Library program gets teens talking about books

| Monday, June 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A dozen bird houses — hand-made by teenagers — hang from the branches of trees outside the second floor of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Hazelwood.

“We had discussions as we cut out the wood, nailed, sanded, glued and painted,” said teen-specialist librarian Michael Balkenhol. “It's not traditionally what you think of in a book club.”

Balkenhol is one of eight teen-specialist librarians who has stories to share about the Teen Reading Lounge Project, a program piloted in eight local libraries this past year. Last week, more than 60 librarians and humanities advocates from across the state came to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Squirrel Hill to learn more about “Building a Case for Teen Humanities Programming at Public Libraries.”

“It's making a library a legitimate hang-out space,” said Matthew Luskey, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, which partnered with Pittsburgh area libraries and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council to create and evaluate the Teen Reading Lounge, a pilot program in its third year.

The goals of the project are to engage teen audiences during out-of-school time in learning in the humanities and to increase the capacity of librarians to conduct humanities programing for teens, including partnerships with local artists.

Pittsburgh was chosen as the pilot site because it is a leader in teen services, says Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

“People need to know what a gem you have in Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh,” Zierer said.

For this pilot, eight regional libraries held six after-school sessions. A library teen specialist, along with teachers and local artists, interacted with teenagers as they discussed three popular young-adult books while taking part in an art activity.

“Teens take the time to think through what the books mean to them,” Zierer said. “Unlike school discussions, they interact over current books. It involves books teens actually read.”

The roots for the project began more than a dozen years ago with the popularity of “Oprah's Book Club” when libraries held adult discussions on detective novels, memoirs, historical fiction and comparisons of books made into movies. The teens read and discuss novels such as “The Hunger Games,” “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thieves,” or graphic novels such as “Cardboard,” a story about a cardboard man who becomes human.

Play is important, whether it's dressing up as a favorite character or creating a comic-book page about a life event with a computer app.

“Because they play and explore does not mean they aren't learning — they are often learning more,” said Yolanda Yugar, an evaluation specialist for Allegheny Intermediate Unit. She presented the research gathered by the University of Pittsburgh literacy specialists.

“It's informal learning in action,” said LeeAnn Anna, teen-services coordinator for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh District Library Center. “It taps into the reality that young people want to learn with their friends, and they want to lead their learning as they do it,” she said.

Teen specialists said they had best results when the teens were engaged in selecting the books.

Some participating librarians founds way to adapt to their specific situations.

“Our students needed a summary,” said Tim Yates, site coordinator for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Allegheny on the North Side. “Often, they hadn't read the book before they arrived. It was great when they would say, ‘Oh, I wish I had read this' — and then they actually do that.”

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council hopes that the pilot in Pittsburgh has created a “program in a box,” as Zierer called it, to be replicated by libraries anywhere. The council plans to provide ongoing assistance through coaching and resources.

Heather Baker, from the Grove City Community Library, reflected on her library's involvement in the first pilot three years ago.

“It's so important to start a friendship at the library,” she said. “The kids come back to help with other programs — and they tell their friends about the library.”

Jane Miller is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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