In Cursive’s Defense: Why We Still Teach Handwriting

in-cursives-defense

At Parent-Teacher Conference time, we teachers are used to a few standbys: fathers always want to know about spelling and multiplication tables, for example, and we are often queried on the age-old question of “Yes, but how is he/she doing in math?” This year, a fellow teacher and I noticed a number of parents asking about Cursive–and the fact that we still teach it. No one was criticizing, or even questioning, really, but just the fact that it was noteworthy came to our attention. You may already know it was dropped from the Common Core in 2010, leaving Alaska, Texas, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Minnesota, and Puerto Rico the only states (and territory) to decide cursive’s curricular fate for themselves. (Just a short note: Indiana may be the only state fighting to keep cursive on the curriculum). Many of those states have dropped Cursive from their curriculum independent from the Common Core–and some states following Common Core have allowed it back in, going so far as to include it as part of the art standards just to be able to teach it.

The question is why? What’s so important about Cursive? For supporters, it’s impossible to leave out the element of tradition. Our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were, after all, written in beautifully decorative script. Closer to home, it’s the script that most of our parents and grandparents use when they write. If we lose Cursive, we lose a piece of our history…or so the argument goes.

One thing that occurred to me every time a parent mentioned that cursive was dropped in public schools at third grade was that reading and writing in Cursive has become another specialty skill that schools adopting the Common Core can’t offer. Cursive has become another easy hallmark for private education. And here’s another thing to consider: while Canada is following the U.S. in regards to Cursive, both England and Australia continue to teach penmanship in the upper grades.

I’m the first to admit that my belief that Cursive should be included in the curriculum is entangled with feelings. I do feel that it’s an important connection to the past, but more than that, it’s an irreplaceable extension of our personality. I so vividly remember perfecting my “signature” when I was in elementary school and it tickles me to see my students doing the same thing in my classroom today. Furthermore, I can look at each of my students’ work and tell whose is whose just by the writing even if their name isn’t on it. (But don’t tell them because they still have to put their names on their work.) There’s so much you can communicate with a pen or pencil and your own hand that you can never, in a million years, communicate by typing on a computer or a mobile phone. At least until they finally invent the sarcasm emoji I’ve been saying we need for, like, ever. And a text from mom will never be the same as a handwritten note in your lunchbox.

The truth is, people want more concrete reasons for teaching Cursive. Here are some more reasons we continue to teach handwriting:

  1. It helps with visual tracking and hand-eye coordination. Think fine motor (brain surgery), not gross motor (playing football).
  2. Studies indicate a link between retention and handwriting information versus typing. The physical act of putting pencil to paper helps students to remember the information they are taking in.
  3. Furthermore, students who write notes by hand are better at weeding out important (and relevant) information for note-taking. Students who type their notes, copy lectures verbatim and become overwhelmed by trying to remember unnecessary information.
  4. Although it is not necessarily faster for a student still in the process of mastering Cursive, it is faster once they have achieved it (which is why it needs to stay part of the curriculum).
  5. Learning Cursive builds confidence and allows the students to see the rewards of their effort:

    The feedback is immediate. The child sees in one eye fixation both the ideal and the child’s version. The child then tries again, and again sees immediately the comparison between the ideal and their current state of skill. With each attempt, the child learns without being told or scolded, how much improvement is occurring. Progress is all under the child’s control. The child knows it, and also knows that better results can occur with each thoughtful attempt. The child learns to pay more attention (which in itself is a crucial skill in this age of multi-tasking).

    Klemm, “Biological and Psychology Benefits of Learning Cursive

  6. Handwriting is often used for students with dyslexia and dysgraphia, since there is less need to pick up the pen from the page.

I can’t close without bringing up NPR’s article Does the Fight for A Cursive Comeback Miss the Point?  I encourage you all to read it because, in my opinion, it comes back to the heart of the issue of modern education, which is this: why did schools feel impelled to cut Cursive from the curriculum in the first place? How much of a role does the standardized testing play in decreasing the importance of quality penmanship? I think you can probably guess my opinion. I’ll leave you to form your own.

Case for Cursive from Montessorium

Case for Cursive from Montessorium

Sources:

Sewing Ideas for the Classroom

sewing-ideas-for-the-classroom

Sewing is very much on my and my students’ minds since Harvest Moon, our annual auction. If you missed it, or aren’t already a member of our school’s community, Harvest Moon is our annual fundraiser. Each of the classrooms makes a project for the auction. This year, I made a quilt with my students. Students got really into the whole process, from ironing:

Ironing

to embroidering quilt squares:

Landmarks Quilt

While I love Montessori Services various sewing works, the two that I’ve been thinking about adding to my classroom are the Individual Sewing Basket and the Button Sewing Exercise. After all, I work with students who are a little more confident in their sewing skills and want to take their skills to the next creative level.

Since I have many of the items in the baskets pictured above, I plan to assemble my own sewing baskets. Additional items I’d like to purchase are pictured below:

100 Sheet Assorted Acrylic Craft Felt

100 Sheet Assorted Acrylic Craft Felt

In addition to using excess scraps of fabric for the students to sew with, I’d also like to have a stock of felt for them to turn into pillows, wallets and ornaments. It’s forgiving, cheap and colorful–the perfect medium for novice sewers.

Embroidery Pocket Guide

Embroidery Pocket Guide

I love cards like these with simple, straightforward diagrams and instructions. They’d be a handy addition to any embroidery basket.

Sew Spectacular: Adorable Animals

Sew Spectacular: Adorable Animals

I learned about these sewing cards from no less a person than my esteemed niece. The cards are not only a cute project, but they teach different stitches in a simple, easy-to-understand format.

And here is a collection of hand-sewing projects from around the web that I think would be great to have samples of on the shelf as inspiration for their own projects:

Sewing Project Ideas from the Absorbent Teacher

Sewing Project Ideas from the Absorbent Teacher

Here are the projects (from top left):

I’ve also been researching sewing works that other teachers have assembled for their shelves. I love this one from How We Montessori:

Our Sewing Tray from How We Montessori

Our Sewing Tray from How We Montessori

On the Shelf: A Picture Diary of Work in Our Montessori Classroom came up with the charming idea of sewing prayer flags:

Sewing Prayer Flags from On the Shelf

Sewing Prayer Flags from On the Shelf

Finally, the North American Montessori Center has a sweet Earth Day/continent work project:

Hug-the-Earth from NAMC

Hug-the-Earth from NAMC

I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into sewing in the Montessori classroom. I look forward to sharing the students’ projects with you!

Montessori Materials Snapshots: Insets, Part 2

insets-1-6

It’s time to take a closer look at the classroom staple that is the Montessori Metal Insets. Earlier, I introduced the material, and I strongly encourage you to read that post before reading this one. My introductory post covers the basic rules we ask students to follow when doing insets and also discusses why we use them in the classroom.

A few notes before I begin:

Generally speaking, Montessori insets are metal. I prefer them this way, as the greater weight of the material allows for less movement while tracing. However, certain companies (Montessori n’ Such) do sell plastic versions, which can provide a greater challenge for older children. I used to have a set of each and I liked changing them out halfway through the year to give the concept of insets a fresh boost. Additionally, by the halfway point in the year, the students have become very comfortable with the insets and switching to the plastic insets requires some minor adjustments. Students always have a definite preference: metal v. plastic.

Just a side note: Montessori protegée Margaret Homfray preferred the plastic insets. She felt they were lighter and easier to use. Furthermore, if dropped, the edges of the plastic insets wouldn’t chip.

Inset trays come in sets of ten, but the shapes may vary. Most trays have the following shapes: circle, oval, ellipse, square, rectangle, equilateral triangle, curvilinear triangle, quatrefoil, pentagon and trapezoid. Occasionally you will see a parallelogram in place of the trapezoid (as in the case of our plastic insets). This may be because all the insets were originally meant to fit inside the circle. However, if you look at a modern-day set of insets (pictured below left), you’ll see that there’s no chance that the square would ever do so:

Vintage Montessori Insets

And you’ll also see that the square in the older set (pictured on the right) is considerably smaller. In the original set, the only shape that didn’t fit inside the circle was the parallelogram. Perhaps this naughty refusal to conform got it ejected from the modern inset tray? We’ll never know…

You can use white or colored paper for insets, but I always use white with my Upper Elementary class. Use the best quality colored pencil you can afford. We use Prismacolor Softcore Color Pencils (not the Verithin, which have harder lead and do not provide the same kind of coloring experience). Other options include Caran d’Ache, Derwent Colorsoft and Faber Castell. You’ll want a set of colored pencils that has at least 48 different colors so the students have plenty of chance to play around with combinations, for reasons that will become clear as I introduce the exercises.

Inset #1: One Shape, Two Colors

Inset #1: One Shape, Two Colors

Inset #1 is the introduction to the inset exercises and is thus the most simple. Students choose one shape to trace in any color. After removing the frame, they are invited to choose a second color and fill the inside of the shape with long, brush-like strokes. Done properly, it’s not as easy as it looks, but you do get into a kind of meditation with it. Each stroke of the pencil is meant to begin on the left. Once you reach the right side of the outline, lift your pencil and return to the beginning. Repeat until no white space shows. This is how the students should color each inset.

Inset #2: One Shape, Turned

Inset #2: One Shape, Turned

Inset #2 is known as “One Shape, Turned” because that is how it is achieved. Pictured above is the Curvilinear Triangle (one of my favorite inset shapes!). The first time I ask my students to do Inset #2, I tell them they cannot use the Circle, Square, or Quatrefoil. This is because they are still practicing lining the frame up with the paper–and if they turn the Circle or the Square while still lining up the frame and the paper, they will end up tracing the same outline twice. A fellow teacher suggested specifying the turn for this inset 180 degrees. An eight-pointed star can be created by turning the Square 90 degrees, but then the students aren’t lining up the frame with the paper (or following the 180 degree direction, if you’ve given it). If they do happen to notice this is possible, I ask them to try it with a shape they can line up this time; next time they’ll be able to experiment a little more. They use 3-4 colors for Inset #2.

Inset #3: Two Shapes

Inset #3: Two Shapes

Inset #3 is the first time the students work with more than one shape at a time. It’s interesting to see which shapes they’re drawn to pairing together. The quatrefoil and the circle is always a popular pairing. I personally like to combine curved shapes (oval, ellipse, circle, quatrefoil and curvilinear triangle) with straight-edged ones (square, rectangle, trapezoid, pentagon, rhombus or parallelogram) and sometimes I recommend that my students try this, especially if they are having difficulty choosing shapes for themselves.

Inset #4: Shades of One Color

Inset #4: Shades of One Color

An excellent inset to do when you only have brown Prismacolors left in your inset color basket! Shades of One Color is a practice in color sensitivity. If a student is unsure whether the colors they’ve chosen are shades of one color, I have them check with me or my assistant. To be safe, have them stick with blue, purple, green and, of course, brown. Any shape (or shapes or combination thereof) is acceptable, and I encourage experimentation. Usually by this point in the introduction of the insets, the students are eager to use as many shapes as possible. I’ve also shown them a number of samples, so they want to try their hand at reproducing ones they’ve seen.

Inset #5: Fill the Page

Inset #5: Fill the Page

The first thing to know about this inset is that some students will try to trace one shape, color the inside one color, color the outside another, and call it good. That’s why it’s good to give precise instructions. Inset #5 isn’t “Fill the Page (with Color)” but “Fill the Page (with Designs and Color).” When students ask why, one of the reasons I give is that it’s easier to color small spaces, which is helpful for those students who are feeling overwhelmed by filling the whole page. I do not limit the number of colors they can use with this inset, but I do tell them not to have blue areas touching blue.

Inset #6: Border Inset

Inset #6: The Border Inset

In some ways the pinnacle of all the insets that come before, the border inset is certainly the most challenging. It takes patience, precision, and time. Instead of a square paper sized to perfectly match the inset frame, the border inset only lines up on three sides. The fourth side is longer, sometimes 8.5 inches, but more often 11. The chosen shape is used to create a repeating pattern as you move it along, lining it up each time with the same point on the previously drawn outline. In order to make sure that pattern doesn’t slide off the page, the frame must continue to be lined up along the edges at the top and the bottom.

It can be difficult to get the pattern to repeat identically. Looking at my example even now, I can see some differences that will drive me nuts if I look at it too long. However, just like you resist the urge to adjust the smallest cube at the top of the Pink Tower when presenting a lesson, resist the urge to “fix” your inset when doing a lesson. Your students will make mistakes when they do theirs and it will be an important part of their experience that they learn how to work with their mistakes, to shrug them off, or to otherwise deal with imperfections as they come.

Two additional, commonly taught inset designs that we do not include in our introduction to insets are as follows:

Frame and Inset, Two ColorsSymmetry Inset

The first, left-hand inset is achieved by tracing the inset using the frame (the pink part) first, and the inset (the blue part) second. Contrary to popular belief–especially among students–the two will create the same line. The inset is slightly smaller. It has to be in order to fit inside the frame. This is a fun lesson to show the students, but generally has a short shelf life with students my age. This is a lesson more appropriate to the younger 3-6 classrooms.

The second inset is a lesson in symmetry. Using the inset shapes, students create a pattern that repeats across at least one line of symmetry. In the case of the inset shown above, there are two lines of symmetry. Though the insets naturally lend themselves to these patterns, symmetry can be a challenging concept to implement intentionally.

Once the students have been introduced to our basic six insets (I run through them twice) they’re free to experiment. In my next post in the inset series I’ll be showing a number of ways in which you can expand on the use of insets in the classrooms, and school-wide. I think you’ll agree that they add richness and color to already vibrant Montessori curriculum.

Mixed Bag Fundraiser Book Wish List

Mixed Bag catalogs went home last week! For those of you left in this world that don’t know about the Mixed Bag Fundraiser, I do it to raise money for books for the classrooms. Every year new and exciting books are published and I believe classroom libraries should be living and growing things, especially as we teachers work to create children who grow in to adults who love books.

Just to get you excited about some of the books you can help us add to our classrooms, I thought I’d show you some of the exciting titles we’d love to share with your children.

Botanicum

Botanicum is the latest addition to Big Picture Press’ Welcome to the Museum series. Last year’s Mixed Bag fundraiser allowed us to purchase Historium, Maps, and Animalium, all of which are equally gorgeous and fabulously illustrated. Maps is particularly wonderful and I can’t wait until The Story of Life is published in the United States.

Writer’s Toolbox Series

The Writer’s Toolbox series introduces writing to children in language they can understand, with appealing illustrations and step-by-step instructions. The books don’t take the place of the lessons we give, but enhance them. They can even inspire students to explore new areas of writing in their free time.

On Earth

A sweetly illustrated discussion of our planet, On Earth discusses some of our planet’s most difficult to grasp concepts in simple, easy-to-understand ways. I particularly enjoy the dichotomous illustration of night and day:

Feathers: Not Just for Flying

If you have ever explored the natural world with a young child, you probably have experienced their fascination with feathers. Feathers: Not Just for Flying explores the many functions these gorgeous appendages offer the avian world, and does it with words and illustrations:

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes is actually a book I saw at a Montessori Conference. It’s an introduction to all those tiny organisms we can’t see with the naked eye–which can engender curiosity about microscopes. It also discusses how things that appear to happen invisibly are only really invisible to the naked eye–like microbes breaking food down into compost and turning milk into yogurt.

Somewhere in the World Right Now

It was actually the endpaper that caught my eye with Somewhere in the World Right Now. It features a time zone map of the entire world, and it’s a good thing it does, because that’s the topic of the book. It explores what’s happening at the same exact moment around the world.

National Geographic Kids World Atlas

I’m also hoping for two more of the National Geographic Kids World Atlases. We have a few others in the room, but this is the one I like best. It continually proves to be the best resource for us. I’d love to have a few more on hand!

But maybe you should ask your children. What books would they like to see in the classroom?

Don’t forget!

Mixed Bag orders are due this Friday, September 30.

If you prefer to shop online or have out-of-town friends or family, MSO also gets 40% of your online purchase at Mixed Bag! Visit the Friends and Family Fundraising Page and enter MSO’s fundraising code:

70214

Montessori Shout-Outs

I love it when Montessori gets a little love from the public, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to share some recent places where I’ve seen or heard my favorite educational system get some of the attention it deserves. For those times when my opinion isn’t enough, or you’re tired of listening to me tell you how awesome Montessori is, I’ve found some further support. First up is a fantastic (and fascinating) book I read this summer called How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims:

I practically squealed when I got to this part in Lythcott-Haims’ book:

Take Montessori education, for example, which for over one hundred years has applied student-centered, active-learning approaches to K-12 classrooms. Students guide their own learning, particularly figuring out what steps to do next on their own, Assessments depend on well-trained teachers, not standardized tests. Montessori ‘unfolds’ students instead of ‘molding’ them. (p.157)

And later, in a section of the book where Lythcott-Haims gives advice to her readers about “How to Let Your Kid Play”, she brings up Montessori again:

Consider schools that value student-driven learning and play, such as Montessori schools, which exist nationwide.

The second piece of literature I want to show you is an article from the Wall Street Journal detailing something the author, Peter Sims, calls the “The Montessori Mafia.” As it turns out, Julie Lythcott-Haims used this article to support her for argument for Montessori education.

wall street journal copy

Not to be outdone, Forbes recently published their own article extolling the virtues of Montessori in the workplace. In “Montessori Schools Offer Big Lessons for ‘Managers'”, some of the features closest to the heart of Montessori are highlighted: the way the environment is designed to suit the child, the teacher as facilitator rather than deliverer of information, and igniting the child’s internal desire to learn rather than motivating them through external reward.

montessori-at-forbes

I don’t need famously accomplished people like Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to tell me that Montessori is an educational system that fosters independence, critical thinking, and creativity. My students prove that to me every day. Still, it’s always nice to hear that others feel the same way!

Montessori Materials Snapshots: Insets, Part 1

Montessori Materials Snapshots

Many Montessori teachers have a favorite classroom material. I have many, actually, but few items central to the Montessori curriculum have the kind of universal appeal as the Metal Insets. At the Montessori School of Ojai, where I work, students do insets from ages three through fourteen. At their earliest introduction, Metal Insets play a very important role in the child’s writing development. In later years, the insets fill a variety of important needs. Here’s a rundown of (some of) the many uses of the Metal Insets:

Metal Insets with Stands from Alison’s Montessori

  • They help develop the child’s fine motor skills, particularly those used in writing.
  • Insets act as a centering activity. If a student is distracted and unable to focus on assigned tasks, or is unable to begin work when they enter the classroom, asking them to do an inset can be the switch that turns the day around for them. Some students need to start the day with an inset every morning. My theory is that insets are a calming work that require attention and concentration–without calling on the higher order thinking skills they can’t access at the moment anyway. It’s like a mini-meditation, rather in the vein of Zentangle. It’s Montessori’s version of “yoga for the brain.”
  • Insets are practice in following instructions. I actually leave our inset “rules” on the white board throughout the whole school year after I’ve first introduced them. Because, let’s be honest, following instructions is a skill they need lots of practice with. I could–and probably should–write an entire post on the importance of following instructions, since the words have the potential to look rather negative when I put them down in black and white. Let me clarify. When I’m talking about following instructions, I’m not teaching my students to blindly obey and follow orders. What I am teaching is the ability to take in instruction and follow it accurately. (I tell my students they have to learn the rules before they can break them.)

Which brings me to the rules:

Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencil Sets from Dick Blick

  • Treat the materials gently. All teachers emphasize care and respect for the Montessori Materials, and the insets are no exception. The frames are metal, so they need to be set down gently lest they make a great deal of noise. The insets themselves also have sharp corners, so they need to be handled carefully by the children so as not to hurt themselves or others. We use Prismacolor pencils, whose soft lead makes for vibrant coloring. They also allow the students to see firsthand what happens when they treat the Prismacolors carelessly (if they drop them, the lead inside will break, making them difficult to sharpen).
  • Set the inset frame on the paper so that no white is showing around the edges. The only exception to this rule is Inset #6, which I’ll explain in the next post. Inset paper is cut to

    Metal Inset Paper from Montessori Services

    exactly fit the inset frame (5.5 inches square or 14 cm square).

  • Trace your shape(s) and then remove the frame(s) before coloring. It’s always interesting to see which students leave the frame on and start coloring. I can promise–if you don’t mention this rule, one of your students will inevitably try it.
  • Stay inside the lines. This rule is why they leave the frame on. It’s also why you don’t let them. You don’t want staying inside the lines to be completely effortless. Then the exercise would lose its value! On the other hand, a fellow teacher told me she doesn’t tell her students to stay inside the lines, rather not to worry about that. Instead, she carefully models staying inside the lines.
  • Color lightly. This is often the most challenging task for students, especially if it involves retraining muscles. If they press hard when they write, they probably press hard when they color and their hand tires easily. If you can, demonstrate the way the colors look when you apply different pressures. Show

    Metal Inset Wooden Tracing Tray from Montessori N’ Such

    them which shade you’d like them to achieve. Remind the students their hands won’t tire as quickly if they don’t press so hard. They might believe you, but experience will probably be the best teacher for this particular lesson. Be upfront with the students. Explain that, if the children color in a dark way, the (costly) Prismacolor pencils get used up much more quickly. We want our pencils to last a long time because they are expensive, so if we color lightly, we all benefit by having them last. We want to help the children to realize that we invest in quality tools for important reasons. Coloring with Prismacolor pencils makes a satisfying and beautiful product.

  • Leave no white spaces. Also a tricky one, especially for those who are used to applying serious pressure with the pencil. For them, “color lightly” and “leave no white spaces” can seem like contradictory rules. Explain that it doesn’t mean that the white of the paper isn’t allowed to show through the coloring, so much as making sure each area gets an even amount of pigment.
  • Use long, brush-like strokes. Often, students color in choppy, uneven sections. This results in uneven shading because of different pencil pressures. It takes a lot of practice, so I repeat this rule as a soothing kind of mantra, over and over and again. Not to pressure them, but as a gentle reminder to relax the hand and make inset work more comfortable.

Other issues may come up as you set your students to work, but don’t worry too much. They’ll have plenty of opportunity to experiment with insets and to refine and hone their skills. My students keep an inset portfolio in their classroom throughout the year, which we add to continually.

Next I’ll be showing the inset exercises in the order we introduce them to our students, as well as some extensions some fellow teachers and I have created. I hope you’ll join me!