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A group of teenagers gather around a library table, their heads almost touching as they devote the entirety of their attention to whatever is on the table. Wandering closer, one might get the impression that they are planning a long voyage to the arctic together: what should they bring for medical supplies? Should they have brought some more climbing gear? How on earth will they stay warm or know which way to go? Later, they would weigh their strengths and weaknesses against each other before fighting to the death on a hovering platform in the sky… all before navigating through a treacherous maze located deep in an underground mine. Teen Reading Lounge is clearly so much more than a reading group, and the iteration of the program seen at Guthrie Memorial Library in Hanover, Pennsylvania, is no exception. Facilitator Trenton Bankert used activities that correlated to his knowledge of the teens’ interest in gaming in order to help them relate to and discuss Runaways Vol. 1 and The Maze Runner. Site coordinator and Teen Librarian Mike Farley thought that Guthrie could really use a program like Teen Reading Lounge, where teens could “relax and learn in a pressure-free environment.” He and Bankert hoped that the teens could have stimulating discussions amongst themselves while being liberated from the pressures many of them faced in their academic work. In that vein, they wanted this program to be attractive to a wide array of teens, and especially to those who don’t typically have access to this type of programming—or don’t typically choose to participate in it. Guthrie's Teen Reading Lounge was able to reach low-income youth and teens of varying levels of academic interest and proficiency, including those who, in Farley’s words, “ are struggling in school and… really needed this type of program.” Between the two of them, they were able to design a detailed seven-session plan that could help a diverse set of teens see and live the connections between the books they read, the humanities, and their unique roles within their own communities. Group Work and Gladers As a graduate student who not only has teaching experience, but also volunteers in the Teen Department at Guthrie, Bankert was able to determine what texts and activities would interest teens while also being faithful to the aims of the humanities and an overarching goal of community-building. This inspired him to focus on themes of conflict resolution, communication, and leadership, among others. Runaways is a graphic novel published by Marvel that explores the difficult decisions that teenage superheroes have to make once they discover that their parents are supervillians, and the ways in which they are able to create a new family among themselves in order to fight evil. In Runaways, just like real life, there are rarely any easy answers. James Dashner’s dystopian novel Maze Runner was chosen along a similar line of thought. The novel follows the story of a group of teenagers who are trapped inside a maze with no memory of their past lives. These teenagers, known as the Gladers, have no choice but to work together to escape the maze. “Not only did the book continue the theme of teens on their own making tough decisions,” explained Bankert, “but it also allowed us to take that theme one step further in order to talk about how the decisions we make and the roles that we play allow us to create a community.” This idea of community-creation is central to the goal of Teen Reading Lounge: teens can learn about different communities through the texts they read, create their own community within the Lounge itself, and then apply these skills to communities outside the library. The ability to effectively communicate and come together as a group to make decisions is essential to the creation of communities. For that reason, Bankert decided to test their groupwork skills by initially giving them survival scenarios they had to solve by themselves, and then having them work in groups to survive the same scenarios. In this first session, they struggled much more to create a solution together than they had to while working alone. “Any time you put multiple people together in a complex situation,” explained Bankert, “there are going to be problems. People are going to disagree. Conflicts will arise, and in the books as well as the real world, we can’t ignore one individual or part of the group just because it’s inconvenient. It doesn’t make the teen’s problem go away.” These frequently-given exercises encouraged the teens to be critical of how they engage with others while giving them the tools to see collaboration as an effective way of generating solutions, and not as an impediment to them. The teens worked hard to develop these skills, which were to be creatively tested in the final challenge presented to them in the last session. Empathy and Engaged play Those walking by the room in the library may get confused and wonder why Guthrie Memorial’s popular Video Game Club is meeting on Wednesday instead of their usual Thursday time. Listening in, however, one would quickly realize that the teens are playing the games in a highly structured, goal-oriented, and collaborative way as they bounce around the three-dimensional video game world of Minecraft to create a difficult maze for the other team to navigate together. During the last session of Teen Reading Lounge, the teens were separated into two groups in order to create mazes within Minecraft. This activity was directly connected to Maze Runner, in which groups of teens had to work together to navigate a deadly maze. In this activity, the teens were both the architects and the gladers. One group repurposed a natural mine within the game into an underground maze, while the other group filled their maze with portals to different dimensions and deadly traps. In contrast to the very first session, where they struggled to collaborate in survival scenarios, the teens in the final session had deepened their capacity for communication and teamwork, enabling them to collaborate over a complex puzzle with ease. The teens also used the power of play throughout their other sessions to facilitate their discussion of the themes found within the texts. For example, they played a game of Werewolf, a Mafia-esque game where everyone has specific roles and abilities which, as Bankert explains, “which makes it an ideal microcosm for discussing concepts like community, order, and risk.” In fact, during their subsequent discussions of the texts, Bankert frequently heard them reference their experience in the game in order to relate to a character in Maze Runner, saying, “It’s just like when we played Werewolf…”. They also played Nordguard, a card game where all the teens had to play against the game itself by surviving together while on a rescue mission in the arctic wilderness. The players had to carefully make decisions about what character they were going to be and what they were going to bring with them into the unpredictable landscape. These games allowed the teens to explore the relationship between personal identity and group identity, while working to develop valuable communication skills that will serve them well regardless of their interests. Why games? Gaming was already an interest of many of the present teens, and Bankert was able to use this as a jumping-off point for discussing many of the larger themes in the works they were reading. “When I start asking theme-related questions about the games or why students made the decisions they did,” Bankert says, “the students are often surprised at how elaborate their own thought processes were because normally they just do them subconsciously.” Moreover, games, just like graphic novels or even young adult fiction as a whole, are often cast as something irrelevant to critical inquiry, let alone the humanities as a whole. This Teen Reading Lounge program, like many others, challenges the more traditional belief that texts are the only way to access the humanities, which is something that is also being done by the rapidly growing field known as the digital humanities. This can be powerful for the teens, since it affirms and heightens their level of engagement with the media in which they are already invested. The power of the humanities to connect communities Guthrie Memorial was able to leverage a community they already had, an active gaming group, in order to create a new one focused around reading texts and analyzing them through the recurring themes of community, identity, and cooperative work and play. The teens were also able to experience the necessary element of interactivity that lies at the core of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s programs. While the staid portrait of the writer or philosopher who retreats from society to work and study tends to dominate popular thought towards the humanities, a more accurate picture would look like a teen who is able to develop their own sense of identity through texts and relationship-building. By studying the humanities, teens can feel empowered to make the change they want to see in their communities. This focus is also prevalent in many other Teen Reading Lounge programs, where libraries focus their choice of texts on dystopian themes like those found in Maze Runner. Teens are able to articulate what they want to see in society, which gives them the ability to see what they can do to help that change happen. “What are we going to do next week?” This was the constant refrain of the teens near the end of each session... even during the very last week! They genuinely enjoyed coming to each session and loved reading, playing, talking to, and learning from each other. Often the most important thing is for teens to have a place away from school where they can share ideas and have fun with people their own age— all through the guidance of a humanities framework. “The humanities make teens better equipped to understand each other and themselves,” says Bankert. “Through the humanities, they connect to other people’s stories, feelings, and experiences. “When we feel broken or angry or sad, the humanities remind us that we’re not alone in those feelings, and that we can work through them. It gives us hope that the way things are now isn’t the way they always have to be, and encourages us to explore the boundaries of who we are. And when growing up, sometimes that is the best lesson you can ever learn.” Learn more about Teen Reading Lounge and participating program sites across the state.
Kay Barrett launched the Teen Reading Lounge at Allen F. Pierce Free Library in Troy because she recognizes teenagers as essential to the lifeblood of the library. “I love my library,” says Barrett, who is Allen F. Pierce’s assistant librarian, “and that’s why I can say without a doubt, if we do not make this a welcoming place for our youth, we do not have a future.” Like all too many libraries, Allen F. Pierce was having some trouble with Troy’s young adult population.The library staff had hosted a few programs for teens here and there, but couldn’t quite seem to get the attendance they wanted. For a while, they didn’t even have a young adult section, and books that usually fit into the young adult genre were shoved unceremoniously into the juvenile section or into the adult section. But through Barrett’s monumental efforts, this scene transformed. In fact, she and Teen Reading Lounge facilitator Pamela Mihalik were stunned to see as many as thirty-two young people looking back at them during some days of the program! Allen F. Pierce’s Teen Reading Lounge was an undeniable hit with local teens, and this was proved by more than just the impressive attendance record. The program’s ability to connect the humanities to the STEM field, as well as its dual focus on creativity and civic engagement, gave the teens an opportunity to explore connections that are rarely made for them in school. Aliens, Apocalypse, and Outsiders Science fiction’s power comes from its ability to articulate problems of the present. This is why dystopian literature and science fiction play such a large role in many of the Teen Reading Lounge programs: these books give teens a chance to explore philosophical concepts in a fun and engaging way. Allen F. Pierce’s program was no exception, and it kicked off with Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, a popular young adult sci-fi novel that had a recent film adaptation. This enabled them to discuss how communities can thrive only on a foundation of trust and whether one can be human without the essential ability to trust others. Next, they looked into the world of Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, another thrilling book about survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The protagonist acts and appears to be human while really being from another planet, inspiring even more discussion and debate about what it means to be human. Finally, they discussed Austin Aslan’s The Islands at the End of the World, a unique apocalyptic book set in Hawaii, which engages with such themes as human interaction with the environment, Hawaiian culture and mythology, and disability and ability. This diverse set of literature allowed the teens to reflect not only on what it means to be human, but on what it means to be an outsider in society, a theme that can be readily applied to culture, politics, and current events—and to the teens’ own lives and communities. Back to the present Pamela Mihalik found herself with the tricky question that many Teen Reading Lounge facilitators face: how can these humanities tasks be applied to the teens’ present-day realities? What will serve as a link between the future and the present? For Allen F. Pierce, art and STEM intersections became the crucial link between their theoretical humanities discussions and civic engagement. This artistic streak in the program was present from the very first sessions. When discussing The Fifth Wave, the teens were introduced to a special guest artist who talked about his craft while leading an activity where they drew characters from the text as comic characters, enabling them to think creatively about representation and adaptation. Art, astronomy, and civic engagement were combined in their final project. Inspired by pictures of space taken by the Hubble telescope, the teens painted space-themed canvases that were donated to patients receiving chemotherapy at the Robert Packer Hospital Cancer Center. The program culminated in a field trip to Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh to reinforce the connections between STEM and the humanities made within the program. Barrett and Mihalik decided on the theme “Across the Universe” because, according to Barrett, “space itself is so diverse and the world of sci-fi raises wonderful questions about humanity and diversity.” This theme of diversity underpinned their literary, artistic, and astronomy activities and encouraged discussion by allowing the teens to look at themes and topics from new perspectives. Barrett and Mihalik were also conscious of the most consistent demographic of their previous teen programming, which consisted almost entirely of young women. While they encouraged participation from boys as well, they hoped that they could help promote STEM learning to young women in particular, since they are less likely to benefit from that kind of programming in school. The future of young adults in the library The success of Allen F. Pierce’s Teen Reading Lounge proves that teens often do want to be involved in this kind of programming, and it is just a matter of providing them with the opportunity and the framework to do so. Unfortunately, teens are often seen as a population that is undesirable to libraries, and they can acquire a negative perception that is based much more on stereotypes than on reality. Programs like Teen Reading Lounge can serve as a powerful antidote to these stereotypes: “They need people to respect them, listen to them, support them, and show them that they are an essential part of our town,” says Barrett. Once they are supported properly, teens can quickly demonstrate that they “are intelligent, emotional, creative, and blessings to us as much as we are to them.” The teens demonstrated this not just through their participation in the humanities-focused aspects of Teen Reading Lounge, but through their ability to engage the broader community in their program. These entrepreneurial teens used yet another art form— cooking— to fundraise, since their program brought in at least double the anticipated number of teens. They hosted bake sales, potlucks, and, most notably, a Chili Cook-off, which motivated members of the community to cook and bring their chili to be judged by the testers. The teens used the bonding powers of food to show their commitment to the program and that young people do want to be involved in their communities. Two of the main goals Barrett pursued through Teen Reading Lounge were to make Allen F. Pierce a popular destination for young adults and to contribute to teen services in the greater community. This program has undoubtedly brought Allen F. Pierce much closer to those goals, and this upgrade to teen services will be a boon to the rest of their programming— and not to mention, a boon to the greater community of Troy as a whole. Learn more about Teen Reading Lounge and participating program sites across the state. Photos by Carrie L. Geer--CLG Photography.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound is a free non-credited, pre-college program that serves veterans in five Pennsylvania counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia. About 79% of participating veterans are low-income, first generation college attenders who are at high risk for academic failure. The program provides counseling, mentoring, and academic instruction, with the ultimate goal of increasing the rate at which these students go on to complete post-secondary degrees. In 2015, through funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Standing Together initiative, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council partnered with Penn VUB to expand and enhance the program’s humanities components. This expansion aimed to help participants build vital skills such as synthesizing information, effective communication and critical reflection, all of which contribute to success in postsecondary education. Another program goal to which the humanities contribute is showing students that they have the ability to effect positive change, not only in their own lives, but in their communities as well. On a recent Friday afternoon at about 2 p.m. a group of Penn VUB students, mostly African-American men, gathered to discuss “Trouble in Mind,” a play by Alice Childress that explores race relations in the late 1950s. It was a lively scene, with conversation ranging from the play itself to current events and the veterans’ intense personal experiences of hope and connection, pain and mistrust. The discussion was part of a literature class focused on the influence of Africa and African Americans in the U.S. Students also read “Two Trains Running” by August Wilson, which explores racism, sexism, classism, disabilities, the Vietnam War, economic injustice and respect in the 1960s. After reading the play and experiencing it in the theater, the students participated in a discussion with Penn professor Herman Beavers, who is an authority on Wilson’s plays. Finally, the students visited a local restaurant to enjoy a cultural experience together while eating Northern African foods. By engaging with courses like these, with related cultural activities, and with each other, students were able to build interdisciplinary thinking skills (with an emphasis on historical perspective and social justice), critical analysis skills and given opportunities to interact with one another and build personal relationships. “There is no doubt that [the students] are more confident, and their interest and knowledge has grown because of the implementation of the readings, activities and discussions that have taken place,” said program director Diane Sandefur. Through its partnership with PHC, Penn VUB program coordinators also increased humanities offerings by adding an elective course on Peace, Justice & Human Rights which gave veterans the opportunity to discuss factors shaping human conflict, examine themes of human rights and investigate forms of oppression, injustice, and their relationship to conflict. The expansion of the humanities in Penn VUB programming has helped veterans to improve their academic skills; 80% of program participants who completed the program have improved their academic performance as measured by a standardized test administered at the beginning and conclusion of the program. The success of the program doesn’t end there. In 2013 after completing the Penn VUB program nearly 90% of participants enrolled in postsecondary courses. Penn VUB students who successfully completed the 2015-2016 program will be honored at a graduation ceremony at the end of August. Read more about the program from the perspective of the students in the The Warrior’s Journal, the Penn VUB program newsletter.
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has received a $287,500 project grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support the development of a Chester Made Exploration Zone (CEZ). The Exploration Zone is a creative, cultural space in the heart of the historic arts and culture district that will bring people together to revitalize Chester. The CEZ will give community members the chance to engage with one another, learn more about the city’s cultural assets and history, rebuild their downtown and change perceptions about Chester. “This grant is transformational,” said PHC executive director Laurie Zierer. “The Chester Made Exploration Zone will inform dialogue—in our region and beyond—about the role of the humanities in inclusive, resident-driven creative placemaking. Wonderful things can happen when we come together and shape the character of a community around arts and cultural activities.” The project will engage the Chester community in the collection, interpretation, and animation of underground history—both physically and metaphorically. Much of Chester’s history is literally underground, where newer foundations were built around walls of colonial basements to create labyrinthine passageways accessible today. For years the walkways served as storage areas; now local artists are retrieving artifacts and repurposing them. Chester’s rich history is also metaphorically underground—neither explored nor archived—and the Chester Made Exploration Zone aims to engage community members in that history. Through hands-on learning with leading practitioners in history and creative placemaking, this project will continue work begun by artists and entrepreneurs in Chester’s downtown to map the city’s cultural assets and increase capacity for civic participation in community development. PHC will lead the Chester Made project along with the City of Chester, Widener University, and The Artist Warehouse. “This project builds on the work that we've been doing with Chester Made and our Boundaries and Bridges project with The Artist Warehouse,” said Sharon Meagher, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Widener University. “In the latter, we utilized arts and humanities methodologies and activities to build new collaborative partnerships and engage Chester residents.” Widener University will contribute extensively to the project, with faculty leading efforts to engage the community in research and community-led programming. American History faculty will integrate the project into their courses; students will participate in archival research and oral histories and engage community residents in that work. English, Creative Writing, Theater, Anthropology and History faculty will work to develop community-based programming collaboratively with the greater Chester community to unearth Chester's buried historical, cultural, and arts heritage. “The Chester Made Exploration Zone will provide an opportunity for youth to connect Chester’s historical and cultural identity to their personal lives and hopes for the city’s future,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland. Devon Walls of The Artist Warehouse will provide artistic direction for the project, leading and engaging Chester-based artists, including The Butcher Shop Rehab, which specializes in repurposing overlooked or discarded items. Expanding on work in Chester funded by a recent National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant, project planning for the Chester Made Exploration Zone will begin this fall through a peer exchange with a Chicago-based group of artists. The project is expected to end in the early summer of 2018 with a community celebration of underground history. Related Content About Chester Made
With a Civic Engagement Grant from PHC, and training in the Orton Family Foundation's Community Heart & Soul™ process, Carlisle residents are strengthening their community through the humanities. Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul team members participated in many community events to gather stories from residents this spring, and they have collected more than 600 stories to date! The following photos were taken May 28, when the team held a dedicated storytelling event at Bosler Memorial Library to collect audio and video interviews, as well as written and visual submissions. Story gathering can vary from deeper or “thick” questions such as, “Tell me about your experiences with your community park” to more simple or “thin” questions like “Name three characteristics that describe your community.” Regardless of the level of engagement, what is critical is close listening and dissecting the story to find the “data” or important key points that the storyteller is relaying. In order to sort through data more quickly, the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul leadership team has developed story categories that identify common themes, including outdoor spaces, economics, and local business. These emerging common themes will be vetted with the community and, if they ring true, become Heart & Soul Statements that will inform the actions that follow. Additional project information and collected stories are available from Greater Carlisle Heart and Soul. Photos by Rachel Seitz.
From Chinese Shadow Puppetry, which tells tales of moral lessons and reinforces cultural customs, to Griots in West Africa who use anecdotes to conserve family and cultural histories, stories communicate ideas, share lessons and carry tradition. Today, one of the most popular blogs and best-selling books in the United States, Humans of New York, comprises stories gathered from residents on the streets of New York City. Similar to the way that stories can shape an individual’s outlook on life, sharing stories about your community can help to transform it. Storytelling is an excellent tool for successful community planning; it can help to engage those voices that are unrepresented and bring to light the values and interests of those living and working closely together. In April 2016 the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and the Orton Family Foundation held a workshop titled “Stories to Action” in Harrisburg. The workshop reflected PHC’s and Orton’s shared view that, by tackling community issues through a humanities-based approach such as storytelling, residents are more likely to become engaged. In fact, Orton’s nationally proven Community Heart and Soul™ method provides a framework for PHC’s work with Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities, and the workshop was developed primarily to serve as training for them. Additional participants included staff from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Orton staff made presentations on how storytelling and story-gathering can help communities build brighter futures, as well as best practices to follow during the process. In broad strokes, gathering information in story form can provide insight on hard-to-answer questions like “What does it mean to be a resident of a given community? What unifies the community? Why don’t all residents get along with one another?” And help find common ground around questions like "What do you love about your town?" and "What would you change?" The relevancy of the humanities becomes even more apparent during the data-analysis process, in which stories are examined, relevant data is extracted, and patterns highlighting what matters most to residents emerge. Finally, the analysis leads to a plan for action based on what matters most to everyone. “Storytelling can strengthen a community,” said Sara Lightner, senior associate of programs training at Orton. “If you don’t share those stories, you’re missing chances to build bridges.” The goal of Community Heart & Soul is to involve as many residents as possible, including those who are underrepresented and have not typically had a voice in their community planning process. Story gathering is the first step in engaging those missing voices and learning what is important to the community. The next step, identifying core, shared values, called Heart & Soul Statements, is key to setting the stage for meaningful and transformative plans for action. As Lightner and other Orton staff members explained it, gathering stories can be intentional, which means targeting a certain group/demographic and asking specific questions, or it can be broad, just to get a general consensus. Story gathering can also vary from deeper or “thick” questions such as, “Tell me about your experiences with your community park” to more simple or “thin” questions like “Name three characteristics that describe your community.” Regardless of the level of engagement, what is critical is close listening and dissecting the story to find the “data” or important key points that the storyteller is relaying. The common themes that emerge are vetted with the community and, if they ring true, they become Heart & Soul Statements that will inform the actions that follow. “If you don’t share [stories] you’re not going to get ideas, and ideas lead to action,” Leanne Tingay, senior associate of programs at Orton, told the group. In efforts to increase understanding and avoid biases, some best practices for the story gathering and listening include the following: encourage individuals who were not formally involved in the process to listen to the stories for data; explain to the community what the data means and where it came from; and verify the data with the residents in the community. “Make sure data points are rooted in individual stories and not ideas projected onto the story,” advised Lisa Jo Epstein, co-director of Our Germantown Heart & Soul. After the storytelling/story gathering process is complete, a Heart & Soul community’s leadership team and residents come together to brainstorm ideas about how to protect and reinforce the community’s values. These ideas then become options for action, and once these options are prioritized, they form an action plan that represents the shared values of all residents. “Through this process, the humanities are helping residents to revitalize their communities,” said Laurie Zierer, executive director of PHC. “By sharing stories, residents are opening pathways for learning and sparking dialogue that will result in the actions needed to transform their communities and public processes.”
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has been approved for a $45,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and will use the money to support a Creative Exploration Zone (CEZ) in the City of Chester’s Historic Arts and Culture District. This zone, to be located in the 500 block of Avenue of the States, will test methods to temporarily animate public outdoor spaces using local creative energy and talent. It will bolster the cultural assets and evolving creativity within the city’s arts and culture district by developing a series of design-and-build events that involve the community's youth. “With this project, Chester’s youth will have the opportunity to connect the city’s cultural identity to their personal lives and hopes for the city’s future,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “We’ll also have the opportunity to explore the role of the humanities in creative placemaking and socially-engaged revitalization.” This project will be led by PHC and the City of Chester, as well as The Artist Warehouse and Widener University; other partners include The Public Workshop and City of Chester youth organizations. The organizations will bring together local artists, community leaders, and youth to animate public outdoor spaces in ways that capture the community’s imagination, distinctive identity, and creative expression. “To see everything come to fruition with arts and culture in Chester is amazing, and we are really excited about it,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland. “I believe we can be the art hub, not only of Delaware County, but of Pennsylvania.” In addition to strengthening civic engagement among the community’s youth, the Creative Explorative Zone will raise awareness about the revitalization of the city’s downtown, facilitate and expand entrepreneurial investment, and inform and guide policy as it relates to land-use and design of improvements. “I hope this opportunity will allow us to engage the youth and show them the power of working with a diverse team to accomplish goals,” said Devon Walls, owner of The Artist Warehouse. “It’s exciting that they will be able to use their creative expression to make an impact on their community.” PHC is one of 64 recipients of Our Town awards totaling $4.3 million in support of projects across the nation. The Our Town grant program supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core. For a complete list of projects recommended for Our Town grant support, please visit the NEA web site at arts.gov. Related Content About Chester Made
Earlier this year fifteen libraries across the state launched a special Teen Reading Lounge pilot. The goal was to provide ways for teens to meaningfully contribute to their communities and participate in civically focused activities, with a special emphasis on reaching youth from diverse backgrounds, including low-income youth. Throughout the eight-week pilot, librarians and program facilitators worked tirelessly to intentionally reach and engage youth who may not normally have the opportunity to participate in this type of programming. The result? Preliminary data from our program evaluators suggest that teens who participated in this round of Teen Reading Lounge have become more interested in volunteerism and leadership opportunities in their libraries and communities. What impact did Teen Reading Lounge have? Through this Teen Reading Lounge pilot, we’ve learned that the humanities help to build community among young people. Teen Reading Lounge provides participants with the opportunity to discuss topics and issues that are relevant to them; by having these conversations, teens are better able to build relationships with one another, and this connectedness builds a sense of community. For example, Leslie Stillings, director of youth services at Pottstown Memorial Library, structured her library’s Teen Reading Lounge so that the upper middle school and high school students acted as mentors to younger youth. The older teens facilitated the discussion, which helped younger teens to feel more comfortable and created a strong sense of community. Teens who hadn’t known each other before began to mesh and form friendships; as these friendships developed the teens became more confident and began opening up more during discussions. Empowering the older teens to organize and make decisions about the program also aided in the development of leadership skills. The program also helped teens to build confidence in themselves and in their reading abilities. “Many of the participants have low self-confidence, but now they have a place to come and feel welcome,” said Stillings. “Teen Reading Lounge has definitely helped to build their confidence by finding a comfortable space within the library.” At Priestley Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland, Kim King, the youth services coordinator, was surprised at how all the kids had taken a liking to reading –not just the strong readers, but also the kids who had been less interested in reading at the beginning of the program. “The older, stronger readers have been motivating the others, and kids who had challenges with reading have stuck with it and stepped up their game,” said King. Successes and Challenges Aside from learning that the humanities can help build community among teens, librarians and facilitators also observed that low-income youth may face many more challenges than their peers. “A lot of stereotypes about these students [from low-income backgrounds] being just uneducated wasn’t true,” said Carla Christopher, program facilitator at Martin Memorial Library in York. “Our students were holding down jobs, providing childcare for siblings and running households in support of their working parents. Their intelligence just wasn’t able to be traditionally measured.” Many program facilitators also learned that the best way to grow their program was by word of mouth. “Those who signed up definitely bragged about Teen Reading Lounge to their friends,” said Christina Patton, librarian at the Greater Olney Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Lansdowne Public Library and B.F. Jones Memorial Library in Aliquippa had similar experiences of increasing participants when teens enjoyed the program. Baden Memorial Library drew a population from four different school districts –all by word of mouth. So what’s the secret? How did librarians and program facilitators make their programs so intriguing that youth wanted to tell their friends? “The teens seemed to be more engaged when the books we read were culturally reflective and they found that they could relate to the situations or characters,” said Marcela Franco, manager at the Kensington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Other librarians noticed that once they created a special space for the teens, it made them more comfortable and more likely to hang out at the library. “More teens seem to gravitate now that I am creating a dedicated space,” said Julie Mulcahy, library director at Laughlin Memorial Library in Ambridge. “It creates a safe space to gather and a sense of community among the youth.” Although these programs were successful, it wasn’t an easy task. A few program facilitators mentioned challenges in engaging participants. “It was important for us not to focus on the book for too long –once we moved into discussions it became easier for me to break barriers down by making connections with the teens,” said Keville Bowen, program facilitator at Lansdowne Public Library. Bowen also mentioned that discussing topics that everyone had some familiarity with made for easier and more impactful discussions. Sites participating in this Teen Reading Lounge pilot program were most successful when librarians and program facilitators took time to think about the program design and link it back to concrete skills. Dawn States, teen services coordinator at Martin Memorial Library, noticed that at first some teens were unable to articulate their skills and determine what they were good at. But by discussing themes of overcoming obstacles to success, they were able to name their skills and include them in visions for their future lives. Librarians and facilitators also learned that creating a more intentional connection between books and activities really brought the humanities into focus for the youth. At Lansdowne Public Library teens read Japanese comics that featured black characters; to complement their readings, facilitator Bowen worked with teens to help them draw and create their own comics based on their personal experiences. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council and participating libraries will continue to explore how Teen Reading Lounge can help youth from all backgrounds build essential life skills through the humanities. Final data on this first Teen Reading Lounge pilot will be available soon. And a second round of the pilot will launch this fall.
Today, as the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for the 100th time, we find ourselves in an increasingly challenging environment of funding cuts in education and public services, angry civic dialogue, and communication dominated by sound bites and 140-character "messages." But, as PHC executive director Laurie Zierer writes in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, the humanities and the skills they teach offer hope and focus in challenging times. Read the op-ed.
How well do you know your community? How diverse are the residents? What issues are they facing? Questions like these inform the work of PHC’s Pennsylvania Heart & Soul™ communities, and the answers are sometimes surprising. Each of the four communities—Carlisle, Meadville, Williamsport, and the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia—has carried out a community network analysis (CNA) to identify population segments, social networks, and the links among them. The CNA is a critical part of the Community Heart & Soul® method, which PHC has brought to its grant communities through a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation. Community Heart & Soul embodies PHC’s belief that people’s own stories should be at the heart of community development. Using the humanities-based Heart & Soul method, team leaders aim to uncover what matters most to their communities by gathering stories from and engaging as many residents as possible. One of the first steps is to develop a more comprehensive understanding of who comprises the community by conducting a CNA. For example, by digging deep to learn more about residents, Carlisle’s Heart & Soul leadership team unearthed small populations of minorities and immigrants they weren’t aware of. “Many of us found it interesting that some groups living in the region were not represented in the census data,” said the director of Greater Carlisle Project, Lindsay Houpt-Varner. “For example, there is a small Bosnian community in the region, but their representation in the data was not there,” she explained. The Carlisle CNA also revealed that 26.7% of residents are living below poverty level, and economic and racial segregation are the community’s largest challenges. The leadership team found that there are huge variances between the rich and poor, with 4% of the population making under $10,000 a year and 4% of the population making over $200,000 a year. “It was fascinating gaining a greater understanding of the urban and rural parts of our region and how they are interconnected through services, schools, culture and recreation activities,” said Houpt-Varner. Participants in Williamsport’s Heart and Soul project, known as Heart of Williamsport, found the CNA similarly revealing and valuable. “[The community network analysis] was helpful in understanding who we know in our community, who we don’t know in our community and who we can engage with to better understand how to make our initial connections,” said Alice Trowbridge from the Heart of Williamsport leadership team. Work around the Williamsport CNA has helped to bring various leaders, groups, and stories to light; it has also revealed the severity in the number of residents living in poverty. On average 42%-60% of Williamsport residents live below poverty level, however, in certain neighborhoods that figure grows as large as 88%. “We were shocked by the high levels of poverty in so many neighborhoods surrounding our downtown,” said Trowbridge. Poverty levels also surprised Meadville’s Heart & Soul team, which is focused on bringing together a community that has been fractured. Project leaders had been aware of the very homogeneous (90.6% white) population and that minority voices were missing from public processes. What they didn’t realize was that nearly 40% of the population lives below poverty level, and 60% of residents rent their homes. These issues cannot be solved overnight, and the project leaders know this. “It takes time for a program to invest,” said Jill Withey, the executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Meadville. Withey suggested that the city government's tendency to target a new project every two to three years contributed to the lack of change accomplished. Germantown’s Heart & Soul leadership team also found through their CNA that residents of the historic neighborhood tend to distrust their community and political leaders because of failed promises and inconsistencies. The large community of about 75,000 residents has a median household income of only $30,535; this is nearly $21,000 less than the median household income in the U.S. Contributing to these economic issues is the unemployment rate, which is about 5% higher than that of Pennsylvania overall. But while Germantown Heart & Soul team members were aware of poverty in their community, what surprised them was to find wealth. “Data on income levels in Germantown piqued the most interest from our participants,” said Emaleigh Doley, the corridor manager of Germantown United CDC. “We’ll be taking a closer look at the census tracts within Germantown that feature high concentrations of particular income brackets, including areas of the neighborhood with concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty.” PHC believes the humanities can inspire people to come together and make a difference in their communities; Community Heart & Soul—which is based in the humanities—provides a path to increase residents’ participation in public processes. “On our site visits to each community, residents told us not only about the rifts in their communities, but about the need to motivate more residents and new leaders in making decisions and taking action for their community,” said Mimi Iijima, director of programs and special projects at PHC. A thorough CNA can help community leaders engage all populations and prepare residents for the next step in the Heart & Soul process, but what else do leadership teams expect to come from this? Christian Maher, executive director at Crawford Heritage Community Foundation (a partner of Meadville Heart & Soul) says, “The promise of making leaders of people who didn’t previously have a voice.”