Between Cursive, “Adulting,” and Home Repair, When Do I Teach Them to Read?

Cursive is great, but we can’t keep adding to the curriculum without making some trade-offs.

Texas schools have added cursive to the curriculum, and there are a lot of opinions about it. If, like my husband, you were taught handwriting by nuns in the 80s, maybe this development is causing you vague anxiety. If you’re my elderly neighbor, judging by Facebook, this is the best news you’ve ever seen. Either way, everybody’s a curriculum expert these days.

I don’t have a problem with cursive, per se. There’s a lot of evidence, actually, that learning cursive encourages the participation of different parts of your brain as you write, potentially impacting the quality of your writing or how well you remember what you wrote down, in the case of note-taking. 

Nor do I see a problem with lots of the other new classes that are popping up these days, like this viral adulting class. Or the plethora of suggestions found in articles like “20 Life Skills Not Taught in School,”   “15 Subjects that Should Be Mandatory (but Aren’t),”  and “15 Life Skills They Don’t Teach Our Kids in School.” To save you the trouble of reading, here are some spoilers: relationship counseling, coding, basic home repair, automobile maintenance, cooking, survival skills, etiquette, the Bible, the art of conversation, gun safety, and whittling. Okay, I made the last one up. But the rest of them are real.

The conversation about what belongs in school curricula is important.

And it’s been going on a lot longer than I’ve been a teacher. It’s a process of trial and error. For instance, I think it’s a mistake that my second grader isn’t learning to spell, even though I know that’s why God made spell-check, and generally everybody agrees that we haven’t gotten teaching spelling, and other skills, right yet.

But amid all these conversations, there’s a key fact that many “experts” fail to consider: Kids are in school six to eight hours a day, 180 days a year. That’s it. That’s all we have. And sometime during that day, students generally want us to feed them and let them go to the bathroom.

That seems like plenty of time, and I’m sure someone will respond that if only teachers were competent, we could manage teaching everything kids could possibly need to know within those limits. (Maybe we need to add a class about why you shouldn’t read the comments. Call it Mental Health 101.)

But it’s relevant that the majority— the majority—of public school kids in the United States are living below the poverty line.

Those kids often come in with lower vocabulary, less familiarity with school structures, and issues with health or trauma. It’s a lot of ground to make up in six hours a day, especially in a class of 26 five-year-olds. Especially when they come from homes where homework and reading and academic support take a backseat to, you know, paying for groceries.

When we add something new to the curriculum, especially for the vulnerable population that makes up our public school system, we have to take out something else. And generally, we’ve chosen to make those cuts based on what “feels right,” rather than what the research actually supports. If kids struggle to learn math as it’s taught in schools, cut the alternative approaches to mathematical thinking via art and music and replace that with more math. This time, teach it with computers! If kids can’t sit still long enough to absorb the content they need for standardized testing, replace recess with test prep!

We’ve already taken drama, art, music, recess, PE, etc. What will we cut to make room for cursive in the curriculum? I don’t know. Speaking from the trenches of an urban public middle school, every day feels like a battle for my kids’ futures. Every minute of class time goes toward supporting them, encouraging them, and, you know, teaching them.

When we add new skills, it’s not like we just spend less time coloring or blowing bubbles. And I’d guess that the same is true for teachers everywhere, including Texas.

The impulse to search for a silver bullet is understandable. Teach the kids cursive, and they’ll suddenly be able to put their thoughts on paper fluently and read historical documents (never mind that there’s no time to teach students how to interpret those documents, or think critically about them, or apply them to their own lives ). Teach students to “adult,” and we won’t have to worry about snowplow parents following them to college anymore. And teach them to balance a checkbook and … I don’t know. Does anybody balance a checkbook anymore? 

The good news is there are silver bullets.

Hire highly qualified teachers and allow them autonomy and creativity. Buy them the supplies they need. Reduce class sizes so teachers can know their students personally and assess their needs. Provide support for families who are struggling, and give economically disadvantaged kids the same kinds of enrichment activities their affluent peers enjoy. Provide more comprehensive early childhood education and care for families who need it. Give moms-to-be better prenatal care. All these things will help our kids succeed. But doing those things is even harder than remembering how to write a lowercase cursive s.

Determining what belongs in the curriculum is a complex balancing act; we can’t add a skill set without giving up something else. These are complicated issues, and what to do should be decided by those with skin in the game. I’d tell you more about how we can actually improve curriculum, but I have to go touch up the lesson plans for my whittling class next week.

We’d love to hear—what are your thoughts on cursive, adulting, and adding to the curriculum? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, the secret to classroom management in a Title I school.

Between Cursive, "Adulting," and Home Repair, When Do I Teach Them to Read?

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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