Cross-country Collaboration Through Virtual Book Clubs

An interview with librarians Laura Healy and Isabel (Izzy) Turner

Laura Healy and Izzy Turner met six years ago at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conference. Total strangers, they came from two different parts of the country (New Jersey and Florida), but by the time the conference was over, they had formed not only a lasting friendship but a unique plan for collaboration that would unite their students across state lines and through a shared love of reading.

Fast forward to today, and they’re colleagues working together to increase student collaboration using a virtual book club that is way ahead of its time. 

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today! Let’s start by talking about how the two of you met.

Healy: Isabelle and I met when we participated in the first Follett challenge in 2011. We were both media specialists at the time. Izzy worked in Ocoee, Florida and I was teaching in Wayne, New Jersey. We were two of six national winners that year.

For those who don’t know, could you tell us what the Follett Challenge is?

Turner: Sure! The Follett Challenge is a nationwide contest where K-12 educators can share their stories of innovation. It’s a chance to earn grants for our schools and classrooms, sponsored by Follet School Solutions.

Healy: Izzy was awarded $35,000 for her school, and I won $10,000 for mine with my “most popular video” entry.

How did you decide where the grant money should go?

Turner: We started by looking for areas in need. At the time, I was supporting seven grade levels on about four dollars per child, per year. If you’re lucky enough to have a great PTA you might get funds that way. But we were a high poverty school—still high performing though—so community funding isn’t always guaranteed.

We were constantly analyzing what we needed, like books on drawing and art to support our extra-curriculars, but I wanted to know what the kids were interested in. So, I had them tell us what they wanted, and polled the teachers as well. We were able to purchase everything on the kids’ wish list. It was like Christmas for two months!

Talk to us about being invited to the AASL conference with the other winners. What was that like?   

Healy: After the win, Follett flew our teams out to Minnesota where the conference was held six years ago.  

Turner: We were the only two elementary educators among the group, so that was our first commonality. And when I put out a request for collaboration, Laura was the only one who responded. We found out that our classroom demographics were very similar at the time. And we both had pre-k kids as well.

And that’s how the cross-country collaboration began?

Healy: Exactly! We did some brainstorming and came up with the idea for our virtual book club. We each set up a free Skype account and scheduled a time early in the morning when my kids in New Jersey could Skype with Izzy’s kids in Florida. We’d pick a book from our online literacy environment that everyone would have access to. Then our kids would meet once a month to discuss with their fellow book-clubbers, chatting face-to face with students who were reading the same books several states away.

Turner: This was 2012 too, so pre-Google Hangouts and pre-FaceTime. We were definitely ahead of our time.

Did you use any other tools for the virtual book club?

Healy: Yes. We also used Edmodo, so we could collaborate online as well as through videoconference. It was an opportunity for our students to engage with their peers across the country in a virtual environment, both through chat and over video calls.

Who was involved in the program and how did they interact with each other?

Turner: We had activities available for reading, discussion, and group sharing that we offered to a total of 50 students, 25 kids participating in each state.

Healy: After we announced the book club sign-up, I had a line outside my office. When I opened the door, the kids ran to write their names down!

Some of the books we chose from the Sunshine State Young Readers Award reading list. We used our grants to pay for the expenses and shipped those chosen books to each other by mail. Then we had a once a month meet-up on Skype to see the other kids and talk about their reading. The kids would then collaborate online, ask and answer their own questions, and learn more about their fellow students living far away. It was really exciting for them!

What were some of the best interactions you saw?

Healy: During the winter months, some of Izzy’s kids in Florida had never seen snow.

Turner: It was funny for my students to see Laura's kids in New Jersey in their coats and hats. One time the New Jersey kids brought buckets of snow in to show them and even took the camera outside to show them snowballs.

Healy: When there was a hurricane on the East Coast the next year, Izzy’s kids sent us things for the relief effort. It was pretty amazing to see how much this experience connected them.

What’s the best thing to come from this experience?

Healy: It was amazing how easily this technology connected them. The whole program encouraged our kids to think about and develop their opinions on what they were reading.

And their participation was excellent too. Our students were so motivated that they would log in to the community on Edmodo and continue their conversations there! Through discussion, strategizing, debate, and comparison, they were able to evolve their understanding.

What would you recommend to other teachers looking to replicate similar results?

Turner: It’s so easy to do. These tools are free and all it really takes is a couple of teachers or librarians who are interested to try it out and some scheduling to make it happen. AASL is one resource among many where librarians across the country can connect and plan lessons like these. Once you connect with another interested group of learners and chose what stories you’ll share, it’s almost impossible not to build those lasting connections that arise when ideas are shared.

Laura Healy is an educational consultant for the myON Northeast Region. Prior to joining myON, she worked in special education for 9 years, and as a media specialist for 5 years at Randall Carter Elementary in Wayne, New Jersey. She can be reached at or @healy_l on Twitter.

Isabel (Izzy) Turner is a myON Cadre member. She has worked as a youth counselor, ESOL teacher, reference librarian and library media specialist. She can be reached at @turnertalks2u.