A Novel Idea: Julie Hill's Tactical Guide to Successful Book Studies
As the duration of school and work closures extends, many adults are finding it more difficult to cope with the daily stress that comes with such a significant change in routine. Throughout the school year, I have utilized book studies with my staff and with parents to help build connections, knowledge, and skills. Now that many adults have more time available to read and those who are sheltering in place are eager for adult interaction, this is a great opportunity to connect with our colleagues as well as parents to provide a skillset.
While one could make an argument for any topic, assisting parents with communication, resilience and self-care during the quarantine would have both timely and lasting benefits. These topics would certainly be relevant for staff, as well as exploring mindfulness, grit, and trauma-informed practices to assist our students now and when schools reopen.
In the past, my staff books studies have taken place in person before or after school. While optional, they have been well-attended and much appreciated. The group could have a designated leader, or rotating leadership. Staff members have found the studies helpful in informing their instruction and in providing to and receiving support from colleagues. At the conclusion of the group, I encourage participants to develop a short presentation for the remainder of the staff to share some of the highlights of what they are taking away from the experience. I’ve even had a few “repeat” book studies for new staff based on those presentations.
Caregiver engagement has long been a challenge for school counselors, especially at the middle and high school levels. For years, I have offered parent workshops and info nights. Colleagues have tried coffees and lunches. But the reality is, our parents often just don’t have one common time they are available and accommodations must be made for dinnertime and childcare. I began offering book studies in an online forum that parents could engage at their convenience. My first title had 3 participants. As discouraging as that was, I know that any initiative takes time to develop. My second book study during our “normal” school setting, included 18 families. I expect this upward trend to continue as word spreads. I also found it helpful to seek grant funding to purchase the books for caregivers to remove another barrier to participation.
It is always helpful to send out a survey for input on topics, but I find that school counselors often have a pretty good finger on the pulse of parent/family needs. You also want to choose something that is an easy read and will foster a good conversation. Asking colleagues for recommendations was where I started and they have not steered me wrong!
Allowing staff input into the titles also promotes buy-in for their groups. I have found it helpful to have a “preview” copy of the book available for staff to peruse. (Then I kept that preview copy available as a loaner for non-participants following the word of mouth excitement from their colleagues.)
CHOOSING YOUR PLATFORM
Sitting in a circle, drinking coffee and munching cookies seems like the ideal meeting setting, and may still work for your staff, but is likely not practical for the majority of your parent/guardian participants. One added benefit to the quarantine is the increase in our technology skills (and let me add that I am most certainly technology-challenged, so if I can do it, anyone can!). Most of us have become experts in Zoom, GoTo Meeting, Teams, Google Hangouts, and a variety of other online video chat platforms, so if you can find a common meeting time, this may be a great way to promote interaction. But as your list of participants grows and the flexibility in schedules wanes, you may prefer to use some sort of message board. A couple of options are Edmodo or FaceBook using a private group. This allows participants to login and comment at their convenience.
In my experience, the ideal structure is to set weekly/bi-weekly reading goals and then post discussion questions at regular intervals. For example, I might ask my participants to read chapters 1 & 2 in a given week. Then every Monday, I would post 3-4 questions for comments.
These groups are designed to be psychoeducational, but can very easily turn toward a support group, so setting boundaries from the outset is critical. Like a traditional group, I will remind participants about the importance of respecting confidentiality, respecting the right not to comment, and refraining from commenting about another person’s child whether that parent is part of the group or not. It will be incumbent upon you, as the group facilitator, to craft your questions deliberately and monitor comments that veer toward therapy by reframing them toward skill-building and/or private messaging a participant.
I have found this activity to be a great opportunity to interact with my colleagues while learning new ideas myself. But it also has given me a great insight into particular families and allows the school counseling office to provide another resource to parents and families.