Leveling up the pattern play

This fall my Fun With Letterforms class, a drawn pattern-play class meant for kindergarteners to strengthen their handwriting skills, expanded into the first & second grades. As I brainstormed what to do with folks on the first day, I tried to anticipate the several returners who would be very familiar with the patterns I’d taught them before: I didn’t want anyone to be bored! Inspired by an excellent exhibit at the Legion of Honor I’d seen earlier this year, I decided to introduce Square Word Calligraphy.

The class watched me demonstrate the concept, but seemed restless. “What about the patterns?” someone asked. Instead of paint and brushes, students picked up their trusty colored pencils and used independent work time to revisit their familiar friends the zig-zag, bump, swing, swirl, over-and-back, and (especially) flip.

The FWL curriculum’s enduring popularity encouraged me. I am eager to move into newer territory with the older students and test their capabilities relative to kindergarteners, but this experience reminded me to reinforce the students’ established skills and build incrementally upon them, rather than worry about novelty. We’ll revisit Square Word Calligraphy later!

Below are pictures of FWL Level 2 student work after we revisited Chris Van Allsberg’s The Z Was Zapped, a FWL class favorite about terrible misfortunes that befall our alphabet’s 26 letters one by one.

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Turn Their Enthusiasm

Ten kindergarten students are more than enough to fill a typical Fun With Letterforms class with great energy and action. This short video can give you some idea [password: alphabet]:

It’s the teacher’s job to channel all this enthusiasm into good work. The most significant change to the FWL curriculum this session (lasting from October 2016 to next week) was my introducing a simple song to sing during writing. We would sing a Letterforms version of “Frere Jacques” in time with a metronome set to 86 bpm, with the idea that it would encourage them to slow down and focus during their line-making.

Below is a .pdf link containing a 12-meeting FWL course overview. Some of the plans are aspirational, but we managed to mostly follow it — allowing for enthusiastic diversions here and there.

FWL Course Overview 2017-Bondurant

Writing matters

Last fall before the first meeting of Calligraphy class, a mother explained why her son was enrolled. “He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, but his handwriting is terrible! If you want to help people, I told him, what you write must be easy for others to read.” I suspect that many of the parents of the children with whom I work want their child to write competently and with care. Below I will outline two important reasons why writing remains relevant today.

Today’s parents receive a daily education in how digital media shapes people’s interests and goals. Yet many, like the mom quoted above, recognize that we still often face situations where it is quickest and easiest to think and communicate by hand. That remains the main purpose of handwriting, a human invention that reaches back thousands of years. One important moment in its history occurred during the Renaissance when, as the author Jan Adkins writes, “everyday handwriting gained greater importance. Communication was the current of rebirth, running from one mind to another between cities and countries.” Italian writing masters disseminated a slanted, current (running-together) script known today as Italic. Here it is in use at the San Francisco Public Library:

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Italic’s structure lends itself to being written quickly, and its letters, derived from natural hand movements, make it possible for young children to learn. For centuries the written Western alphabet has been taught systematically in public schools throughout Europe, and the Italic hand has often been the model. Today in the United States, it is rare that handwriting gets much formal treatment. No national standards exist for it beyond the first grade and the standard instruction that is offered is deficient—a subject for a future post. Lately, the de-prioritization of writing seems to have accelerated: some parents of elementary-age children recall that their own writing lessons spanned several grade levels, and that Writing was given roughly equivalent emphasis to Reading and Arithmetic (the so-called “3 R’s”). Whatever policymakers think, parents and teachers today continue to see a need for young students to be trained in how to write in a legible, controlled hand.

Beyond utility, a more important reason exists for learning to write well. It is more difficult to put into words. People enjoy making deliberate marks by hand on a deeper-than-thinking level. I glimpse this in the faces of the eight-to-ten-year-olds experimenting with the thick and thin marks made by a chisel-tipped pen dipped in ink, and with five-year-olds who smile proudly at the long line of zig-zag chalk lines that they have transformed into a snake. Scientists deem such enjoyment a “useful cognitive exercise.” In the rush to produce digitally-literate future workers (a push that is felt worldwide), we sever ourselves from both an ancient human tradition and a basic human need: to be understood, to communicate clearly in our own voice. Of course, this is a skill that emerges gradually, out of many years of sustained practice.

For an excellent introduction to the history of the Western alphabet, read “Letterbox: The Art and History of Letters” by Jan Adkins.

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:
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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.