Increasing Teachers’ Access to Books

Elizabeth KristoffBooks, Mission & Outcomes, Teachers

The Gift of Reading

Fostering a love of reading is at the heart of what WITS does. At the end of each school year, WITSummer Books sends WITS students home with a brand-new set of culturally-relevant books–putting learning, adventure, and fun directly in their hands. In addition to providing books for students in our mentorship programs, WITS gives Study Group Awardees grants to increase students’ access to books. On average, Awardees purchase 85 new books with their grant.

Building Classroom Libraries
Rogelia Pena

Classroom libraries are integral to successful teaching and learning. Like many Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardees (RLTA), Rogelia Pena from Rachel Carson Elementary in Gage Park knows that having a wide variety of engaging books is key to empowering young readers.

When Rogelia first participated in RLTA in 2016, her goal was to build a library with high-interest bilingual books for her dual-language classroom. “At first I was looking for authenticity–books written in Spanish by Latin American authors,” she recalls. “But at the end of the day, I just wanted them to read.”

Rogelia used the RLTA book grant to purchase a mix of authentic texts and Spanish translations of popular titles originally written in English. She also found titles that corresponded with specific curriculum; offering students non-fiction books to enhance discussions of novels, and using stories to bring social studies, science, and even math to life.

Taking the Lead from Students

In 2021-2022, in her fifth year as a RLTA Study Group member, Rogelia taught fourth and fifth grade special education students, many of whom were emerging or reluctant readers. “Even though my students needed foundational skills,” she notes, “it was still important to foster a love for reading.”

For students of all reading levels, finding engaging books is crucial – whether it’s a subject that fuels their curiosity, or a character with whom they can identify with on a personal level. “It makes or breaks them as readers,” Rogelia observes.  Students may not be confident as readers, or particularly enjoy reading, but “having choice and feeling l like they have agency is very important. They feel like they have a say in their learning.”

This year, Rogelia’s students also had a say in the books she selected with her RLTA book grant.

“I gave surveys and did interviews to find out what kind of books would interest my students the most. Since I have only a handful of students this year, I was able to purchase several books for each of them.”

Students were thrilled to find new books from the Dog Man and Cat Kid, Fly Guy, Bad Kitty, and Pete the Cat series in their classroom library, which they are allowed to borrow from to enjoy their favorites at home.

“When you ask them what they want,” Rogelia reflects, “they feel appreciated and seen. They’re excited. They want to read.”

Uniquely Valuable

According to a 2021 survey done by the, educators spend an average of $750 out of pocket on school supplies, including classroom library books. Funding for book purchases varies by school, and book selection is sometimes subject to approval. Many teachers curate their collections with thrift store or Little Library finds, as well as books shared by their families, friends, and peers.

At zero cost to teachers, RLTA book grants alleviate the financial burden of purchasing books for their classrooms, while giving teachers the freedom to choose what titles best meet the needs and interests of their students.

Lastly, “I can’t think of any other program like it,” Rogelia says of the RLTA book grant.

WITS is proud to serve Chicago teachers, and we hope these growing libraries continue to inspire classrooms across the city.