Are Schools Finally Getting Smart?

With the start of the new school year only a few days away, I thought this would be a good time to comment on a bit of news about education that I heard recently.

A friend who is a retired teacher and school librarian, sent me a copy of an article by Kristin Rushowy in The Toronto Star, Cursive Writing and Typing Will Return to Ontario Schools This Fall about upcoming additions to the elementary school curriculum. It seems pressure from parents and a dose of common sense have finally struck the powers-that-be in education and they are going to start teaching young children what they have been neglecting for decades—typing, cursive writing, and phonics.

Sometimes old technology works best. The new curriculum version will probably be presented on tablets though.

How young people manage to learn to read and write without phonics is a mystery to me, but I’m old. What do I know about modern education? What I do know is that I cannot imagine learning to read and spell without being able to sound out words, syl-la-ble by syl-la-ble with pictures and letters on little cards.

Learning the write way

As for cursive writing, we now have an entire generation of young people who are incapble of reading birthday messages from their boomer grandparents because they cannot read cursive. They are embarrassed when they get their drivers’ licence because they do not know how to execute a “signature”. Fortunately, young people today rarely have to write a cheque but that’s another task that requires a signature, as do legal documents, loan agreements, mortgages, and upteen other written documents.

My current cursive style is a far cry from the proper letters I was taught, but that’s evolution for ‘ya.

Remember all those lined notebooks we filled in the lower grades practising our writing? The first step in Grade 2 was termed “script-printing”, a precursor to full-on cursive. As a leftie, I clearly remember wielding that big fat yellow pencil while I practised my newly-learned capital and lower-case letters, line after line after line.

I was so proud when I could finally write my name in longhand. Beautiful handwriting was a virtue to be admired and was rewarded with gold stars. I even took a course in handwriting analysis back in the seventies because I thought it would help me in business, when we still wrote everything in cursive. It was my answer to Myers-Briggs for decyphering my business associates’ psyches. Those principles would not apply to printed letters.

Most young people today take notes on their phones using their thumbs, but I can’t imagine taking notes without being able to write quickly in cursive. It’s faster than printing. But, there are particular ways the pencil or pen must be held between the thumb and forefinger to deliver the best result. Watching people gripping a pen or pencil incorrectly still deeply offends my esthetic sensibilities.

Typing is not just for girls!

Once we have conquered basic reading and writing, it is time to learn to type. Do not be embarrassed to call it typing because the skill was originally created specifically for operating typewriters and there’s no shame in that. In order to protect the fragile egos of men in the seventies who found it a slight to suggest they’re learning a skill they had secretaries for, it became known as keyboarding. Typing was considered “women’s work”. Good grief! New Barbie would be appalled.

Learning to type in Grade 11 was probably the most valuable thing I learned in high school. All the keys on our manual typewriters were capped so we couldn’t sneak a peak at the letters while doing our drills.

I am convinced that the most valuable thing this old boomer learned in high school was how to type. By the middle of Grade 11 I’d had my fill of Latin and I asked to drop it to take typing for the balance of the school year. My dad was definitely not in favour and a meeting with the principal and copious tears on my part finally convinced him to let me drop Latin and take typing. I have yet to meet an old Roman on the street who only communicates in Latin.

We had a few progressive boys in our typing class in the early sixties, but the class was primarily filled with girls. We were trained to keep both feet flat on the floor in front of us as we typed and to this day if I cross my legs at the ankles when I’m typing it scrambles my brain and I make mistakes. Those typing classes enabled me to eventually have a skill when I applied for and was offered a job at Bell Telephone Company in 1965.

Teaching young children to type beginning in Grade 3 is a life-skill right up there with tying your shoes and doing numbers. Why it has taken so long to fund and implement this instruction is a mystery to me. Add an extra half-hour to the school day or discontinue one of the vague new-age subjects, but for heaven’s sake teach children to type. Keyboards are here to stay for the time being (until voice dictation is totally perfected) and being able to type without looking at the keys is a basic life skill. I can type faster than I can write thanks to those few months of instruction in Grade 11.

Things were much simpler in the 50s when boomers were in elementary school.

The educational system in the fifties and sixties was far from perfect but they did get a few things right. Typing, cursive longhand writing, and phonics are three of those things that I am happy to see coming back. It doesn’t help an entire generation who missed out, but hopefully our educators learned that they aren’t always right and sometimes they stand to learn from us oldies too.

It may be too late for our own grandchildren, but at least our great-grandchildren will once again be equipped with some practical life skills going forward. Now, if they would just add money management and coding to the curriculum they’d be ahead of the game. Copy that?

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