WHITE BEAR LAKE, Minn. — Things are a little old-fashioned at St. Anne’s Academy in White Bear Lake.
The teachers are nuns in habits. They write on blackboards with chalk. The mass is in Latin.
And the writing is in cursive.
At St. Anne’s, cursive instruction starts in second grade and continues through eighth grade. Homework has to be done in cursive, and neatness counts.
That’s probably why the little elementary and high school, with a total of 48 students, produces cursive champions such as Jack Lieberherr.
Jack, a 15-year-old from North St. Paul, was recently named the 2017 grand national champion for eighth-graders in the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest.
Writing, it seems, runs in Jack’s family. Jack also won the national championship as a sixth-grader, and has several state handwriting titles under his belt. He has a brother and two sisters who also have won state titles in the contest.
“I practice it every day,” said Jack of his penmanship. “The sisters, they teach me.”
Loops of careful cursive are quickly disappearing in an age where signatures are conveyed digitally, handwritten letters are a rarity and communication is dominated by keyboards, texting and touch screens.
But the teachers at St. Anne’s are old-school when it comes to writing. And for good reasons, they say.
“It shows education,” said Jack’s teacher, Sister Maria Magdalena. “The flow and neatness says something about the mind and the person.”
The writing seemed to be on the wall for cursive instruction when Common Core educational standards for U.S. public schools were crafted in 2010. The standards left out a requirement for cursive while advocating keyboarding skills by fourth grade.
Most states no longer require formal cursive instruction in public schools, leading cursive advocates to fret that we’re raising a generation of young adults who won’t know how to sign their own names or won’t be able to read original copies of historical documents written in cursive.
Anne Trubek has some advice for them:
“It’s OK. Don’t be anxious and be freaked out about it,” said the former Oberlin College professor and author of “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting.”
Trubek said despite the emotional, cultural and personal importance people have attached to penmanship, the history of human writing technology — from cuneiform to quills to keyboards — will continually be driven by the desire to write faster.
She predicts that cursive will be used less and less, except as an art form. Day-to-day communication will be increasingly generated with technology such as speech recognition software.
“People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization,” Trubek wrote in a New York Times essay titled “Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter.” “But if the goal of public education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting.”
PAPER VS. KEYBOARD
Traditionalists, however, are fighting to keep cursive alive.
Fueled by the “graphology lobby,” several states and school districts have reintroduced cursive instruction requirements in public schools.
Kathleen Wright, national handwriting administrator for Zaner-Bloser, said that 21 states have added a cursive requirement for schools and about a dozen more are debating the issue.
In Minnesota, there’s no statewide cursive requirement for public schools, although school districts can opt to teach it. The state’s English Language Arts Standards call for printing to be learned in kindergarten and first grade and keyboarding skills in later grades.
Zaner-Bloser cites research it says shows that handwriting “fluency” is associated with better spelling, composition skills, note taking and test scores.
“There’s a lot to be said for putting your thoughts on paper by hand,” Wright said.
She also noted that many jobs still require “legible handwriting.”
The sisters at St. Anne’s concur, saying their students land jobs because of their penmanship on applications.
With more than 250,000 entries from across the country, Zaner-Bloser is the granddaddy of cursive competitions. But it isn’t the only one.
Four years ago, the Campaign for Cursive, a committee of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation, started a Cursive Is Cool contest, which gets about 600 entries a year from elementary school students in the U.S. and Canada.
The World Handwriting Contest, started in 2001, accepts submissions from kids, adults and seniors. This year, it expects to get more than 2,000 entries from Nepal to Mauritius.
Run by Kate Gladstone, of Albany, N.Y., the contest requires entrants to copy out a paragraph stating that handwriting “has been necessary in every age” and is “just as vital to the enduring saga of civilization as our next breath.”
The Zaner-Bloser contest asks students to write “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” (which contains all the letters in the alphabet) and then add a few sentences in their own words about how handwriting makes them a better reader and writer.
‘YOU HAVE TO FOCUS’
Jack Lieberherr said he copied out his winning entry about 10 times before he was satisfied. He writes with a pen, a Pilot P-700 gel ink rollerball, which St. Anne’s recommends.
It’s a good substitute for the cartridge fountain pens that the school had previously used to teach cursive.
“You have to focus on what you’re doing,” said Jack, who doesn’t text because his mom doesn’t allow him to have a cellphone.
He won $1,000 and a big trophy. His school also gets $1,000 in instructional materials from Zaner-Bloser, which has its roots in the Zanerian College of Penmanship and its writing method, a survivor of 19th-century American schools of handwriting that included Spencerian script and the Palmer Method.
Entries to the Zaner-Bloser contest are graded by a panel of retired teachers who determine state winners in private and public school divisions. State champions are sent to Pamela Farris, a retired literacy education professor at Northern Illinois University, who selects the national winners based on things such as size, shape, spacing and slant of the letters.
“Sometimes,” said Farris, winning “comes down to just one stroke.”