Teachers Share Why They Like the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award

Daphne RobinsonBooks, Diversity Initiatives, Teachers

“I was especially excited to add to our science books this school year as that has been an area of much interest for our students!” – Emily Blinn on the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award is a grant for Chicago Public Schools elementary educators. Each year, teachers may apply to receive a classroom library grant. If selected, teachers receive $500 to purchase books of their choice for their classroom libraries. Teachers who are accepted will be able to order books for their classrooms in two allotments, in the fall and winter. This year was the first year that teachers received the book grant only. The requirement for the award is that teachers write a short reflection about how they use the books and how the award has impacted their classroom. Here’s what a few teachers from the 2024 cohort have to say about the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award.

Teachers Speak Out on the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award

Diana Zurawski, a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Galileo Scholastic Academy said: “My students read independently every single day. It is a huge anchor in my class and is a key factor in my students’ growth as readers. I was excited for the WITS award to buy more books, especially to fill gaps in my library.

I sought specifically to increase the number of nonfiction books that I had in my library. I added many books about history. I had noticed early in the year that many of my students were gravitating to the few books I had about World War II and other war related books. One student had read every single history book I had and was constantly asking for more. I was delighted when I was able to bolster this section of my library with new books.

When they arrived, several boys in my 8th grade class ran to the bin where I had put them, and excitedly looked through all the books, calling dibs on various titles. Since I have my students in both seventh and eighth grade, I can easily say that this was the most excited I have seen these particular students be about the books in my library. It helped me to see that even though I have many excellent books in my library, my students (especially my 8th grade boys) were hungry for more nonfiction.

“I noticed that my classroom library was lacking in nonfiction books. I then made it a priority to purchase some high interest nonfiction books to help me even out the selection that the students are able to choose from.” – Catherine Jarvis

I have seen the impact that these books have had on my class even now, several months later. When students finish a book in my class, they are required to do a reading conference with me or another teacher. During these times, students check-in with me, talk about their book, and share about what they have learned from the text.

The books that I purchased with my WITS funds have been read, discussed, and written about by my students. They have increased my student’s understanding not only of reading, but also of important cross-curricular topics. I am so grateful for the opportunity to continue finding books that excite my students and foster their lifelong love of reading!”

Susan Stone, a third grade teacher, from Ogden International Elementary, replied: “My students love books! They utilize the classroom library and read at frequent times throughout the day. They read at the beginning of the day and then have opportunities during our literacy block for both partner and independent reading. Having a wide range of abilities in my class necessitates that I have a wide range of texts with different readability levels.

This year I have the inclusion class, so my students’ reading ability ranges from PreK to 5th grade. Having the opportunity to not only have different levels of books, but also high interest books encourage even the most challenged reader. I also use many of the books as mentor texts for either a particular comprehension skill, text structure or teaching about a topic.

My students love reading and listening to books that reflect their own cultures and the cultures of others, so I am very mindful of that in my choices. These books can then help enhance the inclusivity and appreciation for diversity in my classroom community.

We also completed some book-related projects and having the increased books in my library made them more accessible. One project was for students to research and write an informational report. They presented them to the class and really improved both their reading and their writing skills.

Another literacy-based project we did was based on the book Balloons Over Broadway. We read about the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and then had our own balloon parade through the school. We used this as a beginning mentor text teaching students about narrative nonfiction. The students were able to see that informational text is structured in a variety of ways with the same purpose of informing the reader. They loved both projects and will continue to grow as we read and write more genres as the year goes on.”

“Books are everything to us in first grade!! Firstly, because my students are all currently learning to read and access to quality texts that are relevant to students’ lives is fundamental in learning to read.” – Anna Sciaccotta, first grade, Ellen Mitchell Elementary

Margaret Hullinger, kindergarten through third grade teacher at Willa Cather Elementary School shared the following about the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award: “These books have made a huge difference in my class! I am a second-year teacher, and most of my classroom library was donated by retiring teachers so most of them are older and well-loved. Being able to pick newer, more inclusive books has been wonderful. I chose these books for their reading level, subject matter, and because they are either multicultural or culturally responsive for my classroom.

My students were very excited about the new books – I overheard a few of them talking about seeing themselves represented on the cover of a book and making connections to their lives. My students come from low-income Black families in the Garfield Park area. My school emphasizes a culturally responsive approach to teaching rather than a global education framework.

Multicultural education has a range of benefits for students, teachers, and society as a whole. For students, it promotes academic achievement, cultural competence, and positive attitudes towards diversity. For teachers, it helps to create a more inclusive and equitable learning environment. For society as a whole, multicultural education promotes social justice, equity, and a more informed and engaged citizenry.

I use the culturally responsive books in many ways, one of which is pairing them with a curriculum-required book that is not culturally responsive or inclusive but touching on the same topic. That way, I am still meeting school/district requirements, but my students are able to read and connect deeper using the culturally responsive books. This connects to the importance of focusing on essential elements of education.

The significance of common knowledge, such as language, cultural references, and historical understanding, in ensuring equal opportunities for all students cannot be overstated. Nor can the crucial role of literacy and reading skills as a foundation for learning in other subjects. Furthermore, the readings underscore the importance of aligning curriculum standards with instructional practices for effective teaching and learning.

I also have students pick out their own books for independent reading and small group English/foundational instruction. My students have daily independent reading time (fifteen minutes every day) as well as whole group read alouds. We discuss the books during our whole group and small group instruction. I also lend students books to take home and read with their families.”

“Books are truly the heartbeat of our classroom. Books allow students to engage daily with books in a whole class setting through classwide read alouds of high interest and engaging novels.” – Susan Bohman, fifth and sixth grade, Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy

Catherine Jarvis, third grade teacher at Peterson Elementary reflected: “My students have access to the classroom library every day. Even though the curriculum does not allow time for independent choice reading, I have prioritized and set aside this time for the students to read books of their choice, whether they are accessing them online, from the classroom library, or books from home.

I selected the books from Booksource based on the students’ interests, cultures/backgrounds, and what I already have in the classroom library. Many of the students are interested in graphic novels, for example, so I have selected graphic novels that I think are appropriate for their age group and that also feature different sorts of main characters (a variety of cultures, settings, genres, and genders are represented).

I also have students this year who have moved from India and who do not yet speak English, but they grabbed all of the books they could find in the classroom library that featured characters who were Muslim or showed kids going to a mosque. Through the grant, I was able to purchase these books and have them ready for these students: even though they couldn’t read the words yet, they were reading something that was familiar to them and showed kids who looked like them.

I have also purchased books that provide more variety in my classroom library in terms of genre. Through last year’s RLTA Study Group, I noticed that my classroom library was lacking in nonfiction books. I then made it a priority to purchase some high interest nonfiction books to help me even out the selection that the students are able to choose from. These books enhance the curriculum by providing different access points to the same topic.

For example, in our curriculum the students were learning about frogs in one of the units. The books included in the curriculum did not meet the needs of students who were reading below grade level. I was able to use the books I had purchased through RLTA to give these students a more accessible text so that they could also participate in learning about frogs. The books also allow students to read different genres and perhaps explore a genre they were not exposed to prior.

One example is historical fiction. Many of the students are familiar with realistic fiction or fantasy but had not read historical fiction until they started reading them in the classroom. By exposing students to different types of books, students can organically develop a love for reading and also critically think about different topics within a variety of genres.

Emily Blinn, first – third grade Montessori teacher at Oscar Mayer Elementary stated: “In my first – third grade elementary Montessori classroom, our classroom library is a very popular place to find the students! My students interact with our selection of classroom library books in a variety of ways.

For starters, every afternoon we have a 25-minute block set aside solely for independent reading where students select a book of their choice to read independently. For some, this is a continued chapter book over the course of a few days or weeks, and for others, this might be various shorter fiction or non-fiction texts that differ each day. On Fridays, independent reading time becomes partner reading time, which both me and the students, especially love.

Texts that I ordered through the Rochelle Lee grant that have been extremely popular with my students are a set of science comics as well as a set of science-themed decodable readers that many of my first graders have been especially drawn to!

Another way that students frequently interact with our books is through individual and group research. In our classroom, students are constantly learning about the Earth and the Universe around us, linking history, geography, various science topics, math, and more. Our selection of books in our classroom, including the texts I have already received through the Rochelle Lee grant, makes it possible for students to have access to so much information in our own classroom.

Additionally, we have been studying North America in recent months and will be moving on to Europe next week. Having a variety of atlases and reference books for our continent studies has made for an enriching and engaging continent study in our classroom.

I was motivated to select the books I did through the Rochelle Lee grant based on student interests as well as knowledge of texts I knew I wanted to supplement various parts of my curriculum. A huge pillar of Montessori education is students learning where to find information – research! Modeling how to research and where to find valuable information from high quality texts has been a skill my students have been working on all year.

The texts I’ve already received from the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award grant have also richly supplemented our whole group afternoon workshop block (science, culture, reader’s workshop, and writer’s workshop). Using these texts to help teach various content has been a wonderful experience this school year that I have both appreciated and found joy in.”

Apply Now!

The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award enables CPS teachers to build diverse classroom libraries and empower their students to discover themselves through reading. Each recipient is able to select the books to best support their students’ learning. Additionally, the books are theirs to keep if they change schools or grade levels. The deadline to apply for the award is Monday, April 15, 2024. Teachers will be notified of their application by the end of the school year in June.

Check out our RLTA FAQs to see if you’re eligible, then click here to apply for the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award. For more information, please contact Daphne Robinson, DaphneR@witschicago.org or 708-943-7582.

View the Rochelle Lee Lending Library catalog and availability online via LibraryThing.