Maker Jawn’s Other Role: Providing Emotional Safe Haven For Youth

Originally written for Maker Jawn‘s blog. “Maker Jawn aims to provide a unique space for community members in North Philadelphia Free Libraries, where self-directed experimental and experiential learning is promoted through a focus on creativity, critical thinking and skill-building.”

Maker Jawn is a predominantly youth-serving maker space that operates in libraries in North Philadelphia.

I live here. I’ve made great friends here and I appreciate my neighbors. That said, North Philly has some very real problems. More than 900 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2016 alone. Philadelphia has an overall poverty rate of 26 percent: the highest recorded among the nation’s 10 most populous cities.  In North Philly, that rate jumps to 57 percent.

Every other month there is an addict passed out at a table or in the bathroom at our library from an overdose. In December, one of our participants was taken out of school because he threw up from literally starving. Our makers regularly deal with trauma at home, at school, in the park and on the street.

But as much as my ability allows; our little maker space in the back room at the library is as trauma-free as I can provide. Providing this and the many other resources that we do is a constant struggle personally, and I am always trying to learn the best way to communicate with youth, the best way to teach youth, and the best way to simply be a friend.

Last week, I printed out a handful of questions to aid in storytelling for movie making and comic writing. One of the questions was, “who has been the kindest to you in your life?” One of our teens in the space told me, “well, definitely you all here.” The week before, he had revealed to us that he had suffered from depression since he was much younger and that this was the only place he felt safe to talk about it.

Is it possible this 17-year-old had truly never experienced kindness until becoming a part of our maker space? Yes, it is. The deep poverty of North Philadelphia and subsequent problems that comes from it make this not only possible, but probable.

As a mere part-time educator at a library there is not a lot I can do besides continuing to provide the emotional support and kindness. I will continue providing this service among the many others that Maker Jawn does.

How do you quantify emotional liberty?

Developing Programming for Adult Library Patrons

Originally written for Maker Jawn‘s blog. “Maker Jawn aims to provide a unique space for community members in North Philadelphia Free Libraries, where self-directed experimental and experiential learning is promoted through a focus on creativity, critical thinking and skill-building.”

In a low-income, high-poverty setting, it is a struggle to get adults to come to the library and participate in programming. As far as I can tell, this is a true situation across the nation. Parents in high poverty settings often don’t participate in school functions. A Pew research study also suggested that residents in low socioeconomic status are not aware of the resources that many libraries now offer in the 21st century.

The survey notes that while 62 percent of libraries offer online career and job-related resources, 38 percent of adults don’t know whether their library offers them. Likewise, 35 percent of libraries offer high school equivalency classes, and nearly half of adults don’t know whether their libraries offer them. The numbers are similar for programs on starting a new business, online programs that certify people who’ve mastered a new skill, and ebook borrowing.

Since the start of 2017, I’ve been attempting to develop adult-targeted programming at Kensington Library. This came out of being asked to start scheduling Saturday programming from our program’s coordinator and knowing attendance was painfully low on these days. In an attempt to make the most of the new requirement, I saw an opportunity in reaching out to adults who may not otherwise come on a weekday due to the high volume of younger children on those days and availability in adults’ schedules.

I discussed the idea with Kensington Library’s librarians to get an idea of what they saw their library patrons being interested in. From there, I consulted our mission and created a series of workshops based on their feedback that fit within our program’s goals.

So far, I have tried a repeating Computer Basics Workshop and a Sewing Workshop. We’ve listed them on the calendar and left flyers around the library. All of the workshops we’ve attempted have had zero participants.

I have been trying to consult our original grant documents, as well as articles from other institutions trying to reach adults and families in high poverty settings. Overwhelmingly, my anecdotal experience combined with what I’ve been able to gather from research suggests that attempting to engage low socioeconomic communities on weekends is not effective.

Weekday programming can be geared towards families, as we already have many families that participate in programming after school. It may be a better use of a makerspace’s resources to create programming around the schedules of library patrons as opposed to trying to impose that schedule upon them.

Quantifying Success

Originally written for Maker Jawn‘s blog. “Maker Jawn aims to provide a unique space for community members in North Philadelphia Free Libraries, where self-directed experimental and experiential learning is promoted through a focus on creativity, critical thinking and skill-building.”

Maker Jawn is an unstructured, participant-directed, drop-in program.

I am the mentor at Kensington Neighborhood Library.

Here’s an average day:

I come in at least 30 minutes before programming with a basic idea of an activity I think our makers will enjoy. They typically come to the library as part of their daily routine, once they’re let out of school at 3:00PM. At the front of the library, they complete their homework with another program that specializes in homework help and literacy.

Then they come bounding into the back room. I’m there, engaging with one of the activities I’ve set up. I often set up a few. I’m hoping that they’ll see how awesome/amazing/exciting the activity is and want to participate as well.

But it doesn’t always happen that. It actually doesn’t even happen that way most of the time. More often, they will take the materials I’ve set out and do something I never could’ve imagined or prepared for; for better or worse.

And while this can be frustrating when I’m really excited about a project I’d like them to work on and complete, one of the fundamental points of our program is self-directed learning.

Sometimes this works in unforeseeable, awesome ways. Last week I set out some rubber bands in order to make popsicle-stick catapults. One of the makers used them to make a rubber band-powered propeller on a mini-car.

However, the self-directed nature of our program doesn’t always result in one, solid and completed material product. Sometimes the thing gained is much more abstract and hard to articulate.

Almost on a daily basis, one of the makers uses a tool to cut apart or saw something into pieces. Usually this is cardboard or paper, and usually they use one of our electric, handheld saws for cardboard. This is still learning. This is tactile, and therapeutic. This teaches them the boundaries and usability of the saw and the material. Even if it doesn’t result in a completed project; it is important.

Things don’t always serve an objectively obvious, quantifiable purpose but they are still valuable and necessary. Things don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value.

Can Non-makers Lead Maker Spaces and Education?

Originally written for Maker Jawn‘s blog. “Maker Jawn aims to provide a unique space for community members in North Philadelphia Free Libraries, where self-directed experimental and experiential learning is promoted through a focus on creativity, critical thinking and skill-building.”

First, we should discuss what a, “Maker” is in the first place. All of us have the potential to be Makers. Adam Savage worded it perfectly, saying, “Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals; we use tools and we tell stories. And when you make something, you’re doing both at once.”

However, in our recent globalized, hyper-consumer culture less and less people have been taught the skills that enable them to make things. We’re able to buy everything we need – why should we make it ourselves? Making was once a core component of the American middle class. Home Economics was a required class in high school. Times have changed though and being able to make things is a unique skill. But being a Maker is more than technical skill, it is also a mindset.

Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE Magazine and Maker Media has discussed this thoroughly. “Today, making lives on the margins of society, but it is thriving nonetheless. Makers are likely to see themselves as outsiders, like some artists and writers, who do not follow the traditional paths. They create their own paths, which is what innovative and creative people do.

Makers are those of us seeking an alternative to being regarded as consumers, rejecting the idea that you are defined by what you buy. Instead, Makers have a sense of what they can do and what they can learn to do. Like artists, they are motivated by internal goals, not extrinsic rewards. They are inspired by the work of others. Most importantly, they do not wait until the future to create and make. They feel an urgency to do something now— or lose the opportunity to do it at all.”

By no means is being a Maker reserved to an elite few. All of us are naturally born as makers. Quite simply, we need to encourage more people to explore, create, discover.

We are moving into what has been worded as the latter-stages of the program. We don’t know what the future of the program looks like, but we’re trying to ensure our mission carries on. To, “provide a unique space for community members in North Philadelphia Free Libraries, where self-directed experimental and experiential learning is promoted through a focus on creativity, critical thinking and skill-building.”

One possible direction of our program is providing physical resources in the form of portable kits (I.E., tools, computers, materials, even curriculum) and having other library staff conduct  Maker Jawn-esque activities in different library branches through out the city.

Over the summer, Maker Jawn collaborated with another educational program at the library. Maker Jawn’s mentors, including myself, wrote a number of different lesson plans and activities that a group of college-bound high school students conducted and led groups of school-age kids through at other branches. The high school students had mentors of their own that would help them conduct the activities.

Once a week, at least one MJ mentor met with the other programs’ mentors at a group meeting and training session for an hour to go over the requirements of the activity and answer questions.

I created a basic e-textile activity. (See the lesson plan here.) It was a hand-embroidered patch of your given zodiac sign’s constellation, with one of the stars as a light-up LED. When I wrote the activity, I included lots of diagrams and pictures as well as resources for information on a basic electric circuit to power the LED. I had assumed most people would not have had experience with circuitry.

But I left out any information on how to sew by hand. This was an oversight on my part, as it hadn’t occurred to me that most people don’t know how to sew.

I had thoroughly prepared for the meeting with diagrams and videos to go over circuits and how to embed the LED in the fabric, but I had nothing prepared to go over hand sewing. I managed to find a video that showed the process, but I’m fairly certain the e-textile activity was most likely skipped.

This highlighted a big question for me; If the future direction of the program is to provide the physical resources and activities to be conducted by other library staff; will they be able to do it? Of course any of the other programs’ mentors could’ve been shown how to sew. They could be shown how to do anything; with enough time and leadership. But giving them the tools, supplies, lesson plan and an hour of our time was not enough for them to be able to do it on their own with their own makers.

One of the foundational ideas of the maker movement is that anyone can be taught to be a maker. But it takes time and leadership. Physical resources and thoroughly planned out activities simply aren’t enough. As my time at Maker Jawn progresses, everyday I see evidence that one of the biggest resources of our program is our mentors.

From Floater to Lead Mentor

Originally written for Maker Jawn‘s blog. “Maker Jawn aims to provide a unique space for community members in North Philadelphia Free Libraries, where self-directed experimental and experiential learning is promoted through a focus on creativity, critical thinking and skill-building.”

Since my first day with Maker Jawn I have been a floater mentor, happily helping out at the branches where I was needed most.

I was able to watch how two of our most senior mentors handled their maker spaces. Slowly, I was able to build a relationship with the makers at these branches as well as the library staff. Having seen Gavin and Goda in action at Cecil B. Moore and Widener, it is clearly evident to me how important it is to have a relationship with not only our program participants but also the library staff. I noticed quite a big difference between how the kids and staff treated the longstanding mentors and myself; which comes as no surprise. Gavin and Goda have been working in their libraries for years now. They have had the opportunity to watch some of these kids become tweens and then become teens. And they’ve had that time to build working relationships with the library staff.

As time went by, the makers and library staff warmed up to me too. If I’m being honest, building a relationship with the program participants wasn’t difficult. Kids are open and trusting of library staff and people they perceive as teachers. Remembering their names and their interests and discussing their lives made a big difference.

The hard part was getting to know the library staff.

A lot of the time it feels as if we are a nuisance to the library staff. We’re loud, we make messes, we do not approach child “behavior management” in the same ways that they might be familiar with. I’ve been asked multiple times to clean up and leave the building 15 minutes before the library closed; which means 15 minutes less for the kids to participate in the program. Its definitely frustrating and it hinders how much I can do my own job but its not simple enough to direct anger towards library staff. They want to go home right when the library closes and I can’t blame them for that.

At Cecil B. Moore, I worked through the spring on Saturdays with the makers alone. On one Saturday, I brought our button maker. There were a handful of kids that happily made hundreds of buttons for the entire 3 hours of programming that day. They painted, collaged and drew different images to be pressed into a button with the machine.

With only 6 of us to take the buttons home, I asked a few of the kids to hand out buttons to the library staff since we had so many. Later that day, several of the library staff that had never spoken to me approached me, thanked us and expressed something close to delight at being handed a button made by an 8-year-old. After that, I noticed a much better reception to my presence in the library. And I wasn’t asked to leave early again.

Since this Saturday several weeks ago, I am now the lead mentor at Kensington Branch. I am extremely grateful and excited for a consistent position where I will have an even greater opportunity to build relationships with our makers and library staff.