Engaging Readers in Questioning and Discussion

By Nick Colbert, Program Coordinator

WITS held another installment of our series known as WITS Talks. WITS Talks provide volunteers with information on working with students during programs. The subject of our January WITS Talks was “Engaging Readers in Questioning and Discussion”, facilitated by Chicago educator and Learning & Behavior Specialist, Jessica Uzoh. The best way to engage readers is to help cultivate their reading identity. Watch the video or read on to learn how to support an emerging reader in cultivating their reading identity while learning different types of texts for students, reading skills, and depths of thinking students need.

Cultivating Reading Identity

How can we inspire children to identify as readers? It is a task of many teachers and literacy mentors. It takes the ability to translate what’s being read into something that is relevant or tangible for young students. Teaching and learning both work best when they go two ways; as in students should be co-creators of knowledge. Through this approach a student can truly feel their contribution is valid.

Types of Texts for Readers
  • Emergent Story Books (Brown Bear, Brown Bear)
    • Stories that have characters, a problem and solution
    • Have pictures that closely match text
    • Highly engaging and memorable stories
    • Rich and beautiful literary language, ex: fairy tales & folktales
  • Early Readers (Elephant & Piggie)
    • Short sentences and larger font
    • Pictures support text and aid reading in figuring out unknown words
    • Repetitive sentences, sometimes rhyming words to help early readers predict and decode unknown words
  • Easy Chapter Books (Mercy Watson)
    • Larger font and shorter sentences
    • Conventional plot with a problem and solution
  • Graphic Novels & Comic Books
    • Graphic Novel (Amulet)
      • Follow tradition plot structure and will conclude in one book
      • Longer and more complex than comic books
    • Comic Books (Black Panther)
      • Shorter texts and less complex than graphic novels
      • Story and plot takes place across several issues/books
    • Longer Chapter Books (Rules)
      • May have illustrations
      • Traditional plot structure and asks reader to infer
Proficient readers can do the following eight actions:
  • Activate prior knowledge – and make connections before, during and after reading
  • Determine importance – understand the most significant events in fiction and main idea in nonfiction
  • Visualize – able to hear, see, smell, and feel what’s described in the text
  • Infer – form judgments and make predictions
  • Question – read with curiosity
  • Retell & Synthesize – figure out how parts of a text fit together
  • Monitor for meaning – monitor their own understanding, fix confusion and understand new vocabulary
Depth of Thinking
  • Level 1 – Recall
    • Recall elements and details of story structure such as sequence of character, plot and setting
  • Level 2 – Skill/Concept
    • Identify and summarize the major events in narrative
    • Describe the cause & effect of an event
  • Level 3 – Strategic Thinking
    • Apply a concept in other contexts
    • Determine the author’s purpose and describe how it affects the interpretation of a reading selection
  • Level 4 – Extended Thinking
    • Synthesize information from multiple sources
    • Describe and illustrate how common themes are found across texts

Check out other great volunteer training and learn more about WITS.

Celebrating Black History with Eight Biographies

The WITS library is full of diverse picture books, poetry, chapter books, graphic novels, and of course, biographies! The biographies in our collection range from traditional informational texts, to picture book biographies, to longer chapter books. All year, our program team has the distinct pleasure of learning along with our students by enjoying stories of figures like trombonist Melba Liston, urban farmer Will Allen, and DJ Kool Herc. In honor of Black History Month, here are eight biographies of Black heroes that our students have been enjoying this school year:

“Mae Jemison” by Jodie Shepherd

“Little Melba and Her Big Trombone” by Katheryn Russell-Brown

“I am Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Brad Meltzer

“Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story” by Ruby Bridges

“Simone Biles: Superstar of Gymnastics” by Christine Dzidrums

“Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

“When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop” by Laban Carrick Hill

“Who are Venus and Serena Williams?” by James Buckley Jr.

Rochelle Lee and the Power of a Good Book

by Mia Valdez-Quellhorst, Director of Teacher Programs

Libraries are Magic

Do you remember your elementary school library? How about the librarian? I vividly remember when my school librarian, Mrs. Barclay, read The Legend of the Bluebonnets and told us that Tomie dePaola was her favorite author/illustrator. I came to school early for the next week, reading every Tomie dePaola book I could find and talking about them with Mrs. Jamsen. Through the expertise of my school librarian, a world of interesting children’s literature opened up for me and the library became a safe and caring space.

Rochelle Lee and the Power of a Good Book

While I was learning traditional Texan folk tales, Rochelle Lee was sharing the power of a good book with Chicago Public School children at Oscar Mayer Elementary. She was a teacher who spent the time to find a just-right book for a challenging student and who encouraged kids to read comic books and graphic novels before it was cool. She made the library into a welcoming, inviting place where students wanted to spend time exploring a good book. Ms. Lee knew that if she could instill a love of reading in her students, that drive would serve them throughout their lives.

Her commitment to empower students to becoming lifelong reader and learners had a ripple effect, impacting Mayer students and the larger community. Kids starting coming home excited to read, staying late to spend time in the library, and talking for weeks about upcoming book fairs. Parents took notice when their children came home excited to read. Soon, the Rochelle Lee Fund was created to provide teachers the money needed to put high-quality children’s literature in the hands of students.

Boundless Readers, WITS, and the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award

The Rochelle Lee Fund started in Ms. Lee’s living room, then spread to an office in Andersonville.

After Ms. Lee retired, the Fund began to diversify adding professional development for teachers to the mix. Under the new moniker of Boundless Readers, Rochelle Lee’s legacy lived on as teachers developed their literacy practices, earning money to purchase books for their school libraries. Ms. Lee and Boundless Readers were on to something big: since 2005, the Obamas personally donated $47,000 to the organization, empowering hundreds of teachers and putting a multitude of books in the hands of kids.

In 2015, WITS acquired Boundless Readers in a merger that increased the scope and capacity for both organizations. What started as one librarian impacting one school community, has now grown to be a part of the WITS movement, impacting more than 300 teachers in 92 schools, reaching over 5,000 CPS students. To honor Ms. Lee’s legacy, under the WITS umbrella, Boundless Readers became the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award,  a professional development program where teachers qualify for Classroom Library Grants.

Good Books to Good Teachers

In today’s Chicago Public Schools, school librarians are a luxury most schools cannot afford. Since 2014, the number of full time librarians in CPS has declined from 454 to less than 140. The number of schools that provide quality library instruction is even lower. In an age where informational literacy is a needed skill in most job sectors, CPS is falling behind. This is where WITS comes in.

WITS’ volunteer-powered programs send home books to build student’s at-home library twice a year. In May 2019, WITS will send home 5,800 books. Through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award and Classroom Library Grants, approximately 11,250 new, engaging books were added to classroom libraries. Thanks to WITS, there are students across Chicagoland who are learning the life-changing power of a good book. Rochelle Lee would be proud.

For more information on becoming a Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee visit www.witschicago.org/teachers.

Not Your Average Valentine’s Day Books

By Ellen Werner, Program Director

There are plenty of Valentine’s Day books out there. Below are eight books that celebrate love for our partners, friends, family, and communities that kids (and the adults in their lives) can enjoy year-round.

Great design and very, very cute: a rare combination. Plus it rhymes.

A simple, extremely charming book about spreading kindness.

Exuberant illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton turn the song lyrics from “One Love” into a story about community coming together.

A gorgeous, simple book about the everyday moments that fill your heart with happiness. Perfect for toddlers who delight in books depicting familiar scenes. Available in paperback bilingual English/Cree, board book English only.

Todd Parr’s books are modern classics – WITS students love them, and you will, too!

Worm and Worm are undeterred by cries of “that’s how it’s always been done!” as they plan their wedding. A celebration of love with a cast of comical insect friends.

  • Love by Matt de la Peña

Images of love from expected and unexpected places – there are some big, heavy themes touched upon in this ultimately hopeful and beautiful book. Also available in Spanish.

A reimagining of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s “Sonnet 43” with beautiful illustrations featuring a diverse cast of kids doing everything from climbing a tree (“I love thee in soft sunlight”) to piloting a submarine (“I love thee deep”).

Want to donate books to our WITS Library for students? Send us one of these titles included in our Amazon wish list. If you use Amazon to send a gift to WITS, make sure to include a gift note with your name and email address so we can thank you. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Building relationships between corporations and neighborhood schools

by Tena Kunik, Chief Executive Officer

The WITS Mission

WITS sets students on a trajectory for success by building critical literacy skills and developing positive self-identity through teacher led literacy professional development and volunteer powered mentorship programs.

The First Partnership

In 1999 WITS developed a unique turn-key model for partner corporations to engage in Chicago Public Schools. The Workplace Mentoring Program was originally developed by WITS in partnership with Cboe Holdings. This program brings students to the workplace – offering students a look into life at a corporate office, while providing literacy support and mentorship, the cornerstones of WITS’ programs. After a successful program launch with Cboe, WITS recruited other Chicago corporations to engage groups of employees for one hour each week to work with the same student for the course of the school year.

Expanding Opportunities for Corporations

For the past 20 years, WITS has expanded opportunities for corporations to invest time and resources in neighborhood elementary schools. With more than 60 corporate partners, and thousands of volunteers, WITS volunteers have invested nearly $9,999,475 since 1999.

Today, WITS is the largest activator of year-long corporate volunteer programming in Chicago Public Schools. WITS volunteer corps is made up of large Chicago corporations, including: BP America, Cboe Holdings, CME, Deloitte, Exelon, GCM Grosvenor, and Northern Trust. Corporations contribute nearly 50% of WITS’ privately funded budget and together serve more than 5,000 Chicago Public Schools students annually.

Why these Investments Matter

Investment from the corporate and non-profit community, both big and small, has played a critical role in making CPS America’s fastest-improving urban school district.  Each year, WITS leverages consistent and strong relationships with Chicago companies to provide literacy programming at no cost to 92 Chicago neighborhood elementary schools.  Two years ago, WITS made the strategic decision to expand programming by layering WITS services at established partner schools. WITS’ partnerships with Exelon and the Jewish United Fund (JUF), along with community volunteers and Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardees, allow WITS to provide literacy enrichment to nearly every student at Rodolfo Lozano Bilingual & International Center Elementary School. Steve Solomon, President, Exelon Foundation, said, “For seven years Exelon employee volunteers have been one of the largest corporate volunteer corps at WITS. We are very proud of this designation and the commitment our volunteers have to the students at Lozano.”

The Outcomes

Evaluation has shown that WITS partnership with nearly 70 corporations drives students’ beginning of year to end of year reading-level growth through year-long one-to-one mentorship.  Each student in WITS Mid-Day Mentoring and Workplace Mentoring volunteer program is partnered with a weekly or biweekly pair of corporate volunteers for the entire school-year.  This consistency and focus on relationship building and mentorship has led to 70% of WITS students outperforming the Fountas & Pinnell national average in reading-level growth on average yearly.

Creating Opportunities for Employee Engagement

The WITS program has also proven to be an investment for the corporations’ employees. Solomon said, “Working with WITS has allowed our employees to engage with students and communities that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do.”  This mutually beneficial relationship has resulted in 77% of WITS corporate volunteers reporting that they have benefited professionally and socially from volunteering with WITS.  Additionally, 88% of corporate volunteers report that volunteering has improved their understanding of the literacy challenges faced by Chicago Public Schools students. Solomon went on to say, “The students have become part of the fabric of Exelon because of the relationships between them and our employees.”

A Leader in Corporate Activation in the Literary Space

Ron Sonenthal, former WITS Board of Directors President and current Partner at Deloitte Tax LLP, has been with the organization through its evolution in becoming the leader in corporate activation in the literacy space.  He said, “From a WITS perspective, we wanted programs that would financially expand the organization, that would have measurable outcomes, and would expand our connection with the business community. We then made an effort to attract corporate board members.”  Deloitte has been a partner of WITS since its early days in corporate programming.  Sonenthal went on to say, “We know that our professionals find engaging with Chicago Public Schools’ students through WITS gives them a way to participate in mentorship that is unique and rewarding for all. The group dynamic builds camaraderie amongst our professionals and creates an opportunity for people to come together and serve as a team.”

The WITS Tagline

WITS tagline, “Building Communities. Empowering Readers.” is encapsulated in the organizations ability to leverage long-term corporate relationships to deliver measurable outcomes for students. WITS students consistently outperform the national average for reading level growth – truly, building communities and empowering readers.

Diversity and Children’s Books: Celebrating Multicultural Children’s Book Day

By: Sara Martinez

Recently, at one of my  Mid-Day Mentoring programs, a student came up to me after reading “You Should Meet Mae Jemison” by Laurie Calkhoven. She told me how excited she was to learn about a female astronaut, and she did not know there were any before reading this book with her mentor. She proceeded to ask me to bring more books with female heroes, and now has a steady to-be-read list of books with all kinds of diverse characters in her Mid-Day Mentoring folder.

Celebrating Diverse Books

I was delighted at how a simple request could spark a love for learning about people and cultures she might not have read about if she did not have access to these types of books during program.

Multicultural Children’s Book Day is a great way to spread the word about the immense impact diverse books can have on students and mentors alike. This day is celebrated worldwide on January 25th, and it’s mission is to, “not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries.” According to Multicultural Children’s Book Day official website, a diverse book can include any of the following:

  • Books that contain characters of color as well as main characters that represent a minority point of view
  • Books written by an author of diversity or color from their perspective
  • Books that share ideas, stories, and information about cultures, race, religion, language, and traditions
  • Books that embrace special needs or even “hidden disabilities” like ADHD, ADD, and anxiety

Windows and Mirrors

The relevance and lack-there-of diverse books in children’s literature has been studied since the early ‘60s. According to We Need Diverse Books, the spark of this movement occurred in 1965 when The Saturday Review published an article that revealed only 6.7 percent, or 349 books out of 5,206 children’s book published from 1962-1965, had diverse characters in them. A recent study from 2013 shows that only 93 books out of 3,200 published books were about African American characters. This sparked the New York Times to finally ask, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”.

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop reiterated this importance of diverse books in her article, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”, that describes how people of color see through window when reading books, rather than a mirror. The characters in the majority of kidlit books they are reading are unlike the experiences and people they know, and it leaves children with a distorted worldview. This phenomenon effects everyone—a lack of diversity in books is culturally misleading. Diverse books show a true reflection of our society and the progress we have made. According to We Need Diverse Books, in a survey of 2,000 schools, 90% of educators believed children would become more enthusiastic readers if they had books reflecting their lives. Everyone deserves to read books that reflects their own experiences, rather than a window into someone else’s.

The Impact of Diverse Books

WITS prides itself in cultivating a library that reflects not only the students in our programs but also books with cultures students may not know. Here are a few of my Mid-Day Mentoring students favorite books:

Learn more about diverse books and their impact on students by watching this video. Tag @witschicago and #ReadYourWorld on January 25th to celebrate Multicultural Book Awareness Day with your favorite diverse book!

Beyond Dr. Seuss: Ten Rhyming Picture Books

By Ellen Werner, Program Director

A WITS community member recently asked us for suggestions for rhyming books for a first grader and specified “not Dr. Seuss.” Frankly, I appreciated that direction! Dr. Seuss is great, but many, many excellent children’s books have come out since 1957 when the “Cat in the Hat” was published.

Here are ten rhyming picture books, all published in the last decade:

Some Pets” by Angela DiTerlizzi

Rosie Revere, Engineer” by Andrea Beaty

The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath (Amazing Scientists)” by Julia Finley Mosca

La Princesa and the Pea” by Susan Middleton Elya

Grandma’s Tiny House” by JaNay Brown-Wood

Rhyming Dust Bunnies” by Jan Thomas

Gazpacho for Nacho” by Tracey C. Kyle

Nothing Rhymes with Orange” by Adam Rex

The Road Home” by Katie Cotton

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: and other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups” by Chris Harris

Want to make sure WITS students have access to these excellent books?  Send us one of these titles included in our Amazon wish list. If you use Amazon to send a gift to WITS, make sure to include a gift note with your name and email address so we can thank you. Happy reading!

WITS Leadership Transition

Dear WITS Community,

As the new year kicks off, we have exciting news to share. After seven years with WITS, Brenda Langstraat will move on at the end of the month to become the next President of the Chicago Public Library Foundation. This is a natural continuation of the work that she has done with WITS and is an opportunity for her to advance the #1 ranked public library system in the US.

Tena Kunik, our Chief Strategy Officer has accepted the position of Chief Executive Officer of WITS. Tena joined WITS four years ago, bringing a strong strategic focus for growth along with tremendous passion and energy for the work. Brenda and Tena forged a leadership partnership that advanced WITS and impacted every student in our programs.

WITS is a movement of educators, volunteers, and investors coming together to support a better public education by creating opportunities for every student in our 90 schools. On behalf of the Board of Directors, we thank you for your commitment and look forward to our continued work together.

I joined WITS in January of 2012 and every single day since, I have been empowered by the WITS community; by each of you. Thank you! It has been a tremendous honor to work alongside the passionate and tireless WITS Board, Associates Board and Staff Team. It has been an honor to support the work of our teachers who are literacy leaders and our mentors who show up every day for our students.

I am thrilled that Tena will step in to lead WITS. As many leaders say, hire people who are smarter and more talented than you. That was certainly the case when we hired Tena. I have learned so much from her. I have become a better leader because of her. She is going to take WITS to the next level.

For more than 20 years, my career has been driven by the deep belief that creating empowered communities of learners will transform lives and support the advancement of Chicago’s neighborhoods. I look forward to joining the Chicago Public Library Foundation to expand and advance programs in 80 neighborhood libraries.

And, I look forward to continuing to serve the WITS mission as an advocate and as a literacy mentor for students. I find myself at a loss for words to express what WITS means to me personally and professionally. The people who are drawn to the mission of WITS are people who understand what an honor it is to support every student in our programs…people who understand that WITS is a powerful movement that has and will continue to transform lives.

WITS has certainly transformed mine.

January 5, 2015 was my first day at WITS.  Every day since has challenged and taught me more than any other position I’ve previously held.  Most of my career has been dedicated to education – I truly believe it is the most powerful creator of change in the world. Similarly, I believe in the WITS mission to my core and working to deliver on that mission for the last 1,440 days has been a defining opportunity in my life.

To now lead WITS, an organization that engages thousands of students, educators, and mentors, is humbling and exhilarating.  The WITS community, from the Board to our students, have helped me grow into a more strategic and empathetic leader. Brenda has been an inspiring guide and the most important contributor in preparing me for this role. More importantly, she is a trusted and valued friend.
This is one of those times where thank you seems wholly inadequate.  I look forward to using everything I have learned, and continue to learn, from everyone in the WITS family to continue our legacy of Building Communities and Empowering Readers. #IAMWITS

Celebrating National Mentoring Month!

By Kristen Strobbe, Chief Program Officer

There’s no better way to kick off a new year than with National Mentoring Month! Launched in 2002 by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Mentoring Month focuses attention on the need for mentors, as well as how each of us – individuals, businesses, government agencies, schools, faith communities and nonprofits – can work together to increase the number of mentors to help ensure positive outcomes for youth. National Mentoring Month gives us an opportunity to pause and remember why we choose to mentor and appreciate the mentors we’ve had in our lives.

At WITS, January marks the midpoint in our program year, and is a time for the three Rsreflecting, resetting, and refreshing.

We encourage mentors to:

  • Reflect on the first half of the year with their students.
  • Reset a partnership and start anew with a positive mindset.
  • Refresh their mentoring sessions with new conversations and new books – building on the strong foundation that’s already been created.

National Mentoring Month is a great way to highlight the three Rs, and this year, we’ll be doing that through our first ever WITS Mentoring Month Calendar. Every day in January will include an activity that relates to mentoring – from tips on how to be a better mentor, to WITS student and mentor spotlights, to a Tedx Talk about the science of mentorship, there’s something for everyone!

Lastly, thank you to our 1,500+ mentors! Click here to download a template and tell us why you mentor. Share your image on social media and tag us @witschicago. This month is about you and the time you invest in making sure Chicago’s students thrive and succeed. WITS is so grateful for your service.

Meg Hiestand: Why I choose WITS

Meg HiestandWITS has the most generous and invested donors in the city of Chicago. Meg Hiestand, Chicago White Sox Coordinator of Community Relations, has been a champion of WITS for four years. Read why Meg chooses to invest her time and financial resources in WITS.

Why is WITS important to you?

WITS is important to me because it addresses an ongoing need in the Chicago community: the enrichment of education and providing everyone the opportunity to succeed in reading. WITS truly inserts itself in places where it is needed the most, not necessarily those that are most convenient. WITS works, period. I feel confident that my time and financial resources are going where they are most needed, to a program with proven success.

What makes you continue to give to WITS?

I continue to give to WITS because I have seen its impact firsthand. I read with a student every Wednesday, and have done so for four years. I see the improvement across the course of a year in each student, simply with some one-on-one time each week. I also feel that WITS as an organization is incredibly organized and detailed. I am always clear on their mission, goals, and utilization of volunteers and financial resources.

Why do you think literacy is important to our society?

Literacy is important in society because it is the key to absolutely everything. Being able to read well and achieving a high level of reading comprehension only increases an individual’s chances to success in whatever they decide to pursue. I also find that the more extensive of a vocabulary an individual possesses, the better they are able to express themselves in all situations. Reading is the concrete base on which we all build our life.

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