DANBURY, Conn. — Francesca Curatilo attended three camps this summer: wilderness, martial arts and — in the final days before the start of school — cursive.
On a sunny morning, Francesca sat in a windowless room practicing the majestic swoop of an F. And she was delighted.
“I love how, at the end of the day, you see all the amazing stuff we can do with letters,” said Francesca, 6. At home at night, she practiced her favorites: capital R, P, Z, Y, G and A. There was no assigned homework; Francesca did this for fun. “When I’m older,” she vowed, “I can sign my name on contracts in cursive.”
Cursive in all its flowing permutations — the opal-shaped calligraphy of Spencerian, the simplified and precise Palmer Method, the stolid and reliable Zaner-Bloser — was once a staple of American elementary education. In the classroom pantheon of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, cursive was the writing.
In recent decades, cursive was declared moribund, if not dead, after it was shredded from the Common Core in most states. Typewriters, copiers, computers, phones, a veritable “Murder on the Orient Express” of culprits, had conspired to kill it. By the mid-aughts, only 15 percent of SAT essays were submitted in script. Today, many adults utilize a mash-up of cursive and print that often can be deciphered only by the author.
Brigid Guertin, executive director of the Danbury Museum & Historical Society, has struggled to find interns capable of deciphering the sepia-tinted documents of their city’s past. “The majority of our assets are in cursive and not transcribed,” she said.
So three years ago she launched cursive camp, in hopes of training tomorrow’s interns today. Surprisingly, kids and parents flocked to it.
The campers, ages 6 to 14, spent their waning days of vacation under the guidance of third-grade teacher Kathleen Johnson creating their own ink (a mashing of berries, vinegar and salt), scratching their names on paper with Day-Glo quills, or with Q-Tips on paint-filled bags, or with their fingers in generous shmears of shaving cream.
Similar camps are popping up across the country and in Great Britain, generated by parents’ nostalgia, a desire for children to master the (literally) old-school arts and enhance their research and writing skills.
“Cursive,” said Guertin, “is an artistic expression of who we want to be.”
That’s ironic, considering cursive’s historic reputation. In the early 20th century, cursive was sometimes taught for an hour each day, and all the way through high school, as an almost military exercise. Handwriting drills were supervised by taskmaster penmanship supervisors, armed with awards and demerits.
Cursive was “all about conforming to rules, other people’s rules,” said Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo history professor and author of “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History.” “Your signature was the one place where people could express themselves.”
The Palmer Method dominated much of the century’s teaching, said Thornton, though “it wasn’t so much a particular script as a method of teaching” that deployed “your whole arm in penmanship calisthenics.” It wasn’t art; it was exercise.
Back then, the preferred handwriting of artistic-minded free spirits was good old block-letter printing, introduced into schools by progressive educators such as Maria Montessori and John Dewey, who “believed writing should be about expression and communication,” Thornton said. Because cursive required a level of fine-motor skills not typically accessible before third grade, printing was embraced as a way to get younger children to express themselves through writing.
Now that technology has routed children to communicate via typing or emoji, experts are finding more to recommend about pencil and ink. Handwriting — print or cursive — increases development in three areas of the brain, according to a 2012 study, and “may facilitate reading acquisition in young children.”
Any kind of writing “is going to have massive benefits for the brain,” said Indiana University professor and co-author Karin James.
Kayla Schweitzer, 7, just thought cursive was fancy and pretty and might be useful someday. “Like when you’re older and you’re famous,” she said, “you’ll know how to do your signature.”