Woodland Consolidated School Special Education teacher Alexandra Lord is pictured here with her student Christian Vargas, who was this year's national winner of the Nicholas Maxim Award, given to special needs students who demonstrate excellence in cursive penmanship. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican & News

WOODLAND, Maine — Some students say it is a secret code, allowing them to write notes that others, like younger siblings, cannot decipher. Teachers see it as an art form, but also as a way for students to work their fine motor skills.

Any way you look at it, cursive handwriting has fallen out of popularity, although it is still taught in some schools in Maine. Once a required part of every curriculum, the flowing form of handwriting that made writing letters easier has essentially been replaced by modern technology.

But not everywhere.

Teachers and staff at Woodland Consolidated School in Aroostook County have worked for years to keep the art of cursive writing alive, encouraging their students to participate in the annual Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest — the oldest handwriting contest in the country.

Their efforts paid off this year when two students received national recognition on May 20.

Woodland Consolidated School third grade teacher Debbie Sutherland stands with her student, Allison St. Peter, who received national recognition for her cursive penmanship in the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican & News

Third-grader Allison St. Peter was awarded with having the best cursive handwriting among third-graders in public and private schools throughout the country. Seventh-grader Christian Vargas is this year’s national winner of the Nicholas Maxim Award. They were among the approximately 80,000 applicants Zaner-Bloser receives from across the United States each year.

The Nicholas Maxim Award is named after a student from Maine who was born without hands or lower arms, and offers students who experience challenges with handwriting an opportunity to show their skills in writing. Entries are judged for letter shape, size, slant and spacing. Each year they name two national champions in manuscript and cursive.

Woodland Consolidated School seventh-grader Christian Vargas was this year’s national winner of the Nicholas Maxim Award, which is presented via the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest to special needs students who demonstrate excellence in penmanship. Credit: Courtesy of Woodland Consolidated School

“Students aren’t used to working with their hands as much as their thumbs,” third grade teacher Debbie Sutherland said. “So I try to teach that skill, because it helps with their fine motor skills, and it’s something they can be proud of. They think it’s like a foreign language, and it’s really not. It’s just an art that’s been lost.”

This isn’t the first time Woodland students have been nationally recognized for their cursive writing skills. In 2017, seventh grader Amanda Poulin ranked as a national grade-level semifinalist in the contest, and in 2011 Richard Schmitt Jr. was named the grade seven Grand National Handwriting Champion.

The winning students didn’t know they had won until Woodland Principal Susie Schloeman presented their awards to them in a ceremony held outside the school.

“I want to thank our teachers for instilling the importance of having good penmanship, because everybody should have their own personal signature,” she said. “By doing cursive, you create a piece of your identity with your handwriting. I know a lot of our students will move onto other districts or to high school, and when they leave here they should know that skill.”

Students and teachers gather for an awards ceremony at Woodland Consolidated School, in which two students received national recognition for cursive skills in the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican & News

Sutherland said it was overwhelming to learn that her student, Allison St. Peter, received national recognition for her penmanship, adding that it’s quite a feat for the class.

“They all have wonderful handwriting, so I don’t judge them. I collect the entries, ask them to fix certain things, and then we hide the names so other people will judge different classes,” she said.

Special Education teacher Alexandra Lord said her student Christian Vargas didn’t want to enter the contest this year.

“He became very frustrated, crinkled up his entry, and we did multiple copies. It was a great story that had such a happy ending, and he is actually quite grateful that he participated. He’s quite an artist, which goes along with this well because cursive is very artistic,” she said.

Students’ entries included writing the sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which contains all letters of the alphabet. Lord said that Vargas was making fun of the sentence by the time he submitted his final entry.

Woodland Consolidated School third-grader Allison St. Peter’s entry in the Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest was recognized as having the best cursive handwriting among third-graders in public and private schools throughout the country. Credit: Courtesy of Woodland Consolidated School

“He would say ‘I never want to talk about a brown fox again!’ He has a great sense of humor,” Lord said.

Prior to entering the contest, schools across the country hold their own handwriting contests and a winner from each grade is then chosen to enter the state competition. Zaner-Bloser then chooses the two best entries in each grade — one each from a public and private school — where they advance to the national competition.

Zaner-Bloser is a subsidiary of Highlights for Children that focuses on education curriculums and resources in language arts and literacy. The organization has held a national handwriting contest since 1981 to celebrate the importance of handwriting in print and cursive, and to celebrate students across the country for their abilities.