Fun with… what?

Over the last year I have taught “Fun with Letterforms” to five-year-old students. Fortunately, the children are too young to look askance at a course with “Fun” in the title (usually a bad sign), or to wonder what a stuffy-sounding word like “letterforms” means. They simply know that in Letterforms class they get to twist their bodies into shapes of letters and get to use crayons, markers, paintbrushes and chalk to make all kinds of pictures out of patterns. And that also someone usually gets to ring the mindful bell.

By the kindergarten year, children can make marks with writing tools: crayons, markers, and pencils. When presented with a large white sheet of paper, some like to make recognizable pictures of things (of people, flowers, raindrops, cars), but many more will fearlessly fill the space with all manner of zigzags, spirals, and squiggles:

The goal in “Fun with Letterforms” is to guide the natural human tendency to doodle—which often is swift, flowing, and rhythmic—toward the patterns of strokes that make up the letters of the alphabet. A hundred years ago a British teacher named Marion Richardson acquainted students with a series of simple rhythms (‘down-up’, ‘up-down’, ‘bump’, ‘swing’, ‘curl’) and taught them different positions to place them in: touching, superimposed, alternating.

23413198012_c679b9fd69_z.jpg Combining given movements in unscripted ways was the key, Richardson believed, to a child’s gaining “a simple, swift running hand which she never has to unlearn, but will grow into something that is increasingly her own.” In this way, students form letters through play and experimentation—and understand that letter-patterns are dynamic and have personality, just like they do.

Sources of Inspiration

I first encountered calligraphy as a boy when I found a large book on the English artist William Morris on my mother’s bookshelf. It was full of beautiful pictures—Morris was a tireless designer and activist printer—but an image of an unfinished medieval-style manuscript page fascinated me beyond all the rest:


I wanted to pick that old piece of paper up, scrutinize its fine, careful writing and beautiful borders of colorful vegetation, and pick up a pen and brush to finish where the artist had left off.

I kept this memory in mind as I tried to spark (or deepen) an interest in calligraphy in a group of upper elementary students in Berkeley last fall. Over eleven one-hour meetings, the class practiced simple Roman capitals and small Italic letters, first in pencil and then with dip pens: the same materials that “real-life” calligraphers like Morris used more than one hundred years ago, and that calligraphers still use today. Initially the idea of 9 and 10 year-olds using indelible ink seemed risky, but I followed a colleague’s somewhat mystical advice to “assume that the students already know what to do.” This proved to be among the course’s best features: by and large students rose to the challenge of loading their own Brause 3mm pen nibs with black Higgins Eternal ink, and took care to clean their equipment with water, a rag and an old toothbrush at the end of each session. The students’ intuitive care for the writing tools was exciting to see. Such respect contributes to a writer gaining control over her pen, and not the other way around. No page of beautiful writing could ever be completed without it.