"Today we are going to learn the secret language of adults. ... It's cursive," second-grade teacher Erin Duttenhofer told her class, just before dispensing a small amount of shaving cream on students' desks for them to spread about and write in with their fingers.
Duttenhofer stood before the class with a plastic clipboard, also covered in shaving cream, and swooped her index finger circularly to create the lower-case letters "a" "e" and "l."
"I did it!" exclaimed Kevin Martinez, 8, who mimicked what he saw.
Duttenhofer and other elementary teachers say they wish more time was available in class to teach pupils proper penmanship. With students accustomed to typing on computers, standardized tests and a focus on new reading and math curricula in the past few years, teachers say the attention paid to handwriting is dwindling.
"It's definitely going away," Duttenhofer said, noting that nothing in her curriculum is solely focused on teaching penmanship.
Duttenhofer and other elementary teachers say they have to fit in handwriting instruction with other topics and can give a special focus only toward the end of the school year, when standardized tests are over.
"I've seen huge changes," said Garrett third-grade teacher Kimberly Moore, who has been in the profession for 15 years and recalls a time when penmanship was part of the curriculum, being taught at least three times a week, 30 to 45 minutes at a time.
On Friday, Moore started a two-week session with her students focusing on cursive writing. She had students pretend to hold "magic pencils" in the air and spell out letters while closing their eyes.
"It's just a lost art," she said.
Dr. Melissa Shepard, the principal of Sue Reynolds Elementary School, said her teachers receive no professional development on the topic.
"Teachers find teaching these skills as challenging, due to the numerous standards they are required to teach, and see this as something that is not a priority after first grade," she said. "I do believe technology has been a part of this skill losing importance over the years."
The greatest concentration on proper handwriting in Richmond County schools, officials say, occurs in kindergarten and the start of first grade, when students learn how to print. Cursive is to be learned in third grade. As early as second grade, students learn to write their thoughts in sentences, and third- and fifth-graders take a narrative and informational-persuasive writing assessment on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
Washington, Ga., resident Janie Cravens, the immediate past president of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting, said handwriting continues to be important because it helps children remember things better, and computers can't be used in all circumstances.
"It needs to be recognized that it's still viable," she said.
Duttenhofer agrees and said that with state budget cuts eliminating the requirement for CRCT for first- and second-graders next school year, she might have more time for handwriting instruction "so I can actually focus on it."