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Students become state handwriting champs

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For the first 10 minutes of class, Sister Terry's room at St. Rita School in Alexandria is filled with classical music as her students practice something that could be considered a lost art - cursive writing.

"It is a language, so they can become proficient," said Sister Theresa McCrossan, Sister of St. Joseph, known by all as Sister Terry. "Starting in third grade, we teach them to link the letters together. First they write in cursive, and then they can read it."

At the end of March, St. Rita found out that the students' daily practice of their letters' size, shape, spacing and slant had been recognized. Two students, Emma Prabaharan and Esmeralda Chavez, became state- level champions of the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest.

Chavez, a fourth-grader, said that learning penmanship was hard at the beginning, but now she likes being able to connect the letters as she writes.

"I like handwriting because it makes me a better reader and writer," she said.

Zaner-Bloser, a company that develops language arts lesson plans and materials for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has organized this contest for 23 years. This was the first year St. Rita entered the contest.

Sister Terry, who also teaches social studies and vocabulary, said she was pleasantly surprised when she found out that Prabaharan and Chavez had won. The students were just as surprised.

"I didn't know I was going to be able to make it that far because I never really thought that my handwriting was that good," said Prabaharan, a fifth-grader. She said she likes writing in cursive because she is able to "just easily let the words flow" that way.

The surprise and excitement after the award announcement was shared by Principal Mary Pat Schlickenmaier and Father Daniel N. Gee, St. Rita pastor, who suggested that the school participate in the contest.

Zaner-Bloser estimates that more than 300,000 students participated in this year's contest. Judges selected state winners in grades K-eight for both public and private schools. Those winners competed for the national champion title in each grade level.

Two other schools in the Arlington Diocese, Sacred Heart Academy in Winchester and St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax, also had state-level winners this year. In total, there were 10 schools in Virginia that won at the state level.

Sacred Heart's winners were second-grader

Maria Canan and sixth-grader Daniel Lyman. Principal Rebecca McTavish credits first-grade teacher, Janie Lyman, for promoting good handwriting among the students.

St. Leo's state-level champion will find out about this honor at a school award assembly in June.

Each state-level winner received an engraved medal. Sister Terry received two engraved glass diamond awards, and St. Rita received two $200 gift certificates from Zaner-Bloser.

Sister Terry, who has patiently worked on students' penmanship her whole teaching career, said that the award is a nice incentive for students to keep practicing. She said that writing in cursive can help develop the mind, which is why it's good to start at an early age.

"Unless they are taught how to do cursive, they can't read it," Sister Terry said. "When you take them to the history museum, they can't read the letters the president would have written. So this way - whether they use it or not - they can read (cursive handwriting), they can read what Abe Lincoln said."

Negro can be reached at mnegro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @MNegroACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014