Creating Deeper Learning Opportunities Through Long-term Projects

By Goda TrakUmaite Of Maker Jawn @ Free Library of Philadelphia

After facilitating over two years of identical programming across multiple sites, Maker Mentors at the Free Library of Philadelphia felt the urgency to provide deeper learning opportunities based on youth interest at each site. How best to begin this? How to meet youth interests with limited mentor knowledge and skills?


After facilitating over two years of consistent programming across sites, long-time Mentors began looking for additional programmatic support in 2015. This was spurred by a growing understanding of the interests and needs of regular program participants, coupled with what Mentors felt was an inability to fully meet those interests and needs due to their own limited knowledge in particular skill areas.The Project Coordinator encouraged Mentors to pursue alternative funding sources as a way to address these frustrations, specifically through $7,500 Curiosity Creates grants, administered by the ALA for Creativity Programming at libraries.

Three Mentors took on the work of designing location specific projects which were awarded Curiosity Creates grants, and spent the next 4-6 months planning, coordinating and facilitating their projects. These projects differed radically in their focus, as they were designed with the specific needs and interests of regular participants at three separate libraries in mind. They included a cooking show, a program focused on zine and book making and a fashion show. Despite these differences, the three programs all had several things in common which included: hiring visiting experts, artists and community members to supplement learning; making available multiple points of access and ways for participants to be engaged with the projects; and a focus on collaboration around completing a final project that compiled and showcased work done over several months.

At Kensington Library, youth participants worked to create a 5 episode YouTube cooking show called KEN Cooks. Grant funds were used to purchase equipment to build a mobile kitchen for the program site which included a convection oven, an induction stove top, and even a makeshift sink. Community partnerships that enriched the program included Fair Foods, who provided the program with fresh local ingredients and helped facilitate a conversation with youth about where food comes from and how; Norris Square Neighborhood Project, who sent a garden and food educator to lead a workshop about making lip balm from local herbs; and two artists who helped with the production of the video and led a screen-printed apron project. Program participants could engage with KEN Cooks by cooking, by shooting and editing video, and by creating artwork to go in the cookbook that compiled the recipes used for the cooking shows. The project culminated in a celebratory screening of the KEN Cooks episodes and give-aways for all participants which included a copy of the cook book they made as well as kitchen ware and ingredients to make apple crisp at home. The cookbook was incorporated into the library’s cookbook collection. The mobile kitchen has remained at the library and has added to the range of programming that can be done there. Leftover funds from the grant were used to purchase cooking equipment to be shared among the other Maker Jawn sites so that cooking could become part of programming elsewhere as well.

At Lillian Marrero library, youth participants worked with a wide range of visiting artists to explore storytelling through comics, papermaking, bookbinding, zines, Vine videos, printmaking and photography. Most program funds were spent on materials and visiting facilitators who included people from Moore College of Art and Design and Soapbox Community Printshop and Zine library. A photographer was also brought in several times to take family portraits of library patrons who could then take their printed photos home or make photo albums to hold them. The program combined activities that youth participants at this site had shown proclivity to in the past (working with paper, drawing and painting, storytelling) with new experiences facilitated by visiting artists who brought in new ideas and skills as well as a deeper focus on content-creation. The variety of activities provided opportunities for all youth participants to get drawn in through whatever they found most meaningful and engaging. The culminating artifact for this program was a printed book that documented the work done by youth during the course of the program. One of the participants learned how to use Photoshop during the course of the program and designed the book’s front cover.

At Widener library, the youth participants’ excitement about sewing turned into a futuristic fashion show. Grant funds were used to purchase a variety of equipment and bring in community members and artists to facilitate special workshops. Visitors included an art director working at a Philadelphia-based national clothing brand who talked about her work and assisted the youth in holding their own photoshoot with their designed fashions. Two artists who employ themes of Afrofuturism in their work came in to do workshops around developing Afrofuturist superheros and exploring the topics of race and representation in popular science fiction media. Youth participants could engage with the program in a variety of ways which included sewing and designing clothing, working on the photoshoot and digitally editing images, creating music for the fashion show, designing a fashion magazine, building a runway and painting a backdrop. The event culminated in a celebratory fashion show that was attended by many kids as well as some family and community members. The event also included a premiere of a science fiction film made by one of the teen program participants as well as the release of the fashion magazine, which was added to the library’s magazine collection. Leftover grant funds were used to purchase supplies based on a survey of the program participants and other library staff, who wanted to use the runway built for the fashion show to put on a play the following school year.

Facilitating long-term collaborative projects in a non-compulsory drop-in setting comes with many challenges. Making sure everyone who wants to be is included and represented in the final project without having a guarantee of regular attendance is difficult. So is accommodating the needs of youth who are not interested in the large group project and want to work on something else, which they expect to be able to do in a Maker Jawn program. But these challenges can generally be addressed with flexibility on the part of the Mentors and their willingness to shift their day to day plans as well as outcome expectations according to the changing needs of the participants.

Despite the challenges, the successes of these three projects have inspired excitement among other Mentor and library staff for attempting long-term collaborative projects as a means of providing opportunities for youth to dive deeper into particular areas of learning. These projects have shown the value of putting resources towards bringing in other community members to provide instruction around new skills. Along with exposing youth participants to new things, these visits serve as professional development for Mentors who might be able to facilitate similar programming in the future. They have also helped to raise awareness about Maker Jawn within a wider community. The tangible results and visible events produced through these projects have led to more support for Maker Jawn among other library staff. Since Maker Jawn places emphasis on process over product, in the past there have not always been consistent opportunities for library staff to see and appreciate what happens in the program. The final products have also built up a sense of pride and ownership over Maker Jawn among youth participants which is expressed through their excitement to share the results of their work with other library patrons and their families and friends.

Related Resources:

KEN Cooks Blog Post 1

KEN Cooks Blog Post 1

KEN Cooks Videos

Fashion Magazine

Fashion Show Blog Post 1

Fashion Show Blog Post 2

Fashion Show Blog Post 3