged in the page and in the story I have yet to finish telling.
Writing these freewrites and quickwrites is therapeutic and calming. I'm so glad I have the opportunity to take a break from an already jam-packed school day and just be me, if only for a little while. Thanks so much, Mr. Rosenfeld.

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