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Nov 11, 2016

Earlier this fall staff from PHC, the City of Chester, and Widener University, along with Chester artists traveled to Chicago, IL, and Gary, IN, for a peer exchange with local artists who are using their craft to make a change in their communities. The exchange, hosted by Illinois Humanities, gave us insight on creative placemaking at a grassroots level, and will inform our Chester Made Exploration Zone project.  Check out the video playlist below to hear from participants about the exchange.   Related Content About Chester Made Chester Made Humanities Summer Camp Tactical Urbanism Community Conversation and Workshop The Building of a Block: Community Archival Workshop Chester Made Exploration Zone Launch--and Butcher Shop Rehab Reclaim . Rebuild . Repurpose Workshop Chester Made #TheBuild Chester Made Artist Exchange

Nov 08, 2016

As we expand our work in civic engagement and humanities-based community development, PHC staff have built strong partnerships with likeminded organizations, including the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association.  We were recently able to catch up with James Cowhey, the president of the Pennsylvania chapter, to talk about the importance of engaging residents in community planning and how the humanities can inspire change in communities. Cowhey is also executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission.    What intrigues you about community planning? Why did you choose/ how did you enter the field? The goal of a planner is to help a community think about changes that are occurring that determine the future of the community. Planners help a community articulate its aspirations for the built and natural environments and how to manage change in a way that delivers a prosperous future and a better quality of life. The change that is occurring, like whether population is increasing or decreasing or business is thriving or not, is constant. Planners can analyze the data and information about changing conditions and help a community outline choices for action that will result in the desired future for its citizens. I’m intrigued by the uniqueness of each community and how planners provide plans that fit to each situation in a way that helps to ensure implementation. I entered the field of planning with an undergraduate degree in geography. For me, there was an obvious link between the study of human activity on the earth and the phenomenon of how people plan the physical settlement of places they inhabit. The discipline of urban planning exists at the intersection of geography, engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, law, politics, ecology, economics, social studies, and other professions and disciplines. It never ceases to be interesting because planning is about the built and natural environment and such a variety of other aspects. Why is community engagement important in community planning processes? While experts can analyze data and provided policy choices for consideration, community planning in a democratic republic must be based on citizen participation. Inclusive planning processes ensure that the data is considered within the context of citizen thoughts, ideals, and aspirations. Citizen participation in community planning efforts is a fundamental way to participate in local democracy. Consensus is the goal. Consensus is brought about by elected officials of a community. Consensus is found by considering the multitude of views and elected officials using their judgement to adopt a plan that will provide the most good for the most individuals. Citizens have a fundamental right to participate in planning for their future. How do you go about engaging residents whose voices are not heard/ those who are usually not a part of the planning/decision making processes? Engaging disenfranchised or disinterested people is a vexing problem for planners. The engagement program of a plan must provide a variety of opportunities and venues so citizens can choose where and when to interact with planners and other residents. People have different needs and are more comfortable with some ways of interacting than others. We use public meetings, small group meetings, internet surveys, websites, written survey forms, etc. to connect citizens to the plan. We make specific outreach efforts to certain groups in an effort to provide them with a means to interact with the process. For example, we work with the Spanish American Civic Association to assist with outreach to the Latino community. We have contacts with the Old Order Amish Steering Committee that provides an opportunity to discuss planning issues with that group. Web access and social media has broadened the opportunities for interaction but has not replaced good, old fashion community and small group meetings. This past spring Lancaster Farmland Trust released results of a public survey about Lancaster County residents’ opinions on farmland preservation and policies. How will these results (the opinion of the residents) help to make change? The Lancaster Farmland Trust is strong partner in Lancaster County’s planning efforts as are several other countywide interest groups. The survey information, plus additional feedback from LFT, will be part of the background information considered for our new plan called Places2040. As part of this latest effort we have established our Partners for Place which is an alliance of about 18 countywide groups that play some role in thinking about and acting on the future of Lancaster County. These groups represent a range of interest groups: realtors, builders, agricultural preservationists, smart growth advocates, environmentalists, housing advocates, economic developers, business advocates, historic preservationists, and others. Each organization has a unique perspective and plays a distinct role in shaping the future of Lancaster County. Their participation, combined with the input from individuals, will be reflected in the adopted plan making sure it expresses the aspirations of our community. This will be the foundation for future action to implement the plan. Implementation will not simply be a county government role but job for individuals and organizations. What partnerships have you built as the executive director of Lancaster County Planning Commission? I believe strongly that a community that is not providing opportunity to generate wealth by providing opportunities for investment by business and job growth for individuals will not thrive. I’ve worked to strengthen the linkage of our work with that of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, the Lancaster County Agriculture Council, the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership, the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, and the Lancaster City Alliance. Our partnership with Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine is an equally important partnership that links planning for the physical livability of the county to opportunities for active lifestyles and healthier outcomes. Why is it important to build these partnerships and relationships? These groups recognize that a well thought out plan for the future is a foundation that helps to secure investment in new businesses and housing, and redevelopment of existing communities. A strong local economy will allow us to deliver the quality of life and built environment our citizens want and deserve. Economic development and regional planning are mutually reinforcing activities. The linkage between health and the built environment is an emerging planning issue that allows potential health outcomes to be part of planning for the future of the community. Walking and bicycling, for example, are transportation alternatives that have often been missed opportunities in community planning. However, we know that these active transportation modes are enjoyed by residents and can help people be healthier. Can you give me an example of when the planning department partnered with another organization to solve an issue? The lack of housing at affordable rents or purchase prices is a critical issue in Lancaster County and will be for some time to come. Over twenty years ago the Lancaster County Planning Commission along with other partners helped to found the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership (LHOP) as a means to raise awareness about housing cost burdens for a large part of our community. Additionally, LHOP instituted programs that provided information and training that helped families and individuals find housing they could afford to buy or rent. LHOP has grown to be an exemplar of what a community housing organization can and should be. They have trained people how to be good renters, how to prepare their finances in order to buy their first home, and in the past several years have actually begun to redevelop older units to be re-inhabited at affordable purchase prices. As planners we deal mostly with the locational aspects of housing. Our partnership with LHOP adds a housing program service dimension in the community that deals with a vexing part of the shelter issue that planners are not given direct authority to fix. Recently, we worked with LHOP on a countywide housing market analysis that indicates that there are obstacles to allowing the market to deliver a range of housing options by unit type and price. There are no simple solutions but we are concerned that our future prosperity is threatened by our inability to provide housing that is affordable across the income spectrum. This partnership has raised awareness of the issue and begun to actively address them. How can the humanities inspire change in communities? Urban design principles have developed over thousands of years of human civilizations and are a result of environment, geography, culture, economy and history. At its best, urban and regional planning is an interdisciplinary exercise which may, but doesn’t always, include the humanities directly in the process. A study of the humanities informs the way we improve the physical environment we inhabit by pointing the way to improving social interactions and “livability” or quality of place. I think planners have to understand the history and culture of the place where they are working in order to truly elicit the vision and aspirations of the people. It’s been said that to understand where you want to go, you must understand where you are at the moment and where you came from. That is as true for community planning as for anything else. Understanding through history, architecture, and the arts how a place was settled or came to be reveals much about what a community is at present. Art and literature can help a community better imagine what it can be by providing a means of envisioning the future. Photography, videography, and storytelling are often used by planners to illustrate to community members what is, but also what can be. Recently, in a series of meetings about a new plan for the county, we asked residents to share their stories about why they believe Lancaster County is a special place. They told us stories about their childhood memories and experiences, about their observations of the changing landscape, or about what motivated them to move to the county from somewhere else. These stories affirmed the sense of place that the audience felt and helped the planners ground the plan in the citizens’ ideas about the community.

Nov 02, 2016

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

Sep 14, 2016

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council will provide funding, training, and technical support for 2016-17 Teen Reading Lounge programs in 26 libraries across 19 Pennsylvania counties. Among participating libraries, 13 will take part in an ongoing pilot program structured to provide ways for teens to meaningfully contribute to their communities and participate in civically focused activities. The pilot puts special emphasis on reaching youth from low-income backgrounds. “Teen Reading Lounge gives teenagers the chance to engage in discussions and activities that are important to them—and to build skills that will serve them in school and beyond,” said Laurie Zierer, Pennsylvania Humanities Council executive director. "As we continue to refine this program and gather data on its positive outcomes, we want to ensure that its participants are as diverse as the population of our state." Teen Reading Lounge is a nontraditional book club tailored by program sites to reflect the culture of their towns or neighborhoods—and the interests and needs of the teens that live there. Local youth aged 12-18 help to create the reading list for their program sites and, working with trained facilitators, to design creative projects that bring the books to life. More than 600 teenagers and 78 libraries have participated in Teen Reading Lounge since its launch in 2010. Participants report stronger interpersonal, communication, literacy, and critical-thinking skills, and increased confidence. The Teen Reading Lounge framework was built on the belief that encouragement to choose creative pursuits and interest-focused programs is crucial to teen development. The humanities naturally push teens to ask questions and share ideas—activities that are vital as teens begin to discover who they are, who they want to be, and how to relate to other people.    In fact preliminary data from 2015-16 Teen Reading Lounge programs showed that participants build important life skills through engaging with the humanities: 84% of participating teens reported that Teen Reading Lounge helped them better recognize and respect the differences and perspectives of others. 72% learned to contribute to a group by sharing experiences, knowledge and ideas; exercise flexibility in a group setting (e.g., work within a team); respond to different ideas and values with an open mind.   In addition, 80% of participants said that they would return to the program. “With the skills they practice through Teen Reading Lounge, young people are better able to develop confidence in themselves and relationships with one another. This connectedness builds a sense of community,” Zierer said. “In fact the data collected by our program evaluators suggest that participating teens have become more interested in volunteering in their libraries and their towns.” Through Teen Reading Lounge, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council invests funds to improve achievement outcomes for youth, but it also helps position program sites to make changes in the way they serve youth. The 2016-17 Teen Reading Lounge sites will receive funding to cover program expenses as well as an honorarium to pay a program facilitator. They will also receive training in working with facilitators and local teens to design a program that’s meaningful for their communities. Sites hosting a 2016-17 Teen Reading Lounge program are listed below by county: Beaver Baden Memorial Library                    B.F. Jones Memorial Library Laughlin Memorial Library Blair Altoona Area Public Library Bradford Allen F. Pierce Free Library Bucks Warminster Township Free Library Free Library of New Hope and Solebury                Cambria Highland Community Library Clarion Redbank Valley Public Library Delaware Lansdowne Public Library Radnor Memorial Library Erie Raymond M. Blasco, MD Memorial Library-Erie County Public Library  Franklin Coyle Free Library Jefferson Rebecca M. Arthurs Memorial Library     Lackawanna Carbondale Public Library             Lancaster Ephrata Public Library     Luzerne Pittston Memorial Library Montgomery Pottstown Regional Public Library             Huntingdon Valley Library Northumberland Priestley Forsyth Memorial Library           Philadelphia Free Library of Philadelphia - Haverford Branch  Free Library of Philadelphia - Greater Olney Branch Free Library of Philadelphia - Philadelphia City Institute Somerset Meyersdale Public Library            Venango Oil City Library   York Guthrie Memorial Library             Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) 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.  

Aug 23, 2016

In honor of the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize, Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Philadelphia Media Network—owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and—have worked together to celebrate the rich history of the keystone state’s winners. First awarded in 1917, the Pulitzers represent the pinnacle of achievement for journalists, historians, composers, nonfiction and fiction writers and poets. On this site we present an outstanding collection of winners who were native to Pennsylvania, or whose work was accomplished while living here.

Aug 18, 2016

PHC will provide funding, training, and technical support for 2016-17 Teen Reading Lounge programs in 26 libraries across 19 Pennsylvania counties. Among participating libraries, 13 will take part in an ongoing pilot program structured to provide ways for teens to meaningfully contribute to their communities and participate in civically focused activities. The pilot puts special emphasis on reaching youth from low-income backgrounds. Here is a sampling of the program plans for some of the participating libraries:   Ephrata Public Library, Ephrata (Lancaster County) Teens at Ephrata Public Library will have the opportunity to participate in a fun yet rigorous program that is centered around social justice, compassion, and inclusiveness. They will read books like Sharon Flake’s You Don’t Even Know Me, Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Jason Reynolds’ When I Was the Greatest, all of which will enable them to explore issues of race and sexuality through multiple perspectives. Site coordinator Rebecca Lawrence, who manages public and outreach programs at Ephrata, hopes that teens will, after completing the program, be able to “recognize the diversity of people in their community, be able to identify differences and commonalities, be comfortable with their identity, and express interest in experiences of others.” This will largely be facilitated through a multimedia project that students will create, which will enable them to identify sites of inclusivity and exclusivity in their own community and will “visually illustrate the teen’s appreciation and recognition of community and ideals desired in Ephrata.” In addition to the reading and the project, teens will also participate in field trips where they will observe and help in community social work that revolves around tolerance and compassion. They will also watch films, such as Robert M. Young’s Dominick & Eugene and Stephen Hopkins’ Race, and engage in journal reflections— all of which will enhance their understandings of the readings. Highland Community Library, Johnstown (Cambria County) Director Ashley Flynn at Highland Community Library seeks to cover a broad range of humanities topics through Teen Reading Lounge. “Historically, we have had participants from neighboring communities, sometimes coming from as far as an hour away to participate in our programs,” says Flynn. “This program will help our audience learn how to understand and discuss literature and movies, while thinking critically and applying knowledge from other areas of the humanities.” Teens will trek from near and far to read books such as Stead’s Goodbye Stranger, Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Ness’ A Monster Calls. They will also read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, discussing the book in terms of gender, mythology, food and culture, and historical parallels within the broader framework of how a person’s individual experiences with these cultural markers inform their personal identity. They may even get the opportunity to visit a horse farm, discussing them in light of the text and how horses have impacted human development. Finally, their experience will culminate in an Escape the Room Activity, where they will reinforce and put to the test the bonds and friendships they will have made over the course of the program. This will also be a great way of meeting some of the goals of the program, which involve helping teens to problem-solve, work together, and interact with peers in a positive environment outside of school. Pottstown Regional Public Library, Pottstown (Montgomery County) Pottstown Regional Public Library hopes to introduce teens to history in narrative in a fun, interactive way. Running across two different sessions— one in the spring and the other in the summer— Pottstown hopes to explore their teens’ relationship to narrative, history, and performance. In the spring, teens will have cameras leant to them so that they can walk around their town, documenting what they see. They will then craft a story using images they select from that experience. This, in addition to a talk by a local young adult author, will help them synthesize the art of narrative with the documentation of local geography and history. Ideally, they will also participate in a local historical attraction and train ride experience, called Colebrookdale Railroad. In the summer, teens will create and perform a play for young children at the library’s afterschool program. These activities will be facilitated by their discussions of books such as Lauren Kate’s Fallen, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, and Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Library Site Coordinator and Youth Services Director Leslie Stillings hopes that the teens feel empowered to “take ownership of the program and ultimately feel like an integral part of their community,” a goal shared by many of the 2016-7 Teen Reading Lounge sites. Radnor Memorial Library, Wayne (Delaware County) Radnor Memorial Library took its Teen Reading Lounge inspiration from an unconventional yet motivating source— the 2015 hit musical Hamilton! The library’s Youth Services Librarian, Andrea Elson, wanted a theme that young people would love, and she chose Hamilton in particular because, in her words, “Within the narrative are themes of freedom, immigrant rights, self-expression and an examination of history that critics call transformative.” She decides to break the musical down into themes, each of which could be explored through literature, activities, and field trips. For example, in their first session they will discuss poetry and verse, and will read books written in verse and experiment with different kinds of poetry, such as blackout poetry and spine label poetry, and will attend the Villanova University Poetry Slam. Their activities and literature will be incredibly diverse as they attend a hip hop dance class, discuss the immigrant experience (through either Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Neela Vaswani’s and Silas House’s Same Sun Here, or Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal), journey to a program at the National Jewish American History Museum, recreate the historical events they learn about through stop motion animation, and go to other historical sites. Elson hopes that “participants will experience stories and perspectives different from their own but will learn to see commonality in the narratives.” By choosing these themes and by mixing in many different activities, she also specifically hopes to encourage those who would be classified as “reluctant” or “struggling” readers, who might not otherwise feel that they are always encouraged to attend this kind of programming. Raymond Blasco-Erie County Public Library, Erie (Erie County) The Raymond Blasco-Erie County Public Library wants to use literature to inspire their teens to action! Youth Services Manager Amberlee Taylor-McGaughey chose the theme of “Change the World” for this iteration of Teen Reading Lounge because she hoped to “encourage teens to use literature as a platform for examining the problems that confront our society.” One example of how she plans to empower teens to make a difference in their communities is to help them plan a Teen Town Hall meeting, which will be open to all those in Erie who are 12-18 years old. Local politicians will also be invited to the library to participate, and teens will be able to ask questions and express their views about policies that affect their communities. “Our theme revolves around civic and community engagement,” says Taylor-McGaughey, “So teens will also enjoy real-life experiences that help them shape their community and learn about local government.” Teens will be able to choose what they want to read from pre-selected book packs, which enable teens to discuss important issues like cultural values and identity in Marvel Comics’ Ms. Marvel, art and self-expression in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, and privilege and discrimination in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

Jul 28, 2016

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.

Jul 14, 2016

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.

Jun 15, 2016

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.

Jun 14, 2016

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.

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