“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.