- East Chapel Hill High School
Bibliotherapy Group at Phillips Middle School Blends Wellness and Literature
By Stuart Phillips, CHCCS Communications Specialist
A Phillips Middle School (PMS) weekly book club wrapped up its final session on Monday, February 6, but it was not a traditional book club, and its impact will endure well beyond the time it takes for memories of scenes and characters from the novel “Some Kind of Happiness” to fade. Bibliotherapy is a creative arts approach to blending literature discussion with guidance and strategies for dealing with aspects of mental health, like anxiety and depression – and it’s a wonderful activity to embrace both Wellness and Engagement as Core Values in our Strategic Plan.
Ashley Cates, now the PMS 6th grade school counselor, completed her internship last year at Smith MIddle School (SMS); during that time she piloted the bibliotherapy unit with librarian Gabriel Graña. Since joining PMS, Cates asked librarian Sharon Kolling to co-lead a new group with her. Composed of students from all three grade levels, the group’s 12 members gathered on Monday mornings in a cozy room off the media center, often beginning by sharing something about their week. During the final meeting, when asked what they’ve been excited about, most seemed eager to reflect and laugh, sharing their families’ upcoming Super Bowl Party; attending a quinceanera; or even selling 135 boxes of Girls Scout cookies.
“It is so important that students see themselves in books, whether the characters share similarities such as race, gender, or ethnicity, or situations and experiences like depression and anxiety,” Kolling said.
Claire Legrand’s “Some Kind of Happiness” is a coming-of-age story whose main character, Finley, is an observant preteen who tries hard to conceal, and at times deny, the reality of her big feelings around anxiety and depression. For the final discussion, Kolling asked the students why other young people might want to read the book - or what they might take away from it. “I know a lot of people can relate to Finley,” one girl said. Another said, “Parts made me feel strong emotions,” and a third student said, “The characters all made mistakes, but they all still loved each other.”
One student said, “I have yet to find a book that talks about everyday anxiety and how you can get anxiety for small things.” Another student chimed in, “Well, maybe I’ll write that book then!”
Kolling said, “During our sessions we spent part of the time discussing the book, because talking about the challenges others go through can enable us to learn about our own challenges. We spent the other part of our sessions learning about anxiety, coping skills, and strategies for dealing with anxiety and stress.”
Cates asked the students about the tips and strategies they have learned over the weeks of meeting together. “Meditation will stay with me,” one student said, while another quickly said, “I can’t do meditation. I always have too many thoughts running through my head.”
“Anxiety gets real when you leave middle school, when ‘just take a deep breath’ often doesn’t work anymore,” Cates told the students. “When we get bigger, our anxiety often gets bigger.”
As one last strategy to share, Cates introduced GNAT and DART - when you “Get a Negative Automatic Thought” you can “Dispute And Regulate the Thought”. “This actually works to shift your thinking,” Cates said. Some students shared their common negative thoughts - “I’m so stupid,” “It’s all my fault” and “I’m never as good as I want to be [at basketball, math, etc.]”. Cates explained how our brains have pathways that become stronger with repetition, and when we think the same thoughts over and over, they’re hard to dispel. “When we dispute those negative thoughts, we are reminding ourselves of What is True!” Cates said.
The students’ last activity together was to write familiar automatic negative thoughts in one column of a page and the truths that dispute those thoughts in the second column. Some students wrote one or two phrases, while others filled the page. Then their time was up, and Kolling handed out celebratory cookies before they said their goodbyes and resumed their middle school lives.
Kolling said, “It has been a highlight of this year, meeting the literacy needs of our students, as well as their social emotional needs.”
CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.