September 22, 2022  

On a Friday afternoon at T.S. Cooper Elementary School in Sunbury, North Carolina, almost 40 fourth- and fifth-grade boys sat down with male mentors from across the Gates County community and cracked open the first page of Dwayne Reed’s Simon B. Rhymin’.

For the rest of March and April, the Mentors Empowering Our Wildcats (MEOW) Groups continued to meet. Each Friday, they read another chapter. Since T.S. Cooper Elementary had only one male teacher, members of the Gates County Community Partnership, as well Gates County principals, high school teachers and even the county superintendent, Barry Williams, stepped in to serve as the students’ mentors.

“It was all about how it is really cool for men to read, to build those relationships, and every male mentor shared their story,” said Lisa Wilkins ’22MED, a teacher and instructional support coach at T.S. Cooper who earned her Master of Education in New Literacies and Global Learning – Reading Education last semester.

Wilkins started 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 her love for those books, Grifenhagen’s class made her want to try something different. When she noticed Simon B. Rhymin available on Scholastic’s website for $1 a copy, she bought 42 of them. Then, she reached out to the Gates County Community Partnership, as well as other male mentors in the school district, to get the mentorship program underway.

The goal of the program was to help the students build positive relationships with male mentors through reading, and to provide a welcoming environment where that could occur.

“It was all about building relationships,” Wilkin said. “It was never to put a student on the spot because we all know that we have students that are not as well developed readers as others, so if they felt like that, they didn’t have to read.”

At the final session, each student was given a kite, which they assembled and flew with the mentors.

“Some of them had never flown a kite before,” Wilkins said. “It was really, truly amazing.”

For the students, the mentorship program became 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 a graduate degree.

“Once you teach for a while, you’re like, ‘I need something to refresh that spirit,’” Wilkins said. “To refresh that spirit, I applied to NC State for the master’s degree program.”

In the program, Wilkins was exposed to new ideas that broadened her view of education.

“Sometimes you think that everybody teaches like you do and is in the same environment that you are,” Wilkins said. “Then when you get into a class where one of my colleagues that worked in the class said that her school had 60 different languages, I was sitting here thinking that I didn’t even know there were 60 languages.”

She also learned techniques that allowed her to increase the impact she can make on students.

“Everything just aligned and just meshed together, making you really understand how to help kids learn how to read,” Wilkins said.

Those techniques were useful when Wilkins, inspired again by her Teachers as Leaders course, decided to work with 12 students on a poetry activity. Those 12 students then submitted their poems to the Young Writers program, and each one of them is now a published author.

“We have one stoplight in our entire town, our entire county, so we’re very out there,” Wilkins said. “We’re like tractors and farmers and that kind of thing, and just for the kids to feel that they’re important, that was just super.”

The poetry activity, as well as the MEOW Groups mentorship program, were a way for Wilkins to use what she learned at the NC State College of Education to further inspire a love of literacy.

“I definitely think that spark is there now,” Wilkins said. “The [MEOW Groups students] begged the entire time, “Can I please take this book home?’”

Upon completion of the mentorship program, each student did receive their own copy of Simon B. Rhymin’, to read whenever they liked.