Imagine a space where teens feel comfortable discussing cultural issues, become motivated to learn, read and talk together outside of the classroom, and build trust with adults and one another. In libraries across Pennsylvania, this safe and intellectually engaging space is created through the Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s Teen Reading Lounge program.
Teen Reading Lounge brings together diverse groups of middle and high-school youth and supports them in creating a humanities-based afterschool program that matches their interests. PHC offers technical assistance and training to program facilitators and librarians; teens then work with facilitators to select novels, design activities that correlate with the readings and lead discussions. Through evaluation data collected over the course of six years, PHC has found that this framework leads to excited teens taking on leadership roles and spreading the word about the program to their friends.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, PHC presented its first cohort of Teen Reading Lounge programs that focused specifically on engaging youth from low-income areas and diverse backgrounds through civic engagement and youth identity readings and activities. Students participated at 15 public libraries across the state of Pennsylvania. All participants attended schools where 47.8%-100% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Preliminary data suggest that 84% of teens who participated in Teen Reading Lounge in 2015-2016 learned to recognize and respect differences and perspectives of others, 72% are better able to analyze and evaluate different points of view, and 64% have improved upon their ability to build on their own and others’ ideas. (Read the full report.)
This Teen Reading Lounge cohort intentionally designed programs that would encourage teens to become active in improving their community. The results? 60% of participants said that they would help their library staff develop new programs for teens, and 40% said that Teen Reading Lounge made them want to get involved in activities that would improve their community, school, or neighborhood.
Intentional youth programming leads to success
The success of Teen Reading Lounge comes from the intentionality of meeting teens’ developmental needs: providing them with a safe space and positive adult role models, and giving them the option to lead discussions and design creative projects inspired by young adult literature. When a program framework meets these needs, teens have a better chance to think critically about issues and ideas, develop social skills and improve communication skills.
2015-16 Teen Reading Lounge facilitators and librarians reported that participating teens were able to develop a new appreciation for reading; gain a better understanding of their role in their school, community, or neighborhood; make new friends and take on active leadership roles in activities or civic engagement projects.
Program facilitators and librarians agreed that the most beneficial aspect of the program for teens was that they developed a better understanding for themselves and their identity. This is likely due to the fact that each library participating in Teen Reading Lounge designed its program to reflect the culture of its specific neighborhood and the interest and needs of the teens that live there.
For example, Lansdowne Public Library’s program explored a hero’s journey and diversity through the story of Yasuke, a powerful black samurai in Japan. This provided teens with a new appreciation because they were able to see a hero who looked like them. Teens participating in the program at Lansdowne also became better able to analyze and evaluate different points of view by connecting the manga (Japanese comic/novels) they were reading to their own lives; this prompted discussions about the portrayal of black characters from the points of view of different forms of media.
Additional program outcomes include participants being better able to recognize and respect differences and perspectives of others, and improving their ability to build on their own and others’ ideas. For example, the Community Library of Shenango Valley had participants who were special needs –some with learning disabilities and others with socialization challenges. According to library staff, all participating teens showed respect for the differences and perspectives of the special needs youth, which created a safe, open, and welcoming space. By creating this safe space, participants with special needs felt so welcome and included that they continued to come back regularly over the 8 week program. In addition to reading popular young adult books like In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, teens participated in a plant and terrarium workshop with the Master Gardener from the Penn State University Extension Program, produced and recorded their own poetry slam and designed their own videogames. All participants regardless of learning ability and socialization challenges, learned to show respect and understanding of the differences of others.
On the other side of the state, in York County, participants at Guthrie Memorial Library improved their ability to build upon their own and others’ ideas while building mazes in Minecraft (a video game) and connecting the activity to the book The Maze Runner. “In the beginning the teens struggled with working in a team, however by the last challenge they were able to swiftly delegate tasks and roles and effectively solve any problems they encountered,” said Guthrie’s program facilitator Trenton Bankert.
Ownership improves leadership skills and increases civic engagement
Moving forward with Teen Reading Lounge, PHC will focus on more intentionally including civic engagement and leadership activities that will build teens skills and inspire them to be a positive force within their community. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, youth civic engagement leads to reduced risky behavior, increased success in school and leads to greater civic participation later in life.
In addition, research from the Center for the Study of Social Policy confirms that Teen Reading Lounge already has the structure needed to be a successful youth civic engagement program: “Effective initiatives respect the value of young people in public problem-solving and provide young people and adults with information, tools and support to work effectively together as partners, allowing opportunities for youth to take ownership in parts of the process, mobilize others and become powerful role models.” By having teens create their own program with assistance from program facilitators, they become excited about taking ownership/leading the process; this also inspires them to become more active and involved in life outside the library.
Teen Reading Lounge librarians and program facilitators reported that most, if not all of participants demonstrated improvement in their leadership/civic engagement skills. This was measured by teens ability or willingness to express interest in community issues, gain an understanding of how one’s community functions and why, get other people to care about a problem or issue, talk to people and explain why they should take action on community issues, and volunteer for the community. “In light of the chaos happening in our country we held group discussions and then had teens take on leadership roles by having them share how they would resolve issues if they were President,” said Leslie Stillings, director of youth services at Pottstown Public Library.
Pottstown Public Library partnered with their local 21st century community learning center to reach a larger audience of teens within the Pottstown School District. By implementing this partnership Pottstown was able to attract a larger group for their Teen Reading Lounge program. A number of older teens took on the leadership role of discussion facilitators and worked with the adult program coordinators to guide dialogue, plan activities, and be mentors to younger teens. One of the activities they helped design was a photo challenge; inspired by Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, youth took disposable cameras and documented their community. Using the photos as a discussion prompt, the group discussed how the images represented their roles in their neighborhoods and what they loved about living there. Through the program teens were also able to build interpersonal skills, which consists of valuing helping others and diversity, ability to engage with people of different backgrounds and developing an awareness of a sense of self and of one’s social and cultural identity.
Teens were not the only ones who benefitted from the program; Teen Reading Lounge served as a learning experience for the program facilitators and librarians alike. Adult participants reported that their highest personal benefits were: Getting to know teens in a different way, and expanding their repertoire of creating programs that incorporate leadership, civic engagement and/or community service into a literacy/humanities program. They also noted that the library benefited by having the ability to offer new programming beyond typical services and getting teens to interact with books and not just read them.
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council and participating libraries will continue to explore how Teen Reading Lounge can use the humanities to interest youth in civic engagement activities and inspire them to make positive change in their communities and in their lives. Another round of the pilot will launch this spring.