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How a social emotional learning book club can cut across cliques and connect kids

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Amy Whitewater didn’t start a book club with social emotional learning goals in mind. It came from her own passion for reading. Whitewater taught English language arts for 10 years and later became a school counselor. When she got the idea for a student book club in 2013, she enlisted support from other staff members at her middle school, advertised the club to students, sought community donations and scheduled monthly meetings. She led the charge for six years until leaving for a new job.

Over those years, the club did more than build a culture of reading. Whitewater, who spoke about the club’s success at an American School Counselor Association conference, noticed the social and emotional benefits of the club, including:

  • Cutting across cliques. Each year, 20 to 30 students joined the book club. “They were kids from all different backgrounds, all different socioeconomic statuses, kids who didn’t always interact with each other,” Whitewater said. “And so it was nice to bring them together and kind of see them connecting with each other in ways that they wouldn’t have.”
  • Creating a safe space for ideas, feelings and opinions. Kids naturally have emotional responses to what they read. Teachers can tap into that, said Whitewater. Her book club did more than just discuss plot and literary attributes; they played games based on the books, listened to music from the time and setting, competed for prizes in Kahoot quizzes and did creative projects, such as making a Netflix watch list for a favorite character or a meme related to a character’s experiences. The variety of activities gave students different entry points to reflect on the books — and to listen to their classmates’ perspectives on what they’d read.
  • Fostering healthy relationships with adults. About six teachers and staff members joined Whitewater in leading the club. That gave students different adults with whom to connect. “They didn’t all respond to me all the time,” Whitewater said. “But some of them had a really great relationship with, you know, our school registrar, and so they were able to talk to her about things sometimes that maybe they wouldn’t talk to me about.” Research shows that positive relationships with adults can help with kids’ academic motivation and classroom engagement

For educators verging on burnout, the idea of a student book club might sound great but exhausting. “No one wants another thing on their buffet,” Whitewater said.

Her advice? Assemble your army. Her first move in starting the club was a staff email asking, “Who wants in?” The colleagues who volunteered took turns picking books and planning activities — lightening the load for all.

Those adults also brought their specific expertise to different books. The social studies teacher, for example, gave students helpful context on the Vietnam War when students read “Okay for Now” by Gary D. Schmidt. And when they read “The Scorpio Races” by Maggie Stiefvater, the math teacher taught students about probability in relation to the book’s gambling plotline.


“That’s really what made (the book club) really special. We were able to have not just those different backgrounds, but also it kind of made it cross-curricular,” said Whitewater. Having a larger adult crew also meant that the book club lived on after she moved to her next job at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Some popular book club picks during Whitewater’s time were Scythe and Unwind by Neal Shusterman, The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen and Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, but she said educators should “make sure it’s appropriate for your kids, your community.” She also recommended re-reading before selecting a book to make sure it’s age-appropriate.

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