By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
NORTH BALTIMORE — The sentences read: “Dad can add.” “Add the Dad.” “Can Dad dance?”
“My Dad can’t dance,” said one of the students, which drew a giggle from her neighbor.
Pam Van Mooy didn’t much care if the three sentences she’d written on the large piece of paper at the front of the room made sense. She was more interested in whether the students were able to write them in cursive.
“Now that you know how to make capital letters, we can really write sentences. Because what does every sentence begin with?” she asked.
“A capital,” the students answered in unison. Then they put pencil to paper and began to write.
It wasn’t a scene from Powell Elementary School, but a meeting of Van Mooy’s “Connecting With Cursive Handwriting” class at the North Baltimore Public Library. Thirteen students from third grade through junior high are spending an hour after school three days a week for a month learning to read and write in cursive.
Van Mooy understands that it’s not much time to absorb it all.
“We’re doing it quickly. Are they going to be perfect at it? No. But they’ll have a better idea when they cover it in class or as they practice it,” she said.
Van Mooy is an adult circulation clerk at the library. But she spent 40 years as a teacher and principal in Fostoria and North Baltimore.
“What I have been finding with kids is that they can write their name for their signature, but actually being able to read cursive, some of them can’t. Some won’t admit it, but they can’t. And they can’t convert from print to cursive,” she said.
Cursive instruction has been mandated by the State of Ohio to be taught in schools, and this instruction is suggested to begin in third grade, when students are expected to pass the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, said Van Mooy.
“Third grade is a really packed year,” she said. “They have to pass the reading test. If they don’t pass it the first time, they have to get some intervention to get caught up. So every spare minute that a teacher has in the classroom, she’s going to be working on the reading.”
Handwriting, she noted, is not a tested objective, so teachers may not put as much emphasis on it. Students may simply get a sample of their cursive signature to practice.
“Well, what they do is they draw it. They don’t really write. They try to make it look as much like that, but they don’t understand about how the flow of cursive writing should go,” she explained.
Van Mooy said research indicates that typing on a computer uses just one side of the brain, but translating something from print to cursive is like learning a different language.
“Your brain has to move it from one side to the other, so you’re moving things from short-term memory into long-term memory, and that really helps your brain develop. So it’s a skill that maybe we’ve let go a little too much,” she said.
When she was teaching, Van Mooy had a 30-minute period to focus on cursive writing. She would show the students how to form letters, and then have them practice on paper.
“And I walked around to make sure they were making the letters correctly. That’s the part that’s hard to fit in to today’s classroom. And so they get bad habits and then they’re really hard to break,” she said.
Van Mooy proposed the idea of an after-school class to library director Holly Emahiser Ryder, who agreed.
“I thought we’d get maybe five or six sign up,” said Van Mooy. “I’m pleased, and the teachers at school were real excited. It’s something for free, and a lot of the kids come here after school anyway.”
After a snack provided by the library, class begins with the students reading — or trying to read– the instructions for the first task that are written in cursive.
“I have to really write slowly to make sure that my penmanship is good,” Van Mooy said.
This gathering is definitely not as quiet as the school classroom, she noted.
“You’ll find they talk to each other because it’s after school. They help each other,” she said.
Using the Zaner-Bloser style of cursive writing, Van Mooy has the students focus on five or six similar letters a day. For example, they might practice ‘a’ and ‘d,’ and all of the letters that have a circle that goes counterclockwise. The next day they’ll practice the capitals for those. Then they’ll move on to letters with an underhanded upswing like ‘s’ and ‘t.’ There’s also the tow truck letters like ‘o’ and ‘v.’ These all have a hook on the end to connect to another letter.
Van Mooy told the students that they’ll develop their own style as their learning progresses.
“When you see someone’s cursive writing, it may not look like mine. I told them, ‘When you’ve done it long enough, you can get your own style,'” she said. “I said, ‘I can tell you right now, don’t put circles or hearts on top of your ‘i’ or ‘j’ because your teachers will have a fit. But other than that, you’ll develop your own style.'”
Van Mooy said this type of cursive isn’t hard to learn. And the state says it doesn’t have to be perfect.
“It has to be legible,” she said. “So if we can make it so that it makes sense and it’s legible, then we’ve met the standard.”