When the Pen is Mightier Than the (Chromebook) Keyboard

Language Arts

When the Pen is Mightier Than the (Chromebook) Keyboard

By J. Derek Larson     Aug 28, 2014

When the Pen is Mightier Than the (Chromebook) Keyboard

This article is part of the guide: From School to Shining School: 52 Stories from Educators Across the U.S.

I like to consider myself a technology enthusiast who is always looking for the next great edtech gadget. I have iPads, Chromebooks, netbooks, GPS devices, Vaavud wind meters and a Thermodo temperature tool for creating a DIY weather station for my mobile devices, and many other edtech tools to use. And yet, even with all of this digital technology around me, I still fall back on three of my favorite pieces of tech: a small Field Notes notebook, some excellent index cards and a pen--either a Fisher Space Pen, because it’s always on my person, or a fountain pen from my growing collection.

Why would a self-described tech addict use pen and paper so frequently? Because it’s important to me to have a tactile connection to the tools I use, and you can’t get more tactile than pushing a pen across paper.

As much as I love teaching with technology, I also want my students to have the opportunity to use these same analog (non-digital) tools, as well. I want them to be able to feel their work and know they are actually writing something--not just typing it. Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against typing, and I make sure my students have scheduled time each week for specific typing instruction. But I want my students to understand that it’s important to keep their handwriting skills neat, as well.

Why physical writing is important in the classroom

I’m not alone in my desire to have my students practice handwriting. Just this summer, the Tennessee Department of Education decided to propose a set of standards that would require educators to “include cursive writing in the course of instruction in all public schools,” and especially in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.

My own home state of Utah also went through a recent reconsideration of the value of cursive instruction in 2013, and asked for input from educators and community members. I felt the need to share my thoughts then, and continue to feel the same way today. I submitted a statement to the Utah State Office of Education (seen below in italics), and cited several reasons for why analog--specifically, cursive--writing instruction in classrooms should continue to exist.

Writing is a necessity in our world

"Cursive writing, old-fashioned as it may appear, is a valuable part of our societal structure. We are required to sign our names in cursive for important legal documentation as well as formal writing. Without the proper instruction and practice in the early years of writing education, students won't be able to successfully use cursive, both in reading and writing, for their own societal responsibilities and duties. As an educator, I have felt very strongly of this importance.”

As fast as it may be to use your phone or tablet to take notes, being able to pull out a pen and paper is often just as fast, or even faster. I will typically write notes by hand because the actual movement of my hand helps me to remember the things being written more accurately. And, when it comes to students, there’s no worrying about a battery dying or tablets breaking if they’re recording ideas on physical paper. The reality? Technology doesn’t always survive a power shortage. But pen and paper do.

Additionally, have you ever sat in a meeting where someone is “writing” something on their tablet or laptop? Are they actually taking notes or are they checking Facebook or Twitter? Are they listening to the presentation or are they playing Candy Crush Saga or some other game? By taking your notes on paper, your colleagues don’t have to worry what you are actually doing--and oftentimes, the same goes for students.

Daily writing can improve motor and reading skills

“I teach 4th grade and we complete a cursive packet at the start of every year, and upon its completion, I require the students to do all their writing, except for Spelling activities and tests, in cursive. By requiring the daily practice of cursive writing, most of my students improve their cursive writing skills to very high levels of proficiency.”

When it comes to that “proficiency,” why do some football coaches ask their players to practice ballet? So they can learn to be more light on their feet and help with agility and quickness. The same can be applied to writing! Just yesterday, I had a student mention that he felt cursive was helping him to be a better athlete because he was using his hands to be very precise and accurate. I had never thought of that before, but it makes sense.

And one other thing--have you ever tried to read an old hand-written journal before? Was it written in cursive? If you hadn’t learned to write in cursive, you probably wouldn’t have been able to read the journal. Even if you don’t currently write in cursive or if you don’t write very neatly in cursive, having that skill allows you to be able to read it.

Writing is unique to each person, and can be a form of identity and self-expression

“Not every child will leave my class with beautiful cursive writing skills, but not every adult has beautiful writing skills either, cursive or print. I plan to continue my teaching of cursive and requiring its use in my classroom as long as I teach, regardless of what the State Core requires.”

I know there has been a lot of debate about the necessity of handwriting, specifically cursive writing, especially as more and more capable technology tools become available. But I feel it is still a needed skill. In the future, I can see the need for cursive to change as identification technologies advance, and then see it become more of an art form. When that day occurs, I will treat cursive as a part of the arts, but I will still teach it.

What are your thoughts on the handwriting and cursive debate? Should we still be teaching handwriting or should we just leave it behind? Let me know in the comments below!

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative (representing the state of Utah). Parts of this article originally appeared on EdTechBabble.net.

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