All posts by WITS

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

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!

Literacy is a Human Right

by Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator


UNESCO asserts, “Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individual, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, ones’ income, and one’s relationship with the world.”

WITS understands this and creates opportunities for every student in Chicago to be literate and grow into a passionate reader.
Being able to read and write allows for meaningful participation in the world. At its base, being able to read means knowing what ingredients are in food, understanding what bus line goes to work, taking the correct prescription drug. Furthermore, reading provides insight into other cultures and lifestyles and helps students understand complex topics.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action from the United Nations to strengthen universal peace and eradicate poverty by the year 2030. Universal literacy is a part of this plan, “ensur[ing] that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.”

According to a report published by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are proven advantages to being proficient in reading by the third grade. Students who are reading at grade level in the third grade are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to be incarcerated, more likely to find high-paying jobs, and more likely to have a longer lifespan. It is because of these statistics that the WITS Mid-Day Mentoring program primarily serves third grade students.

Beyond taking students to new places, being able to read is vital. Join our movement and help create opportunities for every student in Chicago to be literate.

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