UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Chicken Scratch


My father is notorious in my family for what we refer to as his chicken-scratching.  He has minuscule handwriting which is cramped, full of incomplete formation of letters, and really just impossible to decipher.  Over the years, he has simply ceased to write by hand, to the point where my mother writes the messages on birthday cards and other gifts, while my father scribbles a “Love, Dad” in the corner once she has determined the location designated for his chicken scratches.


My father is 66 years old, so it’s a pretty safe bet that he was expected to write by hand as a child, young adult, and well into his early 20’s.  There was a typewriter in my grandparents’ house, one that I played with for hours when I visited, and I imagine my father started using that as soon as he could, but he grew up in an era when writing by hand, and writing in cursive, was mandatory and was expected as the norm.  Despite those social and academic expectations, he did not learn how to communicate via handwritten text.

Which brings me to a question:  what was the actual goal of whatever lessons in handwriting my dad sat through?

I would argue that the goal should have been for him to be able to communicate his ideas.  I would also argue, then, that those lessons were a complete failure.

When I was in middle school, and my father was in his mid-30’s, we started using a personal computer at home for school and work.  When I went to live in Ecuador in my early 20’s, I got my first email address.  I still remember the shock of getting emails from my father–lengthy, detailed correspondence where his distinctive voice and sense of humor came through clearly.  To this day, I remember laughing aloud when reading him gloating about the fact that the speed limit out West was posted as “reasonable and prudent,” which my father and brother interpreted to mean “How fast can we make this rental car go?” while on a college trip.

If the goal of the education my father received was to make him capable of writing by hand, it was a failure.  If the goal of the education my father received was to make him capable of communicating via hand-written text, it was a failure.  What made it a success was when the goal was clarified to be communication and the means were left up to my father to choose.  With a new method, namely typed text via computer, he achieved the goal of communication.


What are the implications of this for us as educators decades after my father was in school?  I think it all comes back to doing some deep thinking about our goals.  For most of us, that means returning to the curriculum standards and being crystal clear about what we are supposed to teach, not what we might have been taught, not what we’ve always taught, not what looks cool or interesting.  We have to answer the question of what we are teaching so we can then think about how to get our students to do that learning.  When our content or curriculum standard does not specify a given manner in which to do something, then the challenge for us as teachers is to be creative and open in finding ways to be flexible in how our students achieve mastery of that content.

My father can communicate via text, but he still cannot consistently and successfully communicate via hand-written text; despite this inability, he is a capable adult who went to graduate school and worked in education for decades.  I wonder how many of our students have to overcome an additional and unnecessary barrier that we have inadvertently added to their cognitive and academic load in our tendency to do what was always done, rather than seeking clarity around the true purpose of what we are teaching.

One thought on “Chicken Scratch

  1. Until I learned how to type in high school, there were many teachers who unfairly judged me based upon my abbreviated written output. Learning to type was like being given a wheelchair after years of dragging myself around the classroom floor. As I started flying past classmates whom I had always incorrectly perceived as being smarter than me, I gained academic self-confidence and, much to my surprise, made National Honor Society by my senior year.

    All of which came crashing down in college. Exams involved timed, handwritten responses in little blue composition notebooks: I simply could not do it. The best I could do was to offer well organized bullet points and accept the punishment for lack of complete sentences. It was only in the college classes that required term papers, presentations or projects that I was able to demonstrate my content knowledge.

    By the time I began my professional career in special education administration, the availability of computers for “word processing” was just beginning and I was an early adoptee. Throughout the years of various administration jobs, I had many secretaries who though it strange that I always created my own correspondence; but then they were never tasked with the torturous job of having to convert an indecipherable paper into a readable document.

    Certainly my educational experience, and probably many of my other life choices, would have been significantly altered if I had experienced teaching practices guided by the principles of UDL. But if that meant that I would never had met my wife of 42 years or know the joy of being a parent of a bright, engaging daughter, then I am just fine with scratching the corners of birthday cards.


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