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Loyola honors students make a lasting impression on first-time authors

Loyola press release - June 1, 2016

Loyola University New Orleans honors students are helping to foster a love of literacy at one New Orleans charter school through a program that works with first graders learning to read and write.

The project, known as “Mission Imprint,” began three years ago in an honors course that looks at the principles of Jesuit education and its emphasis on social justice. With the help of a mentor, the students create a semester-long service project that tackles an important issue facing the New Orleans community.

In that course, Loyola students zeroed in on literacy as one of the biggest challenges facing New Orleans. Since literacy is a systemic issue that won’t be solved in a day or even a semester, what started out as a short-term project examining New Orleans literacy rates morphed into an ongoing partnership between the Loyola University New Orleans Honors Program and Renew Cultural Arts Academy. Through the partnership, Loyola students work with K-2 reading programs at the charter school. Each spring, they work specifically with first graders writing stories. The final product is a bound copy of the first graders’ work.

All of the costs for publication are covered through fundraisers held by Loyola students, including sales of a calendar and note cards created from last year’s book, bake sales, and a sales promotion with local pizzeria Reginelli’s. Loyola’s Office of Mission and Ministry provided financial support to pay for bus travel to bring the Renew students to Loyola’s campus for the book presentation. And Sodexo catering services donated refreshments and snacks for the event.

The goal is to foster a love of reading and writing. And the program is succeeding, said Renew Cultural Arts Academy first grade teacher Melissa Sacks.

“The students are really invested in it. They get so excited about writing. And writing can be hard to get excited about at this age. But they just love it,” said Sacks, who has watched students participate in the program for the past two years.

The program is a yearlong commitment for Loyola volunteers. In the fall, they work as teachers aides in K-2 literacy classes to gain experience and become comfortable working in a classroom environment. In the spring, volunteers work solely with the first grade classes four days per week in 30-minute increments, developing and revising the stories and suggesting accompanying illustrations. They also worked closely with Renew Cultural Arts Academy’s lead literacy teachers to ensure that the writing and teaching techniques used were age-appropriate.

This year’s writing theme was the “United States of RCAA.” Each first-grader created their own make-believe state and used their story to describe who lived in the state and what life was like for the people who lived there.

Giggly first graders could hardly contain themselves as they shared their stories of the Mardi Gras state and the pizza state on May 17, 2016 at a “writer’s reception” hosted at Loyola. The elementary students bounced in and out of their seats, thumbing through the pages of their work and proudly reading the stories to their teachers and friends.

The program is a transformative experience for the first graders and the Loyola students alike, said Sociology Senior and Ignatian Scholar Rachel Comeaux, one of Mission Imprint’s founders. The first graders use their imaginations to create stories and learn the art of storytelling. While Loyola students, get a hands-on experience in a classroom and a chance to serve the New Orleans community.

“I feel like for the honors students, it’s a really direct form of service in working with others. It’s good to get into the community in that way in New Orleans,” said Comeaux, who plans to pursue a career in education. In the fall, she will be a teachNOLA fellow working as a kindergarten teacher at Renew Cultural Arts Academy.

“For the Renew students, when I see the second graders around who did this last year, almost every single one of them will tell me, ‘I wrote a book. I went to your school.’ It was much more of an impact than I ever expected. It made college seem a little less foreign, and a little more accessible."

Loyola's University Honors Program is the fastest-growing program on campus: In 2015-16, a record number of first-year honors students (86, up from 40 in 2011) represented almost 14 percent of the first year class. The mission of the Loyola University Honors Program is to provide an enriching academic, co-curricular, and spiritual environment grounded in the Jesuit tradition that fosters a strong sense of community and challenges our students to utilize their gifts to become men and women for and with others. Naomi Yavneh, the director of the University Honors Program, is also chair of the AJCU Honors Consortium and was elected in November 2015 as vice president of the National Collegiate Honors Council.

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