Cursive or cursed?

If I owe you a thank-you note, I apologize. My Catholic school upbringing has led me to believe that I can only express my gratitude in one way: legible script.

Computer use and its attendant impatience have led to the near demise of my handwriting. Were you to see my scribbled signature on any given credit card receipt, you might conclude that I have a medical degree rather than a diploma from Holy Cross Grammar School, once a nerve center of the Palmer Method of penmanship.

Should today's kids learn cursive as I did? Is it essential for developing hand-eye coordination, knowing how to read the past and express one's creativity? Or is script obsolete, like vinyl records and paying for content?

After noting the absence of cursive writing instruction in the Common Core State Standards, Brian Lehrer, a talk show host on public radio in New York City, took up the matter. You can listen to his conversation with teachers here. The listener comments posted beneath the audio link are also interesting.

If cursive hadn't faded in recent decades, the great American novel I wrote 15 years ago might not be sealed on a Zip disk that my MacBook Pro has zero interest in reading.

But if you really want to feel sorry for someone, tour the National Archives. You'll see what record keepers have had to do in the computer age to preserve American history, much of which now resides in a nameless cloud.

What do you think? Should we—can we—keep cursive alive? Let me know, preferably in script.

Q & A: Jodi Grant of the Afterschool Alliance

A longtime partner of Scholastic and one of our Literacy Champions, the Afterschool Alliance works to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs. It's also the only organization dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of afterschool programs and advocating for more afterschool investments.

Greg Worrell, President of the Scholastic Classroom & Community Group, sent a handful of questions to the Alliance's executive director, Jodi Grant. Here's what she has to say about the state of afterschool and expanded learning programs in the U.S.


Greg Worrell: Tell us about the goals and mission of the Afterschool Alliance and has there been any shifts given the changing federal landscape?

Jodi Grant: The Afterschool Alliance is working to ensure that all children and youth have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.  These programs keep kids safe, inspire them to learn and help working families.  An overwhelming body of research now clearly shows that kids who participate in afterschool programs do better in school, attend school more often, and are more likely to graduate.  

The good news is that 8.4 million kids are benefitting from these expanded learning opportunities. The bad news is that most  are missing out: 15 million children across America are on their own after school.  The parents of 18.5 million children would sign up for a program today—if one were available

On the policy front, we also see challenges and opportunities.  The good news is that the idea that learning can, and should, happen anywhere, anytime, and that our students need more relevant, hands-on learning opportunities, seems to be gaining traction.  Afterschool programs are a natural place for this kind of learning, and have been incubators for some incredibly innovative programming. 

The bad news is that policy currently under debate does not reflect this notion, and budget constraints are making matters worse.  Budget cuts at every level are eating away at funding for afterschool and summer programs.  So while education reform continues to be hotly debated, our children are actually losing the very learning supports they need to succeed.


GW: There are always discussions around what’s needed and what doesn’t work.  Please share some success stories.  What’s working?

JG: One of the best indicators of a quality expanded learning effort is how it leverages community resources—colleges, museums, arts groups, volunteers, community-based organizations, sports leagues, health care providers, businesses and others—to offer students hands-on activities that engage them in learning and nurture traits like curiosity, empathy and perseverance.  Afterschool programs have developed an expertise in this arena.

We’ve also learned that the flexible, informal afterschool space is well-suited for exploring the practical applications of academic lessons, like learning the physics of skateboard design, or building literacy skills by writing and producing a play.  These kinds of activities excite and inspire students to learn more.

On the other hand, a program that replicates what is happening in the school day tends to falter and lose participants.

So the key is to bring in community resources - artists, engineers, scientists and others – to partner with schools and give kids activities that engage them in multiple ways, on multiple levels, and complements the school day.


GW: With the heightened emphasis on CCSS and increased academic expectations, what role can out of school time programs play in supports school transition plans?

JG: Afterschool programs value their partnership with schools, and want to support the goals of their school partners.  To that end, we are seeing many examples of afterschool providers and trainers aligning their programming with Common Core Standards.

For example, in Wisconsin, expanded learning programs are connecting with school curriculum online and directly with teachers.  Programs include current and retired teachers on their staff to facilitate effective engagement with schools and the academic content students are learning.  In New Jersey, the state afterschool network (NJSACC), in cooperation with the State Department of Education, is training program leaders on how to align activities and curriculum with the Common Core.

Given the strong relationship that afterschool providers have with parents and families, programs are also well positioned to help schools educate parents about the Common Core.


GW: Scholastic and the Alliance just partnered to compose an issue brief on the benefits of reading during out-of-school time.  How can out of school time programs help to encourage students to read more?

JG: There are so many ways afterschool programs can incorporate reading into activities and start kids on the path toward a lifelong love of reading—whether an academic, recreational or arts program.  The flexibility of afterschool programs really comes into play here.  For example, in afterschool a student might read magazines and blogs that are relevant to their interests,  an article by a role model, how-to manuals or non-fiction related to a hobby.  They can go even further and engage students more deeply in their reading by discussing what they’ve read, or constructively critiquing each other’s own created works, whether poetry, spoken word or plays.

When kids are engaged and habitual readers, they become better at reading, are more enthusiastic about school, are more focused in school, improve their critical thinking skills and build their self-confidence.  Afterschool programs play an integral part in connecting students to the enjoyment that comes from reading, as well as the many benefits of it.

70 percent—a new stat to raise alarm in education

I have had the privilege—and crazy schedule—of attending several education conferences over the past few weeks where heard a lot about the Common Core. The standards are top of mind for so many people, so I've come to expect that. What I had not expected was to hear about a new angle that raises another alarm as to why we must so urgently work to serve our nation's young students. At separate conferences, from separate speakers, including Sec. of Education Arne Duncan and Bill Daggett, I was informed that we are at risk of 70% or more of our students not being eligible to join the U.S. Military. 

Through my research, I see this statistic isn't necessarily new, but there is a new focus. Past conversations about this have focused on health and obesity being key roadblocks to opportunities within the military.  At the recent talks I attended, health and incarceration were cited as reasons many youth cannot enlist (which, by the way, could be curbed by education, as some studies show) but this time around, the key factor they focused on was education. The first 30 or so percent we lose are the high school dropouts in our country. The military has also increasingly been requiring a diploma, not just the GED. Plus, literacy levels are more crucial than ever because, as technology advances, so do the reading requirements to operate machinery. I thought that point was especially interesting.

Condoleezza Rice has been part of this conversation and I found this past PBS interview which may interest you.

In many ways, I don't want to hear yet another reason why we need to urgently help our schools—because there are already so many out there! But, if this opens a new dialogue that increases attention from new audiences it might be helpful.

Two American Families, one broken dream

This week, PBS delivered on a journalistic promise that began with "Mother" Mary Jones: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The network aired Two American Families, a documentary that chronicles the decline of industry through two extended families in Milwaukee. You can watch it here.

What is most unsettling about the film—aside from its portraits of desperation and fear—is that the Neumanns, who are white, and the Stanleys, who are black, work hard, extremely hard, to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. And still they can't get ahead. They give their heart, soul and muscle to whatever job they find, whether it's emptying garbage cans, mowing lawns, selling cosmetics to skeptical neighbors, caring for a disabled child or, in the case of African-American realtor Jackie Stanley, selling houses in a hostile white neighborhood.

Jackie's son Klaudale decides that his best chance for upward mobility is to become a private military contractor in Afghanistan. His brother Claude stays home—in what was once a land of promise—only to find menial jobs at poverty-level wages.

PBS reporter Bill Moyers asks Terry Neumann, after observing 20 years of struggle and a divorce borne of dashed hopes, if she thinks she will ever be financially secure. "I don't think anybody's gonna be financially secure, truthfully," she says.

That thought crosses many minds these days as the complexities and demands of a working life intensify. When a designer tells me that he and his team will "build wireframes" for a proposed website, I nod, wondering how long I can hold on when I barely know the difference between a wireframe and a wire hanger.

Technological advances may lead us to an era of infinite possibilities. For now, seismic shifts in our culture have made once secure jobs insecure and wreaked havoc on the lives of the Neumanns, Stanleys and countless others like them.

We are left to ask: What will it take to help the Neumann and Stanley grandchildren realize some shred of the American Dream? Will education reform and the promise of a level playing field be enough? If not, broken dreams like the ones we see in Milwaukee will haunt us for years to come.


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