When it comes to engaging teens and advancing literacy, a partnership between the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and the Free Library of Philadelphia seems like a natural choice. Through branch-based Teen Reading Lounge programs, Philadelphia teens are able to build relationships and learn to communicate their ideas and opinions while furthering the Free Library’s mission of advancing literacy, guiding learning and inspiring curiosity.
To date PHC has introduced Teen Reading Lounge in seven Free Library branches: Andorra, Philadelphia City Institute, Greater Olney, Haverford Avenue, Kensington, Wadsworth and Parkway Central. Each branch designed a unique Teen Reading Lounge program to reflect the culture of its specific neighborhood and the interests and needs of the teens that live there.
Across the Free Library system teens have read books such as Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Gregory Neri, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano. These novels provided the opportunity for participants to discuss topics like social change, violence, poverty, alcohol abuse, bullying, self-love and self-discovery. Related activities have included field trips to museums, a “Steps for Success” workshop, a discussion with a World War II vet, a Skype session with author Neal Shusterman, and a visit to a cultural community garden.
Philadelphia City Institute was an early adopter of Teen Reading Lounge among Free Library branches. In fact, this branch has led the way in Teen Reading Lounge programming and funding so much that Free Library Teen Services Coordinator Ann Pearson uses it as a model to train other libraries. Philadelphia City Institute’s first Teen Reading Lounge was held during the winter/spring of 2015 with funding and technical support from PHC. In the fall of 2015 PHC awarded the branch a continuation grant, and the following winter Philadelphia City Institute successfully secured outside funding to continue its Teen Reading Lounge program.
During Spring 2016 teens at Philadelphia City Institute read Geography Club, a novel that explores sexual orientation, the dynamics of relationships, and acceptance. After completing the novel, program facilitator Erin Hoopes invited a group of young adults from The Attic Youth Center (an organization serving LGBTQ youth) to share their experiences with the teens. During an open discussion, teens and visitors from The Attic explored how to be advocates for the LGBTQ community, the significance of a support system, and the importance of forgiveness. “We have so many quiet readers who come into the library, but we don’t always get the opportunity to engage with them on such a deep level,” said Hoopes.
Teens at Philadelphia City Institute also tackled Renee Watson’s This Side of Home, which covers topics such as racism and gentrification. Following discussion of the novel, Hoopes invited a Philadelphia city planner to talk to the teens about conscious community building and institutionalized racism. The teens then broke into groups to complete an activity where they were responsible for allocating funds to municipal services such as energy and water supply, affordable subsidized housing, and parks and recreation centers. Through this hands-on activity teens quickly became aware of the difficulties of city planning and the inequalities in community funding.
The Teen Reading Lounge program at the Greater Olney Branch had a slightly different focus; teens read three books that explored how suffering, empathy, personal heroism, and perseverance shape our identities and history. “We hope they walk away from the program with a deeper understanding of themselves and their worlds,” said Christina Patton, the branch’s supervisor. Participants also enjoyed visits from Kenyon Parker, a World War II veteran who shared his experiences serving in a segregated army unit, and Cindy Little from the Philadelphia History Museum, who gave a lesson on the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia.
The success of the PHC-Free Library partnership has led PHC to begin thinking through a more impactful Teen Reading Lounge model that would address inequality, ethnic identity, and literacy needs of teens more squarely.
Philadelphia ranks only 22nd out of the 25 largest U.S. cities in college degree attainment, and yet funding for schools and literacy programs in the city continues to decline. According to the Center for Literacy, 37% of adults in Philadelphia are “low literate,” causing them to have trouble with filling out job applications, reading doctors’ instructions, and helping their children with homework. PHC staff have seen how Teen Reading Lounge strengthens 21st-century learning skills, and we are dedicated to doing more to bridge the gap of student achievement in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.