Education Professor Wins Elsie M. Hood Teaching Award

Ann Monroe receives UM's top teaching honor with nominations from students

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter presents the 2018 Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award to Ann Monroe, assistant dean and associate professor of teacher education in the UM School of Education, during Honors Convocation ceremonies April 5 at the Ford Center. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Ann Monroe, assistant dean and associate professor at the University of Mississippi School of Education, is the 2018 recipient of the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, the highest honor a UM faculty member can receive for teaching.

Each year, the Hood Award honors one Ole Miss faculty member who represents the highest standard of teaching excellence and student engagement. Students and faculty submit letters of nomination and many award winners are nominated multiple times over years before being selected for the honor.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter presented the award Thursday evening at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts as part of the annual Honors Convocation.

“I am shocked and honored,” Monroe said. “I think that, to me, the most touching part of this award is the fact that the nominations came from students who took away something meaningful from their experience with me and had the willingness to take the time to share it.

“For me, that’s very special. I’m humbled that they would do that.”

During the ceremony, Vitter noted how Monroe’s professional accomplishments complement and inform her excellence in teaching.

“In reading her nomination letters, perhaps most impressive is how, through her example, she has shown her students the value of ‘paying it forward’ as a teacher,” he said. “She helps them see the rewards of teaching for their own merits, from the joy of being in the classroom to the value of engaging with students.”

An educator for more than 21 years, Monroe identifies herself as a third-grade teacher who is preparing future teachers for the classroom – a fact she is quick to point out to others. On the wall of her office in Guyton Hall, Monroe has framed photos of her third-grade classes from her first teaching job at Thrasher Elementary School in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, which she started in 1997.

Monroe still keeps up with a few of her first students – at least one has even crossed her path as an Ole Miss student. She estimates that she has taught more than 5,000 students in her career at both the elementary and college level.

“When I left my third-grade classroom, it was a bittersweet moment, but I had to do it to come here,” Monroe said.

“I still miss the opportunity to be in a third-grade classroom sometimes, but working at the university level, I don’t just impact 25 students at a time. I get the chance to impact future teachers who go on to inspire thousands. For me, that’s awesome.”

Monroe’s teaching philosophy centers on building relationships, and, that’s exactly what she instills in her students at Ole Miss. In their nomination letters, Monroe’s students describe her as “passionate,” “dedicated” and “enthusiastic,” among other praises.

“Teaching is not a one-way relationship,” Monroe said. “There needs to be opportunities for back-and-forth because your students are not going to learn from you if they don’t know you.

“I try to be a model of what good teaching looks like for my students so they can embody that in their own classrooms. I’m not just teaching content, I am teaching how to become an effective teacher. So, without modeling that in my classroom, my message is empty.”

Claire Rearick, a 2017 graduate from Diamondhead, is one of Monroe’s former students who nominated her for the Hood Award.

“Dr. Monroe values teaching and teachers,” Rearick wrote. “She has an excitement about teaching that is infectious. For any student who goes through the School of Education, Dr. Monroe’s name will always be thrown around. Students walking through the halls will advise all of their friends to take (her class).”

Graduating English education major Gaby Vogt, of Metairie, Louisiana, also nominated her favorite professor for the award.

“Although Dr. Monroe’s class was at 8 a.m., I managed to never miss a class,” Vogt wrote. “Dr. Monroe teaches with such passion and enthusiasm that you want to be in every class. Sitting in her classroom is like watching a Broadway performance.

“The stories she shared about her experiences as a third-grade teacher are ones that I will never forget. I have already taken so much of what I have learned from her class with me into my classroom as a student teacher.”

Monroe moved to Oxford with her husband, Stephen Monroe, UM chair of writing and rhetoric, in 2001 for graduate school. She started at the School of Education as a master’s student and teaching assistant.

“Stephen received a fellowship to study Faulkner at Ole Miss and I wasn’t about to let him go alone,” she said. “When I arrived in Oxford, I met with Dr. Fannye Love, the associate dean (of education) at the time, and she offered me an assistantship on the spot because I already had four years of teaching experience. We knew after our first year in Oxford that we wanted to go all the way here.”

In her effort to “go all the way,” Monroe said that she tries to “never say no to an opportunity.” As a result, she has held a series of roles at the school including teaching assistant, graduate instructor, instructor, doctoral student, visiting assistant professor, assistant professor, associate professor and, most recently, assistant dean and director of assessment.

She has also received multiple honors at the school level, including: Outstanding Doctoral Student in Elementary Education (twice), the Outstanding Teacher Award, the Outstanding Student Service Award and others.

Science education major Carly Rock of Oxford is also one of Monroe’s students.

“(Dr. Monroe) is setting the ultimate example of what we, as future teachers, should strive to be when we are teaching in our own classrooms one day,” Rock wrote. “One way I look at this award is that all of the previous recipients are outstanding professors in their content area for so many reasons, but they all have one thing in common … they started out in a classroom being taught by a teacher who inspired them.

“Dr. Monroe is that teacher who inspires us to go into the classroom and change the world one student at a time.”

Clint Smith Reflects and Reveals at UM Black History Month Keynote

National Poetry Slam champion shares historic, personal insights through spoken word orations

National Poetry Slam champion Clint Smith shares his original ‘spoken word’ meditations during the keynote address for Black History Month at the University of Mississippi. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – With wit and wisdom, National Poetry Slam champion Clint Smith shared historic truths and personal meditations about being black in America with a responsive audience Monday (Feb. 26) at the University of Mississippi.

Using the popular “spoken word” format, Smith delivered the keynote address as annual Black History Month observances came to a close. Speaking before a capacity audience in Fulton Chapel, the World Poetry Slam finalist said America, and particularly the South, is filled with “complex dualities and multiple truths” that create an uncomfortable reality that will not diminish simply by motivational rhetoric and wishful thinking alone.

“We’re in a unique place when it comes to race and racism in this country,” Smith said. “In many ways, Oxford is a microcosm of what is happening nationwide.”

Citing the United States’ long and complicated history before, during and after the Atlantic slave trade, Smith offered his reflections on a myriad of subjects. Topics addressed in his poetry ranged from uncomfortable conversations African-American parents have with their sons to unflattering facts about past presidents who owned slaves and the real motives behind the New Deal.

“Oppression does not disappear just because you removed those chapters in our history books and refuse to talk about it,” he said. “Racial stratification is not an accident.”

While the recent removals of Confederate statues in cities around the national is a major victory, Smith said such milestones cannot and should not be the end of efforts to improve conditions for minorities.

“Things don’t change on their own, without pressure or quickly,” Smith said. “Often, significant change doesn’t occur until generations later.

“We must keep banging on the closed doors because we never know when opportunities will open – not just for ourselves, but for those who will benefit after us.”

Receiving finger snaps, a sign of approval among spoken word enthusiasts, and two standing ovations, the speaker’s passionate appeals for activism drew positive responses from those in attendance.

“Black History Month is important throughout the nation, but perhaps especially important here at the University of Mississippi,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. “We have taken many positive steps to recognize our past, embrace forward-thinking attitudes, and support inclusion and diversity.

Keynote speaker Clint Smith (second from right) is welcomed to the UM campus by (from left) Shawnboda Mead, director of the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement; Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter; Nekitta Beans, Black Student Union president; and Katrina Caldwell, vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

“We must keep doing so because embracing different ideas and perspectives makes us a stronger community, because it prepares our students to become engaged citizens and because it’s deeply tied to our central mission – our purpose – as an institution of higher learning.

Shawnboda Mead, director of the university’s Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, said the committee hopes Smith’s presentation provided a memorable experience for everyone in attendance.

“As our university strives to be a leader in racial reconciliation and inclusivity, this year’s keynote address is a continuation of our educational effort,” Mead said.

A published writer, award-winning teacher and doctoral candidate at Harvard University, Smith has taught high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He has spoken at the U.S. Department of Education, the IB Conference of the Americas and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and has been featured on TED.com, Upworthy and TVOne.

Sponsors were the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, University Lecture Series, Office of the Chancellor, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Associated Student Body, Department of Student HousingSally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, School of Education, Arch Dalrymple III Department of History, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Department of African American Studies, National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Black Student Union.

Nobel Laureate to Present Benefits of Early Childhood Education

James Heckman to explain why investing in early learning is good for state economy at Jackson event

James J. Heckman

OXFORD, Miss. – Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman will present his research on how investments in quality early childhood education can yield exceptionally high economic returns at a free public event at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 25 the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Open to anyone who registers online, the event is the second in a three-part series hosted by the University of Mississippi‘s Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning. The speaker series is designed to bring leading experts from across the nation to meet with Mississippi business leaders, educators and policy makers and discuss economic benefits of quality education opportunities for children during early childhood, which spans from birth to age 5.

“High-quality early childhood development plays a crucial role in shaping the capabilities that lead to flourishing lives,” said Heckman, who received a Nobel Prize in economics in 2000. “Investments in early childhood for low-income children from birth to age 5 create opportunity without any trade-offs in equity; quality programs pay for themselves, even after accounting for the costs of investment.”

Heckman will explain how investing in early childhood education as early as infancy is a smart business move for Mississippians and use economic models to show a high yield on dollars invested into quality early childhood programs. The return on investment can exceed 13 percent per year in the form of cost savings.

Heckman’s research has influenced more than $1.5 billion in appropriations, which funded programs such as Every Student Succeeds Act; the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program; and more.

He will be available to answer questions from the public and news media following the event.

“We are extremely fortunate to have the benefit of Dr. Heckman sharing his expertise with us,” said Cathy Grace, co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning. “Our hope is that by sharing his knowledge on the importance of investing in early childhood education as a foundational part of workforce development, we will be called to take action.

“If collectively we take his expert advice, Mississippi’s economy now and in the future will become energized by investing in our young children so that we will be successful in growing our workforce.”

Mississippi does not offer universally funded public early childhood education. State-funded Early Learning Collaboratives – which comprise Head Start agencies, school districts, child care centers and nonprofits and adhere to standards from the National Institute for Early Education Research – provide early childhood education programs at 14 sites statewide, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and a professor of law at the University of Chicago, where he also directs the university’s Economic Research Center, Center for the Economics of Human Development and the Center for Social Program Evaluation. His research focuses on human development with an emphasis on the economics of early childhood development.

The first speaker series event took place Dec. 12 at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, with Virginia Tech researchers Craig and Sharon Ramey presenting findings from the Abecedarian Project. The groundbreaking study, which the Rameys helped start in the early 1970s in North Carolina, showed significant and positive long-term effects of early childhood education among low-income children.

The study, which has been replicated at multiple sites, showed that children who received quality early childhood education are more likely to have higher IQs, finish high school, attend college, hold steady employment as adults and more. Data from Abecedarian Project participants is still being collected after more than four decades.

The third and final event will take place in Jackson on Feb. 6 when Dr. Pat Levitt, a brain scientist and developmental pediatrician with appointments at Harvard University, the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, will present the latest neuroscience research in early childhood education.

The speaker series is co-sponsored by the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning, W.K. Kellogg FoundationNorth Mississippi Education ConsortiumMississippi Kids Count and the UM School of Education.

Josh Magruder Named Counselor of the Year

State association honors UM professor for service

Joshua Magruder

OXFORD, Miss. – Joshua Magruder, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Educationhas been named Counselor of the Year by the Mississippi Licensed Professional Counselor Association, a division of the Mississippi Counseling Association and the American Mental Health Counselors Association.

Magruder, interim clinical coordinator at UM’s Clinic for Outreach and Personal Enrichment, or COPE, will be honored in November at the association’s annual conference in Tupelo.

“Josh is a dedicated counselor who spends much of his professional and personal time working to help students and professional counselors,” said Morgan Bryant, the association’s president. “The skills and qualities that make him a fabulous counselor are also the skills and qualities that make him a fabulous professor.

“Joshua has worked tirelessly in the field of counseling, and this is why we chose him for the honor.”

Magruder was selected for the award for his past service to the association, which includes serving as its president and providing board supervision training for counselors, a service that allows early career counselors to earn their independent licenses.

“For me, this is all about service,” said Magruder, a native of Florence, South Carolina. “I am happy that my service has paid off to the point where I’m being honored, but I am more happy that there are good things happening in the world of counseling, and it’s good to be part of that.”

Magruder’s specialties include trauma, psychosis and play therapy, and he is working toward becoming a Registered Play Therapist. Play therapy is a form of mental health counseling that allows children to express their emotions constructively in a playroom setting.

At COPE, he serves as the clinical and administrative leader for the unit that provides a variety of mental health services for community members and training experience for UM counseling students. The clinic serves hundreds of clients from the Lafayette County-Oxford-University community each month.

“I am fortunate to work with great colleagues.” he said. “I love the day-to-day process of training counselors. That’s why I entered the professorate: to help aspiring counselors learn how to develop their skills.”

Magruder holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in counselor education, all from the UM School of Education. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor in Mississippi and is a National Certified Counselor of the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Willie Price Students Plant New Learning Garden at UM

Partnerships, volunteers help shape real food curriculum

Parent and volunteer Tess Johnson helps Willie Price Lab School students sow seeds at the school’s new learning garden. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – The seeds are planted for a new learning garden at the University of Mississippi’s Willie Price Lab School, which will allow the pre-K facility to integrate gardening and an understanding of food sources into its curriculum.

Several 3- and 4-year-olds at Willie Price, part of the UM School of Education, recently planted radishes, lettuce, carrots and garlic with the help of FoodCorps service member and parent Tess Johnson and others.

Sarah Langley, director of Willie Price, also partnered with preschool parents, UM Landscape Services, the Office of Sustainability and the Mississippi Farm to School Network to reinstall the garden, which had previously been part of the school’s curriculum.

“Tess became involved with FoodCorps and she approached us about revitalizing the space and has volunteered to lead a parent committee and organize all of the planting and harvesting events for our Willie Price students,” Langley said. “Before, the garden was an amazing space with tomatoes, blackberries, carrots and herbs everywhere, and the children were out there all the time.

“They were working with two gardeners, but for budget reasons, from what I understand, the space became neglected and we were no longer able to maintain that partnership.”

Johnson said that it was her work with Oxford Elementary School students that inspired her to help bring gardening back to Willie Price.

“I’m always blown away when I ask even fourth- or fifth-graders, ‘What’s your favorite food?’ and, if they say French fries, they think they came from McDonald’s or the grocery store,” Johnson said. “They have no idea that someone grew those potatoes and that’s how their food got there.”

Johnson also helped Willie Price students make a healthy snack of homemade hummus with pita chips and carrots on the day of the planting.

“It’s just so important for kids to be outside with fresh air, green space and to know where their food comes from,” she said.

In addition to enthusiastic parents, Willie Price also received a $500 grant from the Mississippi Farm to School Network to reopen the garden.

“We are interested in reaching out to more early child care programs with our school garden grants because we know that the earlier we can reach kids with good produce, fruits and vegetables, the more likely they will be interested in those foods when they are older,” said Sunny Young Baker, co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network.

 Langley said she feels there’s a bright future for Willie Price’s garden.

“We are partnering with landscape services, which is awesome because we have the most beautiful campus in the country,” Langley said. “They’ve been coming over to help us and just do as much as they can to help us protect the space.”

Langley also partnered with the UM Office of Sustainability to obtain compost from the university’s compost program for the garden.

Before the installation of the garden, Willie Price students learned about nutritious food and healthy living in a two-week unit on health that concluded with planting seeds in the reopened garden.

The Willie Price Lab School is a preschool facility on the UM campus. It provides opportunities for Ole Miss students and faculty to provide services and conduct research.

CELI, Local Groups Help Little Free Library Program Grow

Partners add six new book exchanges in Lafayette County

Charline Hubbard (center), director of the Mary Cathey Head Start Center, cuts the ribbon on a Little Free Library at the center as Meridith Wulff (left), youth specialist at the Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, and several students at the center watch. Also on hard are Angela Rutherford (third from right), director of the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction; Suzanne Ryals, head of the LOU Reads Coalition; and Nancy Opalko, the library’s children’s librarian. Photo by David Brown/First Regional Library

OXFORD, Miss. – The Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library has teamed up with the University of Mississippi Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction and the LOU Reads Coalition to install six new Little Free Libraries in Lafayette County.

The small book exchanges, which operate on a “take a book, return a book” basis, are at Lafayette County fire stations in Harmontown and Paris and on Highway 30 East, as well as at Mary Cathey Head Start Center, Gordon Community and Cultural Center in Abbeville and in the Community Green neighborhood.

While three other officially registered Little Free Libraries have been set up in Oxford, including those at Avent Park and the Stone Center, several unofficial libraries exist in town. That’s why the Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, CELI and LOU Reads chose to focus their efforts on communities in the county.

“We know that it can be much harder for those who live in the outer reaches of the county to make it to the public library, and Little Free Libraries allow us to take a bit of the library to them,” said Nancy Opalko, children’s librarian and assistant branch manager at the Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library.

The libraries were built by Oxford resident and Ole Miss student Harriman Abernathy with materials donated by Elliott Lumber Co. Each library is overseen by an individual steward in that community who checks it weekly to ensure it is stocked and in good repair.

“We are so excited to have a Little Free Library here,” says Harmontown resident and First Regional Library staff member Randie Cotton, who serves as steward of the Little Free Library there.

“People can just grab a book for themselves or their kids on their way to and from work or church and bring them back when they’re done. It doesn’t get much easier than that!”

The libraries are stocked with books for both children and adults. Putting books in the hands of children is a priority for the library, CELI and LOU Reads. All three organizations are part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a nationwide effort that focuses on grade-level reading by the end of third grade, an important predictor of school success and high school graduation.

One of the community’s newest Little Free Libraries is at Mary Cathey Head Start Center. Photo by David Brown/First Regional Library

In Mississippi, 74 percent of fourth-graders and 80 percent of eighth-graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress.

“The Little Free Libraries make it easy for parents and caregivers to make reading and early literacy skills a fun part of everyday life starting at birth, which is critical to their children’s early development and how they do in school,” said Angela Rutherford, CELI director.

Besides books, the libraries contain information for parents and caregivers about how to use books and other resources to develop children’s early learning skills.

“This library really supplements all we do to promote family literacy every day by putting more books in the hands of our students and their caregivers,” said Charline Hubbard, director of the Mary Cathey Head Start Center. “They love having it here so they can just pick up or bring back a book as they come and go every day.”

Little Free Libraries are a global phenomenon, with more than 36,000 around the world in 70 countries. The Little Free Library nonprofit organization has been honored by the Library of Congress, the National Book Foundation and the American Library Association. Each year, nearly 10 million books are shared in Little Free Libraries.

To learn more, visit https://littlefreelibrary.org/.

UM Creates Department of Higher Education

Interim chair Neal Hutchens plans to launch a new minor and increase campus partnerships

Faculty members serving in the new UM Department of Higher Education Faculty are (from left) Phillis George, Whitney Webb, Brandi Hephner LaBanc, John Holleman, Amy Wells Dolan, K.B. Melear, Neal Hutchens and George McClellan. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi School of Education is home to a new Department of Higher Education, with legal scholar Neal Hutchens as its interim chair and professor.

The new department, which has eight full-time faculty members, several affiliate faculty throughout the university and more than 200 graduate students, was previously part of the university’s Department of Leadership and Counselor Education. It will function as an independent unit within the School of Education.

“To be part of creating a new department is a rare and unique opportunity,” Hutchens said. “We have built a vibrant and expanding team of higher education faculty and students, and this department allows us to be a visible part of the university community and establish an identity in terms of how we serve the university, the state and beyond.”

The creation of a new department at the School of Education follows the recent growth of new online and hybrid degree programs designed for working higher education practitioners.

The department offers four graduate programs including online and traditional master’s degrees in higher education/student personnel, as well as Ph.D. and a hybrid Ed.D., which is a professional doctorate that combines online and face-to-face learning for higher education professionals.

“We are extremely excited to launch our new Department of Higher Education,” said David Rock, UM education dean. “The growth of our new professional doctorate and master’s degrees for working professionals supports the need for this new organizational unit. 

“We are also creating new possibilities for undergraduate courses in the higher education arena that may even expand into a minor in higher education for the entire campus.”

The department serves as the academic unit overseeing multiple undergraduate courses, including EDHE 105, a course taken by hundreds of Ole Miss undergraduates each year and a collaboration with the university’s Division of Student Affairs.

As interim chair, Hutchens hopes to launch an undergraduate minor in higher education, strengthen and build new partnerships with units throughout campus, and implement an outreach and engagement plan to highlight the accomplishments of faculty, students and alumni.

An expert in first amendment and free speech issues, Hutchens joined UM in 2016 after serving as the professor in charge of higher education at Pennsylvania State University. He also held faculty positions at the University of Kentucky and Barry University.

Hutchens earned a Ph.D. in higher education policy from the University of Maryland, a law degree from the University of Alabama, a master’s degree from Auburn University at Montgomery and a bachelor’s degree from Samford University.

“We have a really strong collection of individuals among our full-time and affiliate faculty,” Hutchens said. “They are strong scholars and just really good people. It is an honor to be part of this team and to serve as our new department’s interim chair going forward.”

Math and Science Center Moves into Renovated Facility

Jackson Avenue Center space will allow CMSE to operate more efficiently

The staff of the CMSE is happy to reclaim its offices in the renovated facility. Left to right: E. Paige Gillentine, Julie James, Amanda Pham, Audra Polk, Mannie Lowe, Meredith Miller, Alice Steimle, Whitney Jackson, Ashley Masinelli, April Kilpatrick and Justin Ragland. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi Center for Mathematics and Science Education has moved back into its renovated facility at the Jackson Avenue Center.

The CMSE’s offices were updated over four months after part of the building was damaged in February. The renovated office is upgraded from the original cinder block wall facility and is specially designed for the STEM education center.

“The CMSE has visitors from K-12 schools and universities around the state, nation and occasionally, the world,” said John O’Haver, the center’s director. “At least part of the perception of any organization is its physical appearance.

“The CMSE has grown so much from its origins, adding professional development, robotics and chess outreach and other activities. Having space that can be more efficiently utilized will help the center operate more smoothly.”

The CMSE’s renovations, in addition to improved aesthetics, will provide better sound management with a mix of solid walls and cubicles for individual offices. The new office space also features enhanced lighting with more access to natural light and upgraded heating, cooling and ventilation.

The center, housed within the School of Education, was established in 2006 to improve science and math education in the state but it has grown to be much more. Funded through grants and donations, the CMSE works with schools in the state to promote STEM fields to children through critical thinking activities.

The CMSE also hosts professional development for teachers in STEM fields, offers scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students and hosts camps and competitions for middle and high school students, such as the FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Competition, MATHCOUNTS, Catapult Competition and more.

During the four months of renovation, the staff occupied a classroom and a conference room in the Jackson Avenue Center.

LOU Community Named All-America City Finalist by Reading Group

Results of literacy collaboration draw national recognition

LOU Reads volunteers deliver free books to children during summer learning activities. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – The Lafayette County, Oxford and University of Mississippi community is among 27 places across the nation designated as an All-America City Finalist by the National Civic League and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national organization dedicated to improving reading proficiency among low-income children.

The finalists were honored in June at the campaign’s national awards ceremony in Denver. Also, 15 other cities were named All-American Cities, an honor that will be awarded again in 2020.

LOU’s designation is the result of work from multiple local leaders within the LOU Reads Coalition, a collaboration established in 2015 that works to improve outcomes for low-income children in four areas: grade-level reading (measure of outcomes), school readiness (measure of preparedness), school attendance and summer learning opportunities.

“Literacy is a measure of a community’s prosperity,” said Suzanne Ryals, the new LOU director of early childhood and reading development and leader of LOU Reads. “We have a lot of great resources and through LOU Reads, we are no longer working in isolation.”

Ryals, formerly principal at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford, attributes LOU’s success to the work of several local educators and community leaders. In her new role, she hopes to help improve literacy outcomes for children via data collection, assessment and continued parent engagement and workforce development.

The LOU community has some hard numbers to back up its recent honor.

The number of children in the Oxford School District who have the reading skills needed to start kindergarten has risen from 29 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2016, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education.

Some 95 percent of Oxford-area children are reading proficiently by third grade.

“I think there is a lot to be learned from the LOU community,” said Ashley Parker Sheils, director of the Mississippi Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which works with nine affiliated communities. “The LOU community has really brought people together and formed powerful subgroups around all four of the campaign focus areas.”

One example of the LOU community meeting the grade-level reading challenge can be seen in the attendance category. LOU Reads leaders have built relationships with local parents through outreach programs such as “Breakfast at the Bus Stop,” where LOU leaders bring breakfast foods to children and parents in the morning to discuss chronic absenteeism at local bus stop locations.

By building relationships and community partnerships, the impact for children has been a positive one. Some 47 percent of local second-grade students missed 10 or more days in 2011-15, but this number was reduced to 17 percent in 2016, according to locally collected data.

“(LOU Reads) has definitely moved the needle for outcomes for children in our community,” said Angela Rutherford, director of UM’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction, one of multiple Ole Miss entities that is part of the organization.

“We want to do whatever we can to support LOU Reads’ goal of increasing literacy achievement. In 2020, we want to be an All-American City.”

UM organizations that are members of LOU Reads include: CELI, College Corps, Dr. Maxine Harper Center for Educational Research and Evaluation, Horizons, Jumpstart and the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement.

Other community member organizations include: Boys & Girls Club of North Mississippi, Excel by 5, Lafayette County Literacy Council, Lafayette Country School District, Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, Leap Frog, LOU-Home, North Mississippi VISTA Project, Oxford Park Commission, Oxford School District, Oxford University School, United Way of Oxford and the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.

“This is a community that values literacy and values its children and is actively working to provide the best opportunities it can for its youngest members,” Ryals said.

‘This Book is Not About Dragons’ Wins 2017 CELI Read Aloud Book Award

Teachers help choose winner of UM children's book award

CELI Literacy Specialist Angie Caldwell reads ‘This Book is Not About Dragons’ to children at Willie Price Lab School. Photo by Andrew Abernathy

OXFORD, Miss. – Spoiler Alert: “This Book is Not About Dragons,” by Shelly Moore Thomas, is actually jam-packed with fire-breathing monsters. It’s also the 2017 winner of the University of Mississippi’s CELI Read Aloud Book Award.

Presented annually by the Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction at the UM School of Education, the annual award honors books designed for children ages 3 to 10. Established in 2010, this is the seventh time the award has been given by CELI, a center that provides curriculum support and training for Mississippi reading teachers.

“‘This Book Is Not About Dragons’ is an excellent book to read aloud to children,” said Angie Caldwell, CELI literacy specialist who oversees the award process. “This book piques children’s curiosity and creates an engaging reading experience.

“Teachers reported that the children bounced with anticipation, chanted phrases and echoed actions in the book while reading the book aloud. Teachers also stated that the children asked for the book to be read again and again.”

This year’s winner was selected from several titles, which were distributed to teachers at multiple north Mississippi schools, including UM’s Willie Price Lab School. Schools that field-tested the book were awarded free copies of the book.

“My class loved this book,” said Willie Price teacher Chelsea Walters. “They begged me to read it again and again and they talked about it all through lunch.”

The plot of the book follows a mischievous mouse narrator who leads the reader on a tour of a countryside that has obviously been ravaged by a fire-breathing dragon. The book is designed to ignite the interest of young students who can start to pick apart the narrator’s false claims that, amid all of the fire and smoke and destruction, there are actually no dragons hiding the background.

“As a teacher, I find enjoyment in observing my students actively engaged in the read-aloud process,” said Candace Gooch, a teacher at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford. “While reading ‘This Book is Not About Dragons,’ my students were predicting, inferring and simply enjoying the text. They were excited and asked to have the story reread multiple times.”

The CELI Read Aloud Book Award program is partially supported from a grant from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation. The goal is to promote reading aloud to young children as a way to teach literacy, reinforce a love of reading and help children understand the deeper meaning behind books. Winning books receive the right to be published with CELI’s Read Aloud award seal on the cover.

Participating teachers were asked to evaluate how well the texts stretch children’s imaginations, capture interest and utilize a rich vocabulary. A committee of UM faculty, staff and literacy teachers considered the results to select the winner.

“This Book is Not About Dragons,” illustrated by Fred Koehler, was published by Boyds Mill Press.