By Elizabeth Kristoff, Program Manager
Libraries are inspiring places. I’ve always felt this way, but never felt so compelled as when I observe how engaged our students are while at the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library. Located on the 2nd floor of the Harold Washington Library, this newly-renovated, extraordinary space is where WITS has held Workplace Mentoring sessions this fall, in our partnership with Exelon Corporation and Lozano Bilingual & International Center. It is where you will see students and volunteers marveling over x-rays of toys at a special exploration table, challenging their engineering skills while building a Rube Goldberg machine, or simply cozying into oversized beanbag chairs to read about prehistoric mammals.
This is no regular library. Thanks to a generous $2.5 million grant from Exelon Corporation, the new children’s library transformed into a 24,000 square foot learning center that provides a variety of comfortable reading spaces, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) learning resources and activities, and – best of all – hundreds of books for students to enjoy. While shepherding the students up the escalator, I learned that their favorite parts of the library include the elaborate puppet theatre, the giant Connect Four set, and the Lego station. Having WITS Workplace Mentoring take place at such an interactive location allowed the kids to practice problem-solving, enjoy creative play, and also shed some after-school energy for the first 10 minutes of program – helping them focus on reading during the rest of the session.
The unique activities are certainly exciting, but according to 5th grader Sofia, “The best part is all of the animal books. I love finding new ones to read with Liz and Mark.” She was so thrilled that after our first day of program, back in October, Sofia applied for her first library card.
As a Program Manager, I spend a lot of time coaxing students to the realization that books are there for them – as both a mirror for themselves, and a window to grow academically and personally. WITS honors the student’s right to select books that peak their interests and motivate them to learn. Being in an environment that embodied this value truly allowed our 3rd-6th graders to come into their own as readers and learners. How do I know this? Because after their 10 minutes of free time is up, and the Connect Four pieces are put away – every one of our 35 student-mentor pairs tuck into the nooks and crannies of the library and read aloud to one another.
There’s no need to convince them that reading is fun. There’s no need to explain why reading is important. They know. And it is a pleasure to behold.
Exelon’s dedicated, enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom have mentored the same student for 2-3 years, have shaped Lozano student literacy since 2012, and continue to be advocates for the WITS vision of creating opportunities for every student in Chicago to be literate. In fact, in anticipation of this year’s holiday celebration (Thursday, 12/14) the WITS Corporate Coordinator at Exelon, Kim Rice, took the time to ask each student in the program what book they wish they could have in their home libraries. The Lozano WITS students will receive these hand-picked, hand-wrapped books from their Exelon volunteers, in addition to 3 new books from WITS.
After the New Year, WITS will return to Exelon’s home space in Chase Tower, and although I’m sure the students will miss the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library – I look forward to creating our own environment of curiosity, imagination, and friendship. With these spectacular students and volunteers, I expect a truly wonderful result.