Two St. Andrew students win national handwriting awards

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"How many of you know how to use a pencil?" asked Mary Baldwin, principal of St. Andrew the Apostle School in Clifton at an all-school assembly in the parish hall May 20.

Hands of children from kindergarten through eighth grade shot up in the air - stretching, wiggling, waving. After a few moments, the students dropped their hands in anticipation of Baldwin's next words: "How many of you know how to write in cursive?"

The first couple of rows, where the youngest students sat, kept their hands in their lap.

The principal went on to explain that while knowing one's way around a computer or tablet matters, familiarity with technology does not replace knowing how to properly form letters.

"It's important to train your mind to work with your hand and make something beautiful," Baldwin told the children.

Two St. Andrew the Apostle students have demonstrated excellence at this very skill. Ohio-based language arts publisher Zaner-Bloser chose eighth-grader Stephanie Geigel as the grand prize national champion in her grade and fifth-grader Jillian Harar as the Virginia state champion in her grade for a recent competition that attracted 300,000 entries from across the United States.

Baldwin called the girls up to the front of the room to present them with their medallions. Neither student knew of the recognition until that assembly. Both were beaming. Geigel was teary from happiness.

"I'm so grateful to have such wonderful teachers who always get me to strive to do better," said Geigel after the assembly. "I owe it to them."

"When (Baldwin) called me up, at first I didn't know what to do," said Harar. "But my friends told me to go up there, so I went up."

The girls' parents were notified of their daughters' accomplishment about a month ago, when the principal received the news from Zaner-Bloser. Baldwin asked the parents to keep it a surprise and come to the school assembly for the big reveal.

Geigel thanked her parents and aunt for their praise and gifts of calligraphy books and pens. Harar credits her mother and grandmother, both schoolteachers, for her neat handwriting. She said that her father and grandfather have encouraged her to continue practicing.

Both girls pointed to teacher Marilynn Zook as a great inspiration. Zook is in charge of teaching St. Andrew students cursive when they reach third grade.

Geigel and Harar's prize package included money for the students and the school, as well as engraved awards for their teachers. Geigel also earned a trophy, a handcrafted certificate from Zaner-Bloser's master penman, Michael Sull, and a trip for one St. Andrew teacher to attend the International Literacy Association's annual conference in St. Louis, Mo. this July.

All diocesan schools use Zaner-Bloser books to learn penmanship. St. Andrew the Apostle was the only school in the Arlington Diocese to have students place in the handwriting competition.

According to a study cited in Zaner-Bloser's book, Handwriting Research: Impact on the Brain and Literacy Development, an estimated 25 to 33 percent of students are not fully competent in penmanship, which affects their reading, writing, language and critical thinking skills.

"We thank God and definitely the school. We are so blessed for the teachers' sacrifice, help and motivation," said Geigel's mother, Mary Pierri-Geigel, who, with her husband Wilfredo Geigel, is a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle Church.

"Stephanie has always taken such pride in making her papers look neat," said Zook. "She is always a star among her peers. She is a wonderful girl and I am very proud."

Marselle Myers, Geigel's English teacher, said Stephanie is not only hard-working but "humble" and "well-liked" by her classmates. When Myers recently asked students to memorize a soliloquy from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," Geigel made an obscure selection and learned all 60 lines word for word, perfectly.

"She also always turns in more than one draft," said Myers. "Recently, for a persuasive essay assignment, Stephanie turned in four drafts. I told her that her first draft was fine and that she had an A, but she just enjoys improving on things. By eighth grade, there is nothing I can do to improve handwriting," said Myers. "Hers was already perfect."

Meanwhile, Harar's mother, Bethany Harar, describes her as an enthusiastic writer who spends her free time writing poetry and fiction.

"She asked us to teach her cursive before they started teaching it in school," said Harar. "And she learned to read early. She has always loved reading and writing."

Geigel will start at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries this fall, while Harar will continue at St. Andrew the Apostle.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015