Lessons From a Successful Teen Program

by Dara Lohnes

Tina Cherry was originally contracted by the Jerome Public Library to administer an emerging literary program for preschool aged children and their caregivers. Inspired by one of her teen daughter’s complaints that “the library has programs for everyone but teens,” she founded the teen version of that program in 2003. She researched similar programs and pitched the idea to then-library director, Susan Jacobson, who accepted her proposal.

Cherry was given permission to start her program and hand off the duties of the pre-school program to the children’s librarian. She conducted her research on library listservs and the Web, describing her findings as “a bunch of earnest libraries with poorly attended programs that were designed by librarians, and a few success stories with the common theme of the teens of the programs taking the lead.” So she set to model her program on the successful ones. When choosing teens for the committee, Cherry selected a “wildly popular teacher to hand-pick students and break the ice.” Lori Cottle, on staff at the Jerome Middle School, fit this description and was also a good friend of hers. Cottle helped by talking to past and present students and convinced them to attend the first meetings. Cottle gathered a mix of students who would be good for the new program and who were likely to benefit.

Cherry’s main responsibilities included building and maintaining a young adult section in the library and working with a board of teens known as the YAC to develop programs. During her first meeting with the original group of teens, Tina simply had what she termed a “paper agenda” designed to gather information from the teens about what they desired from their program. The most important detail about this agenda was that emphasis. Cherry did not run the program; she was purely the volunteer liaison, facilitator, and advocate between the teens, the community, and library board. During the first year, “some things went well and some, though they had great potential, bombed.” It all depended on what the teens saw as important enough to follow through with.

Cherry acted as a teen advocate and community educator regarding library and community teen services. She coordinated fundraising events and participated in writing grants to help fund the library and young adult section of the library. When she left the program after six years her title was “Digital Native Services Coordinator,” which is the equivalent of a young adult department head. Her most important partners in the program, she claims, were the teens. As a group, they were the ones that had the power over the success of a program.

According to Cherry’s observations, there are three aspects of the Jerome project that made the YAC program successful in the community. The first aspect was that the core group of teens that formed the YAC had the most sway with their peers. “The most brilliant programming might get no to low attendance if there are not teens telling their friends ‘I’m going, you should come too,’ no matter where and how you advertise the programs,” explained Tina.  The second successful aspect was that the teens themselves decided what programs would be popular with their peers and most of the time, they either came up with the ideas completely on their own or modified ideas from national and regional groups. Third, the majority of the programs were not specifically book related. Tina justifies this with her philosophy that in order to attract the teen age group, they need to know that they are welcome patrons and valued for their presence. “I think that when libraries feel that they need to relate everything they do to literacy and education, they’re putting the cart before the horse. You’d be surprised at how many books I managed to push out of the library one on one!”

In regards to her role in the program versus the students of the YAC’s role, Tina once again explained how it is the teens that have the power. She acted at the preparator for the programs, but all the brain power was from the YAC group that specific year. Some groups were able to come up with a greater percentage of original ideas than others; she would fill in the gaps with researched and gathered ideas that they would work with. In the end though, the teens chose which programs were implemented and which ones were not. “As far as preparing programs, it depended on the content.”  For instance, programs such as Survivor in a Day and Murder Mystery Dinner Parties had to be prepared without teen help, or the helpers could not participate. But programs such as creating a Banned Books Week display or the National Gaming Day at Your Library were almost all completely teen-run. “I met a lot of young people eager to help. They were full of ideas and ready to make them happen.” Overall she described her role versus the teen’s role for the program with humility. “In the whole scheme of things, the teen’s role in creating programming was to dream, do, teach me, and bring friends. My role was to listen, learn, work for teens, advocate, and protect their right to be there.”

The politics that surrounded encouraging the presence of teens in the library were part of the difficulties that Tina faced while working on the programs. “To be blunt, ignorant adults were a near-constant issue. There were Friends of the Library who said things such as ‘do we even want teens in the library?’ and ‘the teens are too noisy, kick them out.’ There are adults in libraries who do not understand teens and their actions….There were also a few teens who succeeded in rolling back hard won progressive policies, but really, the most difficult teens weren’t as difficult as some closed-minded adults.”

The directors she worked under made her job easier. Tina describes herself as “very lucky to have worked under two fantastic directors” (Susan Jacobson and Laura Burnett) while she was a part of the YAC programming. She also advises that “it isn’t an easy job. Teens need someone passionate about serving them in the library setting; someone who is willing to strive to learn about them and willing to fight for their rights to library services and programs that suit their developmental stages.”

The most rewarding part of Tina’s position for her was being able to provide a place that is “less structured than school or sports and safer than someplace without supervision” where teens could spend time with other teens. She is still in contact with many of the teens that were a part of her program, which she attributes to her role not as an authoritative figure but as a facilitator. From the beginnings of the program where everything teen-related was associated with the YAC, the program was able to gain more support and grow. With that program growth, Tina’s position as advisor for the YAC grew too. That is when she says her most rewarding experiences occurred. Some examples are when she was able to send home the “perfect book” for each reader by doing what she calls “booktalking.” She got to know a non-reading teen and found a book for him to try reading just for her and had him come back saying; “I (he) loved it! Is it a series?!” Finally, Tina said her favorite part was “giving troublemakers meaningful work in the library, instead of suspending them, and watching them take ownership and becoming leaders in modeling respectful behavior for their friends.”

When asked if given another opportunity to work with a YAC program she replied that she “would in a heartbeat. I miss watching teens grow and learn and become themselves.” In Tina’s last couple years of heading the program, the Jerome Library was “brimming with teens after school until five or six. The library was the place to be and I was the trusted adult who liked teens and had a good sense of what they might like to do while hanging at the library with their friends.” There were projects out on tables to work on with “How To” books as guides, literary scavenger hunts, and quiet study places available.

Her biggest piece of advice for someone who finds themselves working for a similar program focused on teens is “if you feed them, they will come. But after they come, make sure it is their program, not yours.”

Dara Lohnes is a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, studying humanities and fine arts with emphasis in museum and library science related coursework. She was born, raised and graduated high school in Jerome, Idaho and was one of the founding members of the YAC program under Tina Cherry.

6 thoughts on “Lessons From a Successful Teen Program”

  1. My brother suggested I may like this web site. He used to be totally
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  2. This is a terrific article. I am very interested in working with teens at my library and have spent the last year or so looking at how things need to be changed. It seems that traditional teen programs are aimed at middle class white teens. At my library we have a lot of refugees and lower middle class teens. They aren’t interested in most of these programs. It also seems that the teens who get excited about book talks are teens who are already readers. So I see a need to find other ways to get teens to read. I know that having the teens choose and run the programs is an important way to build their self-confidence by giving them a sense of ownership. Thanks for the tips about finding the right teens to start this. I look forward to implementing these ideas.

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