Tag Archives: Palmer method

“I use too many contraptions in my writing.”

Be not too quick to say “typo” to this one! A typo it may be, but the typist would have had to use the ring finger of the right hand instead of the middle finger of the left hand, on the top row of keys instead of bottom, to achieve it.

Try this on instead: hearing the word “contraction” instead of seeing it in several classes, and not knowing the word “contraction”…but knowing quite well the word “contraption.” Certainly I heard the latter word far more often than the former when I was growing up: my father called some of his rigged-up problem-solvers “contraptions,” and he also used it pejoratively about other people’s rigged-up problem-solvers (“He’s using some kind of contraption to do it, but I wouldn’t trust it…”). When my sister and I and the boy next door cobbled together a little shed to use as our Clubhouse: “Well, now, that is quite a contraption!”

Contraction, a drawing-together usually by making smaller, might not leap to mind to describe the word “isn’t” or “should’ve”. Such words look just as much like rigged-up problem-solvers as they resemble something drawn together by making smaller.

I would assume that my student did mean that she uses too many contractions in her writing, because teachers routinely warn against such behavior. Even I discourage contractions in academic writing (as opposed to dialogue, where any character who doesn’t use contractions sounds like an extraterrestrial).

But I like to think about someone writing with too many contraptions. One year my sister and I got a printing contraption for Christmas: a geared dial that allowed us to choose single letters, one at a time, and press like a little hand-press to make rudimentary newspapers. VERY rudimentary. A fascinating contraption, but played with perhaps only once or twice before total frustration set in. I was proud to get a child’s typewriter but used it, too, only briefly before my father or uncle showed up with a REAL typewriter from somebody’s office. It was big, heavy, substantial, IMPORTANT. On that baby I typed many a high school English essay; the very mysterious detective novel (novella) written by me and my friend Nancy Zeiber about the Zeigartner Twins, young sleuths in the tradition of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Trixie Belden; some very evocative poems showing the strong influence of e.e. cummings (whose style also evolved with the typewriter!); and a weekly column that appeared on a page of the newspaper of a nearby city dedicated to “At My School” columns by high school reporters. I didn’t think of that typewriter as a contraption: it was the Big Time, the Real Thing. Upon going away to college I was presented with a soft-green portable Hermes typewriter, pica type, quiet, beautiful, my typewriter throughout college and grad school. With my first job came my first electric typewriter, with a “golf ball” that spun instead of arms that levered up. Now, THAT was a contraption! Its greatest grace was that one could change fonts by changing golf balls…and I changed from underlining titles to putting them in italics, a sophistication from which I have never looked back.

Follow the typewriters with some kind of clunky computer (black screen, green dashed letters, you may remember), and then my adorable first Mac (250K memory!). Floppy discs of every description.

Line up all these writing implements and only the most recent version does NOT look like some kind of contraption. The shelf in my theatre’s props room that’s dedicated to typewriters holds some that are more antique than any I ever owned, and they are contraptions indeed. Sleek, beautiful, carefully engineered little contraptions.

And this is not to mention various kinds of pens—dip, fountain, cartridge, ballpoint, felt-tip, gel—designed to put images onto paper while minimizing manual agony.

I did own some blotting paper, which I did use when I used my dip fountain pen; the wonderful brass contraption that let the user rock the blotting paper over the text was my father’s.

Then there were the various contraptions for removing images from paper: erasers of many sorts, special white-coated paper, white goo with a little brush.

My second-grade teacher had a contraption that drew four parallel chalk lines, appropriately spaced, on the blackboard for the illustration of Palmer cursive. I loved that thing. It was quite a bit like my music teacher’s five-line contraption for drawing musical staves (to receive notes, rests, clefs, sharps, flats) on the board.

I also have a contraption for drawing circles on the board: it’s a huge compass with a chalk-holder on one leg. I use it as a demonstration piece when I teach John Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”

And I have owned a series of lap desks too: not lap-tops, but actual desks, with compartments for paper, pens, rulers, and all the other necessary contraptions for writing.

If you sense a mounting nostalgia here, you are right. I love contraptions, and especially contraptions associated with writing or sewing. If I had a big desk in a big room, I would display some of the writing contraptions, and occasionally use them.

But of course I can see how using too many contraptions at one time would make the act of writing a pretty hopeless endeavor. Easier to become a juggler in those circumstances than a wordsmith. This is the quandary I like to imagine my student finds herself in. Please don’t disillusion me!

Please enjoy a moment of bliss as you visit Rube Goldberg, the ultimate contraption-maker, as dear to my heart as to my father’s.


“The final part of the plot is the falling action and the denouncement.”

I’ve been saving this student’s Horror for exactly this moment—the end of the academic year. Major papers have been read, appreciated or lamented as the case may be, and graded; final exams ditto. Grades have been posted. And of course the students have had their fling at the anonymous Teacher Evaluation, the results of which I have not yet seen…but I’m sure there will be some denouncement!

I knew what she meant, having conscientiously and painstakingly written “dénouement” on the board as part of the mapping of a “traditional plot line” when we first discussed short stories. I’m sure that if she read the assigned introductory material in the textbook she would have encountered the exact same word. And I’m sure she copied it down to the best of her ability. Therein lies the problem.

This example comes from 2003. Did word-processing programs auto-correct in those days? I suspect not, although a spellcheck feature might have challenged such an exotic word as “dénouement,” with or without the accent.

As an aside, I must mention that many years ago, back in the 1980s, the computer lab available to our writing classes had a program that could assess the “writing level” of a text, primarily on the basis of the vocabulary. I ran a sample of my writing (one of my assignment sheets) and got “college level,” which I expected. I ran a sample from a student paper and got, if I recall correctly, “junior high school.” This was not much of a surprise, since the course was part of an alternative-admissions program; but in fact the student was a fairly savvy writer in terms of ideas, reasoning, and sentence structure, so I felt the computer wasn’t that good a judge of “writing.” And then, just out of curiosity, I ran a sample from a rough draft written by a student of mine who struggled with dyslexia. And the computer rated his writing “doctorate level,” or “genius,” or some other descriptor that suggested Off The Charts! Indeed, he was off the charts: he was using words not in the computer’s memory bank, and the computer assumed that meant he had a vocabulary so sophisticated and specialized as to be beyond its ken—ergo, smarter than a computer, and ergo, genius. (There was much to love and respect about this student, including his intelligence; but he was neither a genius nor a PhD, and the words he had intended to write would have kept him at or below grade level on the computer’s scale.) So much for the know-it-all attitude of Autocorrect and its minions!

Nowadays I would have to be impressed with a student who managed to get as close as “denouncement” to “dénouement” written on the board. I am now dealing with the first of I fear many generations unable to read cursive writing. This isn’t my assessment: it’s my students’ assessment, or rather their boast and their excuse—and their agony. Here’s the history of my discovery:

  • Many years ago, before the atrophy of my fine motor control over my finger muscles (consequent on the tyranny or luxury of writing on the computer), students used to marvel at the beauty and clarity of my handwriting. I prided myself on it, too, and occasionally supplemented my income with calligraphy gigs, including names on diplomas.
  • Then, as my Mac wrapped me more and more completely in its convenient and charming clutches, students began to say my handwriting was hard to read. I felt bad about that until I asked them to show me what they couldn’t read, and got this: “Oh. That says ‘ambiguous.’ “Yeah? That’s what it looked like to me. Is ‘ambiguous’ a word?”)
  • And this year, making the same enquiries in response to the same comments (“I can’t read your writing”), this is what I’ve been getting: “Oh! ‘Paragraph!’ I didn’t know what that middle letter was.” And, writing on the board, “What is that letter???” “It’s an ‘f.'” “What kind of ‘f’ is that?!?!” This makes sense of the comment I got one day from the World’s Most Gorgeous Cashier, at my local Trader Joe’s, when I handed him my check: “You have a nice signature. I’m damned if I’m going to let my kids not use cursive writing, no matter what the school says!”

So I’ve been talking to my students this year about “writing cursive.” Evidently, at least for most of them, they’re taught cursive writing in the third grade and then never asked to use it again—in some schools, told not to use it again. No wonder they all print on their exams and in-class essays, and no wonder they moan and groan about “hand torture” in the process. (Yes, I too used to moan and groan about hand torture, after writing non-stop for an hour or two. They start to m & g after about 15 minutes.) They claim that their teachers didn’t make them (or want them to) use cursive because “all the reading and writing we’ll be doing will be in print, on the computer, so who needs it?” I suspect that somewhere in the mix were a few ever-hopefuls who thought their papers would be more legible in what we used to call “printing” than in what we used to call “writing,” or “handwriting”; but if that’s the case, I’m here to tell them they’re dead wrong. Student scrawl is student scrawl, and it afflicts printing no less than it used to afflict writing.

Evidently I’ve gone somewhat astray on this post, which began with “denouncement.” What was responsible for the student’s error—inattention, some precocious computer speller, limited vocabulary, or inability to read? Whatever, I wrote down her sentence because, wrong though it was, it did seem to speak a deeper truth. Alas.

Writing according to the Palmer method. We all learned this in the third grade—and KEPT using it!—and the individual handwriting of most American adults has developed (or devolved) from this model. My students say they cannot read it. (From http://palmermethod.com/)