By Edwin B. Smith
University of Mississippi
Senior education majors at the University of Mississippi will read a book to area elementary school students as part of their Week of Service in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the university’s integration.
The UM School of Education is partnering with the Lafayette County school district Sept. 26-30. Seniors majoring in elementary education will visit Lafayette Upper Elementary School on Monday (Sept. 26) and Wednesday (Sept. 28) to read “Pass It On” (Two Sylvias Press, 2017), by Gloria J. McEwen Burgess, to fourth-graders.
Brandy Newman, the school librarian, will assist Ole Miss students with the reading of the book. Afterward, fourth-grade classes will receive one book to take back to their homerooms.
“We are using this wonderful children’s picture book about the author’s father, Earnest McEwen Jr., and his life-changing relationship with Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Faulkner,” said Virginia Moore, UM associate professor of education and elementary teacher education program coordinator.
“We hope this book about courage, hope and change will encourage our UM students to realize the power of education and how teaching can change the trajectory of a child’s life.”
Similar events are planned with other school districts, Moore said.
“We hopeful some juniors and School of Education faculty members will sign up as well,” she said.
Before reading the book, UM students will share a little about James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss to provide context for the story the fourth-graders are about to hear.
“For the fourth-graders, we hope that through learning about Ernie McEwen and James Meredith’s stories students will understand the value of courage, knowledge, opportunity and perseverance,” said Avery McNeece, assistant director for community partnerships in the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
“That they will be able to identify ways displaying courage can help persevere in even the toughest of situations, and that through the pursuit of knowledge they can accomplish their dreams.”
Karen Davidson Smith, clinical associate professor of teacher education, approached senior education majors about working with the Center for Community Engagement for the 60th anniversary of the university’s integration.
“We should look toward the future with optimism and with a sense of commitment to the success of our graduates through the learning environment we build for them,” she said. “It is my goal to create a community of individuals that place equal value on understanding and appreciating our difference as well as our similarities.”
The literacy project was developed by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement staff in partnership with School of Education faculty and local teachers and administrators.
“The Week of Service reading project was created to increase local elementary students’ understanding of the significance and legacy of James Meredith for our local community, higher education, Mississippi and the nation,” said Castel Sweet, the division’s director of community engagement.
“The project aligns with and supports the fourth-grade state social studies standards that focus on naming important people like James Meredith in the modern civil rights movement and explaining key events and actors, including the Ole Miss riots and James Meredith.”
In connection with the theme of “Pass It On,” organizers hope that volunteers and fourth-graders are able to identify ways in which any act of kindness, no matter how small, can bring about positivity and change the community, Sweet said.
“Ernie had the courage to pursue his dreams and aspirations of going to college even if it appeared inaccessible to him due to segregation,” Sweet said. “His pursuit of knowledge can be observed in his love for books and reading.”
Working as a janitor, Burgess could support his family while also gaining access to the university in the only way possible for a Black man at that time. He maintained his love for reading, and his quest for knowledge was observed by others at the university, including Faulkner.
“Through this connection, Ernie was able to attend Alcorn State University,” Sweet said. “Ernie’s story illustrated his courage to pursue knowledge through the opportunities provided to him, no matter how challenging things may be.”