I hate to admit it, but it physically pains me to watch my children write. For the most part, I hold a Steiner education responsible for this. For three formative years, all their writing was done with big chunky coloured pencils and blocks of crayon half the size of their fist. While this makes for a colourful and friendly book, they are just not writing tools. We always write with biros at home, and I find it alarming that at times I struggle to read what they have written.
These days, the boys are aged 9 and 11. Tucked away in a box at home are a couple of exercise books from when I was that age. It makes for an interesting benchmark.
A number of our lessons involve a lengthy discussion, and then we all write notes on what have just talked about. I get to closely watch, for the first time in years, how they go about forming the letters on the page. I feel myself cringing, and have to hide my reaction because the lesson is going otherwise great and I dont want to ruin it.
Their spelling is quite good, and their sentence structure is fine. They clearly understand what they are trying to do. It is just that for all the effort and enthusiasm, what comes out ends up looking so untidy.
Of course, I cant say any of this openly. I need to find another way.
During our formal lessons, we actually write a fair bit. Partly its because our conversations tend to go further than the lesson plan and we are trying capture some of it. Partly, it just gives them an opportunity to practice the mechanics of writing.
I often stress to them as we do this that neatness is more important than speed, and that pen strokes go from top to bottom, left to right. It doesnt take long before this becomes nagging though, so I try not to overdo it. It has become very clear to me just how important all those lessons are that you do when they are about five or six, where you just keep writing letters over and over, not for the purpose of writing anything meaningful, but to develop good pen control.
I got to thinking about calligraphy lessons that my mum taught me as a teenager. We would always start with an exercise that she herself had learned back in about 1950 when she had a job labelling maps by hand. This was a job that required every letter to be uniformly shaped, correctly spaced and perfectly formed. Every day at work would start with a page of these exercises so she could get her eye in.
You start with a row of circles, then a row of vertical lines, a row at 45 degrees, a second row at 45 degrees in the other direction, and then a row of horizontal lines. Repeat until the page is full. The idea is to get everything perfectly even.
Its a really simple exercise and we did it at the end of the day when everyone was tired and didnt want to do anything too challenging. Despite it being pretty low on brain power, this is a good deal harder than it looks. You need to both focus and relax at the same time. There is something quite satisfying about watching the patterns slowly fill the page.
Technical attributes aside, I like this exercise because it is completely non judgemental. It doesnt focus on letters at all. The font you actually write in is irrelevant, and this will improve your artistic ability as much as your handwriting. I think it would even help with maths and written music, where the idea is to document ideas in a neat, orderly fashion. Also, and I think best of all, is that no matter how often you do this simple exercise, there is always room for improvement.
I was quite thrilled to see my eldest boy take this idea to his homeschool group. He used it to run a ‘writing and drawing enhancement workshop.’
I think I might be winning.