By Liz Bowie
Darius Riley displays the concentration of a tightrope walker as he fastens his eyes on the lined paper in front of him and grips his No. 2 yellow pencil down to its point to make his most perfect curly letters.
"I would rather do it in print because it is faster," Darius, a fifth-grader at Highlandtown Elementary School near Patterson Park, said of his cursive writing. Even his typing would probably be quicker, he says.
Darius may be in the last generation of students to be taught cursive as states begin dropping the subject in favor of spending time on mastering math, science and other skills.
Cursive is not included in the so-called common core standards, which will govern teaching and lesson plans in 46 states beginning next year, leaving states free to shift away from a subject taught for centuries. Hawaii and Indiana have already dropped it.
With technology pervasive in society and fewer documents that need a cursive signature, some educators say there is no need to bother kids with the tedious, time-consuming lessons on cursive. They argue that we soon may no longer need to sign our names on legal documents or credit card receipts; a scan of our eyeballs or a thumbprint may be all that is needed to identify us.
But there's more than just necessity that should be considered, historians say.
"Cursive writing is a matter of discipline and training in our culture. Is it necessary to the future of sustaining our culture and our understanding of our past? I believe it is," said Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. He believes children should learn it "not only as a means of sustaining communication with the past, but also an exercise in maintaining small motor control."
And he's the first to admit: "As one who has very messy handwriting and nearly illegible script, I have always preferred typing." The issue has touched off a national debate and pitted educators against each other. Frank Chiki, head of the elementary section of the National Council of Teachers of English, said one day it may not be necessary to teach students printing, typing and cursive.
"Maybe we won't need to sign our names in the future," he said.
He points to declining sales of hardback books as people buy reading material on e-readers and iPads. "Is there a possibility that writing will go away? It is kind of like the physical book," he said: Its useful life may be on the decline.
Already the need for legible writing and signatures has diminished. Pharmacists, who have fussed for years that many physicians' penmanship on prescriptions is impossible to read, don't see handwritten prescriptions much anymore, said Brian Schumer, a pharmacist at Tuxedo Pharmacy in Greenspring Station.
"Everything is going electronic. Prescriptions are entered into a PalmPilot" and then transferred to a pharmacy, allowing for less chance of mistakes, Schumer said.
Even the courts are less insistent on cursive signatures.
Joel Sher, a Baltimore bankruptcy lawyer, said that when he files papers in federal court, he no longer needs to sign his name because it is all done electronically. Some state courts still require signatures, he said, but they will soon move to electronic filings as well.
But he said, "I still need clients to sign legal documents," including contracts and some letters. "Count me among the old-fashioned who think you should learn a foreign language, you should learn cursive and you should learn typing."
Not only are historical documents more accessible to scholars who can read cursive, but there's an important lesson in the discipline it takes to create a beautiful handwritten letter or document, historians said.
Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator at the Maryland Historical Society, said that in past centuries, a person's handwriting was seen as a reflection of who they were as a person and how they presented themselves.
"George Washington cultivated a particular signature. It is a very considered signature. That became part of his identity," she said. And good penmanship has always been viewed as a sign of being well-educated, and an indication that the person was self-disciplined. Architects, she said, still have a distinctive style of writing, and scientists must have clear, precise writing when they work in labs.
"It would be a tragic loss to not teach penmanship," she said.
But is there still time in the school day for it?
Research on the importance of cursive writing is mixed. Because not all students have access to computers at school, kids do most work there in handwriting, according to Steve Graham, an education professor at Vanderbilt University. Studies show that legibility makes a difference. When researchers had student work graded in both typed and written form, the paper's legibility affected the grade.
"If your handwriting is not legible then you will pay a price," Graham said.
But whether the handwriting is printed or written in cursive may not matter, he said. "Do we need to teach two different kinds of script? In a day in which the curriculum is very crowded, you can see why people are asking whether we need to teach both," Graham said.
When he studied what happened to students' handwriting later in their school careers, he found that the students who mixed cursive and print generally were faster than those who stuck to one form or the other.
Throughout the country, he said, most teachers are still teaching cursive in third grade.
But others believe that the new national common core standards -- which put a greater emphasis on learning different forms of writing, such as research papers, persuasive writing and creative writing -- will force teachers to make hard decisions about what is going to be sacrificed. As long as students are able to write in some form, whether cursive or block letters, they will be fine, researchers believe.
"The common core is going to force some very difficult decisions about how much time is going to be spent on teaching handwriting," Graham said. "You can bet people are going to look at efficiency."
Chiki, from the National Council of Teachers of English, said, "As long as they get their thoughts on paper, as long as they have voice in their writing, as long as they have the grammar (correct), it doesn't matter."
At 10 years old, Darius Riley doesn't mind learning cursive. And the girl across the table from him with near-perfect penmanship, Katherine Castillo, likes cursive "because it is a different way to write."
Their teacher writes almost exclusively in cursive and Nancy Fagan, the principal of Highlandtown Elementary and Middle School No. 215, is still in the camp that believes it should be taught.
"They need to know how to do it, and they need to know how to read it," she said firmly.