Sunday, 29 October 2017

Blog twenty six: words on the Windeh Citeh

Children's art work at the Harold Washington Library, Chicago.

I’m now in Iowa, home of corn and the Hawkeyes, after another speed-through in Chicago. I had a fantastic few days in Illinois with my super host family, the Careys, the parents of a friend of mine and Cáit’s. Mag and Gerd were super, and I got tasty dinners every evening, including steak on the BBQ! Their house, in the suburb of Park Ridge, was very close to the commuter train station into the city.

After arriving in on my Amtrak on Tuesday morning, I went directly to the Careys’ and had a shower. Mag made me a delicious breakfast and then, wash and fed, I headed into Chicago again. Once at Ogilvie Station, the hub for the commuter trains, it was straight to the L trains to cover the short distance to the Anish Kapoor “bean” sculpture. Whilst I could have easily walked, Chicago’s L trains are mostly elevated at 2nd storey level and are a great way to see the city’s beautiful architecture quickly and to nose on people in their 2nd floor offices! The bean was always going to be on my “to do” list with Kapoor’s Sky Mirror being outside Nottingham Playhouse so to see a sister sculpture in the US was always something I wanted to do. Whilst the weather was pretty lousy that day, I liked the effect that the rain had running down the chrome-shape and, still in the drizzle, I wandered down through Millennium Park checking out all the other public art and sculpture.

Over the road from the park is the city campus of Roosevelt University, who I’d tried to make contact with a few times, but never very successfully. I decided to pop in and see what was happening and the nice people at the desk allowed me onto one of their under-graduate tours, which meant I got to see their beautiful panelled library and go up to the 31st floor at the top of the building for the view out onto the lake, Soldier Field and the Navy Pier. I also chatted with their international office, who hopefully will be able to be point of contact for future scholars. Over the road from RU is the Harold Washington Public Library and their newly renovated children’s library, which I was shown round by Karina, one of their amazing librarians. This was probably the best children’s library I’ve seen. Their desk was at the right height for children to see over and use, there was an arts and crafts maker space, their shelves were low – allowing children to reach and access ALL the books, there were loads of play areas with foam building blocks, puzzles and dressing up costumes AND the low shelves had crawl through spaces for children too – in the shape of the bean! I had such a great time with them, hearing about how the space was designed and changed from how it used to look to be much more ergonomic for children’s use but also chatting politics, travels in Europe and books! The library stays open until 9 and I lost track of time, so was late back for dinner – not the best move for a house guest.

Carver Elementary, South Chicago.

On Wednesday, I was working with two amazing organisations that were right up my street. In the morning, I went into George Washington Carver (the man who invented peanut butter) Elementary School in South Chicago with the amazing Stay Sit Read. SSR is an incredible organisation that works with schools in deprived neighbourhoods to get children reading though reading books aloud together and in a fun playful way, whilst also using this technique to create story prompts for the children to write their own tales! They also bring dogs into school and allow the children to interact with and read to the dogs. The whole curriculum is canine themed and gives the children access to books, reading, being read to and positive settings around dogs, which all may be things not happening at home. I was on a table with 5 2nd graders and we read Biscuit Goes to School together – I was quickly adopted by the quiet but trying Floyd, who on a table of boisterous kids was struggling to read the book and concentrate on forming the words. We ended up reading the book line by line to each other and making loud woofing noises every time we turned the page. Floyd struggled to get motivated in the story activity, but then it was his turn to hang out with Maggie the dog. When he came back to the table, he was transformed and together we wrote a short-story about him bringing a dog to school and he drew a great little picture. I think Floyd and that interaction will be hard to top as a highlight of the trip.

826 Chicago's Secret Agent Supply Store, Wicker Park

Kate, SSR’s program leader, dropped me back in Chicago in the funky neighbourhood of Wicker Park, where I grabbed a coffee and browsed the used bookstores, before my meeting with 826 Chicago and their Secret Agent Supply Store. I met with Tyler, their store manager, and spent an hour picking his brains for tips on how to run the storefront element of an 826 space. He has certainly been the most retail focussed of the 826 staffers I’ve met and, with around 20% of 826CHI’s funding coming via the retail space, it is paying off – Chicago, Tyler tells me, is the 826 with the highest proportion of their funding coming directly from the store. I also got to see some of their after-school program in action and saw loads of kids benefitting from the 826 tuition. On my way back into town I popped into Podhalanka, the Polish diner. Chicago is the second largest Polish conurbation in the world behind Warsaw, so I couldn’t miss out on some pierogi and kielbasa! Tyler also put me onto another organisation, Open Books, who sell second-hand books to raise money for children’s literacy programs and it was conveniently close to Ogilvie, so I nipped in before my train back to Park Ridge and got Cáit a book!

Another sleep and another hearty Carey breakfast, then it was back to Chicago on the commuter train and my Windstar bus to Iowa City. Having a great time in Iowa City so far and will write up my time here when I’m on the bus to St Louis tomorrow!