This is Lisa again with another post on some of the work I’ve done with incarcerated teens as a Brooklyn public librarian.
My colleague Vani Natarajan and I have twice collaborated with Passages Academy librarians Jessica Fenster-Sparber and Anne Lotito on a Great Stories CLUB (Connecting Libraries, Underserved Teens, and Books) grant.Â This grant is sponsored and organized by ALA, and targets “underserved, troubled teen populations” by giving grant winners three sets of books to use in book discussions with teens in detention centers, alternative schools, and group homes.Â An ALA committee of librarians from around the country selects three young adult titles to be used in discussions, which are sent out in sets of ten to grant recipients.Â The participants in the book discussions all get to keep a copy of the book.Â A selection of grant recipients also receives a sum of money to enhance their discussions with snacks, extra copies of the discussion title or similar titles, or author visits.
We decided to work with the girls at Crossroads for our Great Stories discussions. The girls have less access to library materials than the boys, because the school library at Crossroads is located on a floor that is only open to males (females and males are always kept separate at Crossroads).
Jessica and I also made an ambitious plan to invite Coe Booth to Crossroads for an author visit. Coe is the author ofÂ Tyrell, one of the books selected for that year’s round of Great Stories Club discussions.Â We won $200 along with our grant, and were able to use this as an honorarium for Coe.Â Literacy for Incarcerated Teens (which the Biblioball is raising money for) paid for extra copies ofÂ Tyrell to be distributed to boys at Crossroads, and Coe visited a number of classes.Â Almost all of the boys and girls at Crossroads ended up readingÂ Tyrell and it was, and continues to be, a hugely popular title there.Â The story of a homeless teen in the Bronx is written “the way I talk!” one girl said excitedly upon reading the first few pages.Â Â Tyrell contains positive messages about the importance of education and family, but is never patronizing, and is gritty and edgy enough to keep teens engaged.Â Kids were still talking about Coe’s visit for weeks after.
The next year Anne, Vani, and I won the grant again, and we decided to take a slightly different approach to the discussions. Â Because Crossroads residents enter and leave the facility frequently, it was not possible to distribute the books more than a week before the discussion. During the previous round of Great Stories, we found that many of the students did not finish the book.Â Â One group of girls we met with read on a very low reading level, and finishing the book in the brief period available was not possible for them.Â We decided to accommodate these students by having the discussions themselves serve as a reading motivator, or an extended booktalk, for the book. Â If these students hadnâ€™t been motivated to read the book before the discussion, perhaps the discussion itself would motivate them to read it afterwards.
We received Â $100,Â which we used for snacks for the programs.Â In addition to discussion questions, we wrote two quizzes for each discussion. One tested studentsâ€™ knowledge of basic plot points in the first few chapters.Â Students who did well on these quizzes also received prizes (in the form of extra snacks).Â The other quiz we created was a true/false quiz using statistics and true facts related to the booksâ€™ topics.Â For example, for Paul Volponi’s Black and White, in which a black boy is the only one jailed for a crime that he and his white friend committed, the true/false quiz focused on race, youth and incarceration.Â The group was often surprised by the facts these quizzes uncovered, and this sparked animated discussions that usually connected these statistics with their own experiences.Â Â Everyone could participate in these discussions, even those who had not read the book.
Connecting people with books is one of the most rewarding things about being a librarian (and the reason many of us chose this career), and the Great Stories Club grant helped me and my colleagues do this with one of the more challenging audiences to reach.