Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

I’ll confirm the rumors that I am a baby-boomer.

So with schools reopened, I’m stuck with two assumptions about today’s students: They’re no longer learning the all-important but old-fashioned cursive writing, and their exposure to U.S. history, due to time constraints, trails off somewhere around World War II.

Two Arlington Public Schools specialists inform me that we boomers are wrong on both counts.

Despite headlines such as the Washington Post’s “Cursive Handwriting Disappearing from Public Schools,” that ancient art remains embedded in the Virginia Standards of Learning (Section 3-8), I’m assured by Sara Cruz, the reading specialist newly installed as Arlington’s supervisor of Elementary English Language Arts.

By third grade, the standards’ expectation is that “students will learn to write legibly in cursive,” she said when I quizzed her on how digital-age kids could learn to read historic letters if they don’t know cursive.

“We want students to be able to recognize and access the founding documents and see the value,” Cruz said. She sent me a 2020 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology with data demonstrating the importance of “cursive writing over typewriting” in facilitating learning. “It makes the case for not skipping over handwriting and not going straight to typewriting because the hand motion makes a connection to the brain,” she said. With APS moving to “structured literacy, it’s important for students to develop word recognition and language recognition to be great readers.”

Because of the Covid lockdowns, “we’re in a real interesting time in education,” Cruz added. “When all our learning went virtual, there was no handing in of paper, with kids using iPads to submit. Young learners were barely learning how to hold a pencil. The teachers were very creative in having them write out their assignment on paper, and then take a picture of it to submit.”

Social Studies Supervisor Kerri Hirsch knows the stereotype about American history classes cutting off before the present. “Teachers are still always pressed for time,” she said, “and they need to follow the sequence outlined in the countywide system, so that when we transition from virtual learning to a classroom, they’re consistent, with no gaps.”

But the curriculum, using the 2016 – 2017 McGraw Hill text titled “Virginia and United States History,” allows classes in the final quarter to cover the post-World War II period. Three-week units include the civil rights era from 1950 to the present, and the post-Cold War period from 1989 on, “so students get a double lens with a difference,” Hirsch says. Essential discussion questions include “How well did U.S. foreign policy decisions meet the needs of the post-Cold War era?” and “What issues have arisen since the 9/11 attacks regarding the balance of security while preserving American ideals?”

Lesson plans allow discussion of the Vietnam war — the major issue of my youth but almost ignored in schools back then — in the broader Asia context. Students are encouraged to raise their own contemporary interests, such as changing race relations. “Current events have so many connections to learning,” Hirsch added. “Teachers need flexibility.”

Codgers like me, Cruz counsels, shouldn’t worry. “We are preparing our students for bright futures without letting go of our connection to the past.”

Arlington’s donors, faith groups and businesses are stepping up to aid Afghan refugees, judging by online traffic on Nextdoor.

Long-timers are reminded of our country’s role in the late 1970s receiving more than our share of 230,000 Vietnamese refugees who reached the United States (locally transforming Clarendon) — despite some popular resistance.

Kim O’Connell, the local freelance writer and tour guide of “Little Saigon” who is half Vietnamese, told me she expects the same “mixed picture” with the Afghans. “But what we began almost 50 years ago hasn’t changed,” she said. “Arlington is still a diverse and welcoming community.

There was a mixed reaction to refugees in the 1970s, but on balance Arlington was welcoming to the Vietnamese, who were allowed to thrive and become part of the community.”