New book study fosters conversation on success

Graphics by Becca Hunter

Srinidhi Valathappan | The Chronicle

Mason High School (MHS) is full of students who strive for success at everything the school has to offer including the brand new book study. 

This relentless drive often brings with it stress, burnout and a highly competitive culture that can take a toll on the well-being of students. Senior Nura Salem is a first-year student leader on the Inclusive Excellence (IE) team who has experienced first-hand the culture that comes with a competitive school like MHS. Salem said that the wide variety of activities, while creating

bonding and opportunities for growth, can also lead to increased pressure to participate in as much as possible.

“At a small school, you can easily be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s not as easy at Mason,” Salem said. “Even if you’re a big fish, you’re in an even bigger pond. With almost 4,000 students, some people just get swept along.”

In a bid to continue addressing these concerns and promote a more holistic approach to success, MHS has launched a district-wide book study program centered around the book “Thrivers” by Dr. Michele Borba. The book is centered around the seven traits Dr. Borba identified as needed characteristics for a student’s lifelong success —confidence, empathy, self-

control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance and optimism. It was selected after Learner & Family Engagement Administrator Dr. Robyn Jordan and three students attended the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Conference in March 2023.

Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Cooper said the district was spurred into action after he was approached by students aware of the pressing need for change, who approached him with possible additions to the ongoing mission to aid mental health at MHS. Their pleas

served as a catalyst for the district’s commitment to improving mental health and well-being within the school community. As a result, the district implemented significant changes, including revisions to the GPA system, the elimination of class rank and the removal of valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions. Cooper said that these measures were not just about policy changes, but also about fostering a deeper understanding of students’ diverse experiences.

“[The changes] broaden our understanding of different stories so that we can have a conversation that leads to curiosity,” Cooper said.

Jordan, who played a key role in selecting “Thrivers,” wanted to incorporate the book into CommUNITY Conversations, which are opportunities for community members to talk with the

superintendent and other members of the Mason City Schools leadership team.

“The journey toward a more empathetic and inclusive school culture begins with understanding and dialogue,” Jordan said. “‘Thrivers’ offers a meaningful framework for our students and educators to engage in these crucial conversations and take meaningful actions.”

The book complements the district’s work on Journey to 2030 and Portrait of a Graduate, initiatives to define what values and skills Comets need to thrive in the future. In terms of structuring the book study, various options were made available to participants, including

a self-study, a virtual small-group and an in-person small-group. So far, 266 community members have signed up, with 161 of those electing to participate in small groups.

“We wanted to make it as flexible as possible, so families could find their best fit,” Jordan said.

The self-led option comes with an online resource supplement designed by Jordan, and is targeted primarily towards members who want an asynchronous option. In-person small groups meet monthly with the help of volunteer facilitators who are given timelines and discussion prompts. The virtual small group engages in similar discussions, but over Zoom.

“The more that we can do to build opportunities for people to come together and create meaningful connections, it helps create a sense of belonging and connection with families and the community school district,” Jordan said.

“Thrivers” has been well-received by students and educators alike. Sophomore Eliana Charpentier, a student leader on the IE and Big Rock teams, is part of the book study, and found the book more valuable than she initially expected.

“I thought it was going to be very boring, very straightforward, but I really like all the stories that they added,” Charpentier said. “I feel like it gives a lot of perspective.”

The book study also opened with a kickoff event, which Jordan described as a way to “build energy and momentum” around the book. Although not required, there were still high levels of participation.

Charpentier was a student facilitator for this event on Sept. 14, which she said encouraged creativity and curiosity among attendees, who ranged from elementary students to adults. Her station’s task was to write down every single thing possible with a paperclip, resulting in a wide variety of ideas, from a Smurf-sized table to a hamster cage.

“It was incredible,” Charpentier said. “I never would have thought of these ideas, and they were all so unique.”

AP Microeconomics, Hope Squad and Comet Connections teacher Brandon Sethi, who is participating in the book study, said he feels that another much-needed focus of the book is on empathy.

“Society as a whole has lost empathy,” Sethi said. “Now, if [you] don’t like somebody, [you] can make a comment on Instagram and hide behind it. People forget that the person on the receiving end is a real person.”

Sethi has also noticed the impact of reading the book through the lens of being a teacher and an educator. He said that in this role, his biggest takeaways have been to “keep things in perspective and meet kids where they are.”

“[As a teacher], it can be as simple as me understanding that turning in the assignment a day later really isn’t that big of a deal,” Sethi said.

Charpentier said she has also noticed the simplicity of applying principles from the book, working them into her job working with children as a babysitter. 

“I try to instill empathy in them,” Charpentier said. “I try to say, ‘How do you think that makes [her] feel?’ instead of just ‘Hey, stop leaving her out.’”

Jordan has also emphasized the importance of continually applying the learnings from the book study, and referred to the book as an ongoing guide rather than a one-time read.

“We’re thrilled to have community members participating and reading the book, but there’s a call to action to implement it in our lives and community,” Jordan said.

As the district-wide book study of “Thrivers” continues to generate conversations and inspire actions aimed at fostering a thriving, empathetic and supportive environment for students at MHS, Jordan said it is important to remember the real impact the book could have.

“It tells human stories, it talks about research studies, and it shares strategies,” Jordan said. “If we want to be a community of wellness, the strategies in “Thrivers” are what we have to take action on.”