Friday, July 20, 2007

Audrey McAllen & Teaching Handwriting

REVIEW OF “TEACHING CHILDREN HANDWRITING” BY AUDREY MCALLEN

Back in the seventies, when I began my Waldorf teaching, materials were in short supply, unless one read German. Audrey McAllen’s “Teaching Children to Write” (published in 1977 by Rudolf Steiner Press), with its combination of sound, practical advice, widely informed research & Anthroposophical study, was among these sparse treasures &, for me the most valuable. Some new teachers, starting out with a Class One, have said that the book was their “career-saver”. So the republication of Miss McAllen’s work in new format, augmented & improved as “Teaching Children Handwriting” (Rudolf Steiner College Press) is doubly welcome, not only because of the continuing relevance of its subject-matter, but because the decline of handwriting has proceeded apace since the publication of the original.

Those who know the original book well will find many similarities between this & the new one. But Audrey McAllen is not content to rest on her laurels; the research work has developed, including, for example, a much-augmented description of the development of children’s drawing as a path to understanding how the process of incarnation expresses itself in these scribbles & scrawls. Through this a compelling case is made for beginning with the will-feeling activity of drawing in order to prepare for the activity of writing in a way that accords with child nature. The new book also includes reference to the work of Rhoda Kellog, Susan Greenfield, Rosemary Sassoon, Jane Field & others, indicating the striking convergence over recent years in the findings of some “conventional” research & the insights of spiritual science. This new edition is an even better example than the previous one of how to meet the challenge of ensuring that Waldorf education does not become concreted in a set of traditions but continues to be contemporary. There can be few better illustrations of managing the fourth golden rule for the teacher (“Discussion with Teachers”, closing words), “The teacher must never get stale or grow sour”.

The question of children’s handwriting is an important one. Many teachers, while recognising the importance of approaching reading via this route, yet lack the means to articulate the reasons for that method. In many classrooms one can observe a certain disjunction, once reading has started, between this activity & that of handwriting. “Teaching Children Handwriting” provides a coherent framework, not only for handwriting, but has much to say about its connection to reading & spelling. Specific handwriting indications in chapters 4 & 5 seem even more relevant now than when the original was published & it is significant that, in addition to giving the correct formation for Roman capitals, the movements for more of the digits & the rhythmic flow of the cursive forms has been added. All this is very welcome, although this reviewer would like to see a more detailed examination of different styles of foundation hand. The cursive “f” shown, for example, is correct, of course, but there is no reference to the principle that informs some of the recent “dyslexia-friendly” scripts that avoid upper loops (introducing the quality of concentration to the ascenders) & follow a consistent use of clock-wise loops for the descenders. The form suggested for “x” also leads away from the corresponding objective to give children a script that enables them to complete each word (including “exceptions”!) without lifting the pencil from the paper (“i” dots & “t” bars, of course, will always require to be added after the word has been written). While the earlier book gave relatively sketchy suggestions for continuing the handwriting curriculum after class 1 & 2, the new one expands the guidance for the earlier classes & continues the overview to class 5. In a number of schools, some introduction to calligraphy is now given as an artistic subject in its own write. The lack of coherence of approach to this might well benefit form some further study, since the aim of these lessons can sometimes be hazy. One would hope that in the course of time the handwriting curriculum can be completed to include classes 6 & upwards, especially because the possibility of raising the activity of handwriting to a conscious participation becomes all the harder during puberty. If good “use of self” in handwriting has not been established before this time, it can be nearly impossible to affect a change at this stage (the pressure exerted by the increasing emphasis on quantity writing also easily counteracts any good habits established earlier). The range of fonts & the principles of design that inform them would seem to be a topic that must come to fore in an age when an almost infinite number of permutations are available via a PC at the click of a mouse. “Teaching Children Handwriting” will have made a vital contribution to the art of education if it encourages more teachers to look to & explore their own hand.

The sections of the book concerned with reading & spelling are less expanded. One particular point is worth emphasising here, however. Audrey McAllen’s suggestion for the teaching of English vowels provides a sure guide for teachers working in this language. If this lesson were heeded it would do much to avoid the confusion that can so be sown by simply trying to apply Rudolf Steiner’s indications for these sounds to a phonic system to which they do not apply. That said, the good advice given to help teachers develop an informed & thorough approach to all the literacy skills, still awaits further research & expansion. This book, however, makes a valuable contribution to this, both through the practical indications & by raising the question of different learning styles, specifically visual, auditory & kinaesthetic. The warning that the love of collecting is shortlived in the child & that “banging-on” with rote learning can easily become counter-productive is well made, but the section that follows it “Other Approaches to Spelling” could have done with further elaboration. In addition to Els Gottgens “Rainbow Books”, & the useful “Spotlight” series (Robinswood Press) it would be helpful to mention “Alpha to Omega” (Heineman) & Robinswood more recent “Lifeboat” series. And, while many will understandably & for sound reasons, share the reservations about placing strugglers in front of a computer in order to by-pass the problem, the contribution of specific technology at the right time still awaits a coherent Waldorf rationale.

“Teaching Children Handwriting” will surely become a Waldorf classic. Better still, it is a book that could be placed before a mainstream educationalist without embarrassment (something that is still quite rare). The book is attractively designed & well edited, with clear sections for ease of reference, a generous bibliography that could be the basis for a self-initiated “in-service education” & (a real advance since 1977!) an index. It ought to be on the reading list of every teacher-training course & compulsory reading for new class one teachers. Experienced teachers too will surely be grateful to Audrey McAllen for going through with the painful process of revision & updating of this book. One hopes that issues raised by re-reading it will ignite a further spirit of research among Waldorf educators. That would be to pay this book the compliment it deserves, that of emulating the vitality of enquiry Audrey McAllen herself exemplifies.

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