News | January 05, 2023


Virtual book club and Harry Potter conjure inclusive connections

4 - minute read

If you can’t trust the jelly beans at Diagon Alley, can you trust the ice cream?


Hard to say. What you can trust, it seems, is the power of both food and Harry Potter – who with his fictional wizarding friends visits the cobblestoned shopping alley in London – to bring young people together.


In fact, that was the goal of the WGCU Move to Include Virtual Book Club featuring “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first book in J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular series. The club began meeting by Zoom in February and March 2022. When finished with the first book in the series, members decided to stay on and meet over the second one – “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

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At a meeting in July, club members joked about the palatability of Diagon Alley ice cream – since the jelly beans were flavored earwax, rotten egg and worse – and also shared their real-life favorite ice cream flavors in the Zoom meeting’s chat function.


Their confectionary choices were fairly similar to one another – think vanilla, birthday cake, cookie dough – but chances are the club members’ lives were not. Most participants were recruited statewide by the Center for Autism and Related Disorders and others through FGCU’s Office of Service-Learning. The point was a “level playing field” for all members. Those words were so important they appeared regularly in the “Muggle mail” they received from book group organizers.

The original spell that yielded the book club was cast by some pre-pandemic video and podcast workshopping in the WGCU studios that paired WGCU staff with local young people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their peers, including members of the local Best Buddies chapter.


The Harry Potter book club, conceived by college friends Jennifer Mackler of Lee County Schools and literacy coach Kelly Ussery of the Fort Mill School District in Fort Mill, South Carolina, promised to combine the educational and diversity-minded qualities of the workshops with a mainstreaming element. For this workshop series, many of the participants are young adults on the autism spectrum and others are student peers from FGCU. They were fairly distinct groups otherwise not likely to interact. But continuing isolation – both pandemic-related and also an issue for some autistic people – combined with the technology that has become common yielded the idea of a fairly equalizing group experience: a virtual book club.


An anonymous donor to WGCU liked the idea, too, donated $30,000, and a program began to take shape.

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“Instructors told me that the book club made everyone equal, whether they are an FGCU student peer, a young adult on the autism spectrum, an instructor, everyone participated equally,” said Amy Shumaker, WGCU associate general manager for content. “It broke the isolation young adults were feeling – through the magic of Harry Potter.”


“The Harry Potter Book Club was such an amazing experience that allowed me to connect with various individuals across Southwest Florida. I enjoyed interacting with friends online, building connections, and engaging in group activities each week,” said Morgan Calzon, an FGCU occupational therapy graduate student who participated.


Based on a nine-week curriculum created by Mackler, who works with exceptional students locally, and Ussery, who works with students in South Carolina, the resulting virtual club not only had the dozen-or-so participants talking about the book but also conceiving creative projects that they then shared. One club member rewrote lyrics to a popular song that became about the series villain Voldemort.


Minor distractions at club members’ homes created conversations: dogs barked, cats hogged the webcam and siblings popped in and out as participants met virtually as a group and then in breakout rooms for Harry Potter trivia contests and other discussions.


Discussions began on club meeting nights and continued during the week in new connections with one another, instructors said. Participants easily found common ground.


“I feel like we always go towards food!” co-leader Ussery pointed out that meeting night.


True that. For the last meeting of “Chamber of Secrets,” club members each received an “Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook” from WGCU and made a dish of their choosing. They sent photos earlier or showed onscreen on meeting night their cream custard, chewy ginger biscuits, pancakes and other Potter-inspired delights.


“I wonder if there’s a recipe for chocolate frogs?” one asked. Maybe the answer will be in the next book … or the next. The club began meeting in October about book three, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”


“We know this is something special,” said Shumaker. “Feedback from the group and parents has been wonderful. WGCU is sharing the book club information with the entire PBS system so more stations can replicate it or something like it in their own communities.”

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