Explore and Soar—Chicago Public Library’s Program Ties Summer Reading to Hands-on Learning

Librarianship | Liz McChesney | July 13, 2016

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The Chicago Public Library System, winner of one of the 2016 John Cotton Dana awards, shares the details of their program and how it has helped expand services to students.

Each year at ALA-Annual, EBSCO hosts the John Cotton Dana Awards in conjunction with ALA and its LLAMA Division. The H.W. Wilson Foundation generously donates the money to fund eight $10,000 grants for outstanding library public relations programs. In addition to being a wonderful evening, the awards celebrate great community partnerships and terrific ideas which we hope will foster the next round of innovative ideas for libraries.

Liz McChesney, Director of Children and Family Services for the Chicago Public Library System, accepted the John Cotton Dana award for the Chicago Public Library’s Explore and Soar program. We asked her to blog about the program and the community partnerships that have helped it expand services to students and take advantage of Chicago’s rich array of museums.

Chicago Public Library’s Summer Learning Challenge motto regarding partnerships is “better together” and is a study in partnerships. The program won a prestigious 2016 John Cotton Dana award along with the National Summer Learning Association’s 2015 Founder’s Award for Excellence—the first time a library has been recognized by the association. But our program, Explore and Soar, could not have ‘gotten off the ground’ without key partnerships for transformation.

In 2012 we set out to redesign our large summer reading program and focus on key 21st Century skills as laid out by IMLS: STEAM learning, communication, collaboration and creativity. This is meant to align the library’s program to help in key areas of learning for children and to broaden summer reading into summer learning to help mitigate summer learning loss. Our thinking, which has become a national focus, is that all the programming and work libraries do is learning, or, as our program tagline states: “all learning counts.” This thinking came from NSLA research indicating that children can lose up to three months of academic achievement over the summertime. But this type of groundbreaking programmatic transformation could not happen alone. It is the work of Chicago coming together to recognize that through partnerships we can each provide a unique element to the same goal: serving kids.

Our foundational partnership is with the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), the world-class science museum located in Chicago. Educators there were already thinking about summer brain drain and had created weekly STEAM activities known as Brain Games. We partnered with MSI to provide STEM/STEAM content and training to our staff. They not only created Brain Games-family STEM activities using everyday objects—which are included in our Explorer’s Guides—they also provided professional development in order to train our children’s librarians more deeply about STEM/STEAM. Each year, MSI educators train nearly 75% of Chicago Public Library staff on specific scientific and technological content and methodology. They also open their doors to thousands of children and parents, free of cost, in order to extend the thinking and curiosity of our kids and families through summer long field trips and annual end of summer celebration for summer learners and their families.

MSI staff also trains teens to facilitate the Brain Games in our Libraries. The teams of teens enter Chicago Public Libraries (CPL) to conduct family programs that are based on the theme and content of the summer. The classes were followed up with a family field trip with their Science Minors at the Museum. This not only allows for the cycle of learning to be completed as children reflect on their learning with their teen Science Minors, but it also helps build important “near-peer” relationships that have deep meaning and leadership value in the social-emotional development of our kids.

2015 was the year of Space Travel for the Rahm’s Readers Program and we also partnered with our Observatory, the Adler Planetarium. The Adler offered training field trips to our staff and teen volunteers, aided us as we added telescope lending programs for families to our libraries and conducted community-based sky watch programs in our neighborhood libraries. The educators at the Planetarium assisted us in content development and also vetted the CPL summer reading list for scientific accuracy. Approximately 6,000 child participants and teen volunteers were given access to the Planetarium to deepen their learning about space in 2015.

“Better together” with our partners, Chicago Public Library kids and families are truly able to Explore and Soar each summer. Now in our fourth year, our reach has doubled in the city, and in 2015 we served 99,406 children across Chicago.

You can learn more about the Chicago Public Library’s Summer Learning Challenge here

Learn more about the John Cotton Dana Awards

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Liz McChesney
Director, Children's Services for the Chicago Public Library System

Elizabeth McChesney, Director of Children’s Services for the Chicago Public Library system, is responsible for staff and system-wide services to youth for the 80-branch library system. She has recently received national attention for her redesign of summer reading to include twenty-first-century skills.

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