Local Schoolchildren Connect Through LOU Pen Pal Project

More than 800 students helped write letters in literacy-based event

Edy Dingus of the LOU Reads Coalition explains the Pen Pal Project to children at Lafayette Lower Elementary School. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – More than 800 children across Lafayette County received handwritten messages from other local children recently as part of the first-ever Lafayette-Oxford-University Pen Pal Project.

Co-sponsored by multiple organizations – including the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading at the University of Mississippi, the Lafayette County Literacy Council and the United Way’s LOU Reads Coalition – the project connected K-4 classrooms in the Lafayette County School District, Oxford School District and Magnolia Montessori School.

It kicked off March 2 as part of Read Across America Day and ended March 6, when the final letters were delivered.

“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, which is the birthday of American writer and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Many classes celebrated by reading a book aloud 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!” As part of their group message, the children created their own classroom mascot, an orange cat named “Mr. Whiskers” who always wears a jersey.

The group sent the letter, along with their drawings of Whiskers, to children at Magnolia Montessori School on the other side of town, who received the surprise package the following Monday and then wrote back.

“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,” said Ashley Parker Sheils, director of the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a new initiative that promotes 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.”

Each class that participated in the LOU Pen Pal Project prepared a group letter to a class at another school. Submitted photo

The Mississippi Campaign is part of a national network 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.

The campaign’s initial goal is to attract at least 10 Mississippi communities to join 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.”

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