Did you know that it’s possible to have a side gig teaching or performing in public libraries? Pop up Art School has been teaching art workshops in public libraries for seven years. There are lots of people making extra money this way and we want to inspire you to do the same. This is the first in a new series of interviews where we pick the brains of people who teach or perform in libraries. Our first interview is with Peter Johnson, a middle school Innovation Arts teacher who owns a business called Puzzle Shift Create. He just completed his fourth year teaching STEM workshops in libraries.
How it all began
I was curious how Peter started his business. It turns out that his mother-in-law is a librarian. She told him that her library was, “Writing big checks for performers” and that he should put together a program. She emphasized that many performers perform, but what she really wanted to see in her library were hands-on activities for the patrons.
Peter took her advice and ran with it. In 2018, he taught 33 workshops and this year he taught 40. Next year, will be his most ambitious year yet – he’ll be expanding to 5 states in his region. He plans to hire six teachers to run his presentations in locations that are too far for him to travel.
Peter began his teaching career as an eighth grade science teacher. His school had a room filled with equipment like 3-D printers, that was used infrequently, he began to use the equipment in his science classes and has since transitioned from science teacher to Innovative Arts teacher.
I asked Peter how teaching in a classroom compares with teaching in a library. His response: “The best kids in the world come to libraries”. Teaching in a library is a different experience because the kids want to be there.
For classroom management during workshops, he told me that sometimes he has kids who talk while he is presenting. Peter simply stops what he is saying, looks at the child until they stop talking and picks up where he left off. The other thing he mentioned is that kids get so excited that they want to over-share which sometimes slows him down during transition times.
Where does Peter teach his workshops?
Peter lives in Minnesota and teaches his workshops exclusively in libraries in rural locations. He markets his business by sending postcards to libraries within a 150-mile radius of his home. A major factor in the growth of his business has been from word of mouth.
Summer reading theme
Every summer libraries across the nation follow the CLSP summer reading theme. Libraries love to hire performers who cater their programming to the theme. Peter developed a program called Launch & Light to correlate with this summer’s theme, A Universe of Stories. The one-hour program is for ages 7 and up and combines verbal presentations, videos and hands-on activities. The first half of the program “launch” is about space. Peter shows videos of rocket launches, live feed from the international space station and discusses orbits and multi-stage rockets. The second half of this program “light” covers gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet light and visible light. He has spectroscopic glasses the kids can try on and stations with hands-on, takeaway projects.
To keep his costs down he frequently orders from Alibaba. Next year he plans to do engineering challenges in which he’ll reuse the materials again and again. He wants to eliminate takeaway projects as they probably end up in landfills and they cost him more money. After all, it’s the learning experience gained through manipulating materials that is the point of his programs.
Peter primarily teaches library workshops in the summer because he has a young family. His wife is a Presbyterian minister and they have three children, including twins. He works full time as the Innovation Arts teacher at his middle school. In addition, he’s developing a STEM curriculum called Puzzle Shift Create. In the future, he wants to sell his curriculum to school districts.
How much does he charge?
Each workshop is one hour-long and he can take up to 100 kids. He charges $320 per workshop. When traveling far from home he block-books his workshops so he can do two or three in one day. For this, he contacts the programming director who oversees multiple libraries. When he block-books he charges $320 for the first workshop, $285 for the second workshop, and $250 for the third workshop.
In his career as a teacher, he noticed that his students had very little experience with problem-solving and hands-on activities. He uses the growth mindset model in his classroom to help his kids shift from the “teacher in charge” model to “creator in control” to develop the problem-solving skills they need. His goal is to teach them that mistakes are a natural part of learning. Peter models this beautifully on his website where he has a page called Failures. It is here that he outlines failed projects and business ideas and what he learned. This is a brilliant idea: He is broadcasting his mistakes to the world to show that “failure has value”.
Peter says his experiences teaching in libraries have been overwhelmingly positive. The librarians are great to work with. His presentations are a hit with librarians, parents and children. And, he’s making a good side income doing something he’s passionate about. To top it all off, he made his mother-in-law happy because he followed her advice!
Join our Facebook group Freelance Art Teachers in Libraries. The group is for sharing ideas about teaching art and other subjects in public libraries. Whether you are a librarian looking for new ideas or a teacher seeking an enjoyable side hustle, we are here to answer questions and support you!