30 Days of Teen Programming: Teen Service Learning

Texas A&M Commerce Habitat for Humanity photo of two teen girls working on a houseI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we mean when we say “teen program.” When I started in libraries a teen program was a very specific thing – for the public library it was an out-of-school time event that teens might be involved in creating, and that always had a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Coming up with an idea, planning out the idea, implementing the idea.) It might be a yoga program or a duct tape program or a how to get into college program or a series on creating robots. All very specific and focused. Once the one-off program or series was over that was it, we moved on to the next “program.” As I continue to think about teen services in light of the YALSA Programming Guidelines and the YALSA Future of Libraries for and with Teens: A Call to Action report, I am more and more convinced that we don’t serve teens as successfully as we might by defining “program” in such a narrow way.

Instead, we need to think more broadly and focus on a larger-scale framework that focuses on specific outcomes and enables library staff working with teens the ability to meet a variety of teens’ interests and needs and at the same time give teens opportunities to gain skills that help them to succeed in life.

What do I mean by that? Well, in the library in which I work we are about to pilot a fairly large-scale effort focused on teen service learning. The impact we are working to achieve over the long term is to help teens in the community gain skills in a number of critical college and career development areas. These include leadership, project management, collaboration, teamwork, relationship building, critical thinking, and so on.

How this will happen (following a series of professional development sessions for library staff) is by library staff working with groups of teens in the city to identify projects that the teens are interested in working on, and then helping the teens implement those projects. Two programs that we’ve used as inspiration in this area are the Discovery Corp at the Pacific Science Center and the Teens Take Action program sponsored by the Gates Foundation Visitor Center. These programs give a broad array of teens a lot of voice in the work that they do in their service learning endeavors, provide opportunities for developing critical life skills, and connect teens to the community.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “that’s what my teen advisory board already does.” However, I would challenge you to think carefully about that:

  • Does your teen advisory board support a broad array of teens?
  • Is your teen advisory board focused on a set of outcomes that are geared to helping teens gain critical life skills?
  • Is the teen advisory board focused on teens working in groups to seriously develop projects that connect to the teens passions and interests and support a community and/or library need?
  • Is your teen advisory board acting as a platform for a variety of types of projects from teens working with community partners, to working with other library staff, to working with library customers of all ages?
  • Does the teen advisory board provide connected learning opportunities?
  • And, if you did answer “yes” to those questions, then do you actually need to offer other library programs for teens, or, is what comes out of the teen advisory board work the only thing you need to provide teens in terms of programming?

Moving to a teen service learning framework is an exciting next step for us, but it’s not an easy one to take. A team of staff spent several months putting the pieces together: talking with teens and community members, developing materials, and planning professional development. Moving to a framework that broadens the idea of program beyond one-time events or series that have a short-term impact:

  • Requires taking a look at what impacts and outcomes the library wants to focus on in their work with teens.
  • It means taking chances and asking people to do things differently.
  • It means learning along side teens in order to develop projects that are planned and implemented with a strong youth voice component.
  • It means reflecting with teens all along the way on what works and doesn’t work.
  • It means learning how to be a coach and mentor.
  • It may mean giving up some things that have been done in a particular way for a very long time.
  • And, it means being OK with a majority of programs – including summer reading/learning, gaming, etc. – that the library offers for teens being driven by this framework.

If you are willing to take the challenge of re-defining what you consider programs for teens in your library, and perhaps even use an overarching framework like a teen service learning model, it’s likely you’ll support a broad array of teens in multiple ways that aren’t possible when having a much narrower approach. Give it some thought. I hope you’ll decide to agree and re-envision what programming for teens really means (and looks like) at your library.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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