On a Friday afternoon at TS Cooper Elementary School in Sunbury, North Carolina, nearly 40 fourth- and fifth-grade boys sat down with male mentors from across the Gates County community and opened the front page from Dwayne Reed’s book. Simon B. Rhymin’.
During the rest of March and April, the Mentors Empowering Our Wildcats (MEOW) groups continued to meet. Every Friday they read another chapter. Since TS Cooper Elementary only had one male teacher, members of the Gates County Community Partnership, along with Gates County Principals, High School Teachers, and even County Superintendent Barry Williams , stepped in to serve as mentors to the students.
“It was about how really cool it is for men to read, to build these relationships, and each male mentor shared their story,” said Lisa Wilkins ’22MED, teacher and educational support coach at TS Cooper who earned his Masters in Education. in new literacies and global learning – reading education the last semester.
Wilkins began the mentorship program after inspiration struck while taking ECI 508: Teachers As Leaders with Associate Professor Jill Grifenhagen.
Wilkins had spent more than two decades teaching classics like Charlotte’s web, but despite his love for these books, Grifenhagen’s class made him want to try something different. When she noticed Simon B. Rhymin available on the Scholastic website for $1 a copy, she purchased 42. Then she contacted the Gates County Community Partnership, along with other male mentors in the school district, to initiate the mentorship program.
The goal of the program was to help students build positive relationships with male mentors through reading and to provide a welcoming environment where this could happen.
“It was about building relationships,” Wilkin said. “It was never to embarrass a student because we all know that we have students who are not as developed readers as others, so if they felt like that, they didn’t have to read.”
In the final session, each student received a kite, which they assembled and flew with the mentors.
“Some of them had never flown a kite before,” Wilkins said. “It was really, really amazing.”
For students, the mentorship program has become a way for them to break up their normal routine with something new and exciting. It’s an impulse that Wilkins understands well, the same impulse that inspired her to pursue higher education.
“Once you teach for a while, you’re like, ‘I need something to refresh this spirit,'” Wilkins said. “To refresh that spirit, I applied to NC State for the master’s program.”
In the program, Wilkins was exposed to new ideas that broadened her vision of education.
“Sometimes you think everyone teaches like you and is in the same environment as you,” Wilkins said. “Then when you walk into a class where one of my colleagues who worked in the class said his school had 60 different languages, I was sitting here thinking I didn’t even know there were 60 languages.”
She has also learned techniques that have allowed her to increase the impact she can have on students.
“Everything lines up and fits together, so you can really understand how to help kids learn to read,” Wilkins said.
These techniques came in handy when Wilkins, inspired again by her Teachers as Leaders class, decided to work with 12 students on a poetry activity. These 12 students then submitted their poems to the Young Writers Program, and each of them is now a published author.
“We have a red light all over our city, our whole county, so we’re very out there,” Wilkins said. “We’re like tractors and farmers and that kind of stuff, and just to make the kids feel like they matter, that was just great.”
The poetry business, along with the MEOW Groups mentorship program, was a way for Wilkins to use what she learned at NC State College of Education to further inspire a love of literacy.
“I really think that spark is there now,” Wilkins said. “The [MEOW Groups students] begged all the time, “Can I please take this book home?”
At the end of the mentorship program, each student received their own copy of Simon B. Rhymin’to read whenever they want.