June 28, 2013

Rachel Jeantel, Handwriting, and No Child Left Behind

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Her name isn’t as well known as Trayvon Martin’s, and her side-story is less sensational. And yet, Rachel Jeantel’s short time on the witness stand in the George Zimmerman trial—and the media’s response to it—says a lot about our contemporary society. As the last person to speak with 17-year-old Trayvon moments before George Zimmerman killed him, Rachel has been caught up in one of the most-watched trials of the last few years.

Rachel has been ridiculed on blogs and snickered at in the media for her time on the witness stand. She had testy exchanges with Zimmerman’s defense attorney Don West, some ”unpolished” responses to questions (i.e., responding to the hypothesis that Martin initiated contact with Zimmerman as “real retarded”), and at one point needing to speak up so the jury could hear her. It remains to be seen whether or not pointing out these attributes are attempts to undermine her credibility as a witness.

She also admitted she could not read a handwritten letter aloud—as to enter it into public record—because she couldn’t read cursive. And while this was an opportunity for some to criticize (and generalize) about African-American school kids (see breathtaking examples of racism directed toward Jeantel from Twitter), it should have been an opportunity to think about the U.S. education system. As I watched the media respond to Rachel’s testimony I wondered how likely it was she learned cursive in school.

 It turns out that over the past few years many schools have dropped handwriting from their curricula.  Supposedly because cursive is less useful in the digital age, standardized measures of student assessment have moved away from evaluating handwriting. Forty-five States and three territories adopted what is called the Common Core State Standards for English, including Rachel’s home state of Florida. This core standard does not require students to learn cursive.

The fact she could not read cursive, then, is not her fault as much as a failing of her education, and an example of the fallout from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and standardized testing in general. (Computerized, standardized, multiple-choice tests don’t require handwriting, do they?) It is unlikely that NCLB will be put on trial the way George Zimmerman is in a courtroom and, frankly, the way that Rachel Jeantel is in the media. I wonder how many people who criticize her now were in support of NCLB. 

Critical thinkers should always peel away a few additional layers when it comes to such social phenomena. And here is one more: It’s important to note that, like many skills one learns in school, there are ancillary benefits and latent functions in learning handwriting. According to scholarly research, handwriting develops fine motor skills, stimulates creativity, and helps students retain and understand information better than typing (see ABC News on this). Handwriting stimulates the Broca’s Area, a part of the brain that is associated with language comprehension and speech-associated gestures.

 Time has a piece explaining her testimony in the context of language usage, and points out this exchange:

“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”

“I don’t understand you, I do understand English,” said Jeantel.

“When someone speaks to you in English, do you believe you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” asked West.

“I understand English really well,” said Jeantel.

While the author (John McWhorter, who wrote What Language Is) makes the case for understanding the difference between Black English and Standard Written English (see also, David Foster Wallace on this), there are other potential connections that could be made when it comes to handwriting and speech, right?

When we think about how teaching to the No Child Left Behind-related reading and math standardized tests limits students’ cultural capital (see George Farkas’ research on this), Rachel Jeantel’s world becomes more meaningful than the one-dimensional caricature the media has portrayed.

What other ways, do you think handwriting is used as a form of cultural capital? In a completely different context: How do doctors use their handwriting?

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