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CPS educator’s short film sheds new light on the art of old-fashioned cursive writing

“A Sisterhood of Signatures” showcases how four young girls bond through the lost art of good penmanship.

Tiyah Owens (from left), Sophie Esposito, Lupe Hernandez and Jazmine Bryce are four young girls who make up the “A Sisterhood of Signatures.”
Tiyah Owens (from left), Sophie Esposito, Lupe Hernandez and Jazmine Bryce are four young girls who make up the “A Sisterhood of Signatures.”
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Texting and having Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa at most people’s beck and call might be the death knell that helped make cursive handwriting a lost art.

But a Chicago Public Schools educator-turned-filmmaker wants to revive cursive so much that she created “A Sisterhood of Signatures,” a film about how four young girls bonding over the penmanship art.

“Not knowing how to write cursive is kind of like taking your voice away,” said Okema “Seven” Gunn, who directs the short film. “So when you write your signature and when you write cursive, that’s a tool that you can use to express your voice. ... We use our signatures for voting and signing checks.”

Filmmaker Okema “Seven” Gunn has directed the short film “A Sisterhood of Signatures.”
Filmmaker Okema “Seven” Gunn has directed the short film “A Sisterhood of Signatures.”
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“A Sisterhood of Signatures” tells the story of tween Tiyah Owens (Maya Hooks), who starts a cursive letter-writing club with three of her friends — Sophie Esposito (Nicole Nedyalkova), Lupe Hernandez (Hayley C. Alexander) and Jazmine Bryce (Jada Hamilton) — in order to preserve the culture of letter writing after she discovers a letter from her great-grandmother written during the World War II era.

A screening of the 17-minute film takes place at 1 p.m. March 7 at the IIT Tower Auditorium, 10 West 35th St. A Q&A session featuring Gunn, Hooks, actress/producer Cynda Williams, and media personality Sandria Washington is scheduled to take place immediately following the screening.

Hooks, 12, who had limited experience in cursive before she was cast for the film, has a new-found appreciation for the skill.

“It took me awhile to get [cursive writing],” Hooks said. “Now I write in cursive all the time. Seven [Gunn] showed me how important it is. ... You don’t always need a phone to talk to people; you can write a letter to express yourself.”

Gunn, a third-generation CPS educator, says that children need to understand the importance of cursive handwriting for many reasons, including history and not being solely reliant on technology to communicate with others.

“As African Americans, when we came over on the slave ships, all we knew how to do was sign an X for our name,” Gunn said. “When you tend to write things out by hand, or in cursive, you tend to take your time with it, and you will be a little bit more thoughtful.

“There’s all kinds of shortcuts that we take for the language. And therefore, we’re not actually using our brains.”

Actress Maya Hooks, 12, now has an appreciation for cursive writing after starring in “A Sisterhood of Signatures.” | Brandon Dahlquist

Unfortunately, some schools across the country have given up on teaching cursive handwriting altogether.

Only 15 states required cursive handwriting instruction as part of their Core Curriculum standards as of May 2016, according to “The truth about cursive handwriting: Why it matters in a digital age,” a study written by the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation.

And handwriting is linked to literacy skills, according to a Lewis University faculty blog.

“The physical act of handwriting has been found to light up regions of the brain that are associated with literacy and supports reading skill acquisition, particularly letter naming and recognition,” Dr. Susan Cahill said in the blog.

In 2017, the Illinois state Senate crossed out then-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a bill requiring public elementary schools across the state to teach cursive handwriting.

School districts are allowed to determine when to teach cursive writing, as long as students receive instruction by the completion of fifth grade. The law took effect for the 2018-19 school year.

“It was absolutely embarrassing that I was in a high school, and all of their writing looked like third grade to eighth grade level of writing,” state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, told her Senate colleagues at the time. “ ... if young people don’t have a signature, I mean, what are we doing here in terms of educating our students?”

The short film, which debuted in 2019, has received high praise from film bloggers and Reel Chicago, and has been a selection at several industry fests including the Black Harvest Film Festival, the Oak Park International Film Festival and the Collected Voices Film Fest, where Gunn received the award for best short film director.

Gunn plans to parlay the success of the film by setting up screenings at local schools and starting an actual “Sisterhood of Signatures” for teenagers and young adults.

“There’s going to be some people out there that would love to start a group and I would love to foster that type of creativity and camaraderie,” she said.