Wendy Bills began noticing chicken scratches and illegible scribbles about two years ago.
The Murray School District's supervisor of At-Risk Programs saw a flood of referrals for students needing occupational therapy for their poor penmanship.
"When I started looking into handwriting last year because of all the referrals, it was amazing how differently people were teaching it: different materials, different worksheets," Bills said. "I just got a strong impression to standardize what we're doing so our kids have every chance in the world [to learn to hand-write neatly]."
Murray District schools teach penmanship using the Zaner-Bloser style. Many school districts buy handwriting books and materials from Ohio-headquartered Zaner-Bloser, owned by Highlights magazine, but few request workshops on how to teach it properly, another service Zaner-Bloser provides.
With bad handwriting seemingly on the rise in Murray District, Bills decided to send for the Zaner-Bloser instructors. The educational supplies company recently held a four-hour workshop at district offices designed for preschool and special-education teachers. They learned ways to teach youngsters to prepare to be good hand-writers before they ever pick up a pencil, using songs, activities and materials such as Wikki Stix, bendable sticks kids can manipulate to help them learn shapes and build dexterity.
Teachers stood, danced, wiggled, and made shapes with their bodies, and a few brave individuals lowered to the ground and made circles with their feet, as if peddling a bicycle. Colleagues giggled as they watched, remarking how much fun kids would have learning shapes to create letters by using their whole bodies.
They learned it's important to teach kids the four basic strokes (vertical stroke, horizontal stroke, circle and slanted line) before asking them to try to write a letter.
"If you can draw those four shapes," said Zaner-Bloser's Allison Williams, "you can write any of our letters."
Williams said it's about much more than legibility. It's about literacy. Students learn the letters much better if they write them repeatedly and don't merely press a keyboard button.
"People think with all the technology, we don't need handwriting," said Jennifer Gotkin of Zaner-Bloser. "But when we invented bicycles and cars, we didn't stop teaching our 1-year-olds how to walk."
Debi Evans, manager of the Murray Early Childhood Education Center, was one of the educators willing to scoot across the floor on her backside during an activity.
"It's a good reminder of the foundations we have to set for future success for our students," Evans said. "We want to keep on the cutting edge of what the children need at this age. I think the songs and movements are really good, and I haven't heard the four basic strokes pointed out."
Evans hopes elementary teachers will get on board. "It would be very frustrating to go through the training, and then not have it benefit the older kids," she said.
It's Bills' hope, too. Throughout her life, she has prided herself on clear handwriting and hopes the "lost art" of good penmanship is restored in Murray District.
Not long ago, Bills sent a message to teachers to encourage them to contact Zaner-Bloser about receiving a handwriting kit. She was thrilled when she heard from the company a week later. Fifty-two teachers had requested a kit.
"It was fabulous," she said. "It shows they want the tools."
Bills thinks the district is headed in the right direction, and hopes to get more teachers involved and on the same page.
"I think we'll try really hard to get [Zaner-Bloser] back for our regular-ed colleagues at the elementary [level]," Bills said, "because if we're all doing the same thing, using the same terminology, using the same materials, just think what our kids will get."