OXFORD — More than 800 children across Lafayette County received handwritten messages from other local children this week as part of the first-ever LOU Pen Pal Project, which kicked off March 2 as part of Read Across America Day and ended on March 6, when the final letters were delivered.
The event was co-sponsored by multiple local organizations—including the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at the University of Mississippi, the Lafayette County Literacy Council and the local United Way’s LOU Reads Coalition—and connected K-4 classrooms from the Lafayette County School District, Oxford School District and Magnolia Montessori School.
“The Pen Pal Project was a way to engage children in a literacy based activity that helped to expand their world,” said Edy Dingus, AmeriCorps VISTA for the LOU Reads Coalition and coordinator of the event. “What I think is so important for all children to realize is that their school is not an island to itself. Each student is part of a greater community.”
In each participating class, teachers received a packet with a form letter and instructions starting on Read Across America Day, a day which is also the birthday of American writer and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Many classes celebrated by reading a book out loud before writing a group letter to another classroom in the community.
In Rhonda Hickman’s second-grade class at Lafayette Lower Elementary School, children kicked off the event by reading “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and then wrote a group letter. As part of their message, the children created their own classroom mascot—an orange cat named “Mr. Whiskers” who always wears a jersey. The group sent their letter, along with their own drawings of Whiskers, to children at Magnolia Montessori School on the other side of town, who received the surprise package the following Monday and wrote back to the children.
“Thousands of classrooms across the nation celebrate Read Across America Day, but Edy Dingus with United Way had this wonderful idea to take it all a step forward,” explained Ashley Parker Sheils, director of the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a new initiative in the state, which promotes facilitation of community based literacy programs. “These children live in the same county but may or may not collaborate with each other. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading wants to highlight programs like this.”
Led by Sheils, the Mississippi Campaign is part of a national network and is designed to support community engagement in literacy efforts by helping local organizations align their strategic goals. The program offers a framework centered on school readiness, summer learning and school attendance and has the initial goal of attracting at least 10 Mississippi communities to join the campaign and adopt its framework.
“Our goal is to recognize and celebrate groups that are promoting literacy in schools and in community settings,” Sheils said. “I hope children who participated in this event capitalized on the fun of reading and writing, but also that it planted a seed in them to learn that you may have friends in unlikely places, even in a small community.