- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

Twelve students enrolled in an evening study program aren’t much of a crowd, but to Allen Trenum, a coordinator of adult education for Montgomery County Public Schools, the number amounts to something of a trend.

That’s because the course is Gregg shorthand, a method of rapid note-taking using common-sense shortcuts, abbreviations and symbols. It has almost disappeared from public view and rarely is taught anymore except informally online.

“During the ‘90s, people didn’t have an interest in it,” Mr. Trenum says, “but I think there is a revival on even though people use [electronic] notepads and computers for many things. But if you are in a meeting attempting to take notes, the job is easier with shorthand.”

He was thrilled and encouraged to see the number of students who signed up last spring and again in the fall for an introductory 12-week course that is being offered again starting Feb. 24 at Gaithersburg Middle School.

“When I first came on board, I wanted to find new, creative and innovative classes to offer adults, and this is one of the ideas I came up with,” he says. “I came across it on the Internet while looking up adult education courses offered online in other parts of the country. It’s not a course geared to secretaries.”

No less impressed is instructor Susan Krause, 58, of Rockville, who says the challenge is the equivalent of learning a new language. “The beauty of Gregg is that when you are proficient you can use it anywhere, and there are some places where tape recorders aren’t allowed for legalistic purposes.”

Mrs. Krause, an executive assistant in Shady Grove Adventist Hospital’s emergency department, also was pleased with the variety of backgrounds represented in the fall course, which ended last month. Among the 12 who originally signed up — the ideal maximum number is 15, she says — was a housewife who plans to teach the method to her young children, an administrative assistant in a local elementary school, a college student born in Indonesia, and a man who works in the intelligence field.

“If I have a really dedicated class, they can learn all they need in 12 weeks,” Mrs. Krause says, citing the real requirement for learning to be “discipline and continuity.” It’s best if students have some understanding of phonetics and a good command of the English language. On top of that, she urges them to practice at home for an hour a day.

She teaches with chalk and a chalkboard, using secondhand texts available on EBay or Amazon. County residents pay $179 for the class; nonresidents pay $10 more.

Shorthand is any regular technique of rapid handwriting employed to transcribe the spoken word. The Gregg system was invented by Robert Gregg, an American, in 1888, and it employs mostly symbols as opposed to alphabetic characters. It gradually replaced the Pitman method, which also is phonetically based — relying on word sounds — but which Mrs. Krause says places more emphasis on “shadings,” or the thickness, length and position of strokes.

Gregg, she says, “reduces each letter to one stroke of the pen, then links the strokes into more complicated curls that represent words and phrases. Spelling is simplified to further compress the writing. The word ‘easy’ thus becomes ‘ese.’ Size variations represent different sets of related sounds. Connected hooks and circles represent vowels.”

Unlike Pitman, in Gregg the thickness of a line is consistent, and the exact position of a vertical stroke on paper is not critical.

“Written Gregg has a forward slope and graceful forms much like cursive handwriting,” she notes.

Mrs. Krause took shorthand in high school in days when business-related courses were offered there. Because college was out of the question for her financially, she says, she decided to become the best stenographer she could. As a housewife and mother, she found the shorthand useful when visiting her doctor or her children’s pediatrician.

“There never is a time when I don’t use [shorthand] at work,” she says. “I attend 92 meetings a year, and, as one of few employees in the hospital who take shorthand, I’m asked to come when there is a meeting of higher caliber.”

The hospital holds weekly departmental leadership meetings and monthly staff meetings at which she is present.

Her night school students all had different motives for coming to the two-hour class week after week — more dropped out than stuck to the program — but all readily agreed about the value of learning a method that has fallen out of favor in schools everywhere.

“One guy said after the first week that this was harder than law school,” says class member Greg Barton of Gaithersburg, who signed up to be able to take good notes in meetings and to be able to retain the information he learned. He did a Google search to find a class being taught locally.

“It’s like riding a bicycle; the more you use it, the better you get,” declares Angie Hafer of Silver Spring, an administrative secretary at an elementary school who had taken a class in Gregg shorthand 20 years ago but had never kept up with it. She signed up for the course knowing, as she says, that “I didn’t have the skills to retrieve it from my brain.”

Former computer programer Kim Skimmons of Gaithersburg is the mother of children ages 8 and 4 and says she will teach them the method as soon as they are familiar with cursive handwriting with connected letters. She already has taught them to touch type.

“I started thinking recently how nice it is to have a skill like that, how helpful it is in meetings and with note-taking in college. About a year ago, I had started to teach it to myself, but with my schedule, I didn’t have the discipline,” she says.

Alerted to Mrs. Krause’s course in a printed notice listing Montgomery County-sponsored adult education courses, she signed up right away. The classroom format provides the necessary rigor, she says, and allows students to question the teacher directly. “I really wish it were offered more often,” she adds.

“When I was in high school, my mom wanted me to take typing and shorthand, and I balked. This was 1980 or so. I said, ‘I’m going to college.’ But my mother at least made me take typing, and thank heavens. They don’t even teach that in high school anymore.”

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