Current Happenings...

Up All Night Reading!

posted Jun 26, 2013, 1:04 PM by Leslie Reese

RAO is happy to invite you to check out a new online exhibition about books.   All of the books are Children’s and YPL (Young People’s Literature) National Book Award winners and finalists. 

You can click on great cover art, author photos, and interesting details for the 228 books that have won or been nominated for the award since 1971.  32 of the books received “appreciations” contributed by readers between the ages of six and 56!  Some of these appreciations are in the forms of videos, collages, letters, essays, and even “a Travelers’ Guide”.

 To enjoy appreciations contributed by Literacy Chicago/RAO members, go to , click on “Contributors” and look for:

2001:  Carver:  A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson (essay by Leslie Reese); and

2012:  Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick (poem and collage by Angela Halls).

RAO Spring 2013 Updates!

posted Jun 3, 2013, 10:02 AM by Leslie Reese   [ updated Jun 5, 2013, 5:47 PM ]

April – RAO had a special guest, Steve Leveen.  In 1987 Steve Leveen and his wife Lori Granger formed Levenger, a company that sells beautiful items for readers, writers, and thinkers.  Levenger has a Partnering for Good program that supports reading all over the world.  After meeting the Leveens at the Innovations in Reading Luncheon in November, and subsequently learning that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of Steve’s favorite books, we dared to invite him to be a Guest Reader.  He graciously agreed, and joined us on April 17th.  When we asked Steve to read from Chapter 13 “The HeLa Factory” we learned that when he was a child, he actually had a chance to meet Jonas Salk.  Though Steve was too young to understand Dr. Salk’s work, it gave the group a chance to think about having personal connections with people who later become historic figures.  To learn more about Levenger, go to

Many days when RAO students come to class we are greeted by Jesse Smith, who works in security for the building.  After learning that Jesse has been reading and saving newspaper articles about Henrietta Lacks for a few years, we enjoyed having Jesse read to us from the book.  He also brought a copy of an article that talked about how the Henrietta Lacks Foundation was created, and how it has helped Henrietta Lacks children and grandchildren. Reading and talking about this article relieved some of our distress about the fate of Henrietta Lacks' family.  We also talked about putting money to use for specific causes, such as education and health.

May – On Thursday, May 9, RAO students participated in a special “Big Read” program at Columbia College.   The event involved Literacy Volunteers of Illinois (LVI), Literacy Chicago, and Columbia College.  After introductory remarks, acquainting us with the time period, geography, and people in Julia Alvarez’s book “In the Time of Butterflies”, we settled down with popcorn, soft drinks and coffee to view the film of the same name.  Afterward, there was discussion and picture-taking, and all participants were given a copy of the book to take home!

The following evening, on May 10th, many RAO students joined with ESL students, special guests, and friends of Literacy Chicago, for the annual fundraiser, “The Well Read Affair”- held on one of the top floors of the Willis Tower.  Check out Literacy Chicago’s website ( and Facebook page to enjoy photos and more details!

Rich Reading!

posted Apr 8, 2013, 12:21 PM by Leslie Reese   [ updated Apr 10, 2013, 2:22 PM ]

RAO has really been engrossed by the story of Henrietta Lacks.  After reading that her oldest daughter---Elsie---had epileptic seizures during a time when people understood less about the condition, we were pleased to have Tracy Schultz from the Epilepsy Foundation to come and be a Guest Reader.  Not only did she participate in our discussion, but she educated us about first aid and epilepsy, and read a few pages from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Ms. Schultz shared that she belonged to a book club that had recently read the book, as well. 

Roosevelt University graciously provided us with a tour of their biology lab, where we had a tour, saw a demonstration of how DNA is extracted from the nucleus of a strawberry cell, and had a chance to look at cheek cells through a microscope.

The book has inspired us to think and talk about the value of medical research as well as how being poor, black, and uneducated can be a recipe for powerlessness.

Winter 2013 Kicks off With a New Selection...

posted Jan 16, 2013, 3:57 PM by Leslie Reese

 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  We are already trying to create mental pictures of the trillions of HeLa cells which have multiplied since 1951!

RAO Has Been Busy!

posted Dec 31, 2012, 8:01 AM by Leslie Reese   [ updated Feb 5, 2013, 10:23 AM ]

Since our last post, RAO has had great discussions about voting, traveling, and tipping! In thinking about how books are nominated for the National Book award, RAO students imagined themselves as a committee of book judges, and decided that we like books that are “relatable”, with “interesting characters”.  We like books that have elements of suspense so we “can’t wait to find out what happens next” (-or we wonder “What’s going on? Did I miss something?”).  We also like books that are composed of “facts and fictional details” as well as “rhythm and rhyme”.

RAO continued to read The Book Thief, and many of us loved seeing the stage performance at the Steppenwolf Theatre on November 11th.  It was lively and rich with emotion.  Later, we wondered how a 500-plus page book gets turned into a play that is less than three hours long!  

Some students adopted words from The Book Thief.  The idea was to “get chummy” with new vocabulary words.  In class, we thought about how Hans Hubermann helped Liesel learn the alphabet by painting letters and drawing pictures for her.  Using colored paints, brushes, cups of water, and large sheets of paper taped to the classroom walls, RAO students painted and talked to their classmates about words such as “omit”, “hinder”, and “staunch”.  One student’s search for information about the word “Gestapo” led her to travel independently to the public library, where---for the first time in her life---she collaborated with a librarian who showed her how to locate a book on the subject.

On November 12th, RAO students Cheri Hubbard and Charles Barnett traveled to New York City for National Book Foundation Week!  They were reunited with Jaye Jones at the Innovations in Reading Awards luncheon, which was held at the Ford Foundation. All of the awardees shared presentations about their unique projects related to books and reading.  Jaye Jones delivered the RAO presentation.  When Cheri and Charles returned to Chicago, they told the class about how they ate an expensive breakfast at the Essex Hotel, and rode a double-decker tour bus with June Porter.  Cheri talked about taking the A-train with Jaye and Leslie up to Harlem, where they took photos of each other rubbing the stump from “The Tree of Hope” for good luck in the lobby of the Apollo Theater. Charles and Cheri told the class about “Streetbooks:  the Bicycle-powered Mobile Library for People Who Live Outside”, which they learned about at the Innovations luncheon.  

In December RAO joined Andrea Kelton’s ABE class and two volunteers on a trip to see the movie “Lincoln”.  It was an eye-opening experience to see how politicians get laws passed.  The film inspired conversations about the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, laws against interracial marriage, and women’s power to influence men even before they gained the right to vote.  A scene in the movie that showed soldiers transporting dead bodies from the battlefield reminded one student about the military job Hans Hubermann was given in The Book Thief.

On December 12 , student Angela Halls led a discussion on “The Idiot and the Coatmen” from The Book Thief.  She prepared for doing this weeks ahead of time, by writing a summary and making a list of questions for the class to discuss.  The class was proud of the way she facilitated, and gave her an invigorating round of applause.

On the last day of class, students worked in pairs and stood before their classmates to talk about what they got out of reading The Book Thief.  This story touched on so many things that we could relate to including being orphaned and taken in by foster parents; the struggle to learn to read and being tutored; and being as mystified as Death (the character) about the qualities of human hatred and love. 

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Wonderful 2013 from Reading Against the Odds!

RAO Students Check Out Markus Zusak!

posted Oct 29, 2012, 9:39 AM by Leslie Reese

RAO students recently attended the "One Book, One Chicago" event featuring a conversation between journalist Dawn Turner Trice and The Book Thief author, Markus Zusak.  They were impressed by Zusak's youthfulness, his casual attire, and his Australian accent.  As he sat onstage at the Harold Washington Library center, Zusak was gracious and thoughtful about the questions posed to him.  He seemed like a genuine type of guy, humbled at having authored a book that not only spent 266 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, but has been translated into no less than 30 languages!

It was great being in the company of other readers who have enjoyed The Book Thief or are currently reading it, as RAO students are.  Who would have known that Death---personified---could bring so many people together by being a champion of humanity?

Dawn Turner Trice really asked the kinds of questions readers wanted to know the answers to.  She got Zusak talking about the power of words and books, and how healing wounds and learning to read informs the tender bond between Hans Hubermann and Liesel Meminger.  He talked about the mysterious ways in which personal experiences and his parents' stories have found their way into his writing.  When talking about the the writing process, both Markus Zusak and Dawn Turner Trice agreed that writers "beg, borrow, and steal" material from everyday life and people.  Sometimes, in the act of writing about things that are messy and convoluted, harmony reveals itself.

Fall 2012: A little girl, some words, an accordion...

posted Sep 25, 2012, 1:54 PM by Leslie Reese   [ updated Oct 25, 2012, 11:24 AM ]

This September RAO joins Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” in reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.  Readers are already intrigued because the narrator of this story is Death! And instead of being mean and evil, Death seems to have a heart for a little girl named Liesel Meminger who steals books. 

Dramatic Voices: RAO Summer 2012

posted Aug 22, 2012, 10:10 AM by Leslie Reese   [ updated Aug 22, 2012, 1:16 PM ]

(Lights come up on stage).  After having read plays such as "Hamlet" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" with Amina and Jaye in the past, this summer RAO read Urban Quartet---four dramatic plays about issues facing today’s youth.  Some of the realities spotlighted in these plays include teenage sexuality, bullying, “codes of silence” surrounding a drive-by shooting; and how teachers, parents, religious leaders, police officers, social workers, and community workers reflect upon their role in the premature and violent death of a young black man.  The stories inspired students to talk about literature that is written in a realistic fashion, reminding them of their own experiences.

RAO students enjoyed reading, thinking, and discussing from the points of view of the characters whose parts they read aloud in class.  Things got exciting when students read with dramatic expression.  On one occasion, students stood before the class and improvised a conversation between their respective characters.  Later, students said that reading plays was fun because it allowed them to feel like they were part of the action.  They liked the “team effort” required of being a part of an ensemble cast of characters.

On August 6, the author of Urban Quartet, Mr. Useni Eugene Perkins, visited RAO as Guest Speaker.  The author of more than 17 books---including Home Is A Dirty Street---Mr. Perkins was energetic and talkative.  He brought with him stacks of handouts for the class; and gave a lively talk about early forms of communication including Egyptian hieroglyphics, West African drumming, and oral storytelling.  For those interested in writing their own plays, Mr. Perkins said that in addition to creating characters and having a story to tell, conflict is what makes things interesting.  He explained that imagining climaxes and resolutions are also a part of the thinking that writers do.

It isn’t every day that readers are visited by the authors of the books they read, so it was a great opportunity for RAO students to introduce themselves to a real, live author.  Students shared reasons why they came to Literacy Chicago, and why they continue to enlarge their worlds with RAO’s readings and activities.  Mr. Perkins commended and encouraged their growth and persistent efforts.  He answered questions, and autographed books.

For the final class meeting of the summer, RAO students worked in teams and with the assistance of volunteer tutors Aja Williams and Tyrone Marshall, to compose their own endings for Mr. Perkins’ play, “Girls In The Hood”.  They worked so intently that the mid-class break-time came and went without anyone getting up from their chairs!  After a five-minute break, RAO resumed with students reading their compositions aloud.  One student said---to nods of agreement from his classmates---that having the freedom to imagine his own ending to the story made him “feel happy.” (fade to black).

We Wish You The Best!

posted Jul 4, 2012, 2:44 PM by Leslie Reese

Did you know that Jaye Jones originally had plans to go into the field of juvenile justice? That was before she came to Literacy Chicago as a volunteer and met June Porter, whose dedication to  supporting adult learners deeply inspired her.  At times when her graduate studies were extra challenging, Jaye said that thinking about her students’ determination to become better readers kept her on course.

During Jaye’s tribute party so many students came forward to thank her for having changed their lives.  They talked about having been afraid and angry, and not believing they were smart enough to read books. They expressed gratitude for her firm, yet, gentle encouragement; and for having faith in them.  As one student said of Jaye “You make people feel better about themselves, more important and more intelligent.”  

After the touching testimonies, however, everyone proceeded to ask Jaye questions about her education and love life!  They asked if her apartment in New York would be close to Rockefeller Center where the “Today” show is broadcast; and wondered when she planned to get married and have children. (To this she responded by saying that there was a season and reason  to do things, and she has had a long season of formal study---20 years!)  

Before she left for New York, we asked Jaye to reflect on these last five years of Reading Against the Odds.  Here are her responses:

Things she has learned from students: “Patience is a virtue; there is a lot I don't know; what/who society thinks of as "smart" is totally not reflective of reality.”

An element of [RAO's] success: “The commitment of the students and their desire to tackle and dialogue about interesting, but challenging texts.”

Something she wishes she'd known before she started the group: “I have realized that we can't read everything! There are still so many books I want to read and talk about.”

Her favorite book from the 16 RAO has read: “I have to say The Bluest Eye, because my love of that book is what led me to start RAO. It has so many layers and led to a lot of interesting reflections. However, I also enjoyed Dreams From My Father by President Obama, because it was exciting to read about his life right after he took office. Being in Chicago also meant that we could actually go to the places where he had studied and worked; it made the book more real.”

A favorite book that she has read on her own: “I am so tired of academic titles! I have been getting back into noir fiction - I love James Cain, Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block.”

A hope for the future of RAO: “That it continues, and that one day it is co-facilitated by a student.”

A reason to advocate for adult literacy: “We can't forget that everyone does not get the chance to get the education they deserve when they are younger. Adult literacy students contribute to society in so many ways and we must take the time to use and build on their knowledge. They are mothers, fathers and grandparents as well, and they have a huge impact on the lives of young people today. If we don't invest in them, I honestly believe we will be limiting the potential of future generations.”

Thank You and I Will Miss You All

posted Jun 27, 2012, 2:38 PM by Jaye Jones   [ updated Jun 27, 2012, 2:44 PM ]

Literacy Chicago has been my second home for close to 8 years. I have learned so much from all of you and have been inspired by your dedication to learning, your perseverance against many odds, your gratitude and your kindness. Thank you for letting me into your lives - I am a better person because I had the chance to read and engage with all of you. I will never forget you.

One of my favorite poems:

Dawn Revisited - Rita Dove

Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don't look back,

the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits--
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.


Keep learning, keep journeying and keep reading against the odds.



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