A parent can be a child’s first teacher because children often learn by observation. Taking time to read to children and showing genuine interest in what they are learning in school can help reinforce education as a priority.

The inaugural Mississippi State James Patterson Teacher Education Scholars offered the following tips for fostering a child’s interest in reading:

  1. Help children find age-appropriate books on subjects of genuine interest.
  2. Letting them choose what they want to read is key.
  3. Take trips as a family to the public library or a bookstore to expose children to different genres.
  4. Show excitement when reading to a child. Bring a story to life by making up voices for each character or let the child act out the book.
  5. Encourage children to draw pictures of scenes from the book or sketch out what they think the characters look like.
  6. Establish a bookshelf or kid-friendly reading area at home.
  7. Let kids select a book to read as a family before bed.
  8. Organize a book club for your child and his or her friends.

A quality education can open the door to many wonderful possibilities for young minds. Whether they aspire to find a cure for cancer or make it to outer space, the bridge from dreaming big and doing big starts with a love of reading.

“All you have to do is pick up a book and let your imagination take you there,” explained Caitlin McFarland, a Franklin, Tennessee, native.

McFarland is one of Mississippi State’s eight inaugural James Patterson Teacher Education Scholars. On their quest to become the educators of tomorrow, she and the other sophomore education majors receiving the prestigious scholarship, funded through a gift from its namesake’s foundation, are inspiring children to reach their full potential by becoming strong readers and writers.

“Literacy is truly the foundation for every other aspect of life,” said Amanda Hayes of Ocean Springs. “Learning to read and write develops pathways in children’s brains, making it easier and faster for them to learn other things.”

The Patterson Scholars spent this past year promoting literacy in the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District. Under the direction of Tiffany Middleton, a contract and grant specialist in the College of Education, the aspiring teachers hosted a springtime writing competition that offered area third-graders the opportunity to become published authors.

The elementary students wrote and illustrated stories about character traits they felt a good friend should embody. After one-on-one editing assistance from the Patterson Scholars, all 21 of the submissions were published as a single children’s book, “The Helping Hands of Friendship.”

“It melted my heart to watch the kids’ faces light up and see how much pride they had for something they started on a piece of paper that is now part of a published book,” Laurel-native Jodie Newsom recalled.

The Patterson Scholars also engaged Starkville elementary students through Read Across America, an annual celebration honoring the March 2 birthday of author Theodor Seuss Geisel, commonly known as Dr. Seuss.

Along with reading Seuss favorites such as “The Lorax,” “The Sneetches” and “Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss,” the Patterson Scholars tested the children’s visual, kinesthetic and auditory learning abilities through a variety of arts and crafts projects.

“My group read ‘Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss,’ so the kids got to make birthday cards for Dr. Seuss,” recalled Brooke Leggett of Centreville, Alabama. “They got to color, use different stickers and tags, and just be creative with it. It helped them in really thinking about what to write.”

Promoting reading and writing as fun, beneficial activities was a top priority for all of the scholars, but Hannah Duke of Birmingham, Alabama, had another important message to share from Seuss’ “The Sneetches.”

“All of the kids made necklaces to hang on their bellies, so they could be like the star-bellied sneetches in the book,” Duke said. “We wanted them to wear those necklaces because it would help them remember it’s OK to stick out and be your own person. We went a little crazy with the glitter, but it was worth it.”

Building lifelong friendships and gaining classroom experience have been major takeaways for the scholars.

“God calls special people to do special things, and teaching is definitely one of those things,” said Mary Hannah Swan of Madison. “As we pursue different career paths, we can share ideas and lean on each other.”

Abigail Yann of Franklin, Tennessee, added that interacting with the scholarship’s “quick and witty” namesake was also life-changing.

“It was really cool to see that James Patterson gives back so much from what he has, especially with promoting literacy and wanting better education,” she said. “I’m really excited for this year and the other opportunities we’re going to have.”

TOP IMAGE: Counterclockwise from upper left: Abigail Yann, Brooke Leggett, Mary Hannah Swan, Caitlin McFarland, Jodie Newsom, Amanda Hayes, Hannah Duke and Caroline Thomas.

By Sasha Steinberg, Photos by Megan Bean