Behind the Blackboard: Teaching writing on TV, in person

Rick Wagner • Aug 27, 2016 at 10:00 PM

When I was a youngster growing up in Hawkins County, I asked my mother how Captain Kangaroo got into the television in our living room. Every weekday morning in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s, there he was inside our 23-inch black-and-white Philco on Channel 11.

This “who’s in the TV” phenomenon even followed me to Surgoinsville Elementary School. Teacher Patty Pierce taught our class on a black-and-white TV and in person how to write in manuscript, while a teacher named Lina Bradley did the same for cursive on TV and Pierce did that in person. 

The two had  shows on WSJK Channel 2, the PBS station in Sneedville, in the days before “Downton Abbey” and “Antiques Roadshow” back when PBS was all educational programming. Actually, the transmitter was there, but the recordings were done in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee or in Johnson City at East Tennessee State University. Pierce and Bradley taught generations of Tennessee students how to print and write cursive, and Bradley’s work taught would-be teachers how to teach cursive, but more on that later.

Some of my classmates wondered how Miss Pierce could be on TV in Sneedville (we didn’t know about the Knoxville or Johnson City studios) and in our Surgoinsville classroom at the same time. From time to time I still see Miss Pierce, who became Mrs. Luster, was widowed, remarried to become Mrs. Alvis and eventually retired from teaching. She was my first grade teacher. She was promoted with my class and taught second grade quite a few years, but spent most of her career in third grade. 

I recently called her to get the details of her time as a TV writing teacher and ask her thoughts on the teaching of cursive, which went out of favor in some states and is not mentioned in Common Core Standards, but in 2014 became a formal part of the Tennessee standards in second, third and fourth grades. California, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and South Carolina are among states that have made cursive mandatory, according to PBS.

“They (education officials) cut it out for awhile,” Alvis said. “Children couldn’t even read it. I know it’s not going to be as important because of computers. But I am glad it’s back.” She also said that she actually recorded three different times for the manuscript series that ran about 40 years — until 2010. Her first show was recorded at East Tennessee State, and another was recorded in Knoxville.

Alvis tried out for the TV contract in the spring of 1970 and had a classroom visit from the folks at WSJK. After being chosen, she recorded her first TV classes that summer while staying with an aunt in Johnson City during the week. She said an artist spent much of that summer drawing a worm that followed the manuscript letters on the show, resulting in a 30-second animated introduction to the programs. 

I also contacted Bradley, who retired as Title 1 coordinator for Kingsport City Schools at Lincoln Elementary. She also worked in Chattanooga, at Johnson City’s Town Acres Elementary, and first in Hawkins Elementary, and she taught first and third grades. She said the county schools tended to use the televised writing instruction, Johnson City did some, but Kingsport did not. The important thing, Bradley said, is that it was and is taught.

“It does something for development of the brain.” Bradley said of the curves and loops of cursive she long ago recorded on film. Writing, she said, is like playing musical instruments, sports or simply on a playground. It gets the left and right halves of the brain working together. “Children weren’t meant to sit in a classroom all day long,” Bradley said. 

Like Alvis, Bradley said she had no idea the shows would last 30 years or more. Both teachers were just out of college when they started their TV careers, which lasted as long as their education careers.

After the initial cursive shows, while in Chattanooga with the PBS station there, Bradley did additional programs including a transitional show for second-graders entering third grade. Her shows were called Wise Write’s Workshop, with an owl motif, and she’d end each show with: “Well, boys and girls, we’ll see you next time.” She also ended her classes at Lincoln that way, which a new teacher named Jennifer Wyatt once heard and remembered from her TV time with Bradley, not as an elementary student but as a college student studying at Lincoln Memorial University to become an elementary teacher. Bradley said Vanderbilt University and LMU used the shows to teach future elementary teachers how to teach writing, Bradley said.

“When I started at Lincoln, she was the computer teacher,” said Wyatt, long a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln and now an interventionist.

My younger son entered third grade Aug. 8 at Surgoinsville Elementary, and his teacher is Carrie Smith, the daughter of Mrs. Alvis. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s de ja vu all over again. “She has my room,” Alvis said of her daughter, although the actual room is one I frequented in the fifth and sixth grades.

Today’s lesson? Since the early 1970s, the black-and-white set and TV writing instruction shows once in classrooms are long gone, but the cursive once taught on them is back. I think that is a good thing for my son and his classmates, as well as their counterparts across Tennessee. And remember two local retired educators have a long history when it comes to teaching handwriting on television in Tennessee.

Writers note: I checked for videos of the two writing shows with Alvis and Bradley, Public Television of East Tennessee, Lincoln Memorial and the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound in the Knox County Public Library system, all to no avail, although Carrie Smith and Avlis’ husband are still trying to lend me a copy she has of the manuscript show. If anybody out there has any video of the writing instruction these two teachers did on television, please contact me because I’d like to post samples of one or more of them with the online version of this column.

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at (423) 392-1381 or rwagner@timesnews.net.



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