Empowering Readers and Cultivating Remote Relationships

Delaney EarleyPrograms, Student & Mentor Spotlight

An unprecedented interruption to the school year led to countless changes for Chicago Public School (CPS) students and staff, including a shift in WITS programming. In mid-April, WITS launched Empowering Readers at Home – a resource page that includes videos of WITS staff reading books aloud, supplemental activities for each reading, a selection of bilingual, literacy-based worksheets and family activities for each grade level, and a portal designed for students and mentors interested in cultivating remote relationships.

Given the abrupt ending to in-person programs, this portal allows WITS students and mentors to check in and maintain a sense of connection. The WITS Program Team has delivered over 300 messages, showing the strength of the relationships built between students and mentors from their brief but meaningful time together.

A Closer Look: Workplace Mentoring Relationships

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Holden Elementary student, Ethan, and his mentors, Ryan and Brent, from our Workplace Mentoring program with BP. They took the time to reflect on why WITS and their relationships with one another are important.


How did it feel to receive letters from Ryan and Brent?

“I was very surprised! I wasn’t thinking they were going to send a message, but it was really great to hear they’re doing okay, and for them to ask questions about me. It was really cool.”

Why did you choose to write back to them?

“I thought it was a good thing to do. I wanted them to know that I was doing okay and that I’m still thinking about them too.”

What was your favorite part about working with your mentors at WITS?

“WITS is really fun! I liked getting to know Ryan and Brent better through the activities at the beginning of program, and I also liked picking out books with them.”

What are some activities you are doing at home to stay busy and safe this summer?

“I’ve been spending time with my little sister and cousins, which is fun.”

Have you read any good books you would like to recommend?

“I just read the book Hatchet, which is really good. It’s about a boy who is in a plane crash and has to survive by himself in the wild.”

Ryan and Brent

Why was it important for you to send a message to Ethan?

Ryan: “WITS is important to me. When you get so caught up with work and what’s going on in life, WITS is a time to focus on someone else for an hour and really build a relationship. I always looked forward to chatting with Ethan and learning about his life, so I didn’t hesitate to reach out when the opportunity to send a message arose.”

Brent: “Growing up, it was helpful to have consistent people in my life who supported me, so I wanted to continue to engage with Ethan, even when we couldn’t meet in person.”

How did it feel to hear back from Ethan?

Ryan: “His response was ‘very Ethan,’ which made my day, and it showed that our connection meant something to him as well.”

Brent: “It felt great. It was nice to know that he’s doing well, still reading, and still showing the same enthusiasm for learning.”

What was your favorite part about working with Ethan at WITS?

Ryan: “One day really stands out to me—we had just finished a warm-up activity that involved drawing. Ethan is an incredible artist, he really lit up and we spent the rest of the time talking while he drew the Dog Man cartoons from the back of the book. Our whole table was so impressed with his artwork, and getting to see something he was passionate about meant a lot.”

Brent: “Growing up, reading was very important to me. It allowed me to expand my vocabulary and learn about different topics that aren’t taught in school. It was great to share that experience with Ethan. One of the books we read this year was about Helen Keller, and it was cool to learn about her life with Ethan.”

What are some activities you are doing at home to stay busy and safe this summer? Have you kept up on your reading outside of WITS?

Ryan: “I’ve been playing some golf and tennis, which are two very good social distancing sports! I love sports and this has been a fun challenge since I didn’t grow up playing either sport.

I’m transitioning into a new role at BP, so I’ve been spending some time reading about petroleum refining for non-technical people. I also love Harry Potter, so I’ve been re-reading the series for the first time in probably 10 years.”

Brent: “It’s been really nice to have more time to read every morning without my typical commute. I just ordered some new books recommended by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, so I’m excited to start those.”

A Closer Look: Mid-Day Mentoring Relationships

Ethan, Ryan, and Brent were able to stay in touch through emails sent to their Program Coordinator. In the process of delivering these messages, the WITS Program Team built stronger individual relationships with students and their families. For students in our WITSK and Mid-Day Mentoring Programs, we are grateful for the many educators who assisted their students in cultivating remote relationships.

For example, Mr. Burns, a third grade teacher at Manierre Elementary School, encouraged his students to hand write letters back to their mentors. Two of these letters are highlighted below:

WITS believes in building relationships through reading. No matter the circumstance, one-on-one mentorship is the hallmark of WITS programming, encouraging students’ growth and development of positive self-identity. I hope that this small spotlight reflects the much larger significance of the relationships built by WITS students and their mentors.

WITS provides literacy programming at no cost to Chicago neighborhood elementary schools.

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