Professor Barb Lawhorn & Alum Connor Sullivan Lead Literacy Project
For eight years, Western Illinois University Associate Professor of English Barbara Lawhorn has shared the love of literacy and WIU with area school children, with her English 100 students writing letters of inspiration to elementary and secondary students in the region.
This semester, Lawhorn’s English 100 students have sent letters, along with literacy kits, to 34 West Prairie Middle School eighth grade students in WIU 2021 English Education Graduate Connor Sullivan’s classroom. According to Lawhorn, her 41 students have written letters to each student to encourage literacy and share their insights about a positive high school experience and using high school as their launch pad to college.
“This project is about connection, belonging and using words to build bridges. I want my English 100 students to understand that they have incredible knowledge to share with the world, that they belong here at WIU and that they can positively impact our campus and larger community,” Lawhorn added. “This is an opportunity for our students to use a letter of inspiration to teach an eighth grader about why literacy matters to them, how it can empower them in high school and how they can use reading and writing to unlock doors and open windows to higher education and a rich, full life.”
In addition to the literacy kits, Lawhorn and English Professor Rebekah Buchanan have worked with Sullivan to create a Creative Writing Club for fourth through sixth graders at West Prairie Middle School. Lawhorn’s classes have also donated books to Sullivan’s classroom library.
“By writing letters to West Prairie Middle School students, I hoped to remind them although their school is small, anything is possible. I really wanted them to feel connected to a college student who also attended a smaller school,” said Miranda Viano, a freshman art major from Cuba, IL.
WIU Special Education Major Erin Forsythe, a freshman from Kewanee, IL, said she was excited to give students advice that she and her classmates didn’t get as eighth graders.
“I hope that these letters shine a little light on how important high school is, and how working hard to improve your literacy skills will benefit you in the long run,” Forsythe added. “Every class you take revolves around literacy, so working hard in English class will really help you. I never got told how important English class and high school, in general, were so this project means a lot to me. Giving a little advice can go a long way. “
The project was born in 2013, when Lawhorn worked with Macomb High School English teachers Molly Selders, Leesa Palmer, and Marshal Jordan to send letters and literacy kits to their junior level students. Since that time, Lawhorn’s classes have worked with grade schoolers and middle schoolers in the region.
“This project is so meaningful because I’m able to show my students that Connor Sullivan, a WIU alumnus, is doing amazing work opening minds and hearts through literacy,” she added. “This semester, many of us have struggled with new challenges, and this project allowed my students to learn that sometimes reaching out, offering a kind word and sharing our experiences can strengthen and bolster us and make us feel a part of something larger, while also teaching through our own wisdom and perhaps saving a student from learning through difficult experiences.”