Literacy Feature: Laura Tilsner and Working In The Schools (WITS)

In my years as a proponent of literacy and creative self-expression through writing and the arts, I’ve continued to learn a lot and be inspired by a world of energizing, insightful, and creative students, teachers, administrators, and collaborating artists. Some organizations I have worked and/or volunteered with include Working In the Schools (or WITS), Literacy Chicago, and InsideOut Literary Arts Project (based in Detroit). I look forward to introducing you to the work of these groups in future posts.

Coincidentally, some years ago I visited Houston, Texas with InsideOut Literary Arts Project and met the fine people who lead another organization also known as WITS. The WITS in Houston stands for Writers in the Schools, and you can read more about them by visiting their site here.

If you read my post about sardines you may be curious about WITS, the literacy organization I have volunteered with for two years. Two weeks ago was my last of the 2015-2016 school year to read one-on-one with the four kindergartners who have brightened my Tuesday mornings since September. Even though it’s time to let this school year go, a part of me is going to miss my little reading buddies. I’m not permitted to post their names or photographs on my personal blog but I wish that I could. Instead, I will introduce you to WITS, and Laura Tilsner, who works as a Program Coordinator, there. This year Laura coordinated the program at Dulles Elementary School, where I got to read with students from Kindergarten Room 107.

The Chicago-based WITS is an organization with a mission “to promote literacy and a love of learning in Chicago Public School elementary students through a volunteer-powered, outcomes-based portfolio of programs. WITS endeavors to bridge the achievement and opportunity gap for underserved students through building connections with positive adult role models.” (to read WITS’s non-abbreviated mission statement, visit their website by clicking here).

A few of the great outcomes for students in WITS programs include:

*developing confidence and positive attitudes toward reading, reading behaviors, AND classroom participation;
*building improved knowledge of book and print concepts; and
*having improved ability to participate in imaginative play and interacting with texts.

Realizing that the school year was fast drawing to a close, I asked Laura Tilsner if she would mind being featured here on folklore & literacy and she obliged by speedily responding to my questions and allowing me to take her photo with my phone.

Laura Tilsner leafing through books (photo by Leslie Reese)
Laura Tilsner leafing through books (photo by Leslie Reese)

1.  I see you transporting storage containers of books, leading our charges from their classrooms and back, and reading with some of the students, but what exactly are your responsibilities as Program Coordinator?

“As a program coordinator, I run and facilitate programs on site. This includes coordinating students and volunteers, providing a space with materials for the program, while also working together with teachers and the school itself.”

2.  How did you come to work in the field of literacy and why?
“I have always been passionate about working with children and have been working in the non-profit sector since my sophomore year of college. I was also one of those students who struggled with reading in elementary school and required constant attention and assistance. WITS’s mission aligns with my passion to help young students in any aspect of their life. This reading program emphasizes my passion even more.”

3.  What is most important to you about the work that you do?
“The most important thing about my work is that students are having fun while being encouraged to do their best in a safe, fun, and educational environment. I get to be a part of a bigger picture in helping the youth of Chicago succeed. That is ultimately the best thing I could do.”

4.  Name a book that you love.
“Oh my goodness. Hands down my favorite book will always be Tuesday’s with Morrie. It is a heartfelt story and I just loved everything about it.”
Tuesdays with Morrie cover
5.  Is there an idea that you dislike, or a paradigm you would like to see change?
“This is a big question. If anything to change, it is how people would view the world. Though I cannot change individual minds and thought processes, it would be for everyone to follow the idea of the golden rule: treat everyone as you would want to be treated. We are no better than anyone else out there. We are all equal in my mind.”
Thank you, Laura!




  1. Love this interview! Your questions seemed to hit home with Laura, and she came back strong. Her answers on literacy made me think of the Indy Reads Program here in Indiana. This program is designed for adults who can’t read. It seems to be working, and presents a positive struggle for those dedicated to seeing change happen.

    There are also many programs for children. Many are championed by older adults who give of their time and energies. I love all the programs that help people to learn and grow. Reading is a wonderful way to navigate through life. I often think of the myriad of books, and must admit have said…”why so many?” Then I realize all appeal to different ones of us, and so one is just as important as the other.

    [Back to the interview] I saw that Chicago was mentioned. That brought up the wonderful teacher Marva Collins for me, and the blessed work she did right out of her home to help willing students learn to read, write, and do their maths.

    Super post. I look forward to reading more very soon!

    1. Thank you for your careful reading, Sparkyjen – I’m so glad that you mentioned Marva Collins. What an inspiring educator she was! Remember the movie about her (was it in the 1980s?) with Cicely Tyson playing the lead role?

      I love your comments about the many types of books to reach many types of readers – I agree.

      There are more literacy programs geared towards children than adults, and that is understandable; but I think that family literacy is so important. I’ve been blessed to work with adult learners, and witnessed younger family members gain a renewed sense of their own educational possibilities when their adult family member decides to return to learning how to read.

  2. Houston is my hometown. I’m thrilled to see it has an organization like WITS. It’s such an important and vital way to help out the students who need it. Thank you for all the work you do. You will continue volunteering next year, correct?

    And what a wonderful interview you had with Laura. I can tell she is truly passionate about her work.

    1. Ha! Correct, Naz, I think that I will continue to volunteer this year – schedule permitting.

      Regarding Houston’s WITS, I’m pretty sure that it is practically the oldest organization of its kind in the country. Just to make a mental check-mark on that because creative writing -like diverse reading -has only been gaining support in recent decades. Thank you for reading!

    1. You know, of course, that your response provoked all kinds of puns about being witty and having one’s wits…but…I really ought not go there! Every city, state and town should have some writers and workers in their schools, though!

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