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FHSU Students Adapt to Changes to Prison Literacy Project

Diane Gasper-O’Brien / Fort Hays State UniversityApril 28, 2020

Fort Hays State University senior Katie Youngers said she will never forget an invaluable lesson she learned from one of her professors: One of the best qualities a teacher can exhibit is adaptability.

Youngers and fellow classmates have taken that philosophy to heart, and like any resourceful teacher, passed it on.

An elementary education major, Youngers and other students in Dr. Sarah Broman Miller’s teacher education practicum class this semester are making a difference in people’s lives while learning a lot themselves. Those students joined a criminal justice class taught by Dr. April Terry in a unique undergraduate literacy project that involves reading books to inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility, the only state women’s prison in Kansas.

The 31 students are working with 10 incarcerated mothers and two grandmothers on a literacy project which will improve the inmates’ basic reading skills and help them connect with their loved ones through reading.

The students continued the project even after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted FHSU to send students home from campus to continue their coursework online for the rest of the semester.

The elementary education majors record their book readings, modeling to the inmates what good reading looks like. They send their recordings to Dr. Broman Miller, who then forwards them to the correctional facility.

“I have learned that there are so many different ways of being a good teacher, rather than the traditional classroom setting,” said Youngers, a senior from Benton, a small town near Wichita.

The transition to online learning was nothing new for Jennifer Hutzel, who is pursuing her elementary education degree from FHSU online from Pleasant Hill, Mo.

Hutzel, the mother of four children ages 14 to 20, is a non-traditional student and admitted she was a little apprehensive at first about pursuing her degree online.

Hutzel’s  husband, Adam, is a special education teacher who earned his master’s degree online from FHSU, so she decided to give it a try. By the time the read aloud program was introduced to Hutzel, she had conquered her fears of learning in a different way than was customary to her, and she is set to do her student teaching in the fall of 2020.

The pilot project with the correctional facility started through the collaborative efforts of Drs. Broman Miller and Terry. While tossing around ideas at a leadership conference last spring, they came up with the research project that would benefit the inmate population through a read aloud program.

Drs. Broman Miller and Terry wrote a research grant to fund the purchase of Hallmark recordable books for the inmates and plan to carry on the project next year as well.

One of Terry’s students, Christian Rivas, headed up the research piece of the project. A criminal justice major from Great Bend, Rivas is in charge of assessing the participants and helping Terry enter data about the inmates.

“Being able to start with a simple concept and apply it to the real world, trying to help other people, was so rewarding,” said Rivas, whose project was featured in FHSU’s annual Scholarly and Activities Day.

While switching the project to online presented different challenges, Rivas said he learned a lot he otherwise might not have had the opportunity to experience.

“Being able to adapt when we are facing adversity is huge,” he said. “We learned to go with what we were given and make the best of it.”

The students originally planned to return to Topeka the end of this month to help the inmates record themselves reading a Hallmark recordable book for their loved ones, but that face-to-face meeting was canceled. Dr. Broman Miller and Terry are hopeful they will be able to make that trip themselves this summer. Those books then will be delivered to the inmates’ children and grandchildren.

“I think this is a really important project, being able to bridge that social connection for the inmates, especially right now,” Dr. Broman Miller said. “It’s a really good way to help people who already are experiencing a lot of trauma and give them some hope.”

Dr. Broman Miller already has seen signs of hope as she has received thank-you notes from some of the inmates for including them in the project.

Although Youngers was disappointed her class wasn’t able to help the inmates record themselves reading, she said the experience had a powerful effect on her. And she will proudly carry those lessons into her teaching career.

“I think a lot of joy came out of this for those inmates,” she said. “This has been the most surprising semester ever, and I will never forget what I have learned from my professors and experiences at Fort Hays State.”

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