Like many school counselors, Christina Tillery had trouble reaching kids during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2020-21 school year, only 100 out of 1800 students opted for in-person learning at her school, while her office remained in the building. Despite the challenges, Tillery used the opportunity to develop programming that could help her connect with students in new ways. Through many brainstorming sessions, she planned a bibliocounseling group, which she launched the next year. This group used literature to “facilitate therapeutic conversations and promote emotional well-being,” Tillery explained in a workshop at the American School Counselors Association (ASCA) conference last summer.
The bibliotherapy group brought together about a dozen students together under the supervision of Tillery and another school counselor at Highland Springs High School, a public school in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. This group read a book together and met weekly six times to discuss the themes, conflicts and relevance to their own lives. In the 2021-22 school year, many students were in the first uninterrupted school year since the start of the pandemic, and readjusting to the social world of school was rocky. Against this backdrop, Tillery’s bibliocounseling group was a hit, and she said she loved sitting back and seeing the students share and connect with each other over vulnerable topics.
Tillery has continued organizing a bibliotherapy group each year. At the ASCA conference, she discussed how bibliocounseling can be used to create affinity groups for Black girls and girls of color. Tillery’s school serves a predominantly Black population. Tillery, too, is Black and lives in the school community. “I feel like I have a good relationship with the community,” she said. Many school counselors, however, work with student populations whose race and ethnicity differ from their own. According to ASCA, almost three-quarters of its members are white, while less than half of K-12 public school students are white. At the conference, white counselors in several sessions asked about building their capacity to better support students of color. In her session, Tillery said white counselors can be co-conspirators for students who come to them with experiences of racism. She identified common systemic barriers that Black girls and girls of color face within the K-12 education system, including: racial bias, disproportionate discipline, limited representation in curriculum, opportunity gaps, lack of culturally responsive supports, inequitable resource allocation like mental health services, and cultural and language barriers.
While bibliocounseling is not designed to address every systemic barrier head on, Tillery said it can help Black girls and girls of color connect with each other about their everyday struggles. For Tillery’s first bibliocounseling group, the topics were clear: teen dating, teen relationships and teen intimate partner violence. Tillery and her colleagues had heard a lot of concerns from students related to these issues. By picking this focus, Tillery hoped to validate students’ feelings and experiences and help them navigate difficult relationships in positive ways.
The best themes and books for bibliocounseling will vary by school. Teachers and librarians can also partner with counselors to offer bibliotherapy programs. Tillery offered the following advice for those interested in starting bibliocounseling affinity groups for high school students:
- Figure out your program’s purpose and goals. Determining these will help to define a topic for that year’s reading topic.
- Rely on resources found online as well as local and school librarians to find the right book.
- Read the text in full before recommending it to a group of students.
- Gather permissions from parents and caregivers and issue content warnings pertaining to the material as a part of the permission gathering process.
- Use Google forms, QR codes, posters, and the school’s learning management system to gauge student interest in the group.
- Incentivize completion of the bibliocounseling group interest form with a raffle or reward.
- Reach out to students who are often left out of activities,or who may not have had the opportunity to be a part of affinity groups in the past.
- Reach out to local literacy groups, libraries, non-profit organizations and even social media to acquire the books for students.