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Newark sixth-grader recognized for perfect penmanship

It took Aoife McGurk about an hour and a half to write the sentence. Patience was key, though, because her steady hand earned her a spot as a semi-finalist in a national handwriting competition.

McGurk, a sixth-grader at Christ the Teacher Catholic School in Glasgow, was among 18 overall winners in the Zaner-Bloser handwriting contest. She – along with all her peers at the school – has entered the competition each year.

“I feel accomplished,” she said recently after representatives from Zaner-Bloser, which publishes curricula and other education materials, came to the school to present her with a trophy and certificate.

She added that she feels more like her mom, who also won her share of competitions for her penmanship.

Nationwide, students in grades three through eight compete in the cursive category and are judged on the shape, size, spacing and slant of the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Grade-level winners at participating schools advanced to a statewide competition, where judges selected a public and private grade-level winner for each state. Judges selected 18 national grade-level semifinalists. The top nine were named the grand national grade-level champions.

At the May 31 assembly, Mike Logan, regional vice president for Zaner-Bloser, explained to McGurk’s peers the scale of the competition. He asked the students to picture the crowd at an Eagles game.

“Imagine an entire stadium full of people that all want to raise their hand and say, ‘I’m the best handwriter in the state.’ But that’s not really enough, because that’s not really the contest, is it?” he said. “It’s four stadiums. Four full stadiums of people your age that raise their hand and say, ‘Of everyone out there, I have better handwriting than everyone else in my grade.’”

Only two in each grade actually earn those bragging rights though, he noted. This year, McGurk, who her English/language arts teacher Davena Williams describes as a “bright and eager” student, was one of those two.

“She’s always going beyond surface level, and asking questions, and always enthusiastic towards learning,” Williams said.

As a prize, McGurk received a certificate penned by Master Penman Michael Sull, who once served as President Ronald Reagan’s calligrapher.

For Sister LaVerne King, principal of the school, it was exciting to see a student win nationally.

“Over our 17-year history of Christ the Teacher, we have been recognized in many ways,” King said. “But today, we will present our very first student national award.”

The competition, though, is about more than just bragging rights for superior penmanship.

“I think it teaches children to be careful about what they do, to care about their work,” King said. “I think it helps make them well-rounded students and really think about what they’re doing, not act haphazardly, but put intention into what they’re doing and it overflows right into other subjects.”

Williams agreed.

She noted that she was educated in a Catholic school environment, and “can’t imagine not knowing how to write in cursive,” she said.

“I think it’s important enough that I send my children to Catholic school, specifically here, because I think that is a very important skill,” she said.

After McGurk received her award, Logan explained the craft and artistry of penmanship from which Zaner-Bloser draws its lineage.

Zaner-Bloser stems from Charles Paxton Zaner, who opened his own school to teach the art of penmanship in 1888. He eventually partnered with Elmer Bloser in 1891.

“Back in the day, it was more ornamental and it was used to give some sense of your personality, some sense of who you are,” Logan said. “It was a form of art. Just like you can look at a piece of art and kind of figure out who the artist is, you could look at penmanship, and you could see who the original penman was.”

Though cursive has fallen out of vogue in many schools, it has remained prevalent in many Catholic schools. Logan said that teaching handwriting is important.

“About 10 years ago, the world of technology came out and said, ‘Penmanship is no longer necessary,’” he said, adding that studies have shown that the pathways in the brain that are developed when children learn to write are the same used in early literacy and early literacy foundational skills.

“Kids that aren’t taught initial handwriting instruction performed significantly lower on literacy tasks than those that are taught handwriting,” he said.

Students at Christ the Teacher begin learning cursive at the end of first grade. Though McGurk is among a generation growing up in a digital age, she said that writing by hand requires more focus.

Williams added that McGurk is always taking her own detailed, handwritten notes on the books they study in class.

In her submission to the contest, McGurk wrote that handwriting makes her a better reader and writer because she can express what she wants to say.

“And in reading, I can understand the theme because I can concentrate on my notes in cursive more than print,” she wrote, in cursive.

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