11 April 2013

Insert clever title about handwriting here.

The Internet is a magic place. It allows us (really me, since this is a pretty one-sided conversation) to share thoughts and insights with millions upon millions of people.(really about 35 on an average post, but I like to dream) It allows us to judge the relative intelligence (and glaring lack thereof) of our former classmates through what they share, and the glaring grammatical errors they make. (Seriously. You're 30. You didn't "seen" anybody do anything. Also, if you use the wrong their/there/they're again, I'm driving to your house to pummel you with a claw hammer. Not you, dear reader, the other reader.) 

All of this sharing is possible for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that the sharing is text based. Some of the best tests (yes, there are good tests) feature large sections of student generated text to evaluate what the students know, because writing is "thinking on paper". This stands in stark contrast to multiple choice tests, which seem to be "random vomit on paper". To fix the problems with most standardized tests, most states (48 at last count) are moving to a new set of standards forced on us by the testing companies developed with the goal of requiring more student writing. These are called the Common Core and you can read all about them here. These standards  will be evaluated with a new set of tests. I could go on a massive rant about Pearson and ETS and the giant scam that is testing, but I've already done that.  Instead I want to look at student writing.

You're (see what I did there? Correct "you're" followed by the correct "there". Take note grammar ignoramuses) probably bracing for a screed about 6 trait writing (it deserves one) or Step-Up (even more deserving) since those are systems that develop formulaic writing and I tend to hate them. Well, shift your position, because I'm going to rant about a different kind writing: handwriting.

Now, I could certainly fill your evening (or morning, or afternoon) with tales of tragic handwriting that has caused me to attempt to gouge my own eyes out, but that's not my purpose, dear friends. Instead I want to talk about what happens to kids with good handwriting. I think that they get put in the wrong classes for their ability. 

Let's work through my thesis. At a young age in school, children learn penmanship. This used to be an actual subject, but with the advent of high stakes testing, many elementary schools have moved away from it because it isn't tested, and there is no reward for teaching things that aren't on the state tests, even if those are useful skills. Anyway, as young people develop good handwriting, you would think that teachers would actually read it more carefully. However, I've found that the inverse is often true. Because it is easy to read, teachers will skim, assuming that since the writing is good in technique, it is probably also good in content. Even if the logical assumption that better handwriting leads to more attention is true, some damage is done. As students progress through the grades, those students receive more praise and feedback, and so become better writers and gain confidence. However, they don't gain any actual academic ability (for what it's worth, I believe that some people have more academic ability than others. If you think everybody is equally intelligent, but in "different ways" we disagree. Since I run the blog, my opinion wins)

When they reach high school, which is really the first place that differentiated classes are really differentiated, these students are often either selected for or self-select into the most rigorous academic track. That's where I've seen the problem. (at this point, I should note that this isn't a hard and fast rule. There are some really smart kids with great handwriting. However, you rarely see a kid in over their head with just terrible handwriting. I regularly see kids in over their heads with great penmanship.)

You see, they don't actually belong there. They might be slightly above average (because of the extra attention / confidence), but they probably aren't AP material. But there they are. I'll never forget one kid I had in an AP Euro class. This girl spent lots of time reading and taking meticulous notes. Her handwriting was spectacular, but her grade was awful. I had to have a meeting with mom. We finally deduced that she had terrible reading comprehension. She would work really hard, and could write letters really well, but she didn't understand what she was writing.

How had she gotten to that point? I suspect that because her penmanship was so good, and because she could answer first level questions like a boss, she had always been told that she was smart, and that led her to choose an AP class. However, when it came to someone who was actually reading what she wrote (and not just skimming the first 2-3 lines and the last 2-3, which she wrote pretty well) she got pummeled. 

I don't know what the answer to this theoretical problem is. Perhaps it's moving to typed assessments (which the Common Core will be) or moving all assignments to digital formats. That might help. I think shrinking class size would certainly alleviate some of this problem, since the skimming occurs because actual reading takes time, and when you have 220 kids, you don't have the time to really read. If it's neat, you scan. Sloppy stuff you actually read because you're trying to figure out what they're saying. 

Anyway, I don't have much else, but this has been kicking around my brain for three years, and some people have been harassing me for a BlazeBlog, so this is what you get. 

Maybe I'll get around to addressing this snarky editorial and this snarky response sometime soon. By "soon" I probably mean August. Just so you know.

But when I do get around to it, you'll be able to read it. Mostly because it will be typed. My handwriting? Not very good.

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