Photo of a family posing with their books by SPL's checkout counter.

SPL’s Summer of Learning Program Wants to Know, ‘What’s Your Story?’

by Mark Van Streefkerk

What is your favorite family recipe? Can you remember one of the kindest things someone ever did for you? Can you tell a family story through rap lyrics? What are some things that make you, you? These are some examples of prompts from this year’s Summer of Learning program from the Seattle Public Library (SPL). The SPL’s flagship summer program for kids is now an impressive 102 years old, and this year’s program has been carefully crafted in partnership with the African American Writers’ Alliance and the Bureau of Fearless Ideas. To participate, swing by any of the SPL branches currently open for in-person or curbside service to grab your own poster-sized Summer of Learning flyer, available in eight languages. The posters are filled with creative prompts, coloring and drawing activities, and plenty of opportunities to explore, create, and share the stories that make up your world. 

Check out the Summer of Learning website for even more prompts and activities as well as downloadable versions of the poster in multiple languages including Amharic, simplified Chinese, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese. The website also has poetry templates and book trackers to record summer reading. Kids can submit a Your Next Five form to get personalized reading lists from the library, browse “Staff Pick” book lists, or just ask a children’s librarian for recommendations at their next visit to any library branch. Parents and caretakers of pre-readers can download a 16-page early learning activity guide in eight languages. 

For the Summer of Learning, the African American Writers’ Alliance (AAWA) will lead a four-part series of virtual workshops led by writers, elders, and youth from the community called “Celebrating Black Joy and Brilliance Through Storytelling and Writing.” The first workshop happens July 8 with the theme of Food and Celebration and requires registration ahead of time. Additional workshops in the series will take place on July 22, Aug. 5, and Aug. 19.

SPL’s Kids YouTube channel also has plenty of virtual storytimes and other programs. 

Participants of the Summer of Learning program are eligible for free tickets to the Burke Museum. (To reserve museum tickets, email or call 206-616-8616.) 

Guests at the Rainier Beach library branch. Through the Summer of Learning program, kids of all ages can explore, create, and share their stories. (Photo: Seattle Public Library)

Developing this year’s Summer of Learning programs in yet another pandemic year had a significant impact, especially since in-person activities are still not an option. Amy Twito, program manager at SPL for the Summer of Learning, said, “With all the talk in the news about what students were losing out on in the pandemic school year, we really wanted to focus on creating an assets-based program — one that recognizes all the gifts, talents, and abilities that Seattle’s youth and families have and support[s] their strength and resiliency.”

Instead of focusing on barriers to learning, especially for families who might lack equitable educational resources, “we are instead encouraging a whole-family approach to reading and learning and tapping into the learning that can happen within families and in community,” Twito said. 

The Summer of Learning poster is a result of this emphasis, with focus on equity. The poster was created by four artists — Tessa Hulls, Eileen Jimenez, Stephanie Morales, and Brandon “BT” Thomas — and features 40 prompts promoting “intergenerational conversations and storytelling to encourage youth and families to explore their own origins, celebrations, daily life, cultural heritage, traditions, and games,” said Twito. 

Noni Ervin, a writer and poet who serves on the leadership council of AAWA, said the centering of people who have been historically marginalized in storytelling is “a big deal and is in and of itself equitable. I hope that organizations like SPL continue to send the invitation out into the community … it looks different when different people are in the room.” 

From the first planning stages of this year’s Summer of Learning, SPL worked closely with community partners like AfricaTown for input. From there, Twito described it as a “beautiful concentric circle — you meet with one partner, and they suggest you talk with another.” As these important conversations made their ways through the community organically, SPL was led to Delbert Richardson, the founder and curator of American History Traveling Museum: The Unspoken Truths, and the AAWA. Richardson will lead a virtual summer youth storytellers program for Summer of Learning based upon Unspoken Truths, an exhibit that documents the richness of African American history. (The date for these virtual programs is yet to be determined.) Existing connections with librarians led to a partnership with the Bureau of Fearless Ideas (BFI), a learning nonprofit that encourages young people to find their voices through words. 

“AAWA and BFI created the majority of the content on our Summer of Learning poster,” Twito said. “AAWA called upon 9–10 members to come up with ideas and prompts, and the team at BFI created prompts and then vetted them through some of their students to get their stamp of approval.”

Ervin said that through AAWA’s contributions of prompts and virtual workshops, she hopes to inspire people of all ages to write their own stories. “It doesn’t have to be a certain way, it can just be theirs. We see youth and adults alike who say, ‘Oh I’m not a writer,’ but they all have a story,” she said. 

A Welcome Back sign at the Delridge Branch. As of this week, all but five branches of the Seattle Public Library will have reopened for in-person services at 100% capacity. Masks are still required. (Photo: Seattle Public Library)

The Summer of Learning debuts right at a time when even more library branches are reopening for in-person service. Four more locations reopening this week means that 21 of SPL’s 27 branches are offering in-person service. In accordance with the State’s lifting of pandemic restrictions, all reopened library branches will be running at 100% capacity, will not require physical distancing, and will reintroduce additional seating and computer stations. Guests can browse library shelves, check out books, connect to Wi-Fi, charge their devices, or simply take a moment to cool off in an air-conditioned library. In-person programs and study and meeting rooms are still unavailable, and masks are required at all times. Newly reopened branches include South Park, West Seattle, Delridge, Columbia City, High Point, and International District/Chinatown. 

Five libraries, including the New Holly branch, are not yet reopening due to staffing constraints as a result of COVID-19 budget cuts. Thanks to $1.1 million in funding from the City of Seattle’s Rescue Plan, SPL is working to reopen the remaining branches throughout the summer to support students returning to in-person school in the fall.

For a full listing of branch hours of operations and services, check out the SPL website. For a list of branch locations with air conditioning, visit SPL’s Shelter page.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured Image: A family browses children’s books at the Central Library. (Photo: Seattle Public Library)

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