An Immortal Legacy Sparks Insightful Conversations

Through a collaborative partnership between the Three Village Central School District and Stony Brook University, 60 Ward Melville High School students joined more than 200 peers from several diverse Long Island high schools for a daylong conference founded in literacy and rich in educational benefits. The Living Book Project was an interdisciplinary experience that brought high school students together to learn, share ideas and collectively reflect on Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Ms. Lacks’ story began more than 60 years ago when her cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge; these cells, now known as HeLa cells, have become one of the most important tools in modern medicine, vital for genome research, progress in the field of in vitro fertilization, cloning and vaccine development. The book challenged readers to broaden their thinking on subjects such as bioethics, literacy, history, sociology, race and social class in America, cultural diversity, ethics and patients’ rights. Each attendee was provided with a copy of the book prior to the event and asked to complete it by the date of the program.

Elizabeth Kelso, event organizer and English teacher at Ward Melville High School, conceived the idea of the Living Book Project after learning of a similar program at a school in which all students were involved in a daylong experience centered on a shared story. “I wanted to broaden students’ reading experiences beyond the classroom,” she stated. “This meant not only hearing others’ stories but also following the trajectories that those stories offer us as readers. Today students can look at the cells they read about. They can talk to a physician about access to health care and hear firsthand how economics, race and literacy shape those experiences.” Speaking to the multidisciplinary aspects of the day, she noted, “Today we have Jennifer Trettner’s Ward Melville High School art students who read the book and painted illustrations of Lacks’ story. We have Mark Portugal’s music students who performed the songs of her day. We have students talking about health literacy, medical privacy and journalistic research, among many other vibrant topics this story evokes. Today this book has become multisensory and lives in three dimensions.”

The event commenced with a reader’s theater performance on the book, written by Lauren Kaushansky, another event organizer. Ms. Kaushansky’s rendering of the story offered students a way to revisit the issues and people they first encountered in the book. Throughout the day, students were encouraged to meet and interact with students from different districts. An icebreaker was followed by a series of workshops in which students considered issues centered on science and medicine, patient and family rights and writers and stories. By the end of the day, students came together to reflect on their experiences. Their reflections culminated with a student-led performance, followed by an audiovisual presentation created throughout the day by Kaleidoscope students and guided by teacher and club adviser Jessica DiIorio.

"It was interesting to hear everyone's different take on the same book,” commented Ward Melville senior Frankie Gattuso. “Since some students read it as part of a class, it was evident how that particular class affected the way they read it and their point of view.” The program met new Common Core goals in an innovative way. Ward Melville students found themselves considering science in the art course, narrative in the biology course and ethics in the English classroom.

Over 50 Stony Brook University students also played an important role throughout the day. The Women in Science and Engineering Program, directed by event organizer Carrie-Ann Miller, committed a semester internship to supporting the program. WISE students ran workshops and facilitated student groups, and a few even took to the stage. Pre-service English teachers enrolled in Stony Brook University’s Professional Education Program and their professors Ken Linblom and Patty Dunn also supported the program by volunteering throughout the day.

In addition to Ward Melville students and faculty, student outreach programs including HOPE: Health Occupation Partnerships for Excellence; HCOP: Health Careers Opportunity Program; WISE: Women in Science Education; RISE: Reinforcing & Improving Student Experiences Mentorship Program; and SNMA: Student National Medical Association, as well as students from Amityville, Brentwood, Central Islip, Longwood, Riverhead, William Floyd and Wyandanch, took part in the event.

Emphasizing the global benefits of such a program, event organizer Dr. Aldustus Jordan stated, “Research points to the fact that when alternatively thinking individuals are brought together for a common purpose, their disparities – social, economic, racial – fall to the side and they are then are able to communicate on an equal level. Today’s event focused on doing just that – dedicating these students’ collective energy toward discussing themes that are often difficult in most settings.” Building upon Dr. Jordan’s statements, fellow event organizer and Three Village Board of Education trustee Susanne Mendelson added, “It was our goal to give students in Suffolk County the chance to look through the college lens and embrace their diversities, and to step out from their comfort zones, all with the goal of having an educationally enriching experience.”

Primary funding for the Living Book Project was provided by the Presidential Diversity mini-grant SEED: Students Empowered by Embracing Diversity, obtained by Dr. Jordan and Ms. Mendelson. The SEED grant aims to create opportunities for students to engage with peers from public schools throughout Suffolk County and with Stony Brook University teachers and faculty.  The primary aim of SEED is to provide students from underrepresented minority school districts and high-performing school districts with opportunities to explore their diversity while working toward a common and purposeful goal.

There were no direct costs to the participating school districts or the individual students. Transportation to and from the event, books, supplies, a continental breakfast and lunch, along with any other amenities, were provided and paid for through the SEED grant and the generous contributions of the community and university partners.