WATERLOO — Best-selling young adult novelist Nic Stone wasn’t interested in the books assigned to her high school classes, she recently told West High freshmen gathered at the Waterloo Convention Center.
“When I was in ninth grade, I hated reading. You couldn’t pay me to read,” the 36-year-old black woman said.
Among those missions were Ancient Greek epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad “and they were super boring”. She never saw characters “who were like me” in the books.
At best, there were black male characters who were falsely accused of a crime or runaway slaves. Even many of the black female characters she met in college novels didn’t connect with her. That changed a decade ago when Stone took over the “Divergent” series and read about Christina — a character she described as brown-skinned, sassy, and brutally honest.
These books inspired her journey which led her to become a writer. In 2017, her debut novel “Dear Martin” became a New York Times bestseller.
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Grade nine students from Waterloo Community Schools have just read the book – and on Wednesday students from West High School got to hear Stone in person. East and Expo high school students heard her speak on Tuesday. In both appearances, she spoke about her novel and answered the question “How do words inspire change?” »
It is a “core question” in the district’s curriculum for year one English language arts. It also relates to the theme of student voice/self-expression for LifeLab, which was launched at the secondary level with the event.
The LifeLab program began in elementary schools in 2018-2019 with the goal of providing experiential and service-learning opportunities to all students in Waterloo Schools from K-12 each year. when fully implemented.
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“The program itself aligns classroom conversations with applied or hands-on learning,” said Amy Hunzelman, district experiential learning coordinator. “So it’s about taking what they’re already doing in the classroom and bringing it to life.”
Its initial funding was provided by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the RJ McElroy Trust. Hunzelman was hired last spring to lead the program, replacing original coordinator Madelyn Ridgeway. Prior to this role, she spent 18 years as director of education for Kaleidoscope at the University of Northern Iowa, which partners with schools to bring children to the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. for low-cost shows.
Reach all students
Hunzelman was “really attracted” to the LifeLab opportunity because of the “deeper connection” it offers students to receive hands-on experiential learning in an equitable way. “Being able to reach all the students was really intriguing and quite remarkable,” she said.
It’s rare for a district the size of Waterloo schools to offer a K-12 experience for all students each year, Hunzelman noted. “It allows students to understand our local community a little better, but also to see opportunities.”
Waterloo Schools were able to pause the program for the past school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making this the third year of funding. Hunzelman said the district will still have some of the grant money to use next year, and then federal emergency relief dollars for elementary and secondary schools will be used to fund it.
It has not been determined how much ESSER money will be allocated to the program each year. “We’re still working on those details,” she explained.
On Thursday, LifeLab also launched for another grade level in the district.
The inaugural event for all sophomores, themed Work-Based Learning, was held at Union Maucker at the University of Northern Iowa. With the help of the SHIPHT Youth Opportunity Accelerator, the students participated in a summit where they explored vocational and technical training and entrepreneurship. Speakers and workshop leaders who participated included Sashay Carroll, Associate Producer for CNN, and Keyaira Miller, Head of Product Development for Amazon.
“So it’s a busy, fun, and exciting week to kick off high school,” Hunzelman said. “We are excited to bring classrooms outdoors through multiple partnerships.”
Plans are in the works for a LifeLab experience in grade 11 on the topic of financial literacy. The program will start next year for 12th graders, who will have a main theme.
She noted that the themes unique to each class help shape the activities in which students participate. For example, the theme for fourth graders is travel. This year they visited the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque and took a river cruise.
Other themes include transportation and safety for preschoolers, farm and agriculture for kindergartners, world language immersion for first graders, ecology for second graders, “My Waterloo” for third graders, environment for fifth graders, transitions and team building for sixth graders. -graders, movement for seventh graders and college experience for eighth graders.
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“These grade-level themes are determined with a planning committee and teachers,” Hunzelman said. They choose topics based on “what makes the most sense to improve the curriculum with all students.”
The ninth-grade theme fits well with English lessons, making an address from Stone a great choice for students’ LifeLab experience.
“Being able to meet an author first-hand in person is quite remarkable,” Hunzelman said.
Stone told students that book manuscripts she submitted to publishers were rejected so often that the agent she worked with fired her at one point. She was in the “right place at the right time” to seize the opportunity that led to writing “Dear Martin.”
After his keynote address, students participated in workshops led by University of Iowa graduate students exploring the theme of self-expression in a variety of ways such as writing, acting, dance , music, visual arts and marketing.
West freshman Jahlil Manago said he enjoyed seeing the author speak and was interested in his book. Manago is one of a number of students who weren’t assigned to read the book because it’s in advanced English and he’s taking a Grade 10 class this year.
“I really liked the advice she gave at the end,” he noted, suggesting it applies to “a lot of aspects” for many professions students can aspire to.
Those who want to write professionally, Stone advised, should be avid readers. They should take the time to write “for the sake of writing” while watching and listening to the people around them. She also encouraged students to take their own ideas and experiences seriously.
“The things you say are vital. Every time you walk into a room, you change it,” Stone said.
“As an individual, you have a story. You are creating a story.