If you ask me, one of the best parts of being a school counselor is having the freedom to get creative with student interventions. There’s no denying that factors such as full schedules, limited resources, and high student-to-counselor ratios can influence service delivery, but choose to think outside the box despite potential barriers; with careful planning and willingness to endure some trial-and-error, you may be surprised at what you can make work! This year, I decided to try running a couple of book clubs with some of my upper elementary students. Using longer works of literature to teach and reinforce social skills has been a fun and challenging experience. Like most new things I try, I’m learning a lot about what NOT to do.
When I first decided that I wanted to try book clubs with students, I knew that nailing down a book club “recipe” that would be the best fit for my own comprehensive school counseling program was going to involve lots of tweaking and some personalization to truly make it my own. Starting from scratch didn’t make sense; there had to be other school counselors out there who were creatively and efficiently running book clubs. Learning from their mistakes and successes would provide a great roadmap to get me started.
Enter Angela Poovey. Angela is an elementary school counselor in North Carolina, and she blogs about her experience as a school counselor at lifeontheflycounselor.blogspot. Her post on book clubs includes information about what has worked for her with her own students, titles of literature she’s used in her book clubs, and resources that she’s developed to keep her book clubs organized and focused on social emotional learning. I reached out to Angela to learn more about her take on running book clubs for students, and she generously agreed for her responses to be shared here on ASCA Scene. Enjoy learning from Angela; I hope her knowledge will inspire you to try out a book club with your own students.
Q: What are the greatest challenges you experience in developing and running book clubs with students?
AP: Depending on the length of the book, book clubs can take quite a while to complete. It is important to have a real need for the topic with a specific student group before a school counselor commits to running a book club and allocating that time to one intervention. I often try other counseling interventions such as conflict resolution or individual behavior modification before I implement a book club.
Q: Where do you get your ideas for books to select for book club?
AP: I start out with the need that I have to address, such as relational aggression, anxiety, or behavior of fifth grade boys, before I begin researching book titles. I am always looking for at least four characteristics in any book I choose: developmentally appropriate themes and language, a "just right" reading level for my students, characters with struggles my students can relate to, and characters that model some form of problem-solving or coping skills when faced with challenges. It takes a lot of trial-and-error to find the perfect book. Luckily, I subscribe to several book newsletters, peruse a lot of book reviews, and love to read myself!
Q: Getting enough materials/copies of books can take some creativity! How do you make it work to purchase enough books for all members?
AP: I have been fortunate to be able to access grants through DonorsChoose, my local electric cooperative, PTO grants, and my principal for my books. A few years ago, I did start to realize that space was going to become an issue and got creative about writing a grant for Kindles so I could begin to use e-books for future book clubs. The e-copies have been extremely convenient and are also much less expensive to download.
Q: I've just started running book clubs, and I've found it's challenging to screen which students will be an appropriate fit for the groups because I am looking at social/emotional needs as well as their reading abilities. That takes things to a whole new level! What are some tips for screening students for book club?
AP: When choosing your students, I would suggest working closely with your teachers or your literacy facilitator, if you have one. School counselors really need to use data from standardized literacy assessments to ensure their students' fluency and reading comprehension skills will be high enough to participate effectively in a book club. I have also found that even if students have appropriate reading skills, they often feel self-conscious reading in front of others. I never force students to read aloud independently, but I do incorporate choral reading and echo reading so they can still practice literacy skills until they feel more comfortable.
Q: Do you find yourself collaborating with others to develop book clubs, such as teachers, other school counselors, or school librarians? Who are your best partners in making book clubs successful?
AP: I definitely partner with teachers and my literacy facilitator when forming a book club so I can identify the most appropriate students for my group. School librarians are also fantastic because they are knowledgeable about books you may be unaware of and can assist in ordering multiple copies through book fair funds or other school fundraisers.
Q: What are your students saying about their experience in book club? What have been their highlights and challenges?
AP: My greatest joy is when students love a book and are excited to read and finish the book. One of my previous book clubs read Origami Yoda, and they thought it was hilarious. They ended up making a bulletin board with tweets about their favorite parts of the book so they could share their enthusiasm with the rest of the school. It was pretty fun! I also have students that make bookmarks during book club and then end up using them the whole year. A challenge is when a student is excited at the beginning of book club but then loses steam because they are giving up their lunch once/week for a long period of time. I've had a couple of kids over the years that decided they didn't want to be in book club anymore and that was disappointing.
Q: Stories can speak to students in amazing ways. Can you describe a time where a student in your book club connected with the text and found meaning for their own life and experience?
AP: I had an amazing book club a couple of years ago with fifth grade boys who needed to demonstrate more leadership skills before transitioning to middle school. They would ask me about book club every week and wanted to keep meeting even after we had finished the book. Their classroom behavior improved considerably during and after our time together. At the end of our group, the boys wrote to the author to share what had inspired them in the book. Reading those letters was so meaningful to me! I saw one of those same students perform at a middle school band concert last year, and he came up to greet me as soon as he saw me. It was a great feeling to see him as a mature seventh grader and role model for others.
Q: What are some words of advice you have for school counselors who are ready to take on running a book club for the first time?
AP: I would start with a shorter book and make sure you plan the order of your sessions in advance. Preparation is important! There is a fine balance between sessions where you focus on reading and sessions where you complete activities that take your students deeper into your area of focus. You need to know what you are going to cover and have structure while also providing yourself with the flexibility to speed up or slow down your pace if it benefits your students.
A huge thanks to Angela for sharing what has made book clubs work for her. Are you ready to add student book clubs as an intervention for your school counseling program? If you decide to give it a try, let me know how it goes! If you’ve been successfully running student books for some time now, I would love to hear from you, too. I plan to keep offering book clubs next year, so if you know of any great middle grade novels, biographies, graphic novels, etc., feel free to share those titles in the comments.