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The Power of Penmanship

By Jeffrey Pflaum

Penmanship can be seen as a follow-the-bouncing-ball mindless activity where children learn the basic strokes of the alphabet. You demonstrate how to make the smalls and caps of the letter “a,” for example. Show kids the method to write the letters and give practice drills so they will get it right. Penmanship, in this manner, becomes a copying and busywork lesson. But as an inner-city elementary school teacher, I created something a little different.

I began each day with a 20-minute handwriting lesson. New letters were presented from Monday through Thursday, and on Friday, I gave a penmanship “test.” For the exam, children wrote, repetitiously, the letters of the week, including words, sentences, and short paragraphs with those letters. Sounds pretty boring, yes?

I introduced a fresh perspective for kids to view cursive writing by saying: “Penmanship is art.” Why? When you write the letters, you’re really drawing them, making sure you’re getting the strokes and the final picture “correct” or as good as you can get it. I was really prompting them to concentrate carefully when doing penmanship. My approach and the handwriting process got their attention, tapping early morning energy to complete the task. It woke them up, and calmed them down, without too much thinking. Penmanship immediately after lunch also helped to focus hyper children with similar results as morning lessons.

In a typical lesson, I modeled the “letters of the day” on the board, showing each individual movement slowly, and, just for the fun of it, exaggerated the size so the class could see it clearly and have a good laugh at my drawing ability. I said, “If you think this is funny, why don’t you come up and draw the letter?” Hands went up quickly. Volunteers tried their best to write the letter while classmates watched intently. We critiqued the drawings in a lighthearted way.

To the class: “Your handwriting doesn’t have to be perfect like letters in penmanship books. But you want it to be easy-to-read and have control over the letters’ strokes. This is not a race to the finish. Practice the letters to create a muscle memory for each so you can improve and write faster and more clearly in future assignments.”

Link penmanship to creative writing: “When you write a story, the mind and imagination are activated: thoughts, feelings, images, ideas, and experiences travel from the brain to your hand where narratives are created. You don’t want these events from your head interrupted because you can’t ‘write’ your experiences.”

To add pizazz, I created and wrote in print, absurd sentences and paragraphs on the board for kids to write in cursive. Example: As the girl sat on the seashore she watched the waves come streaming in and then, in an instant, carry her far into outer space. The class laughed at the silly mind-pictures they visualized while writing the sentence. But I still wanted them to stay focused, despite the distraction, and complete the sentence freely and calmly. This novelty can be expanded through absurd paragraphs and will help motivate distracted and ADD/ADHD kids to focus eyes-and-hands on writing.

An advanced, mindful, “penmanship plus” activity to try is dictation because it teaches important real life and academic skills simultaneously, such as listening, spelling, vocabulary, handwriting, concentration, hand-eye coordination, and self-control. Take passages from novels or create absurd dictation stories for both educational and entertainment value.

An enrichment “cool tool” lesson connected to the penmanship-as-art approach is calligraphy. Show different sample letters written in calligraphy style to inspire kids to develop beautiful handwriting.

Need more fun? Try drawing letters, words, and sayings in graffiti style to motivate kidsto write “creatively.”

Now, from the classroom to the homeschool room, here’s how parent-teachers can implement these penmanship methods:

• Introduce/Demonstrate quote, “Penmanship is art,” and discuss briefly.
• Model strokes for each “letter of the day.” Explain: “Drawing the letters.”
• Child/Parent(s) practice writing letters together.
• Child/Parent(s) review/evaluate their handwriting collaboratively in easy-going way.
• Create real/absurd sentences/paragraphs using “letter(s) of the day” for cursive writing.
• Emphasize importance of focusing and relaxing while writing letters.
• Discuss how practicing letters’ strokes develop “muscle memories.”
• Penmanship test for letters of week with same letters in words/sentences.
• Dictation practice using real/surreal sentences/paragraphs.
• Calligraphy practice by writing letters/words/sentences/inspirational quotations in this style.
• Graffiti practice by writing words/sentences/motivational quotations in this style.

Penmanship goes beyond a “copying” activity. Its processes can impact children’s self-motivation, self-discipline, concentration, creativity, and physical fitness as well as English language arts skills. Educators of all kinds should think twice about eliminating penmanship practice from instruction because it means losing life-oriented and fundamental learning skills that make Johnny run.

Jeffrey Pflaum worked as an inner-city elementary school teacher where he created original curricula in reading, writing, creativity, poetry, emotional intelligence, character, and values. Pflaum’s book, Motivating Teen and Preteen Readers: How Teachers and Parents Can Lead the Way, resulted from years of empirical classroom research. His students’ poems have been published in magazines, newspapers, and books.

Copyright 2016 The Old Schoolhouse® used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.