Beyond the Program: WITS Students Reach For Goals In the Real World

Ana PortaMission & Outcomes, Programs, Student & Mentor Spotlight, Volunteers

Beyond the program WITS Students reach for goals in the real world

One question the WITS community frequently asks is, how do our students’ experiences in WITS carry over to their lives outside of program? At WITS, we see students going beyond their time in program as they explore their interests and reach their goals in the real world. At Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen, students are well acquainted with WITS programs – they start with the WITS Kindergarten program. As 3rd graders, they participate in the Mid-Day Mentoring program, and 4th-6th graders can choose to participate in the Workplace Mentoring or WITS on the Weekend programs.

When Walsh 5th grader Luis signed up for his second year in the WITS Workplace Mentoring program, there was no guarantee of which volunteers he would be paired with at the Baird offices downtown. After discovering his two mentors from the previous year were signed up to volunteer again, it was the clear choice to match them up again. We sat down with Luis and his two mentors, Matt and Ryan, to reflect on his time in WITS programs so far, as well as looking to the future.

Luis with his mentors, Matt (left) and Ryan
Luis shows some of his favorite WITS books, part of the Amulet series
A Day In the Life

During the Workplace Mentoring program, the hour is split up into parts – an afternoon snack followed by a warm-up activity, then a block of shared reading time, and finally an option to work on homework. However, the benefits of participating in this program go beyond this simple structure, and Luis enjoys his time for several reasons: “Well every time when I go to WITS it feels fun because I like when my mentor helps me study about math, reading, spelling, and science…You do random activities like drawing or talking a little bit about ourselves. I like it when we read because we can find out a little bit about the story and we can talk to our friends and we can read wherever we want.”

He finds it quite fun to be out “with mentors, friends, and siblings. And it’s really good so I can try new things like activities that I never heard about that could be really fun.” He mentioned that his mentors push him to achieve his goals while celebrating successes along the way, “for example if we don’t know a word they help us pronounce it and they tell us the meaning so the students can understand what it means, and the mentors always give them a high five or shake their hand.”

Building Relationships

Second-year mentor Ryan Harvey takes great pride in his time volunteering, “I was extremely excited on the first day to meet such a great student and great friend in Luis, who always brings a great attitude every single day. He’s one of the nicest kids, and he really wants to learn. And so that makes my job really easy as a mentor, because we can just dive into the material, and work together to solve problems like [Luis] talked about and learn new things.” Ryan’s first year working with Luis encouraged him to sign on for another year of volunteering, and he was thankful for the chance to continue developing their relationship over another school year. “I was really excited to be involved in the program again, and I think it’s further strengthened our friendship, and we’ve continued to learn more about each other…He was already a really smart, brilliant kid when we first started, and to see him continue on that path – on his own, and working in the WITS program – the growth has been really amazing, and I know that Luis is destined for amazing things.”

“Working with Ryan and Matt felt really fun because we learned new words, they helped me with spelling, they helped me with my homework, so they want me to have a good grade instead of a bad grade. They always greet me, and I would greet them back because I don’t want to leave them hanging,” Luis says. As the school year progresses, the relationships between students and mentors have a chance to deepen, as trust forms and they get to know more about each other. Luis appreciates the openness and friendliness of his mentors: “They like to sit with me, so we feel like best friends or like bros. And I like it when they help me and practice with me and tell me what I should do instead of what I shouldn’t do, and help me with problems, and like tell me some solutions, and they would want to read a book that I like.”

Making Connections

Baird volunteer Matt Tennenhouse has also had the pleasure of getting to know Luis over the past two years as his other mentor. “I think WITS is a fantastic program because it encourages not only one-on-one mentorship, but team building and understanding group dynamics across the broader class…The WITS program has done an exceptional job of allowing natural conversation that goes beyond small-talk in order to develop both classmate-to-classmate relationships, as well as mentor-mentee relationships.” The Workplace Mentoring program not only allows volunteers to get to know their own students, but to acquaint themselves with the rest of the students in the program while witnessing the camaraderie build among the group. “Hearing the types of follow-up questions we ask, hearing how we articulate our responses and hearing how we interact with one another hopefully provides a great example and helps each of the students push their social practice boundaries a bit further.” Matt has truly appreciated the opportunity to learn from, and about Luis over the course of their relationship.

Luis and Matt, holding up The Sought Six

Matt recently brought a book to program to share with Luis that he has a unique connection to – his cousin wrote it! “I’ve enjoyed learning from Luis and his heritage and was glad that my cousin, CA Klug, could help me share my perspective through her storytelling, as well!” Throughout WITS, Matt and Luis have shared many books together that help them understand the world around them and share their experiences, and The Sought Six: The Sterling Cone allowed Matt to share some of his Canadian heritage with Luis, bridging a reading experience to real life, outside the program.

Spelling Bee

Luis’ goals go beyond the program, as they translate into the real world. This winter, Luis was excited to share with his mentors that he was preparing for the 11th Ward Spelling Bee at Armour Park. According to him, “When I got chosen, it was supposed to be five lucky students. And I was lucky. I felt nervous because my sister got in the bee and she got second place, and I was hoping to get second or first.”

Almost immediately, Luis’ partners started helping him prepare, knowing that he wanted to study as much as possible. “They would tell me hard words, like some large words that I don’t understand. They would help me understand them, and they would practice and bring some pieces of paper for me to write, and we would practice and then we would start a pretest to see if I knew all the words. I kind of did, I just got one wrong, but my mentors said it was alright, you could do it again.” After studying for several weeks with his partners, Luis started thinking about what it would be like to be up on the stage: “I was imagining me going through and seeing my friends and maybe, I don’t know, a huge crowd? And I would hear a word and try to remember what my mentors would tell me.”

Luis and Matt studying
Looking Ahead

While the program has been a great opportunity for Luis and his mentors to focus on his goals and enjoy their time together, they are all thinking ahead. Ryan mentions, “It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to work together and work through problems and find solutions and I think Luis is more than capable, and many, many times finds the answers himself, and I think a lot of the mentor program is basically to help kind of nudge you in the right direction.” He then turns to Luis, “But you’re more than smart enough. You know a ton of information already to handle it by yourself, and I think that as you continue to work through WITS, my goal for you is to continue to do that and to continue to be enthusiastic about learning and about school.” Matt agrees that is has been a “tremendous two years and I’m excited to hear about his continued development and hope his passion for learning remains as strong as ever over the coming years.”

As for Luis, in his last few years before high school, he has given himself a reminder that works for all of us: “Never give up, just keep trying until you understand, and never say, ‘Aw, I’m already wrong,’ just tell a parent or a mentor or an older sibling and ask them, ‘What does this mean?’” The ability to recognize when he has questions or needs further clarification and the confidence to ask someone he trusts is a very meaningful quality, and Luis’ curiosity and passion for learning will certainly take him far. We can’t wait to cheer him on!


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to the homes of students and classrooms of Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardees each year.

Wits provides

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of literacy mentorship each year in Chicago Public Schools.