The First Lesson
One area that I teach consistently to the majority of my students may surprise you -- hand position.  Whether the focus of our sessions is high school algebra, language arts, or science, correcting students’ mangled grip for writing comes first.
At home or at school, one of the first lessons that kids learn is how to hold their writing instrument.  Very few of us liked these lessons.  They involved copying which was boring and time consuming, it certainly wasn’t a time open for expressive creativity.  Worse yet, these lessons involved stress.  First the stress of “getting it right.”  Then, the physical stress of holding the pen.  I recall my hand getting tired and sore.  However, over time we are able to ignore the pain until finally we don’t feel it anymore because we are numb to it.
This first lesson teaches a lot more than just hand position.  It teaches that learning is painful, stressful, and numbing.  This has been etched in most of us from a young age and we carry it with us every day especially when we write.
My goal as a teacher is to break negative patterns and show my students that there are so many more possibilities for their learning success.  Re-teaching hand position is the first concrete step in showing them that change is possible.  With my youngest students, it’s a chance to ingrain healthy habits.
Let’s go back and explore hand position a little bit.  First, what is poor hand position?  Pick up a pen and start writing with it.  Does your index finger bend backwards?  That’s it!  You’ve got it too (as the majority of people do) -- poor hand position. To describe it visually, it looks like an an angry duck.  Quack quack!
Why do so many of us have this problem?  And how can it be a problem if so many people write this way?  Basically, it’s a bad meme.  Those who teach the meme don’t realize it because they have been taught this way.  My rationale is that our fingers have one reason for bending backwards -- safety.  Our joints protect us so that we have some flexibility in our bones -- fingers bend so that they don’t break.  In writing with poor hand position, this breaking point is constantly under pressure.
When learning to write, the goal which is most often taught is to make intelligible marks on a page.  Generally, this goal is more readily accomplished by pushing down with extreme force on our pens which leads to bending the index finger backwards.  We learn that this works and keep using it.  For some children their hand writing is still messy.   So, tools like pencil grips have been invented to correct the writing.  However, they don’t correct technique, often times they make the child dependent on having something soft under their tensed finger.
I have good news, the solution is easy!  All that needs to happen is the most natural thing to us...or at least it used to be natural.  Let me explain.  After watching numerous young toddlers I discovered something very interesting - they use their bodies perfectly.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that young children have wonderful posture, they sit up very straight.  This is also true for how they hold their hand position.  When coloring, young toddlers maintain a perfect grip with beautifully rounded fingers, no stress or tension.  They’re just having fun coloring and they’re using their crayons without ever being formally taught.  
This natural grip means using our hands the way that they have evolved.  If you let your hand relax, you’ll notice that there is a slight curling forward with the fingers.  When making a fist, strength comes from that same forward bend.   We’re going to use this natural strength in the hand to cultivate proper hand position technique.
Here’s how:  
First, drop the pencil.  You won’t be needing it.  Now, make a circle with your hand.  Connect all the fingers together so that it looks like a claw.  Next, bring your thumb up to your index and middle finger.  Continue to ensure that your fingers and thumb are rounded.  Finally, relax.  Let the muscles in your hand settle where they are.  You may even want to massage the inside of your palm keeping your new position connected.
Now it’s time for the pen. Slide the pen in between your index finger, middle finger, and thumb.  The index finger and thumb gently grip the pen, stay relaxed.  The middle finger, as well as the fingers under it, support the pen.  Your hand supports the pen as well.  Still maintain a rounded shape to all the fingers with minimal tension, just enough so that the pen doesn’t fall out of your hand if you hold the pen upside down.
I always recommend that my students practice their hand position without the pen for a few days before adding the pen.  Practice involves holding the new position a couple of times a day and just looking at the new form that is taking place.  I want them to build new associations with this relaxed feeling.  This is the way that writing should feel.  
Then, I add the pen and have them do the same holding and looking practice.  No writing!  
By this point, my students are eager to try their natural technique.  At first, I tell them to bring the pen to the page and draw lines or circles very very lightly while keeping their fingers rounded.  If the index finger starts to bend backwards collapsing into the hand, I correct the student by saying something like “Oh no!  You’re squishing the bunny!” as we often pretend that there is a woodland creature living inside the new space they have made in their hand position!   As they get better at cultivating this natural feeling, they can apply more pressure to the pen.  But again, the fingers are always rounded and the hand is relaxed.
Over the week, I ask my students to practice writing like this for only five minutes per day.  Their goal is to stay relaxed with rounded fingers no matter how messy the writing is.  Over time, sometimes just days but other times weeks, students adapt to their natural technique and cannot go back to their “angry duck” ways because they are aware of the pain and stress that it brings.  Now, they can self correct because they are conscious of what is taking place in their own bodies.  
Many times, students have told me about how their writing feels much better.  And, now they can write for long periods of time without their hands hurting, yeah!   Oh, and I almost forgot, their handwriting looks lovely as well.  
Better yet, is when this new found feeling in the physical act of writing translates to the act of creating their own works of art.  They have created space in their body for writing which creates space in their mind for this natural technique.
You and my students have just experienced the first step about learning.  It’s relaxing, feels good, and is natural.
I encourage you to show this natural technique to not only your own children, but to others that you meet.  Enjoy and spread the natural meme!
Saturday, June 17, 2006