All posts by WITS

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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The importance of mentorship for teachers

Did you know that 86% of teachers who had first-year mentorship remained teaching after 4 years?

Having access to mentorship and professional development is career changing for teachers. According to The Learning Policy Institute, one of the top three strategies for improving teacher effectiveness and retention is to increase access to mentoring and professional development. The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) provides mentorship and professional development opportunities for Chicago Public Schools teachers by offering programming for teachers to learn from their peers.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award is a professional development program for Chicago Public Schools teachers, focused on developing balanced literacy instructional practices in classrooms. The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Alumni Network consists of over 5,400 teachers committed to developing lifelong readers in the classroom. Teachers may apply to the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award as an Individual Awardee or as a Study Group member.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Study Groups

Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Study Groups are school-based professional learning communities. Study Groups develop a goal to guide their learning throughout the school year, and meet monthly to discuss instruction and push their practice to reach their goal. Study Groups allow teachers to have a school-wide impact on student literacy instruction.

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Summer Institute.

Over the summer, more than 100 Chicago Public Schools teachers come together to improve their literacy instructional practices at Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Summer Institute. Awardees receive access to over 200 hours of teacher-led professional development, and are given the opportunity to tailor their experience to gain the resources and techniques that are most applicable to the needs of their classrooms and students.

The Future of the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Program

In order to ensure teachers in the Chicago Public Schools have access to the mentorship and professional development they need, WITS plans to expand the RLTA program footprint in Chicago’s level 2 and 3 schools this year.

To support WITS in this initiative please make a donation by visiting

Student & Mentor Spotlight: Julie and Latrawanda

By Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator

mentorship julie and la

As a WITS program coordinator, I have the privilege of seeing relationships between students and mentors build from week to week, and sometimes, year to year. This is the second year that 5th grader Latrawanda and Roosevelt’s Julie Mack have been paired in the WITS on Campus program between Brownell Elementary and Roosevelt University. It has been so much fun to watch their friendship. Together they’ve read many books and conquered even more homework assignments. It isn’t unusual to hear them laughing together during WITS and connecting about how their day has been. I interviewed Latrawanda and Julie about their time together and enjoyed hearing about their wonderful partnership!

How did you first get involved with WITS?

Julie: About four years ago a colleague mentioned that she was involved in the program, and it sounded like something I would love to do.
Latrawanda: I was in our school computer lab, and the assistant principal asked my teacher to choose students to come to WITS and I was one of them.

Why did you choose to be involved with WITS?

Julie: I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, mostly at the college level, so when I learned that young students were coming to Roosevelt, I thought, how could I pass that up? Latrawanda and I hit it off right away last year. We have a lot of fun together.

What does WITS mean to you?

Latrawanda: To me WITS is an after-school program, but it’s more than that. It’s personal, because you can actually connect with your mentor.

What do you do when you’re not at WITS?

Julie: I work in theater as a lighting designer so I tend to be in the theater a lot. If I’m not in the theater, I am in the garden.
Latrawanda: For fun I like to dance or go to Six Flags.

What’s something interesting about you that not a lot of people know?

Julie: I love to draw. I don’t take enough time to do it, but I really love it.
Latrawanda: I like to eat a lot. I’m very skinny so I don’t think people would expect that.

What’s your favorite thing about each other?

Julie: Latrawanda’s smile and laugh. We laugh a lot together.
Latrawanda: You can talk to Julie. You can share a secret with Julie. And sometimes she makes funny facial expressions. You can open up to her.

What’s your favorite book that you’ve read together?

Both: Drama by Raina Telgemeier

What would your pen name be?

Latrawanda: Probably “Unicorn Girl”. Because if I were an author I’d probably write lots of books about unicorns and rainbows.
Julie: I do lighting and my last name is Mack, so I kind of like “Mack Light”.

If you could only eat one pizza topping for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

Julie: Definitely pepperoni.
Latrawanda: Probably cheese if it’s what I have to have for the rest of my life.

Would you rather have clown feet or clown hair? Why?

Latrawanda: Clown hair because it’s a rainbow and I like rainbows. And if I styled it, it would be so cute!
Julie: Also clown hair. It’d be hard to walk in clown feet. But you could do a lot with clown hair.

Anything else?

Latrawanda: I love Julie.
Julie: I love LA!

WITS Tips: What are the elements of a book?

by Sara Martinez, Program Coordinator

A key literacy skill students learn are the different elements of a book. Mastering these elements can help them in their journey of becoming life-long readers. It is important to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction before discussing these elements.

Two types of books

There are two types of books: fiction and nonfiction. Fiction books are written from the authors imagination and contain invented characters and events. Fiction books are usually novels, novellas, or short stories. Nonfiction books contain facts about real life events, people, or ideas. Some examples of nonfiction books are encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides and manuals, or travel books.

Elements of a fiction book

  • Follows a plot (beginning, middle, end)
  • Narrative elements
    • Characters
    • Setting
    • Plot
  • Usually a theme or moral the reader will learn
  • Read for fun!

Elements of a nonfiction book

  • Text features
    • Table of contents
    • Glossary
    • Index
    • Pictures
    • Diagrams
  • Factual
  • Read in any order
  • Read to learn new information


WITS Favorite Literacy and Learning Apps

by Elizabeth Kristoff, Grants & Foundations Manager

Literacy and Learning Apps

In honor of National App Day, we asked the WITS team to share their favorite literacy and learning apps. Learn more about the apps WITS uses to expand vocabulary, find books, and even brush up on their bilingual skills!


Through the “HelloTalk” app I can connect with native speakers of different languages from all over the world. I’ve used the app to improve my Japanese and having multiple language partners.
– Nick Colbert, Program Coordinator


Twitter is my favorite app to keep up to date with awesome literacy nonprofit work and my favorite authors and publishers. It might not be widely considered as a learning/reading app, but hear me out. I learn so much from the accounts I follow. For example, I follow Chicago Books to Women in Prison (@ChicagoBWP) to learn about what books are in high need for their collection so that I can see if I can contribute. I follow University of Chicago Professor Eve Ewing (@eveewing), an author who writes about the Chicago Public School system. Drawn and Quarterly (@DandQ) is an awesome publisher of graphic novels and I’ve read so many of the books they promote on their account. Finally, of course I follow WITS (@WITSChicago) to keep up to date with all the cool things happening across our programs.
– Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator


Now that I’ve moved past my “post-grad school, reading is such a chore” feeling, Goodreads has been so handy. I use it to track the books I want to read and to mark my progress on a 40-book reading challenge I set for myself in January. One more book to go!
– Annie Kennedy, Community Manager

Chicago Public Library App

If you don’t have the Chicago Public Library app on your phone, do you even work for WITS? Seriously, this is probably my favorite reading app. I can call books from anywhere! I can renew! I can search for, download, and play audio books! I can reserve spots at exclusive author events. Oh, and I can read books! Seriously, the CPL app is amazing.
– Mia Valdez-Quellhorst, Director of Teacher Programs

Merriam Webster App

I like the Merriam Webster app for looking up words (there’s an audio feature so you can hear how a word is pronounced, too) and the Chicago Public Library app for putting books on hold and borrowing ebooks!
– Ellen Werner, Program Director

Why invest in mentor relationships?

Why invest in mentor relationships

Consistency is key

One of the pillars of WITS programming is consistency. Through diligent planning, the WITS program team ensures that each WITS student has a mentor to read with every session. WITS mentors are trained and equipped with strategies to connect with students over stories and activities.

Studies have shown that:

  • Students who meet regularly with mentors are 52% less likely than peers to skip a day of school.
  • Students who have mentors report setting higher educational goals and are more likely to attend college than those without mentors.
  • Students who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college than those who did not have a mentor.
  • At-risk students who have a mentor are 130% more likely to hold a leadership position.

Committed to the power of reading

WITS mentors are committed to the long-term success of their students and are invested in the school community where they serve. Most importantly, WITS mentors believe deeply in students and the power of reading.

A donation of just $30 provides a WITS student books to celebrate their time with their WITS mentor. Donate today and help strengthen these relationships that make a difference in the lives of thousands of Chicago Public Schools students.

Favorite Books for Every Age

by Ellen Werner, Program Director

Favorite Books for Every AgeTry these “read-alikes”

WITS staff spend a lot of time reading and talking about books with students. WITS coordinates programming with kindergarten-eighth graders, making staff well-versed in finding new favorite books for every age group. If you’re looking for gifts for young readers, try these “read-alikes.”

Purchase one of these titles for a WITS student

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!