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Is cursive an evolutionary dodo?
       Can you sign your name in cursive?
       For much of American history, handwriting was a hallmark of education and character, taught in classrooms as part of the triumvirate of reading, ’riting and ’rithmatic. Students who persevered through eight grades took as much pride in their penmanship as John Hancock, whose graceful cursive on the Declaration of Independence made his name a synonym for signature, as in sign your John Hancock on the dotted line.
      Into the 20th century, handwriting was so foundational a part of the public school curriculum that educators devoted themselves to perfecting a system good for one and all, just as modern educators have with Common Core. From letterforms and linkages standardized in the mid-1800s by bookseller and abolitionist Platt Rogers Spencer — and not so different from many Hancock used — the American cursive handwriting style evolved.
      Spencerian descendants — about whom we’ll have more to say — were so successful that by the mid-20th century, Americans from coast to coast could write — and read — one another’s handwriting, as well as John Hancock’s.
Yet just about then (does Sputnik ring a bell?) states began de-emphasizing handwriting to allow more classroom time for the curriculum we know today as STEM. 
       Does cursive have a future? That’s the question we ask in honor of National Handwriting Day, which falls on January 23, the birthday of the Massachusetts’ patriot John Hancock. No longer can every graduate of our public schools read Hancock’s signature — or, for that matter, the handwritten document itself.
      Can you?
 
A Pillar of Civilization
       Through the four- or five-thousand-year span of recorded history, handwriting has evolved, influenced and reflected every aspect of culture. This art of forming visible, readable characters has evolved in many styles, from cuneiform and hieroglyphics to unconnected block letters to flowing cursive.
      About the time the Egyptians were developing hieroglyphics, Sumerian merchants were codifying their transactions into cuneiform script. Ever since, handwritten documents have recorded births, marriages and deaths but also started and ended wars. They’ve bought and sold land and slaves, and guaranteed — or challenged — our voting rights.
      By about 1500 BCE, the Phoenicians had an alphabet of 22 phonetic symbols. This marvelous invention spread to Greece, Persia, India and Egypt.
      Like any new technology, handwriting brought on tidal waves of change. Socrates feared a written language would destroy memory, according to Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. To a degree, he was right; the old oral tradition that gave rise to Homer is obsolete. On the other hand, as French philosopher Jacques Derrida noted, we only know what Socrates thought about anything because someone recorded his ideas.
        In the second century BCE, the Roman Empire conquered Greece, adopting its then 23-letter alphabet. The alphabet spread throughout the Roman empire. More letters were adopted over the centuries until, by the 15th century, the Roman alphabet consisted of 26 letters.
       By then, handwriting had become a specialized skill, practiced by the scribes and monks who saw their livelihood threatened when Gutenberg developed a printing press capable of assembly line-style production of books. Despite their worries, handwriting remained for many centuries the dominant medium for recording and sharing information.
         The Renaissance development of copperplate engraving brought the fanciful flourishes to script writing. This script evolved into the italics from which cursive and basic lowercase letters derive.
        In early America — as in so many cultures over the millennia — handwriting was a skill that could earn a craftsman a living. By the 1700s, master clerks were doing the actual penning of many of our historic documents. The United States Constitution was drafted by James Madison, penned by Jacob Shallus, assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania State Assembly and signed, more or less elegantly, by 56 colonial gentlemen, for whom fine handwriting was a mark of education and cultivation. 
       In 1786, George Fisher published The Instructor, or American Young Man’s Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick.
         “The capitals must bear the same Proportion one to another,” wrote Fisher. He directed that upstrokes be fine, and downward strokes fuller and blacker. “And when you are in Joining,” he instructed, “take not off the Pen in writing, especially in running or mixed hands.” His words may ring familiar to 60- and 70-somethings who learned Palmer cursive in school. 
        In the mid-18th century Platt Rogers Spencer developed a utilitarian writing system uniting aspects of several popular writing systems. During the late 1880s, the Spencerian method evolved into the Palmer system, which emphasized writing with arm movements rather than with the fingers. With variants, Palmer remained the school standard of penmanship through the 1950s.
        Meanwhile, other technologies were changing the world. As early as 1947, when TIME magazine was already bemoaning the “day of typewriters, shorthand, telephones and Dictaphones,” educators and the media were complaining that schools were neglecting penmanship instruction. In 1955, the Saturday Evening Post pronounced us a “nation of scrawlers.” By the 1980s, some public school students were receiving little or no formal handwriting training.
 
Cursive Uncommon in ­Common Core 
        Since 2010, to many teens and young graduates of Maryland’s public schools, the swirls and twirls of cursive are as unreadable as ancient Sanskrit.
       Trace it back to Maryland’s adoption that year of Common Core State Standards in reading, English/Language Arts and mathematics, known 
as the Maryland College and Career-Ready Standards. Later, pre-K standards were added. 
       State education standards have been around since the early 1990s, varying from state to state. In 2009, most states, the District of Columbia and a couple of territories voted to develop Common Core State Standards. Maryland was among the first of many states to adopt the new, voluntary standards. 
       Common Core put our nation “one step closer,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation that bankrolled the initiative, “to supporting effective teaching in every classroom, charting a path to college and careers for all students.” 
       Often Common Core pushed cursive aside for keyboarding and computer skills, math and sciences.
 
How Important are ­Connected Letters?
        Does the loss of our common heritage of handwriting matter? Opinions are divided.
        Juli Folk, 37, is reading handwritten Calvert County Census documents for the Center for the Study of the Legacy of Slavery at the Maryland Archives while studying for her masters degree in Library Information Science at the University of Maryland ISchool. 
       Her volunteer project depends on her ability to read cursive in many hands over many decades. “I had fun learning it in elementary school,” she says.
      Yet for today’s students, she’d be happy to see it “offered as an art class. Or teachers could show students what cursive letters look like, then let them learn it on their own.”
      “What matters,” she says, “is that handwriting, whether printed or cursive, is legible.”
      The American Bar Association seems to agree. Printed signatures are just as legal as are cursive — or electronic ones,” according to University of Missouri law professor David English.
       Other benefits may make cursive fit enough to survive the keyboard era.
       Some researchers say learning cursive benefits brain development and fine motor skills in children, leading to improved writing skills and reading comprehension — skills critical across the Common Core. 
        Dr. William R. Klemm, senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M, says learning cursive helps train the brain to function more effectively, increasing hand-eye coordination and reading speed. Thus, he concludes that schools that drop cursive are depriving students of an important developmental tool.
        Whatever learning cursive may do for our hands, eyes and brains, losing it certainly cuts us off from our past. A generation illiterate in cursive will be unable to read historic documents, including Grandma’s letters. 
       “Sending a handwritten letter is becoming such an anomaly,” says actor Steve Carell. “My mom is the only one who still writes me letters. There’s something visceral about opening a letter. I see her in handwriting.”
       At the Maryland State Archives, Emily Oland Squires hears complaints from researchers, especially students, struggling to read with cursive. 
       Archives staff tries to bridge the gap by helping research teachers create lesson plans that include both primary source documents written in cursive and their transcriptions. Online transcriptions have been made of many documents pertaining to state and African American history.
        “Still, we ask teachers to let students try to work from the manuscripts before giving them transcriptions,” says Squires. “It helps them learn.”
 
Does Cursive Have a Future?
         Some states have legislated a future for cursive. In 2016, Alabama and Louisiana — not states earning top educational ratings — became the latest of 14 states that now require cursive in school.
        Maryland does not require cursive be taught. 
        “There are currently no standards for cursive,” says Walter Lee, of the office of the Curriculum Coordinator and Instruction at Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “But Maryland created a framework in which cursive does appear.” 
       Lee explains that Maryland decided to include cursive as part of the framework for interpreting the state standards for the Commonwealth of Maryland. “There are no policies governing cursive,” he says, “but there are practices. It is up to local education agencies.”
        In Anne Arundel County, he says “incorporating cursive into reading time during the school day is a school-based decision, meaning that it is up to the principal.”
      In the bigger picture, it may be, as Trubek says, that the decline in our use of handwriting in our daily lives is only the next stage in the evolution of communication. Where we’ll be next, who knows.
        While we wait to see what the next wave of change brings, we might all heed the advice of Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” He did both.
       In honor of National Handwriting Day, pick up a pen or pencil and put it to use.
 
What is Cursive?
       Cursive derives from the Latin word currere, meaning to run. Cursive writing has a more comfortable flow than early Roman square block printing or the more rounded uncial writing of early Latin literature. In handwriting history, forerunners of cursive appear as far back as ancient Roman times. Due to its speed and efficiency, many languages since the ancients have cursive forms. 
       In America, cursive has subtypes such as ligature, in which letters within words are connected with lines. There’s also cursive italic penmanship, which combines joins and pen lifts within words. Looped cursive is the style taught in American schools since the late 1800s. If you learned cursive, it may well have been this style. 
 

 

 

Rich or poor, Owensville ­Primary Care turns no one away

Over $10,000. That’s what the average American spent for health care in 2016, and up is where that number is heading.
     “My wife’s health insurance jumped 38.9 percent,” laments a friend recently retired. “My pension is disappearing.”
     Across the age spectrum, you hear endless variationa of the same story.
Last year, 11.9 percent of Anne Arundel County residents couldn’t afford to see a doctor, according to the county’s Report Card of Community Health Indicators. Seventeen percent didn’t have a primary care physician.
     In a culture where health and wealth are inextricably linked, Owensville Primary Care is a haven. It welcomes all with these words: This Health Center serves all patients regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.
     It is an oddly placed haven.
     If you wanted to show off southern Anne Arundel County’s pastoral ideal, you couldn’t do better than take a drive down Owensville Road, the east-west link between Rt. 2 and Galesville. Amid imposing white homes set back on yards rolling into farm fields, the modernistic stucco building might, if noticed, raise a question. 
     Its placement tells a truer story of Southern Maryland life than the scenery. It’s a story in many ways little changed since Owensville Primary Care was founded in 1974 to, in CEO Sylvia Jennings’ words, “address the needs of a very low-income, rural, minority population that did not have access to health care.”
     Over four decades, Jennings has seen need persist and — for many of those years — overseen Owensville Primary Care’s ability to deliver care regardless of race, age or income.
      “We pledge to provide quality health care to our entire, diverse community at a responsible cost,” Jennings says. “That’s our mission.”
     Since the Affordable Care Act was passed, that pledge has included helping people, patients or not, find qualified health care programs. Nowadays, people losing their subsidies are welcome for advice and alternatives.
 
A Melting Pot
     In the utilitarian waiting room, you find yourself in a microcosm of the larger Southern Anne Arundel County community, where homes — and with them wealth — run the full range from mansions to shanties. Here, your neighbors — black and white, young and old, more and less affluent — visit as they wait. You might find — as I did on this day — a kid sucking a lollipop. Two elderly women, black and white. A tattooed hipster with an ear gauge in his lobe. A workingman in an Orioles cap. Yourself.

Owensville Primary Care outgoing CEO Sylvia Jennings, retiring after more than 20 years.

       Owensville Primary Care has become, over the years, an American melting pot. 
     “I came in one morning to find a Jaguar in the parking lot next to a jalopy,” says Jennings, the white-topped dynamo who for two decades has been CEO of this federally qualified Community Health Center, one of 16 in Maryland and some 1,400 nationwide.
      The numbers support the impression of diversity. Of October’s 1,156 patient visits, 38 percent were paid by commercial insurance, 32 percent by Medicare and 28 percent by Medicaid, with two percent self-paid.
 
Walking Into a Nightmare
       Jennings, 82 and days from retirement, works behind the scenes, in an office stocked with tall jars of Hershey’s Kisses. Jolly, direct and demanding, she does not want a visit to her sanctum to feel like “a walk down the hall to the principal.”
      For the office she is now dismantling has been the scene of many hard decisions.
      “I walked into a nightmare,” Jennings recalls.
      In 1981, the well-intentioned, six-year-old South County Family Health had descended into bankruptcy. With $1.5 million owed, court administrators threatened to “nail doors shut and walk away,” Jennings remembers. That’s when she joined the board, deputized by her boss, Virginia Clagett, then South County’s councilwoman.
      Paying off that debt took eight years.
      A second round of troubles in the mid 1990s brought Jennings back on the board to captain “a sinking ship.” First she laughed at entreaties; finally she accepted. That was 1997. She spent the next two years cleaning up the mess.
 
The Team
      Jennings has been the force that kept Owensville Primary Care on track.
      But hers is not the face you’re likely to know if you happen to be one of its 3,400 patients, from birth to geriatrics. 
      First you meet the reception crew, who, Jennings says and experience proves, are “welcoming and treat you not as a stranger but as a friend.” 

photo by Wayne Bierbaum

Back, doctors Thomas Sheesley, Jonathan Hennessee and Wayne Bierbaum. Front, nurse practitioner Nancy Bryan, behavioral health director Dr. Jana Raup and physicians assistant Ann Hendon.

photo by Wayne Bierbaum

Rebecca Woolwine, Judy Bracken, Amber Snay and Billie Aisquith in back row. Keri Mahan and Brittany Galloway, seated.

      Many, like office manager Billie Aisquith, have been here as long as Jennings. Increasingly, they are “cross-trained in multiple functions,” like Vickie Payne, who is also a fire department EMT just certified as a medical assistant through Anne Arundel Community College’s online program.
       “When they expand their skills, they expand their incomes,” Jennings says.
       Next, you enter into the hands of nurses — among them nurse supervisor Vanessa Greenwell, Owensville Primary’s longest serving staffer at over 30 years — who’ll take your weight and height, blood pressure, temperature and blood oxygen readings.
       They turn you over to health care providers, who range from doctors to nurse practitioner Nancy Bryan, retired from the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, to physician assistant Ann Hendon.
       At 28 years in, chief medical officer Wayne Bierbaum calls his egalitarian work at Owensville Primary “what I’ve wanted to do since I decided to go into medicine: helping people manage in difficult circumstances.”
       Doctors Jonathan Hennessee and Thomas Sheesley are National Health Service Corps Scholars, who repay their medical education by working in communities with limited access to care, in their cases for a term of five years.
      Behavioral Health Director Jana Raup or Licensed Clinical Social Worker Jen Thornton offer counseling and therapy.
 
Right People for the Job
       From the bottom up and top down, salaries are a priority with Jennings, who brings her medical experience as a nurse along with administrative experience alongside a state legislator.
      “I really focused on getting people a decent wage,” she said. “Even then, $7 an hour for nurses was ridiculous.”
        “The money wasn’t there so it was a long process,” says Sharon Widemann, Jennings’ long-time colleague and now successor as CEO.
      Nowadays, Jennings calls “our salaries very competitive,” good enough to draw expertise from outside South County. 
       “Young physicians fresh out of school are paid a very good entry-level wage that appreciates the fact that family-care physicians are difficult to recruit,” she notes. 
      For five years, Jennings and Widemann, who came on in 1994 as an accountant, “got our hands dirty with work to make sure we had the right hiring.”
        Computerization brought the next challenge. 
      “When IT hit us all with electronic records, we were able to draw the best staff among community health centers, who are doing wonders for our record keeping,” Widemann says.
 
Finding Wherewithal
      Every step took money. 
      Community health centers are backed by tax dollars. Owensville Primary Care has a $4 million budget, with federal funding of about $1.5 million, supplemented by fees for service, donations from citizens and small government grants for targeted programs.
       Federal and private funding supported the construction of the building back in 1976, enabling Owensville Primary to move out of the old Owensville primary school. The building was county property until 2002, when it was surplussed to Owensville Primary. That same year, a state grant of $200,000 and a loan from the county paid for renovation. Later grants paid for better parking. This year, the behavioral health center moved into its own remodeled space, replacing the old post office that shared space with Owensville Primary.
      Grants enabled growth in services. In 2013 federal monies brought on behavioral health case managers, certified application counselors for Affordable Care and expanded Medicare, plus two more physicians. 
      A brand-new grant supports response to the opioid addiction crisis with mental health, public awareness and Narcan training.
      From Jennings’ years with Clagett as both councilwoman and delegate, she understood the levers of government. 
     “She has kept us in the minds of politicians who help our cause,” says chief medical officer Wayne Bierbaum.
      Jennings retires with Owensville Primary Care “in the black.” But not without a touch of uncertainty. Federal funding for community health centers expired September 30, and Congress has yet to reauthorize it.
 
‘A’ For Accountabiliity
     Recovery from a troubled past has made accountability part of each day’s work.
     “We hold ourselves accountable with committees for quality care, insurance and improvement,” Widemann says. “Once a month, a group of clinical and administrative staff review incidents and look at how our patients are doing. If one provider is doing a great job, we see how to share those best practices.”
     Patients have two ways to rate their satisfactions, and a sign on the reception desk invites complaints if you’ve waited more than 20 minutes to be seen. Quality measures are posted on the front door and the website.
      Accountability is one of the hallmarks of Jennings’ tenure, according to Bierbaum who has worked beside her the whole time.
     “Our goals have been continually strengthened through her vision of what we should become, so that everyone knows that we stand for service delivered with compassion, accountability and professionalism, always trying to do better in our mission,” he says.
     On January 2, Jennings passed on title and responsibility to Widemann. She leaves with satisfaction, relief and confidence, in a transition that, she promises, “will be seamless.” Preparing Widemann to continue the mission has been Jennings’ final achievement. 
     That, and revisiting 22 years of history, paper, electronic and human. 
     Amid the sorting, preserving and trashing, there was reflecting.
     Jennings already had reached retirement age when she was persuaded to come to the rescue of Owensville Primary Care.
     “I thought I’d do it a couple years and get it straightened out,” she recalls. 
      But day after day, year after year, she returned.
      “What I do every day of my life is so satisfying that it has allowed me to work till 82,” she says.
 

Outgoing CEO Sylvia Jennings, left, and her successor, Sharon Widemann.

      Now, 20 years in, she allows herself to be “very personally pleased with myself for the job I have done here. Some people will call me smug, but you have to have some personal reward. I’m not talking about money but about feeling I have contributed something to my neighbors and friends.”
      Widemann’s mission is continuing a success she helped create.
     “We have a very fully equipped and functioning federal community health center, a strong executive staff, strong providers and a growing behavioral health component,” the new CEO says.
      Her plan is to reach into the community to bring affordable health care to people still unserved. Growing the behavioral health unit is a particular goal.
      She steps comfortably into Jennings’ big shoes.
     “We’re not a one-woman show anymore,” Widemann says. “We’re a team effort. Plus, I know where Sylvia lives.”

My Favorite Stories of 2017

Together, we read a lot of stories over the course of a year. Many of them give you a moment’s insight or delight. Others tell you just what you need to know. Some stay in your mind, even after all those words have come between you and them all that time ago. So I can still recount stories we ran four, 14 or 24 years ago.
    Before I close the book on 2017 (yes, I really do have a large, heavy book labeled “2017 • Vol. XXV,” I like to reflect on what we’ve done in the 52 issues of our 25th volume.
    Following the pattern of this Best of the Bay edition, I’m awarding them categorical bests.


Best Bay Weekly Cover of 2016

Get Ready for the Great American Eclipse: Aug. 17