Summer reading with a purpose in Waterloo

Pictured, from left, are WJHS reading teacher Melissa Meyers, Sophia Spencer, WJHS reading teacher Andy Mayer and Grace Maus during a recent summer “Books and Bagels” event at Morrison-Talbott Library. (Sean McGowan photo)

During their time at Waterloo Junior High School, reading teachers Andy Mayer and Melissa Meyers, and special education teacher Sarah Renner have continually created opportunities for students to read outside the classroom.

One such example, known as “Books and Bagels,” began several years ago and allows students to come together as a club to read books during the school year and in the summer.

For the current summer, though, these teachers decided to add a twist to the program in which they are encouraging students to participate in an all-school read of a particular book.

The book is “I Will Always Write Back,” by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda.

“We are really hoping that our students will take the opportunity to read the book, but we are also really hoping that parents and community members read it as well. One of the best ways to get children to read and to enjoy reading is to provide an example at home,” Mayer said.

“I Will Always Write Back” is a dual memoir that tells the story of how the two authors became best friends through a pen pal relationship that started as a class assignment. While Ganda grew up in the impoverished country of Zimbabwe, Alifirenka was fortunate to experience the benefits of living in the United States.

Mayer said one example of this cultural difference that stuck out to him was when Alifirenka sent Ganda a one dollar bill and Ganda wrote back that the money was enough for his family to buy groceries for an entire week.

“Small things like this make the reader look introspectively at their own lives and reflect on how lucky they are, as well as what they can do to help those who may be less fortunate. This book shows how small kindnesses can make tremendous impacts,” he said.

Madison Huebner, an incoming Waterloo High School freshman, who is participating in the all-school read, said she also appreciates the examples the book gives of the good fortune people experience in the U.S.

“It made me realize how much better off we are than other countries, like when (Ganda) had to find a piece of trash to write a letter on,” she said.

In addition to the reading opportunity, the students and teachers who read the book will also be able to Skype with Alifirenka at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 12 at the junior high. Students transitioning to the high school will be able to attend the Skype session as well.

“I think it would be cool (to Skype with her) because both have come so far from the beginning of their friendship to now,” Madison said.

In total, Mayer indicated that about 20 teachers and junior high staff have read the book so far, and about 40 students purchased the book to read. Mayer said he and the two other coordinators also hope to get anyone interested from the public involved in the reading, with the opportunity to also participate in the Skype session.

The book is available for ordering on Additionally, Mayer said he will be putting a copy of the book in each of the Little Free Libraries in Waterloo — located at St. Paul United Church of Christ and outside Julie Jennings’ home on Shamrock Drive.

“I would love to think that after reading this book, students will have a more global view of the world around them and have their eyes opened a little bit,” Mayer said. “I would love to think that after reading this book, students would gain a little empathy toward others around them.”

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