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Handwriting on The Wall for Cursive

Cursive writing, once a cornerstone of American education, is becoming a cultural artifact as computers and the demands of standardized tests squeeze it out of its once lofty position.

Taught for more than 300 years in the United States, cursive has a storied past. But in a number of Michigan schools, it has been reduced to an independent study, an "as-we-have-time" course in second or third grade.

For traditionalists, the demise of cursive is an outrage - the loss of a skill, even an art form. People who print argue that there's no point in wasting students' time to teach a vestigial skill in a computer age. For the educators in the middle, pragmatism wins.

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"Handwriting is suffering. We're not practicing as much; there are just so many things we need to do," said Joanne Jacobson, curriculum director at Fraser Public Schools. "Our focus is to make it legible, not beautiful. It (handwriting) is just a tool."

Cursive is fun for kids. At least in the beginning.

Kristie Peterson's second-graders at John F. Kennedy school in Ferndale were still excited about their first cursive lesson - i and t - even after shaking cramped little wrists to complete several rows of each.

"I like the letters because they're fancy. It looks grown up," said Corina English, 7, who is quick to point out she had learned b and q in first grade.

"It means you're smart," said Justin Hammerle, 7, on why he wanted to learn cursive.

But when asked whether they would rather spend time learning cursive or computers, computers had the second-graders' hearts, hands down.

Peterson bristles a little at the notion that writing needs to be graded by neatness and that papers written in cursive should be required in higher grades.

"It's not my philosophy. To me, it's the content that counts, but it does have to be legible."

Legibility, however, depends on the beholder. By the time kids reach high school, most already have developed their own handwriting style. And for some, unless schools can find hours to devote to practice, no single method will improve handwriting.

In Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, curriculum coordinator Penny Joy says she gets a lot more calls asking why cursive is taught at all than calls demanding that more class time be devoted to it.

"Quite honestly, we don't have the time," she said. "Part of me thinks that's sad, but the practical in me says as long as I can remember - even as little girls - we were trying to make our own writing style. The issue of legibility is more important than making our letters the same."

The SAT college-admissions test still requires students, at the end of the test, to copy a few paragraphs saying that the student didn't cheat, says Sandra Riley, spokeswoman for the College Board, which gives the test.

Students are asked to write out the paragraphs, rather than just sign a written statement, so the College Board has a copy of the student's handwriting in case later verification of the student's identity is needed, she says.

One of the most popular reasons given for teaching cursive is speed. But those who really appreciate cursive say they can be a little neurotic about the letters.

"I don't like it to look messy," said Amanda Zaitchik, a high school senior from Livonia, Mich., who won second place in the World Handwriting Contest in July. "If you look at the practicality, it's easier not to teach it. But tradition is a good enough reason to keep going. It's an art in itself."

Jodi Upton

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