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Unlike most libraries, Muhlenberg Community Library is in the enviable position of being on the same campus as the local public schools, creating a prime opportunity for drawing in young people. Jacki Clark, Youth Services Coordinator, sought to capitalize on this good real estate by developing a Teen Reading Lounge group in 2018. “I looked online at what it was all about ... and the excitement behind it and was like, ‘Okay, this could be interesting... this could grab kids that maybe don’t want to read,’” said Clark. Teen Reading Lounge quickly became a hotspot for area youth after it launched. Clever marketing and word-of-mouth has led to sessions filled with twenty or more teens engaging in book discussions, deliberating over current events, and working together on projects inspired by their readings. The kids drawn to the program represent the growing diversity of Berks County. "I feel welcomed in this room and, for once, being one of the only black kids isn't a bad thing,” said Jayla Kearny, a tenth grader. “People are nice and understanding -- they have open minds.” The bustle of activity during a Teen Reading Lounge session has the warmth of a big family gathering with Clark playing a supportive role, encouraging the diverse group of teens to reflect deeply on the humanities. “They have their game plan in mind and honestly, I don’t always feel like they need me! They’ve got it together,” said Clark. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council the teens have had speakers, such as local hip hop artist Rich Flizzy Flow, and have embarked on educational trips to the Reading Public Museum, Knoebels Grove, Mi Cocina Cooking School, and the Genesius Theatre. The group has developed creative projects together, like their recent Tear Apart Hate collage, that center on their shared readings on topics like justice and inequality. “I'm always looking forward to the book discussions -- that's my favorite part,” said tenth grader, Veronica Lyons. “No where else can you focus on things like this.” Encouraged by the growing enthusiasm in Teen Reading Lounge, Clark now aims to give teens the responsibility of facilitating the discussions themselves, creating opportunities for leadership development and building public speaking skills. “I don’t know exactly what will be in store for 2019 but I know it will be awesome,” said Clark. Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
On September 21st, PaTTAN’s Harrisburg conference center buzzed with about two dozen energetic Teen Reading Lounge educators, artists and librarians. Each year the Pennsylvania Humanities Council gathers this passionate and diverse group together to prepare for the next round of the program, deeply connecting the participants to both the why and how of Teen Reading Lounge. Toward that end, activities ranged from the reflective (periods of focused meditation) to the pragmatic (modeling effective teen ice-breaking activities.) This year’s Teen Reading Lounge kick-off workshop was orchestrated by the charismatic Fatima Hafiz, a professional coach from Transformative Education Associates, who led a series of creative and sometimes unorthodox activities meant to increase effectiveness with engaging young people. “I don’t know if the workshop is typical of professional development workshops, however, I do know that when adults can connect with their passions and the things that matter to them, they become better equipped to serve young people,” said Hafiz. The workshop’s unique approach is appropriate for Teen Reading Lounge, which Pennsylvania Humanities Council describes as a “non-traditional book club.” Teens are put in the driver’s seat -- they select the book, choose projects and direct the conversation. At a time when the lives of young people are often highly regimented, Teen Reading Lounge can be an oasis of freedom and creativity away from the ever-encroaching demands of adults. The role of facilitators and other adults is to create a space where teens feel free to express themselves while providing appropriate institutional support and helping to focus energy and resources around the humanities. “This work isn’t just about delivering a program,” said Jen Danifo, Senior Program Office at Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “Most of what are sites are doing is building relationships with youth and providing welcoming spaces for them to gather and connect. This work takes time, effort, dedication and intention. Pennsylvania Humanities Council provides learning opportunities to support staff through this journey so that they tap into what motivated them to begin this work and discover the wealth of assets and skills they already have.” The exchange of strategies was emphasized through rotating discussion groups based on topics submitted by the Teen Reading Lounge facilitators themselves. The collegial, bottom-up approach helped keep focus on the most pertinent issues. Newbies peppered veterans with questions ranging from making space for transgender teens to effective advertising methods. Everyone shared stories of challenges and successes, along with contact information and offers of help. As solutions and ideas bubbled up they were enthusiastically taped to the walls, draping the room with supportive insights like “Keep it fresh!” and “Be ready to change gears.” The regular trainings, webinars, community of practice calls, and site visits provided by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council intend to guide and encourage facilitators while networking them with peers at Teen Reading Lounge locations throughout the state. “Youth development occurs when those who are serving youth are also developing,” said Hafiz. Participants expressed heartfelt appreciation for the workshop throughout the day and also later in responses to a Pennsylvania Humanities Council feedback survey. “The workshop was incredibly satisfying to my soul,” observed Jacki Clark, a Teen Reading Lounge facilitator and site coordinator at Muhlenberg Community Library. “The lack of pressure of the setting, the ability to have open ended questions and dialogue with others, both new and seasoned, is so refreshing.” Clark’s group of teens back at Muhlenberg has now grown so large that she’s scrambling to make new accommodations. Since its development in 2010, Teen Reading Lounge has spread to over 80 sites across Pennsylvania, including both public libraries and other out-of-school-time sites. Glenn Miller, Deputy Secretary and Commissioner for Libraries for the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries, which contributes funding toward the statewide program, stopped by to observe some of the workshop. “Your own commitment to this, your own energy, your own passion for reaching these kids and bringing them in and empowering them -- this makes such a difference," he told the group. During the simulated teen discussion session that passion and commitment was evident. The group was organized into a “fish bowl” formation with one circle of seated participants inside another. Led by a designated facilitator, the inner circle read and discussed a short selection of text from a popular or classic work that dealt with issues of race or mental health. The outer circle quietly observed, but if they felt inspired to contribute they could join the conversation. The exercise allowed the adults to sit on the receiving side of facilitation while the facilitators were observed for coaching and feedback. Similar to real Teen Reading Lounge groups, the adult discussions were wide-ranging with plenty of thoughtful digression in between. At times, emotions ran high, especially around the topic of racism, providing an opportunity for the facilitator to constructively guide the conversation. The experience was powerful, with many of the adults revealing personal details of their lives. Like the teens they facilitate, they experienced both the challenges and rewards of being emotionally vulnerable in a safe and supportive group environment. “These workshops give adults opportunities to practice facilitating conversations about subjects that are often uncomfortable or possibly polarizing in discussions,” said Valerie Adams-Bass, a researcher in the developmental processes, social and academic outcomes of Black children and youth at the University of Virginia who helped create Teen Reading Lounge and attended the workshop. “By modeling strategies among peers, facilitators learn from one and other, increase comfort facilitating and they are able to pick-up additional strategies from peers.” The day closed with Fatima Hafiz striking a Tibetan singing bell, calling everyone back for a final moment of reflection. Participants reported not only positive effects on their teens and themselves but a more fundamental change in their communities. “My library sees teens coming in and ‘owning’ the library -- it is theirs,” said Jacki Clark. “Their responsibility, a place they love and are welcomed into. We are watching the future of this building, the concept of a library, transform. We are the hub of the community, especially to our teens.” Related Content Teen Reading Lounge Program Info How A Philadelphia Librarian Created A Thriving Community Of Teens Teen Reading Lounge Inspires Healthier Model For Dialogue, Nurtures Empathy Teens Build Social Skills, Process Tragedy At Teen Reading Lounge Group In Northumberland
Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s (PHC) Board of Directors has elected four new members: Seulky McInneshin (Philadelphia), Jane Sheffield (Hollidaysburg), Michael Smith (Pittsburgh) and Omar Woodard (Philadelphia). All four incoming members began November 1 and are eligible to serve up to two successive three-year terms. “We are excited to bring aboard such talented and accomplished leaders,” said Silas Chamberlin, chairman of PHC’s Board of Directors. “Seulky, Jane, Michael and Omar each bring impressive levels of experience that will help us in our ongoing work to put the humanities into action to create positive change throughout Pennsylvania.” PHC is governed by a 24-seat board of directors, which is made up of both elected individuals and governor appointees. Currently 21 members serve on the board with backgrounds in business, law, education, philanthropy, government, and arts and culture. Biographies of new members follow. Additional information about board members is available at pahumanities.org/board. Seulky McInneshin is Executive President at The Enterprise Center. She has led The Enterprise Center and its affiliates in fundraising development to support advancing minority entrepreneurship as a sustainable solution toward economic parity, equitable community development impact, and inclusive capital investments. Dr. McInneshin has also held various nonprofit and higher education leadership positions in arts and culture, social services, and around diversity and inclusion issues, and is a retired academic. She holds a B.A. from Duke University, a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and is certified in nonprofit management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. She currently serves as an executive committee member of the Asian Mosaic Fund and a steering committee member for the Women’s Way’s Women’s Economic Security Initiative. Jane Sheffield is the Executive Director of the Allegheny Ridge Corporation. While there she has spearheaded several initiatives including public/private partnerships resulting in certified historic rehabilitation and organizational sustainability, regional large landscape projects including the Main Line Canal Greenway™, and curriculum development and education outreach. Jane earned a BA in Economics and Psychology from Duke University and a Masters in Landscape Architecture, Community Design Policy from NC State University School of Design. Her volunteer activities include serving as Treasurer for the September 11th National Memorial Trail, Vice-Chair of the Hollidaysburg Planning Commission, board member of several non-profits, President of Holy Trinity’s Episcopal Church Women, and Flower Garden Manager for St. Vincent de Paul Food Donation Project at the Monastery Gardens. Michael Smith is the Manager of Foundation and Government Giving at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a non-profit arts-presenting organization that curates Pittsburgh’s 14-block Cultural District. In this capacity, he has enabled the growth of the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and arts integration residencies in K-12 schools across the region. Michael is also a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University, writing on geocriticism and American railspace. He has presented this research at the Modern Language Association Convention, the National Humanities Conference, and the American Literature Association conference. Omar Woodard is executive director of GreenLight Fund Philadelphia, a nonprofit venture capital firm focused on improving economic mobility, and an adjunct professor of business at Temple University. He is a board member of the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia, Global Philadelphia Association, Maternity Care Coalition, and Girard College Foundation. He is a Fellow with the Institute for Emerging Health Professions at Thomas Jefferson University, a Fellow with the Association of Black Foundation Executives, a Toyota Presidential Fellow with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and he received the Hansjoerg Wyss Award for Social Enterprise from Harvard Business School. Omar received a M.P.A in nonprofit management, and a B.A. in International Affairs (Economics, Arabic) and a minor in public policy, both from the George Washington University, where he was a Presidential Fellow and Student Body President.
About two dozen Community Heart & Soul volunteers packed the Upper Chichester Township municipal building’s conference room on the evening of October 22nd. Representatives from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and the Orton Family Foundation were there to celebrate Upper Chichester’s work so far and offer training for the second phase of the process. “You all really understand the people-centered aspect of the Heart & Soul process,” said Mimi Iijima, PHC’s Director of Programs and Special Projects, who led the training. In the short time since Upper Chichester officially joined PHC's growing network of Pennsylvania Heart & Soul communities, team members have organized a large base of volunteers into committees that represent neighborhoods and community interests. They also created a robust web site and became active on social media. Excitement has been building in the Township as was evident when over fifty people attended their first work day. The Heart & Soul process has fueled ongoing discussions about local assets, which has in turn strengthened networks and built momentum for the project. “Going through the first phase of Heart & Soul made it so clear that Upper Chi residents want to be a part of the planning and economic process,” said Barbara Kelley, project coordinator. “Everyone is working together to make a difference.” The evening’s training focused on the upcoming second phase of Community Heart & Soul -- the nitty gritty of story gathering. In a series of group activities and lectures, attendees learned ways of approaching people, how to ask questions, and how interviewers can be conscious of their own biases. The training for the second phase is intensive because the stories gathered will ultimately be put at the center of Upper Chichester’s future community development plans. “We are super excited about the second phase,” said Kelley. “The gathering of stories will really make the community come alive.” Related Content Upper Chichester Heart & Soul Community Profile Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council has partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and Orton Family Foundation to support Upper Chichester and Cameron County along the path to becoming stronger, healthier and more vibrant communities through a humanities-based approach to community development. Through this unique partnership among a government agency, a statewide nonprofit and a national foundation, PHC and Orton Family Foundation will provide training and technical support worth an estimated $60,000 to each community. In addition Upper Chichester Township and The Cameron County Project have each received $5,000 in combined funding from PHC and DCED, for a total investment valued at $130,000. “The humanities are a valuable tool for community and economic development in Pennsylvania,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “We see so much positive change as residents build relationships, honor their homegrown talents and assets, and reclaim and reshape their communities.” Since 2015, PHC and Orton have been working together to bring Community Heart & Soul®, a community development model pioneered by Orton, to communities across Pennsylvania. Upper Chichester and Cameron County join Greater Carlisle, Meadville and Williamsport, which have Community Heart & Soul projects underway. “This alignment of interests: the humanities, the community and the economy makes perfect sense. We all share a common goal—building communities that are stronger culturally, socially and economically. We look forward to seeing positive change unfold as the residents of Upper Chichester and Cameron County embark on Community Heart & Soul,” said David Leckey, executive director Orton Family Foundation. A suburban southeastern Pennsylvania town of 17,000 residents, Upper Chichester is working to develop its commercial corridors and, with feedback from residents, further establish its identity and sense of place. The Upper Chichester Board of Commissioners has approved funding and staffing to develop neighborhood plans that will help create a comprehensive plan informed by residents through Community Heart & Soul. Located in rural northcentral Pennsylvania, Cameron County is the smallest county in the state with a population of 4,592. Residents there founded the Cameron County Project in 2017, inspired by a 2016 workshop produced by PHC and Orton and hosted by the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission in Ridgway.
The following document is the culmination of three years of story gathering, data analysis, and collective visioning. Included are ideas for action that are rooted in our eight identified common values, which were crafted and vetted by our community. -- Introduction to the My Meadville Community Action Plan Declared an "event unlike any other” by The Meadville Tribune, more than 300 people showed up to the World’s Largest Potluck (in Meadville) on a warm July evening -- but not just for the free potato salad and green bean casserole. Hot off the press was the long-awaited Community Action Plan, the aggregate of a multi-year civic engagement project led by the folks at My Meadville. Busily passed out to curious visitors, this summative document charts the course for future community development. “It was great to hold the finished product in our hands and to get to share it with our friends and neighbors,” said My Meadville Coordinator, Autumn Vogel. “So much hard work had gone into the plan -- from our Leadership Team, our volunteers and the whole community.” My Meadville’s Community Action Plan (CAP) is a thick, colorful and photo-rich booklet that lists a series of achievable action items like “launch a youth mentoring program” or “implement participatory budgeting.” Each action item is tied to respective solution partners, partner organizations and also to the core community values that the action reflects. The CAP has an accessible, easy-to-read format because it is not meant to be stuffed into a file cabinet in the back of a city planner’s office. It was carefully designed for use by the residents of Meadville, who are encouraged in the introduction to “contribute what you can” and “find your place.” The à la carte approach allows people the freedom to pick and choose ways to help that meet their unique skills and interests. How My Meadville achieved something so practical for non-professionals, with keen attention to the voices of residents, has an appropriately grassroots origin: community storytelling. Their approach was to implement the humanities-based Community Heart & Soul® method of community development, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation. The program had the My Meadville team hosting a series of events and activities designed to bring to light the needs, memories and hopes of the residents of Meadville. The crux of their efforts has been exploring creative ways to encourage residents to talk with each other and tell their story. Starting in 2015, My Meadville mined over 1,400 unique data points from social events, story-collecting booths, film discussions, recorded interviews, community surveys and story circles. “These stories revealed a great deal about the realities, both good and bad, of people's lives in our town,” said Vogel. “They told us what we needed to change in order to make this a good place for all to live, and they told us what we need to maintain, what is central to our community identity, what makes Meadville Meadville.” The process of collecting stories through resident engagement drew on practices from disciplines across the humanities, including history, communications, anthropology and art. The vast data is an achievement in itself, having historical and cultural value, while the events and activities strengthened community bonds by building connections between residents and fostering a shared sense of place. But the final Community Action Plan, a work of applied humanities, took that amassed cultural treasure chest and used it to produce something more tangible -- a clear path to make meaningful change in accordance with the will of the residents. This was not done behind closed doors but at two well-attended public events. The first was the My Meadville Community Celebration in October of 2017, where eight community value statements were developed and refined. The second was in June of 2018, at the Ideas Summit, which honed these values into the actions seen in the final plan. The CAP, and the process that produced it, demonstrate a way the humanities can be wielded to place residents at the helm of the planning process by lifting up voices -- especially those that are often marginalized. This new dynamic has been embraced by local authorities and developers. For example, at the latest Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County event, the keynote speaker, in his address about Meadville’s French Creek corridor development, said that My Meadville is “part of the team… if this is going to work, it is going to be all us." To ensure the future accountability of the diversity of stakeholders, the Community Action Plan’s implementation will be guided by the My Meadville Stewardship Team. Much has already been accomplished by My Meadville leading up to the potluck that can give residents confidence that their voices will be heard. The City of Meadville received a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to update their zoning ordinance and their Comprehensive Plan with the data collected by My Meadville. In response to community feedback, the local Redevelopment Authority has started new programs that offer grants and low-interest loans to downtown businesses and entrepreneurs. A new coffee shop, Tarot Bean Roasting Co., was launched with the support of resident fundraising, when it was identified as a need at the beginning of the story-gathering process. Changes to existing laws are now being considered, such as an ordinance to allow urban agriculture like community gardens and urban farms. My Meadville has even inspired new local organizations like the HYPE Squad (Helping Youth Promote Excellence), who created a bright mural on the side of Cobblestone Cottage, a downtown Meadville business. My Meadville describes itself as a “community-based initiative that identifies what people love most about where they call home and translates those values into a plan for the City's future.” In practice, the group’s work has extended far beyond this. From story circles to the bustling World’s Largest Potluck (in Meadville), they have shown that there is a way to make the community development process exciting and engaging by placing the humanities at the core of the process. This has empowered residents to shape their future equitably and encouraged deep, meaningful participation. “The work is by no means complete, but it's clear that folks are feeling more connected now than they were before -- to people and place,” said Vogel. “That's really exciting to see.” Related Content Meadville Heart & Soul Community Profile
“I just want to thank Ms. Diane for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” said disabled veteran Michael Doe, when he took the stage at the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound (Penn VUB) graduation on August 28th. “Your program gave me the tools I need to succeed.” The moving ceremony honored the accomplishments of the Class of 2018, twenty-four recent graduates of the rigorous academic program which prepares veterans for the challenges of postsecondary education. Program Director Diane Sandefur, or Ms. Diane as she’s called by students, read personal profiles of each graduate as they received the certificates, including details about their military service. Pennsylvania Congressman Dwight Evans (PA-02) gave the keynote speech, telling the Class of 2018 that they do more for him than he could ever do for them. “What all of you provide to those of us who did not serve is freedom. Sometimes I think that gets lost in this day and age,” he said. Evans stayed for the entire ceremony, shaking each veteran’s hand, giving words of encouragement and posing for photos. Many Penn VUB participants are first-generation college students, and most have faced economic hardship since returning to civilian life. Though the program is challenging, the veterans report a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose as they help each other to succeed. Humanities experiences that reinforce classroom studies play a large role in Penn VUB’s curriculum, and during the ceremony many students described those experiences as highlights of the program. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the veterans have been able to take trips to theaters, museums and historical sites that relate thematically to their coursework. For example, this summer students read The Day the World Came to Town, focusing on the stories of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who opened their doors to stranded airline passengers after the tragic events of 9/11. In August students traveled together to New York City to visit One World Observatory, tour the United Nations and attend a performance of Come From Away, a play based on the book. This fall the graduates are heading off to regional colleges, including Chestnut Hill College, Stockton College, LaSalle University and the Community College of Philadelphia. Penn VUB reports that the success rate for its graduates is high -- most go on to enroll in postsecondary courses. The program teaches important academic skills that help make this possible but, perhaps more importantly, it builds confidence in their own abilities. “I gave an honest effort and learned that yes, I can still do this education thing,” graduate Amie Royer told the crowd. Related Content For Philadelphia-Area Veterans, the Humanities Build Academic Skills--and a Path to Positive Change Humanities Inspire Academic And Personal Growth In Philadelphia-Area Veterans Penn Veterans Upward Bound Partnership
When Erin Hoopes applied for a grant to bring Teen Reading Lounge (TRL) to the Philadelphia City Institute (PCI) branch of the Free Library, she was searching for a way to attract that notoriously opaque demographic: teenagers. As Branch Manager, she envisioned a thriving community of teens who felt valued and were invested in the library. “Teens were a largely forgotten demographic group at PCI because we had such a strong tradition of programming and services to adults and families with young children,” said Hoopes. “But I knew that if we could just make PCI a more welcoming place for teens, they would feel invited to attend programs and that the library was an important part of their lives.” The idea of a library bustling with engaged teens who put down their phones to talk deeply about books might sound a little utopian, but Hoopes, who was named by Library Journal as one of their Movers & Shakers of 2018, was undaunted. After receiving a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) in 2015 to start Teen Reading Lounge, she quickly drew in teens for regular book discussions and activities. The bottom-up pedagogy of the program fostered the sense of teen-ownership she was craving and an authentic community began to grow. “The dynamic nature of the TRL program and the relationships it fostered has helped our teens experience that feeling of being deeply valued,” said Hoopes. Philadelphia City Institute is positioned next to stately Rittenhouse Square. The library’s upscale location belies its diversity of patrons who come from throughout the city, including the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. PCI provides a safe place for young adults from all backgrounds where they can build skills and explore issues inspired by reading books together. Hoopes has seen the teens’ confidence levels improving as they support each other in articulating their feelings about the complex ideas and current events that are important to them. Her observation supports a recent survey by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which found that 80% of Teen Reading Lounge participants reported improving their communication skills and 77% said they strengthened in the areas of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Civic engagement is central to PCI’s approach to Teen Reading Lounge and over the months of readings and discussions the cohort of teens build up to a cumulative project. The latest one involved creating a video about gun violence and “fake news,” which had a few courageous teens approaching city residents in Rittenhouse Square with tough questions. The experience taught them firsthand about the difficulties and rewards of engaging the public in meaningful dialogue. “Those interviews became some of the most moving parts of the video they made and they were especially proud of each other’s bravery in asking tough questions to people without knowing how they might respond,” said Hoopes. These civic engagement activities are challenging and empowering -- a big part of what makes the program so popular with young people. “Miss Erin teaches us that we have a voice and that our voice is powerful,” said Timmy, a senior in the Philadelphia School District who helped create the video. “She's a great mentor so, of course, she's going to make a great program that's really going to open people's eyes.” Timmy and the rest of the group at PCI were recently asked to write a blog for the Young Adult Library Services Association about their experiences with Teen Reading Lounge. Reflecting on the impact of the program, the teens concluded, “Through TRL, we have become better, more empathetic individuals, and more conscious about the world we live in.” The youth community sparked by Teen Reading Lounge continues to be a benefit to PCI, initiating new opportunities for growth at the library. “The foundation I was able to establish with TRL was a great springboard for more teen programming and services,” said Hoopes. In July, PCI hosted the attention-grabbing Social Justice Symposium for Teens with workshops on subjects like youth homelessness and activism through art. It featured a talk by Husnaa Hashim, the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate. Erin Hoopes’ spearheading of such compelling programming and innovative events leads the way for how libraries can meet the needs of teens -- and how developing a thriving community of engaged teen readers is no utopian fantasy. Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Surprising!” “Eye-opening!” “Interesting!” Three teens, Allison, Ha and Amanda, representing John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, stretched out comfortably on an outdoor patio overlooking the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia. They gave spirited responses to our questions about their experiences with Teen Reading Lounge (TRL), a book club developed by Pennsylvania Humanities Council that pairs reading with creative projects and thoughtful discussions. The conversation brimmed with favorite memories and plenty of laughter, occasionally punctuated by moments of emotional vulnerability. It offered a look at the group’s fun but safe reading and discussion environment back at Hallahan. “We built a very comfortable space with a supportive dynamic,” said Ha. Amanda agreed and said she appreciated that her opinions were always respected. “I never got a response that made me feel like I shouldn’t share again.” Also on the patio were Hallahan’s Site Director Jo Bradley and Facilitator Sam Dugan who have developed and fostered the group. Teen Reading Lounge takes a bottom-up approach to a traditional book club. The students not only select their books and topics of conversation but they also work together to create a civic engagement project inspired by their reading. Bradley encouraged Hallahan’s administration to dedicate a whole classroom to TRL and consulted with the language arts and guidance departments to help implement the program. “My role was just making sure they had the best environment possible and the students built on that,” said Bradley. One of the books the teens selected was Liliana Velásquez’s Dreams and Nightmares, an account of the author’s harrowing journey from her village in Guatemala to the United States. As the children of Vietnamese immigrants, the teens were acutely aware of their own families’ struggles as they read the story. “It made me sympathize with my parents’ journey because they had similar problems,” said Amanda. “Immigrants are especially vulnerable and there are still a lot of gaps in the compassion people have for them -- you really need to read books to have compassion!” The project the teens built around Dreams and Nightmares was inspired by their Roman Catholic education. They created a special Bible that functioned as a hidden survival guide with tips and tricks for journeying to America encoded into the text. “Exodus took on a whole new meaning,” laughed Allison. In April the teens gave up a day of their Easter break to travel to another Teen Reading Lounge site at the Free Library of Philadelphia-Philadelphia City Institute Branch and meet Liliana Velásquez in person. Allison is a junior and will continue on with TRL next year but Amanda and Ha are off to Drexel University in the fall. They say they will miss the program but stressed that they are walking away with a healthier model for dialogue than is portrayed in the media. “On the news we see adults shouting at each other and getting upset,” said Amanda. “Teen Reading Lounge gave us a positive example of how you can discuss complicated issues and that has really grown my interest in being a more participative citizen.” Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. As a key part of its prevention focus, The Philadelphia Department of Human Services provides financial support to operate Philadelphia out-of-school-time pilot sites, including the site at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School.
Days after a gunman opened fire at a Parkland, Florida school in February, killing seventeen students and staff members and injuring seventeen others, the Teen Reading Lounge group at the rural Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland met to discuss Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. “The students shared that they felt like Alice, tumbling down a rabbit hole into a world they didn’t understand,” said Youth Services Coordinator Kim King. The stories and the conversations that were sparked helped the teens process their feelings of helplessness, frustration and anger. They also led to larger discussions about school safety and the need to address problems faced by young people. Constructed in the early 19th century as a two-story home, later to be a tavern and then a medical office, the Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library was finally established in 1925 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Its cozy, book-packed corridors and quirky mix of antiquarian architecture and modern amenities have made it an ideal setting for teens, some who experience social anxiety at school or have learning differences, to feel safe exploring books together and diving deep into sensitive personal and political issues. For some of the teens, the experience has played a big role in their social development. “[Teen Reading Lounge] is a good way to go out and actually meet people and discuss things that you otherwise probably wouldn't discuss,” said Kendra Harter, an eighth grader at Shikellamy Middle School. “I went from being really socially awkward and an introvert to not being as much of an introvert.” With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Teen Reading Lounge was established at the Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library in 2014. The current facilitator is Renee Albertson, a certified Reading Specialist, who takes special care in giving individual attention to students’ reading needs and letting them develop their own community guidelines to govern the space. She also supports the teens’ civic engagement ideas that are inspired by their readings -- recent projects have included a food drive, helping rescue dogs and cleaning up public spaces. Albertson excels at helping young people make meaningful connections between literature and contemporary issues. When the Parkland shooting happened, she found that the dissociative prose of Lewis Carroll, and Alice's bewilderment in Wonderland, helped the teens express their own confusing torrent of feelings. Kim King has noticed participants in the program reporting significant improvements in school and even stopping by the library on their own to pick up books for personal reading. It was in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting tragedy that she became convinced of the power of Teen Reading Lounge to create a supportive and relevant environment. “It’s a great way for libraries to reach all kinds of kids but especially those that are on the fringes,” said King. “There’s so much more that comes out of Teen Reading Lounge than reading a book.” Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.