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Creating Waves, Loops And Bumps: Cursive Comeback Helps Unlock History

Cursive handwriting is no longer a necessity in school or daily life. But the fancy flowing script will always have a connection to history, and being able to read cursive remains an important skill.

That’s why the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum is teaching cursive writing to young people. The museum offers free penmanship workshops throughout the year.

“It’s just grown and grown,” says museum educator Cynthia Martinez-Woelk. “The demand for us is higher now.”

The museum is a perfect place to work on cursive literacy skills because many of the historical documents, records and artifacts on display include cursive writing.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
The Treaty of the Little Arkansas

Trading ledgers from the 1800s are among some of the items that help tell the story of Wichita and Sedgwick County.

“The Treaty of the Little Arkansas has some very important names on it," Martinez-Woelk says. "We know about some of the tribes who came, some of those leaders, and other people who were involved in that because we can read those names which are all in cursive."

Some of the writing is slanted. Some documents have tightly connected letters. Some signatures are fancy with adornments. Figuring out what is written is worth the effort, Martinez-Woelk says, because that’s how we know the details of historical events.

“Working in a historical museum, I see that importance all the time,” she says. “When we get things in that are written in cursive, and the ability to read that and gain that information and be able to see who is who in a photograph or who this document belongs to.”

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Museum educator Cynthia Martinez-Woelk writes cursive examples during a workshop at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

The museum’s cursive workshops began about three years ago. On a recent summer afternoon, two dozen 8- to 14-year-olds settled into a museum classroom to learn cursive writing. Martinez-Woelk says if kids know how to write the wavy script, they will be able to read it too. And not just to understand historical documents.

“It's funny because some of the students that we get will say, 'Oh yeah, I get a birthday card from my grandma and I don't know what it says because it's in cursive,'” Martinez-Woelk says.

A soon-to-be fourth grader, Jeremiah, likes to practice cursive writing, so he was happy to spend a summer afternoon at the museum doing loop-de-loops and curlicues.

“It’s not just cursive, it is art," he says. "Sometimes I put little curls at the ends, but it depends on what I’m writing."

The workshops give younger students a head start on cursive and helps older students achieve fluidity with their writing. Over the years, teaching handwriting in public schools took a backseat as keyboarding skills were emphasized and technology was integrated into lesson plans.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW

Handwriting instruction in Kansas public schools begins in kindergarten; the focus shifts to cursive in third grade. The Kansas State Department of Education implemented handwriting curricular standards in 2013. State officials say it was necessary to establish specific handwriting guidelines to strike a balance with standards for keyboarding skills adopted in 2007.

The Common Core national education standards that Kansas adopted in 2010 do not specifically list handwriting as an essential skill for students’ college and career readiness so many districts across the U.S. stopped teaching cursive. Kansas is among more than a dozen states that added cursive writing back into its education curriculum.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW

“We have a lot of different research on the benefits of being able to write fluently and the increase in student achievement,” says Christina O’Toole, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Wichita Public Schools.

Research shows cursive writing engages the brain in learning; supports writing automaticity, speed and output; develops fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination; and allows a writer to be quick, smooth and effortless in conveying thoughts and ideas.

Wichita Public Schools implemented a new English language arts program, Journeys, this past school year that includes a cursive writing component. It’s the first literacy curriculum adopted since 2006.

“Now we have a consistent resource that teachers and students can use,” O’Toole says.

O’Toole says when the district held a listening tour in 2017, a few parents expressed concerns about declining cursive instruction. She says cursive is not always required for assignments in upper-grade levels.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Christina O'Toole is the executive director of curriculum and instruction at Wichita Public Schools.

“It depends on the content area, depends on the work that’s being done in the classroom,” she says. “I think that we are always working on balancing the many different things that we have to teach in our schools.”

During the school year, Martinez-Woelk teaches art at Irving Elementary. She has a cursive alphabet in her classroom and tries to get students to sign their artwork in cursive as a matter of pride.

“Everybody has their own unique style. You know, it’s like a fingerprint. Your handwriting is very personal to you,” Martinez-Woelk says.

The cursive workshops at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum are offered during spring break and in the summer. The museum is considering adding more sessions next year.

Museums and archives nationwide are counting on cursive literacy for the sake of transcribing the billions of records in our deep history. The National Archives set up a program that uses “citizen archivists” to transcribe historical records in its catalog. The digital files make historical records accessible to everyone.

But, like everything else, machines will eventually take over transcription at some point.

“I think that it would be strange if in the future there would only be a few people who could read historical documents because there are only a few people in the world that could read cursive,” Martinez-Woelk says.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.