Tools for creating a safe reading environment

WITS is committed to supporting our volunteers to ensure they feel prepared to be literacy mentors. The following suggestions and tools can assist volunteers in creating a safe reading environment to build strong relationships and maximize reading level growth.

WITS is excited to offer a virtual reading mentoring program for students and mentors for the 2020-2021 school year. The virtual program will bring together students and adult volunteers for a year of mentorship, shared reading, and community building – all staples of a traditional WITS program. The program was designed with the unique needs of a virtual setting in mind. WITS will provide access to a robust online library of children’s books. WITS will utilize whole group activities and breakout groups, where students and mentors will form teams of readers. Most importantly, WITS will make sure that our virtual space is welcoming, encouraging, and safe for students.
Learn More

How does it work?
  • Small groups of 1-2 mentors with 2-3 students meeting through video with Google Meet
  • Mentors will use Epic! - an online book library - for shared reading with students
  • Program will be 30 to 45 minutes plus time for logging in before sessions begin
  • Partner teacher and WITS staff member will be logged on to the WITS session

How will we utilize Google Meet?
  • Students and Mentors log in before program starts
  • Students and Mentors break into small groups for shared reading and mentoring time
  • WITS Staff Member and Partner Teacher check in with small groups during breakouts

Mentors will use Epic! – an online book library – for shared reading with students (WITS will provide a shared Epic! account for mentors).

Housekeeping/Tech FAQs


You should…

Your internet goes out

Text your program staff member.

You have a slow connection

Do not use the “blur background” feature on Google Meet.

Make sure you are using Google Chrome as your browser (not Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, etc.) and use the most updated version:

  • On your computer, open Chrome.
  • At the top right, click More (the three dots in a column)
  • Click Update Google Chrome.
  • Important: If you can't find this button, you're on the latest version.
  • Click Relaunch.

Close any applications you aren’t using.

A link doesn’t work

Before program: email your program staff member.
During program: text your program staff member.

You find yourself alone in a breakout room with one student

Text your program staff member and go back to main meeting. Send a chat in the main meeting too.

You can’t log in to Epic!

Try your class code again.

You can’t share your screen and see your students at the same time

Make sure you have two windows, not two tabs, open. Use the Google Meet Guide to review how.

You can’t find your name in Epic!

Use the “Guest” account. Let your program staff member know afterwards.

You can’t hear your students or you can’t hear anyone at all

Use the red phone icon to “hang up” and exit the meeting. Do not close the tab. Then rejoin the meeting.

Check the volume on your own device, ask your students to unmute themselves.

If none of these works, contact your program staff member.

If other people cannot hear you

If you have a main room and separate small group rooms, leave the main room and remain only in your small group meeting.

Use the phone number provided in bottom left corner of the meeting notice to call in on your phone. Continue using your computer for video and Epic!

You can’t see yourself/your students can’t see you

Make sure your camera is turned on.

You can’t see your students

Your students may have their cameras off. That’s okay!

Your students have ongoing tech issues

Let your program staff member know.  

You have a slow connection

Do not use the “blur background” feature on Google Meet. Make sure you are using the most current version of Google Chrome as your browser. Close any applications you aren’t using.

You can’t share your screen

If you receive an error message, search online for the specific error message + the type of computer you’re using

You are having other ongoing video or audio issues within Google Meet

Look for tips specific to your computer type on the Google Meet help site: https://support.google.com/meet/answer/7380413?hl=en

Program Policies


  • In order to build community within the WITS virtual program space, all volunteers are expected to attend the first two sessions of virtual programming to meet their students and volunteer partner. After the first two sessions, volunteers will begin their regularly scheduled session with students.
  • Volunteers will do everything they can to attend all scheduled program times and be ready to engage with students. If volunteers will be absent from a virtual session for whatever reason, they will notify their WITS program staff member as soon as possible.


  • All adults who interact with CPS students must agree to the Standards of Conduct for Maintaining Professional Boundaries between Staff and Students.
  • All WITS program staff members are mandated reporters. If a volunteer is suspicious of child abuse or neglect, they must let their program staff member know immediately.
  • Students may disclose information about sensitive topics, including, but not limited to: hunger, homelessness, and/or feelings of depression or anxiety. If a student says anything that is concerning, please let the WITS program staff member know immediately.


  • Meeting virtually means that we are now inviting people into a highly personal space: our homes. Volunteers are expected to meet with students in an appropriate space in their home, preferably with a neutral background and minimal distractions.
  • Avoid meeting with students in a bedroom or other personal areas in the home.
  • Volunteers will not virtually share their space with students or give students a virtual tour of their home.
  • Volunteers will not ask students to virtually share their personal space or home.

External Guests

  • To keep all students safe and to ensure that students are only in contact with adults approved by WITS and CPS, volunteers will not introduce their family, roommates, friends, etc. to students.
  • Volunteers will not ask students to introduce them to anyone in their home.
  • A student’s parent/caregiver may be present or nearby during WITS, and it is okay if they want to say hello to volunteers during a WITS session.
  • If a student asks if a sibling can join a WITS session, please let your program staff member or classroom teacher know. Our programs are designed to serve students in a specific classroom.


  • Volunteers must be dressed appropriately for all WITS sessions.
  • Casual dress (t-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans, etc.) is acceptable.
  • Do not wear any article of clothing that may have inappropriate sayings, decals, or logos (ex: local breweries).

Virtual Presence

  • Be actively engaged with WITS students throughout the entire session.
  • Volunteers are encouraged to close their inbox and/or other work-related materials and set their phones to silent.

Approved Platforms and Technology

  • Google Meet and Epic! are the only approved platforms that WITS volunteers can use when virtually meeting with students. All WITS sessions on Google Meet will be initiated by a WITS staff member.
  • Volunteers are not to contact students outside of WITS, exchange any contact information with students, and/or add, invite, and accept “friend” or contact requests of students on any personal social media.
  • All WITS volunteers will be given access to a shared Epic! account in order to read and virtually share books with students. This will require volunteers to share their screen. When doing so, close out any tabs that contain personal or work-related information. Do not have any websites open that would be inappropriate or unsuitable for students.
  • In order to properly see students and share a screen while using Epic!, volunteers must be on a laptop or desktop computer during a WITS session.
  • Using the chat function in Google Meet is permitted for students and volunteers. Please do not share any links with students through the chat function.
  • Volunteers are never to be alone with a student while in a Google Meet breakout room. If a student logs out of the session for whatever reason, and a volunteer is alone with another student, please notify the WITS program staff member immediately through text or email.
  • If internet issues or other technical difficulties occur during a WITS session, please notify the WITS program staff member immediately.
  • It is expected that WITS volunteers will keep their cameras on during a WITS session. If a volunteer needs to turn their camera off for whatever reason, they will let the students know and tell them how long they anticipate keeping the camera off.
    • Example: “I need to turn my camera off for a moment. I’m still here in our session, and I will turn my camera on in a few minutes.”
  • Student safety and comfort is WITS’ top priority. With this in mind, students have the option to keep their cameras on or off during a session. Volunteers will be respectful of a student’s choice and not ask them to turn their camera on if they do not want it on.
  • Volunteers will not record, screenshot, or take photos of their WITS session with students.


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WITS Talks: Critical Conversations @ Work: Anti-Racism "Beneath the Surface"

For 30 years WITS has been partnering with teachers and volunteers to learn and grow as educators and mentors.

Join us on March 4, 2022 at 12:00 PM Central for WITS Talks: Critical Conversations @ Work: Anti-Racism "Beneath the Surface" presented by The Chicago Poetry Center. In this 90-minute virtual session (facilitated via Zoom), two facilitators use poetry as a launching point to guide participants through a process of individual reflection, peer sharing, and full-group discussion. “Beneath the Surface'' provides a structured opportunity for colleagues to engage in storytelling and deep listening, reflecting on some of the ways that race informs and affects our lives and relationships through the lens of microaggressions, assumptions, and unspoken rules and biases.

Register for the event here:

WITS Talks: Get Your Mind Into the Gutter: Teaching Graphic Novels

On January 7th WITS held our first WITS Talk of 2022: “Get Your Mind Into the Gutter: Teaching Graphic Novels.” Hannah Nolan-Spohn (teacher, RLTA recipient, and RLTA Summer Institute Facilitator) taught participants how to support students as they read graphic novels. Hannah designed this workshop for WITS mentors. It would also benefit anyone who reads with 3rd-8th graders in any setting.

Promoting Pro-social Behavior Through Literature

There are messages woven throughout books, and these messages can impact everyone who reads them. Though we may not realize what these messages are at first, they can be extremely powerful, especially for children who are still developing their own identities.

Explicit messages are easily identifiable. For example, the book It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Parr is explicitly telling readers to embrace their differences. Implicit messages are subtle and can be found within the context of the story, forcing the reader to interpret the message themselves. For example, the book This is How We Do ItOne Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe has a similar message of celebrating our differences, but readers have to dig deeper to find the meaning.

Children’s literature that promotes pro-social behavior towards people, animals, and the environment create messages that helps readers be more mindful, problem solve, and encourages community engagement.

Books with informative messages provide readers with important information about topics they may not be familiar with. After reading, engaging in conversation about these topics can help create a positive behavior change.

Books with aspirational messages provide an opportunity for children to see themselves in an expansive light. For example, they help students see who they can become in the future, learn about causes they want to champion, and learn about people they want emulate. Talking about these messages with students can help them grow as readers as well as in their own identities.

Learn more about this topic by checking out “Promoting Prosocial Behavior Through Literature,” facilitated by Courtney Jones, a Children’s Book Reviewer at Booklist, and Mickey Kudia, HEART Chicago program manager. 


Thank you for your interest in volunteering with WITS! All WITS volunteers are required to attend a one-hour virtual orientation before the start of program. At the orientation, you will learn about program logistics, the WITS values, and how to be a great mentor. Please sign up for ONE orientation that best fits your schedule. You will receive a calendar invitation with the zoom link.
  • Please only pick ONE. All times are CST.

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Building Relationships Within Reading Teams

Connecting with people looks very different now than it ever has before. We stay at home, social distance, and often meet through a computer screen. Building relationships with WITS students in your reading teams will be different, too. Mentors can use the following tips to help get to know students and start creating joyful reading teams as we navigate a new world of virtual programming together.



We only have a brief amount of time with students at WITS. Tech glitches and potential irregularities in student attendance can make this time feel even shorter. Though some issues will resolve as the program year progresses, other challenges may be more persistent. It is helpful to remember that we are working with young people who experience the same challenges that we do in our daily life, especially with technology. Come to program ready to adapt, extend grace, and accept that each member of the WITS community is trying their best. In your reading teams, make room for unexpected conversation, keep your students’ reading interests centered, and most importantly, have fun!


Making students feel welcome means meeting them where they are at. For example, if students choose to have their cameras off during a session, that is okay. Everyone can still have fun in their reading teams, while remaining comfortable in their home. Another way in which mentors create a welcoming space is by being flexible and patient while students read. If you notice students are struggling while they are reading out loud, you can give them a moment to work through it before stepping in to read with them. If the book is too challenging for the students to read on their own, offer to read aloud to them, especially if the students are still interested in the book. You can also suggest taking a break from that book and picking a new one that might be a better fit.


Asking questions that help students process what they are reading and how they relate to the text is helpful for their literacy development, as well as building relationships. These are called making connections questions. There are three types of questions you can ask: text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world. An example of a text-to-text question is, “Does this (book, character, plot, etc.) remind you of something in your life?” An example of a text-to-text question is, “How is this story similar/different to another story we read together?” An example of a text-to-world questions is, “How is this story similar/different to events that happened in the real world?” Try asking these questions before, during, and after reading. You will learn more about each other and build a stronger relationship through the books you read together.


When you are thinking about balancing reading time and time for relationship building, remember that fostering a welcoming and encouraging space for students is priority #1.Students are more likely to engage in reading and contribute to the team when they feel connected to their mentors and classmates. Make room in your sessions for checking in with students and conversations that might stem from an activity you are doing together or during shared reading time. These moments will go a long way in establishing a good foundation between you and your students, and they will be more excited to read when they feel comfortable in the group. Use the text you are reading to spark conversations, and do not worry too much about rushing to finish a book. Remind students that a big part of reading for fun is taking the time to talk about what you are reading. Pro tip – when in doubt use the making connections questions listed in the ask questions section!


Virtual programming can come with its own set of unique challenges. There may be times when your internet connection drops or is slow. Reading an e-book with multiple students will take some getting used to. Someone’s screen may freeze temporarily. Embracing and accepting these weird aspects of virtual program is good, especially because students will not focus on it.Instead, they will remember that their mentors were consistent adults who were their reading champions during a time of great uncertainty.



Building Relationships with Students in a Virtual Environment

Join WITS for a panel discussion featuring three Chicago Public Schools educators who will share their perspective on leading and empowering small groups of students, and provide tips for strengthening relationships in a virtual environment.

WITS Talks: Building Relationships with Students in a Virtual Environment
On Thursday, March 25, 2021 WITS held a panel discussion featuring three Chicago Public Schools educators who shared their perspective on leading and empowering small groups of students, and provided tips for strengthening relationships in a virtual environment. Take a look at the recording.