Doctoral Student's Book Explores Social-Emotional Learning Through Literature

Holly Sheppard Riesco with her new book, Adolescent Realities: Engaging Students in SEL through Young Adult Literature.
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Holly Sheppard Riesco with her new book, Adolescent Realities: Engaging Students in SEL through Young Adult Literature.

Holly Sheppard Riesco taught English language arts for 15 years in school districts across Arkansas. Now, she's returned to student status as a Ph.D. candidate at the U of A.

Riesco, a graduate assistant and Distinguished Doctoral Fellow, still has the opportunity to teach in front of a classroom, though. She works with undergraduate U of A students taking the English and Drama Methods class in the Curriculum and Instruction Department. She collaborates with professor Christian Goering to create projects for preservice teachers.

Riesco recently added author to her list of accomplishments. She co-wrote Adolescent Realities: Engaging Students in SEL through Young Adult Literature with Judith Hayn. Riesco was a graduate student in Hayn's Adolescent Literature class at UALR while earning a master's degree in Education in Curriculum and Instruction.

SEL stands for social-emotional learning. The book explores SEL through characters' experiences in contemporary young adult books.

"SEL programs are often part of schools, but Dr. Hayn and I saw it as being a part of students' literacies as well," she said. "We all read our experiences through different lenses, and by highlighting SEL within characters in high-interest novels, we thought students would be able to grow their understanding about it in their own lives."

The book is for English teachers developing curricular units around SEL. But Riesco can see it being used in other ways, including advisory classes where teachers and counselors want to use popular literature to support students' SEL growth.

"Also, student book groups or book clubs could easily use Adolescent Realities to create discussion groups," she said.

Each book chapter offers a specific SEL focus, a suggested middle school and high school book for teens to read, and guided lesson plans that can be adapted by educators, counselors and parents.

After teaching secondary students for so many years, Riesco is keenly aware of the varied social-emotional needs of teens. She began her teaching career in the Pine Bluff School District, teaching seventh grade for four years and 11th grade for one. She then moved to Lakewood Middle School as a literacy coach and a seventh-grade Pre-AP teacher. She taught in the Alpena School District for a year before taking a role in the Bryant Public Schools. Riesco taught AP Language and Composition, 10th-grade English and ninth-grade Pre-AP English for five years before being accepted into the U of A doctoral program.

She's thrilled to be working with preservice teachers. She and Goering have created various projects to help these future teachers talk about issues their students may face both academically and personally.

"The goal is to help them develop culturally-responsive classroom environments to support students' learning needs and connections," Riesco said.

The projects have fed into Riesco's doctoral research. She's researching how students learn and develop so she can continue supporting teacher and student development in educational practices.

"I love teaching, and I have always tried to develop curricular and instructional choices that fit with a particular class or group of students for the benefit of their learning," she said. "I joined the doctoral program here because I wanted to explore what choices could be made to better teachers' classrooms for their particular students' continued growth and learning."

To read more Dean's Spotlight stories and other COEHP community news, visit the College's online magazine, the Colleague. The College of Education and Health Professions offers advanced academic degrees as well as professional development opportunities and learning communities in service to the education and health systems of Arkansas and beyond.


Shannon G. Magsam, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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