Essential Building Blocks for Reading Comprehension

Many of us don’t actually remember learning how to read. We may remember sitting on our kindergarten carpet squares, picking out new picture books at the school book fair, or feeling the excitement of turning the final page of a book read independently for the first time. Those fond memories are certainly associated with the skills one must acquire in order to first learn to read; however, we cannot necessarily remember the actual process of learning how to comprehend the words on the page. Thinking about it now, reading almost seems like an innate skill, as though reading just happens. If only that were the case…

Struggles of Reading Comprehension

Sadly, reading comprehension can be a labor intensive task for many young learners. Some children can fool us on the surface; they may learn to read fluently, briskly, and accurately, as though they are natural-born readers. However, reading fluency and comprehension do not always go hand in hand. Children may acquire the necessary skills to read clearly and accurately, but, try as they might, these same kids may simultaneously struggle with the ability to digest or comprehend a text. So, if it is not a natural or innate skill, what goes into reading comprehension anyway?

Part of the reason why reading comprehension can be a struggle for many learners is the fact that the process involves a compilation of other complex skills. Such foundational skills necessary for children to begin to master reading comprehension include: fluency, phonemic awareness, accessing prior knowledge/making connections, vocabulary, syntactical rules/conventions, working memory, and attentiveness. With that being said, let’s look at strategies for how to build each of these foundational skills.

Fluency Strategies

Review sight words and high frequency words regularly. Turn fluency practice into a game by setting timed records, racing against the clock, and matching spoken sight words with word cards. Practice pronunciation by modeling and rehearsing. Use clap period stops and snap comma pauses to improve punctuation recognition.

You can also repeat readings to help with word recognition. Be sure to always read aloud to and with your child. Model and practice reading with expression. Give your different characters a “voice” while reading aloud to your child. Preview or expose children to the new or unfamiliar words before giving them the reading passage. And finally, utilize poetry, nursery rhymes, and songs to practice fluency

Phonics Strategies

Use photos/images to match objects with corresponding beginning sounds. Practice sorting words into “like” sound piles using word cards. Create a word wall in your child’s bedroom or playroom. Play “blend bingo” using bingo cards and corresponding images of words that include each consonant blend.

You can also use Scrabble tiles to “build” sounds. Or even use rhyming strategies to group/categorize words. Try playing “which one of these is not like the others?” using word cards. And finally, use tapping, clapping, or any other kinesthetic method for sounding out words.

Background Knowledge Strategies

Expose your child to a variety of text types and different genres to create a repertoire of background information. Incorporate alternate media, such as movies, art, news, television, etc. Teach new words in categories to help solidify new terms with prior knowledge. Practice word mapping to build connections.

Also consider comparing and contrasting words and concepts while reading. Preview new texts or frontload unfamiliar information using references or just casually discussing the topic. Use KWL charts to track knowledge of new concepts/topics. Utilize picture books, regardless of age, to pair images with new words. And finally, take virtual field trips.

Vocabulary Strategies

Instruct children about specific vocabulary terms, but make sure that the new words are connected to something they are currently reading, seeing, hearing, or learning about. It is important to avoid teaching vocabulary “in a vacuum.” Vocabulary words taught at random or with little context or connectivity to prior knowledge is not likely to make it into a child’s lexicon.

Pre–teach new vocabulary terms by relating them to concepts and terms that your child already knows. Then, when she encounters the word in a text, she will have prior exposure to the word and some sense of understanding.

Utilize root word instruction and practices. This might include creating root word charts with examples, opposite T-charts, visual word tree trunks with various prefixes and suffixes. Practice making new or nonexistent words using roots as a silly way to grasp root word meanings. Also consider using synonyms casually when speaking to your child.

Create a word web wall and add to the web as you make connections between new words. And finally, emphasize context clues while reading aloud; model how to actively engage with new words by making comments like, “I wonder what this might mean in the sentence given the surrounding information…”

Syntax Rules and Conventions

Ask your child to rearrange the words in the sentence, but maintain the same meaning. For example, given the sentence “You can watch a show after you have finished your homework.” Your child should rephrase by saying something like, “You must finish your homework before you can watch a show.”

Demonstrate different ways in which sentences can be combined, separated, or punctuated. The key is to show them that, even with variations in sentence structure, the phrases mean the same thing. Try modeling the process of summarizing a short excerpt or sentence. Then explain how paraphrasing is slightly different. Practice this process aloud together.

Exaggerate the purpose of punctuation while reading aloud to emphasize each punctuation mark’s function. Provide examples of how punctuation can drastically change the underlying meaning of a sentence. One favorite example is, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” And finally, find fill-in-the-blank reading options, where children are provided with word banks or suggestions on each page, but must use the context of the story to correctly complete each missing word.

Working Memory and Attention Strategies

Purposefully chunk down larger sections of text while reading aloud. Then ask clarifying questions or practice summarizing the section before moving to the next passage or chunk. Ask your child to make predictions while reading to practice recalling and utilizing details that have already been mentioned in the text.

Plan for engaging questions while reading. Parents should preview the text and think about ways in which to connect the details to other aspects of a child’s life. Ask critical thinking questions as well, such as, “Why do you think the character did that?” “What do you think she meant when she said…?” “How would you have reacted differently if you were in the story?”

Sketch a visual timeline of events while reading. This doesn’t have to be a detailed, moment-by-moment recollection; you can use bullet points on sticky notes, a small white board, or index cards with events 1-3 on them. Be sure to deliberately emphasize the use of transition words, especially when focusing on chronological summaries.

Listen to an audio version of the text while following along with the physical book. When reading together, once you reach the bottom of a page, ask your child which detail stands out to her the most. If she’s unable to recall a significant detail, encourage rereading. And finally, remove all distractions while reading, including background noise, cell phones/screens, etc. You can also find texts with larger print, reduced text per page, and print with extra space between paragraphs to help children visually focus on one aspect of the text at a time.

Three Myths about Latino Immigrants That It’s Time to Bust

Photo by Monivette Cordeiro

As a counseling professor, I train my students to ask their clients: “If you succeed in making the changes we’re talking about, what will be better?” So I have to ask: Has the President thought through the consequences of his actions on immigration?

America was built on positives. We didn’t become great by preventing, arresting, and deporting. Why does the President want us to return to a past we never had? Is it even possible to build something great while focusing on tearing down or walling off?

I’ve conducted more than two decades of research on population studies, and here’s what I can tell you about Latino stereotypes: It’s time to get rid of them. The fact is, immigration is at the core of America’s greatness, and Latinos are very much a part of that greatness.

Here are some of the key facts from analyses of Census data that I’ve done with my colleague Jorge Garcia and from other sources:

First, Latinos do share our culture and do adapt.

The wall-builders say that “Latinos don’t share our culture and won’t adapt — they just aren’t like us.” But in the past, some Americans said the same thing about each wave of Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants.

Research shows that after three generations of being here, Latinos look remarkably similar to those previous immigrant groups. (Of course, most Latinos in the US aren’t immigrants but have been here for many generations – much longer than many other groups.)

Like Americans in general, Latinos are more likely to live in big cities and are more likely to be married. Like earlier generations of immigrants from Europe, they have a preference for coastal cities and their families are slightly bigger than average.

Latinos are on average younger. However, that’s a big benefit for a US population that would otherwise find it much more difficult to grow the economy and pay for programs like Social Security that are based on younger people funding older people.

Second, Latinos are not criminals.

Several studies have failed to show any relationship between immigrant presence and increased crime rates. In fact, a recent study showed that areas with the most immigrants have lower crime rates. It’s important to remember that to be here without documents is a civil violation not a crime; think of it as the equivalent of traffic tickets.

Third, Latinos are not taking your jobs.

The biggest difference between Latinos and the total US population is in their types of occupations. In both 2000 and 2010, the majority of Americans overall were employed in managerial and sales jobs. For Latinos, the majority were employed in either low-level white collar or blue collar occupations, both skilled and unskilled. So, are they taking our jobs? Not as long as these types of occupational differences persist. And yesterday’s Day Without Immigrants protest is a prime example of this fact.

When Latinos do what other immigrants did and become more educated, they’ll move up and start taking some of those white collar jobs. And that will be a very good thing for America, because we’re already looking at huge shortages of educated people as the baby boomers retire.

Are Latinos a drain on our society because they use social services? They do use services, but also contribute significantly to the tax base that pays for those services.

Other Americans, for example those in rust belt states with aging populations, use a lot more services than Latinos, and already are benefiting from younger people supporting the tax base.

Sadly, Latinos who are undocumented, provide an especially big boost to the economy – they pay the taxes but aren’t eligible for benefits. These aren’t the only myths about Latinos. Language acquisition? Same as previous immigrants. Educational attainment? If Latinos get to college they tend to major in similar disciplines as the rest of the country. Military service? Latinos have a long tradition of serving in the US military.

Even the causes of death are similar for the total US population as for Latinos – both die from the same top diseases: heart disease and cancer. Many Latinos, especially in border areas, have retained the ability to speak Spanish. But English is their primary language and American culture –from sports to movies – is the only one they know or care about.

Begging the question of whether it’s possible to build greatness by tearing things down, the obvious conclusion is that Latinos are more like other Americans than they are different. Let’s build relationships and not walls.

3 Simple Letters To Make Social Workers More Productive

Nate Crowell 3 Simple Letters

I have never heard a social worker say, “I don’t have enough to do. . . things are really slow right now, I get paid too much for the work I’m doing or I love that ‘Let’s make America great again’ guy.” Maybe you’ve had different experiences.

When I talk with a lot of social workers, the conversation sounds more like this:

  • “I have so much to do right now, I can’t possibly do it all.”
  • “I can’t believe I get paid this much.”
  • “American politics are depressing and tragic.”

If you are reading this article, you can probably relate more to the last three bullets, and I imagine you probably have at least one of these three things going on:

  1. You have a full or part-time job.
  2. You are caring for a child, children, or an aging parent or relative.
  3. You are in undergraduate or graduate school for social work.

I’m right there with you:

Like any good social worker, I’m fluent in TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms).

But somehow the acronym for this productivity approach had escaped me.

GTD, short for Getting Things Done.

GTD has been a game changer for the way I manage all the personal and professional commitments in my life.

In today’s article, I’m going to introduce you to GTD and how you can use it to be a more productive and less stressed social worker.

You ready? Let’s do this.

What is GTD?

When I say gettings things done, let me clarify what I’m not talking about:

larry cable guy skitch dropshadow

I’ve been known to yell a “Git-R-Done” in my southern drawl.

**(Interesting sidenote: if you’ve you have hip dysplasia, you may want to check out Larry’s foundation)**

But that is not the GTD I’m talking about. The type of GTD I want you to know about is this one:

david allen gtd skitch dropshadow

Getting Things Done: the art of stress-free productivity is New York Times Bestselling book written by author and productivity consultant David Allen.

An updated version was published in 2015, so an obvious first step would be to buy the book or check it out at your library.

GTD is Allen’s influential text where he outlines his detailed methodology and approach for keeping priorities, to-do lists, projects, and calendar managed and your mind relaxed.

The GTD premise is this: our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax.

Allen says this another way:

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

Allen suggests most stress you experience comes from inappropriately managed commitments.

Commitments to others and commitments to ourselves. When left undone, our commitments become “open loops” in our brains that yearn to be closed.  

I don’t know about you, but this was the story of my life.

Let’s do a quick mental exercise:

Step 1) Grab a paper and pen.

Step 2) Write down a project, problem, or situation that is at the front of your mind right now . . . the one thing you can’t quit thinking about.

For example:

  • You’re working in child protective services and just received a complicated new referral.
  • You’re a hospice social worker with a caseload of 95 patients.
  • You want to must take a week vacation before you have a full-blown meltdown.
  • You’re planning your daughter’s birthday party.

Whatever is dominating your psyche right now.

You got it? Good.

Step 3) Now, in one sentence clarify what a successful outcome would be for that project or situation. Get a clear mental picture of what finished would like. Don’t worry . . . I’ll wait on you.

You got it? Good.

“It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.” – Elbert Hubbard

Step 4) What is the next physical action you can take to move the project or situation forward? Jot it down.

For me, it’s usually one of these:

  • Read, write, or send an email.
  • Make a phone call.
  • Type a note or report.
  • Research something online.
  • Meet in person with someone.

If you’re like me, the first time I did that exercise I had one overarching feeling afterward:


Now imagine if you had that feeling with all of the stuff floating around in your head right now:

So let’s look at how you can do that now.

Five Stages of GTD for Social Workers

GTD is based on five simple steps to help you apply order to your chaos.

1. Collect: Capture all tasks, priorities, ideas, commitments, projects. . . in short all the “stuff” in your inbox of life. And I do mean any and every input in your life: phone calls, emails, birthday parties, sports practice, ideas, errands, getting groceries. . . EVERYTHING. If you don’t, your mind starts to say to you, “don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget.” The first time you do this it may seem challenging and could take a long time. Do the work and drain your brain of all your stuff; trust me it is life changing.

2. Clarify: Next you need to process everything you captured. You start by asking yourself this question: Is it actionable? 

If the answer is yes and it takes less than two minutes, do it now.

This is called the “two-minute rule” and has been a huge win for me. If not doable in two minutes, delegate it (if possible), or add to a “next action” list (see point 3 below) to do when you can. If the answer is no and not actionable, you have three choices: trash it, incubate it (put on your calendar to review on a specific date), or file as reference.

3. Organize: Many actions won’t fit the two-minute rule. You need to park those next actions on the correct list or it goes back into your psyche. Allen refers to your groups of lists as “collection buckets”. Some examples of your collection bucket lists may include:

  • Calls to Make
  • Emails to Send
  • Errands to Run

If you’re not sure about an idea or project, put it on a Someday/Maybe List.

4. Review: Set a specific time to go through your collection buckets weekly and review. Review your lists to evaluate what didn’t get finished and review as often as you need to feel comfortable. Make the weekly review time sacred. My review time is Thursday at 2:00pm CST.

5. Do: Use your system to take appropriate action with confidence. When you can trust your system to capture and organize “stuff” in your inbox of life, then you can be confident that you are doing the right things at the right time.

It helps to see the workflow visually:

GTDcanonical dropshadow

Source Wikipedia: Getting Things Done

Here’s the deal:

The beauty of GTD is it doesn’t require fancy tools. You can do it with pen and paper.

My friend Josh does an incredible amount of GTD workflow with Post-It notes. I use a combination of pen and paper, smartphone, and a laptop.

Use whatever tools you have and work best for you, but be consistent.


Don’t worry, I get it: GTD is not for everyone. The approach works best when you stick to the principles. I’m not going to pretend I can summarize an entire 250+ page book in one article. The book connects a lot of the details, so again, I highly recommend reading it to get the full picture.

You may be on top of all your projects to-dos, and commitments in life. If so, by all means, keep doing what works. But if you’re like me, and you like a system to help you stay on track and manage all you have going on in life, give GTD a try.

Have you ever tried GTD? Leave a comment below and let me know.

Lebron James: A Champion On and Off the Court

The Cleveland Cavaliers have won their first championship in 52 years, winning Game 7 over the Golden State Warriors by a score of 93-89. It is the first time a team has come back from falling behind in a 3-1 Finals series. Although, basketball is a team sport, LeBron James was a powerful force to be reckoned with. He was named Finals MVP for the third time in his career, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks.

Born in Akron, Ohio in 1984, James received national attention as the top high school player in the country. In 2003, he was the first player picked in the NBA Draft by the Cavaliers and became the youngest player, at the age of 20, to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award.

After making the “Decision” to leave Cleveland in 2010 to play for the Miami Heat, James returned in 2016 to his city of Cleveland and promised to bring them a championship. James said, “I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about”.

Though he is best known for his work inside the court, outside of the NBA, James works within the community throughout the entire year. James gears his passion and efforts towards the community and in his hometown of Akron. James and his mother established the LeBron James Family Foundation in 2004, to help out children and single-parent families in need.

The foundation has many programs, but its overall mission is to positively affect the lives of children and young adults through education and co-curricular educational initiatives. The initiatives that the foundation focuses on include: Wheels for Education, Akron I Promise Network, The LeBron Advisory Board (LAB), St. Vincent- St. Mary High School, University of Akron, and the Boys and Girls Club.

According to the James Foundation, the Wheels for Education program began in 2011 when LeBron partnered with State Farm to develop a campaign that targeted the national dropout issue. The State Farm 26 Second Campaign led to the development of the Wheels for Education program, which provides support, encouragement and incentives to third graders in Akron public schools up until their high school graduations in 2021.

This will be the first class from the program to graduate from high school. As a result, a 2014 survey by the Akron Public Schools showed that 91% of parents with kids in the “Wheels for Education” program said their child was doing better academically. Children enrolled in the program also showed to have a higher attendance rate than the rest of the district.

While this dedication and commitment is notable enough for anyone, James’ efforts and drive to help the community do not end there. In 2015, James announced that he would be giving children the chance to go to college for free.

James partnered with the University of Akron to sponsor full ride scholarships for the 1,100 children currently in his I Promise program. The children in the program range from the third to the seventh grades. If they complete the program and meet attendance and grade requirements, their tuition will be covered by James’ foundation and the university starting in 2021. This will cost an approximately $41.8 million at the university’s current yearly tuition rate of $9,500.

Furthermore, James’ foundation projects also included $1 million to completely renovate the St. Vincent- St. Mary high school gym including providing new athletic uniforms, new sports equipment, and new locker room facilities for both women and men student athletes.

Aside from his own foundation, James is a long time contributor to the Boys and Girls Club. In 2010 when he made the “Decision”, his announcement raised $2.5 million for the Boy’s and Girl’s Club. Today, he continues to travel across the nation and works with each city that hosts the NBA All-Star Game that particular year. Last year, the foundation renovated the Boys and Girls Club in Manhattan, New York. Some of the other charities and foundations that James supports are: After-School All-Stars, Children’s Defense Fund, Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation, and ONEXONE.

As a result, of his work (on and off the court) James has received many awards. His basketball career awards include, but is not limited to: four NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, three NBA Final MVP Awards, two Olympic gold medals, and NBA Rookie of the Year. However, he has also won awards outside of the court which include, H. Peter Burg Award from the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, NBA Community Assist Award, and Champion of Youth Award from the Boys and Girls Club.

Aside from being one of the best professional basketball players of the generation, he is considered to be on top of the list as one of the most charitable professional athletes of all time. His dedication, talent and hard work on and off the court define him as a champion in every way. In a world where it is more common to hear of athletes and their wrongdoings, it is refreshing to see a positive role model who commits year-long for the community he serves.

Changing Hearts, Changing Lives: How 5 Social Initiatives in Chicago Are Making a Difference


Home to 9.5 million people, Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States and internationally recognized for its contributions to finance, transportation, commerce and culture. In the 2014 Global Cities Index, Chicago earned its fourth-consecutive top 10 ranking for its impact in business, information exchange, cultural experience and political dialogue. But despite all that Chicago is doing right, for some, life in the Windy City still presents challenges. Vulnerable populations, including children and adults, need the help of professionals.

Poverty affects 33 percent of children in Chicago, according to ThinkProgress, compared to 20 percent for all children in Illinois. And All Chicago, a nonprofit organization, reports that approximately half of all renters and homeowners arecost burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing costs. Poverty has led to high figures for homelessness and hunger:

  • 138,575 Chicago residents were homeless in the 2013-14 school year, a 19.4 percent increase from the previous year (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless)
  • One in six (812,100) in Cook County receives food from a member agency grocery or meal program (Greater Chicago Food Depository)

And although Chicago has seen an overall improvement in violent crime, it has increased in certain areas of the city. “In the early 1990s, the most dangerous third of the city saw about six times more murders than the safest third,” Chicago writer Daniel Kay Hertz reports. “Over the last several years, the most dangerous third has seen between 12 and 16 times more homicides.”

Social workers are answering the call for help. By teaming up with initiatives and organizations, led by community leaders and professionals in education, psychology and more, social workers are truly making a difference for those in need.

Social workers are educated professionals trained to help at-risk populations. They can work in community centers, agencies, rehabilitation centers and other areas. A program such as the online Bachelor of Social Work from Aurora University gives those with a passion for changing lives the tools they need to succeed, including courses in how to work with groups, the special needs of children and adolescents, how to work with communities and groups, and more.

Val Starr, an Aurora University alumna who assisted homeless veterans as a social worker at Catholic Charities and now works for the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, is just one example of how social workers are making a difference in Chicago.

“I have really found my passion working with this population and their unique needs,” Starr said. “It means so much to me to have the ability to help them.”

Education was the first step in Starr’s journey to change the lives of those who need help the most. “The education I received at AU was so beneficial to this position because it helped me understand and recognize mental health needs, taught me strategies for working with individuals from all walks of life and helping them cope with their daily struggles,” she said.

Learn how social workers like Val are making life in Chicago better, as we examine five initiatives that are helping make the city a safer, more accessible place to live.

1. Chicago Safe Start

Who it helps: According to the 2014 annual report for Safe From the Start (SFS), 4,350 children have sought treatment at the 11 Illinois sites since the program was launched, with a mean age of 4.7. Seventy-six percent of children had a single parent, while 58 percent of children came from families with annual household incomes of less than $15,000. On average, 22 percent of children were exposed to additional violence after services began.

In 1999, following the tragic deaths of 13 people at Columbine High School, President Bill Clinton called a national summit to address the subject of children and violence. The event included experts in childhood development and juvenile justice, and the findings shed light on the damage that exposure to violence can have on children.

The summit’s accompanying report said that “Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53 percent and of arrest for a violent crime as an adult by 38 percent.” Plus, there are long-term consequences for the child. Educational difficulties, alcohol and drug abuse, employment problems and mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were mentioned for children who were exposed to violence in some way.

As a result of the summit and national attention on childhood exposure to violence, 11 Safe From the Start demonstration sites launched in 2000, with Chicago Safe Start as one of the original locations. A program of the Chicago Department of Public Health, it provides therapy for children ages six and under who have been exposed to violence, either directly or as a witness in the home or in public. Its ultimate aim is to help prevent and reduce the negative impact that violence can have on young children.

Alongside social workers who intern in the program, therapists identify and approach any issues that the child may have, such as aggression, sleep difficulties or anxiety. Through mental health and family support services, such as child-parent psychotherapy, workers treat the trauma, which can include a parent or caregiver as well.

According to the report, the program has successfully helped children and caregivers. “The data to date indicates that families that participate in Safe From the Start Services experience a significant reduction in child symptoms and caregiver stress, and an improvement in child and caregiver functioning … examination of key outcome indicators over the last several years of the project suggests that sites are having an increasingly positive impact on families that they serve.”

The success of this program could ultimately be used to help even more children across the country. “As program development continues, Safe From the Start will likely serve as a model program nationally for efforts to address issues related to young children’s exposure to violence.”

2. Elev8 at Perspectives Academy

Who it helps: Since opening in 2008, Perspectives has helped more than 2,800 middle school students in one or more Elev8 programs. When the health center opened in May 2008, the immunization rate increased from 43 percent to 94 percent over the next 12 months. Also, since the health center opened, Perspectives has reached 100 percent compliance rates each year.

Taking place in more than a dozen schools across Baltimore, Oakland, New Mexico and Chicago, Elev8 brings together schools, families and community partners in low-income area middle schools to help students succeed in high school. Perspectives Middle Academy in Auburn Gresham is one of five public middle schools in the Chicago area, giving children access to a school-based health center and exciting possibilities in the cornerstone of the program, extended day opportunities.

These after school services help give students not only a safe space, but the skills needed to succeed in high school and beyond. “We really wanted to use the after school programs as a way to help students develop new skills, but also expose students to different areas of thinking about ‘What do I want to do when I grow up? Do I want to be a chef? Should I take culinary arts? What does that really look like?’” said Tenisha Jones, education director at Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation. “So if you were in a culinary arts program, at the end of the eight weeks you’re able to get on a bus and go to a real culinary arts program to cook with a real cook in a real kitchen to really make the after school programs tie back into real world experiences for the students.”

One program geared toward STEM for girls has led one graduate to make a college decision to pursue forensic chemistry at Western Illinois University, reports Gordon Walek, writer for Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). From STEM and the culinary arts to martial arts, students can find something they love and get a real glimpse into their future opportunities.

The extended day opportunities are offered from 3:45 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, in addition to a four-week summer program that runs 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The school-based health center provides primary care such as immunizations and physicals, and mental health services are planned for the future.

For Jones, the success of Elev8 at Perspectives has meant a great deal. “I feel as though I have truly been blessed. It’s been a really special opportunity to be a part of having the resources to develop and implement a project of this nature with many moving pieces, and really looking at the theory behind why we need to do these things,” she said. “The results that I’ve seen because of this project have been phenomenal, really the crowning glory of my career at this point. I’ve seen kids go from sixth grade to 12th grade, and I’ve seen mentorship happen because after school providers take special interest in kids and wind up saving a kid from going off the wrong track.”

3. Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives

Who it helps: Low- and moderate-income communities such as West Garfield Park. According to analysis from the Social IMPACT Research Center, more than 40 percent of West Garfield Park households are below the poverty level, and 19.4 percent of households are in extreme poverty with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line.

Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) has announced plans for the world’s largest rooftop farm at the Method Home Products manufacturing facility. Designed, built and operated by Gotham Greens, the state-of-the-art agricultural greenhouse will produce up to 1 million pounds of fresh produce each year and bring nearly 150 jobs to Pullman. The food will then be distributed to local farmer’s markets, retailers, restaurants and community groups.

This is one of many accomplishments for CNI, a nonprofit community development organization that helps low- and moderate-income communities revitalize neighborhoods and improve economically. Since 2010, it has generated 12,000 jobs and 135 affordable housing units in Chicago neighborhoods located on the Far South Side and the West Side, such as those in Pullman, Englewood, West Garfield Park and Austin.

In February of 2015, CNI was recognized with the Community Strategy of the Year Award at the annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards by LISC. According to U.S. Bank, which funds and supports CNI, CNI has achieved a number of high-profile initiatives in 2014:

  • Completing the first phase of Pullman Park, bringing a Walmart, Planet Fitness and Ross Dress to an abandoned factory site.
  • Selling of 38 rehabbed homes to revitalize houses in local communities.
  • Launch of a microlending program, CNI Micro Finance Group. It has helped more than 40 businesses with $500,000 in microloans, 82 percent of loan recipients were firms owned by African-Americans and 52 percent went to small businesses owned by women.

As a result, CNI has helped strengthened in-need communities across the greater Chicagoland area.

4. Chicago Help Initiative

Who it helps: Since 2001, 157,000 meals have been served to Chicago-area people in need.

In 1999, commercial real estate broker Jacqueline C. Hayes came face-to-face with the homeless when trying to show a location, when a major street closed just off Michigan Avenue and Oak Street. “A lot of the homeless started coming and living in the doorways, and I had to ask them to move, in order to show spaces,” Hayes said. “I was so anxious that this is what tourists would see when they came to the city; then I reversed it, and I thought, ‘How awful that people felt safe living in doorways?’ And so I just wanted to do something about it, and I gathered various organizations together.”

This moment prompted Hayes to action. It began with handouts on how to help the homeless, and later became the Chicago Help Initiative (CHI), which provides meals to those in need and connects them to resources that can break the cycle of hunger.

Most of the guests are homeless. Many have mental issues. And about 20 percent are veterans. But every Wednesday, at the dining hall facilities provided by Catholic Charities, a distinguished meal is served for 135 people (and bag meals for another 70 to 90). Tablecloths and flowers are set, and food is provided by area restaurants, hotels, businesses and people in the community. It’s this approach that has made such an impact on guests; once, the InterContinental Chicago hotel catered in prime rib, a gesture that caused some guests to become emotional because they had never had it before.

The food is just a part of the experience. The Wednesday dinners often include birthday celebrations, and sometimes there is live entertainment or a game night. Often, guests hear a presentation on a certain topic that can help. For instance, the CHI has had the Safer Foundation discuss expunging one’s criminal record, the Lincoln Park Community Shelter present housing information and Streetwise speak on employment opportunities. Guests also have access to a jobs table and a resource table for housing and other needs. A nurse practitioner and other health representatives are on hand, and, according to Hayes, there are plans to provide dentistry and eye care support for guests.

This is all possible through volunteers that help during the weekly dinners and other events such as the literacy program and the bike fair. Interns in the CHI make phone calls to social workers to secure speakers for the dinners, and they get to interface with the guests. Donors and sponsors in the community also help the CHI reach guests.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Hayes said. “It gives you a lot of contentment to know that I’m helping, and that’s true for each of the volunteers and the board members, that we know we’re doing something.”

5. Urban Initiatives

Who it helps: Beginning in 2003 with just 12 children and two teachers, Urban Initiatives now serves more than 16,000 children, a majority who are minorities and living in households that are at or below the poverty line.

Across 38 Chicago Public Schools, children from kindergarten through twelfth grade have access to programs that can improve their health and academic performance — and, perhaps most notably, their character.

This is all offered by Urban Initiatives, taking place in three sports-based youth development programs:

  • Work to Play is the flagship program from Urban Initiatives that allows children from kindergarten to fourth grade to participate on a soccer team. With two practices and one game each week, children must meet behavioral and academic standards to play. There are no skill level requirements for children to participate.
  • Take the Lead is a leadership development program for children from fifth to eighth grade who are alumni from the Work to Play program. These children serve as team captains on Work to Play teams, engaging with coaches to build leadership skills and focus on community service and academic goals.
  • Play with Potential is a recess program that is offered to all students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, focusing on teamwork and physical activity.

The programs have found success. According to Urban Initiatives, 96 percent of Work to Play participants play for at least 60 minutes, five days per week. One-hundred percent of Take the Lead captains are confident in their ability to lead younger teammates. And in the Play with Potential program, students are 45 percent more likely to perform moderate to vigorous physical activity than those at other schools.

A full staff of program associates and coordinators, in addition to volunteers and the management staff, works with the children to make the most of mentoring opportunities that take place in the programs.

For the mentors that make a difference in the lives of students, they are quick to acknowledge what they learn in the process. “It is the goal of Urban Initiatives coaches not just to be a mentor but to teach and train students to be mentors themselves, no matter how old they are and no matter the age of those they mentor,” Urban Initiatives program director Brendan McAlpine writes. “The Urban Initiatives team is proud and grateful to state that we have learned just as much from our students as we have taught them.”

Making Chicago a Better Place to Live

The aforementioned programs and initiatives embody the commitment that many have in helping those who are less fortunate or susceptible to certain social issues. Across crime, education, poverty and hunger, they are making a difference in Chicago communities where they serve.

One thing these initiatives have in common is the presence of social workers. These professionals organize programs, secure resources to help those in need and work alongside of other professionals to touch the lives of others. Hundreds of thousands of social workers can be found across America, changing the lives of those in need.

This article was written in conjunction with Aurora University Bachelor of Social Work Program.

What is Your Super Power?

Social Workers and superheroes – what do they have in common? According to a TED talk by Anna Scheyett, they have more in common than you’d expect. In this article, I will look at and builds upon some of the ideas that Anna talks about as it relates to Social Workers and superheroes. I’m going to extend ‘superheroes’ to mean any fictional, fantasy, or sci-fi character who could be seen as a superhero.

Anna states that Social Workers aim “To promote and support individual and community wellbeing, and to fight social injustice”. So how well does this hold up? According to the National Association of Social Workers, the profession supports people across ‘all backgrounds’ and through some of life’s most difficult challenges. 40% of Red Cross mental health disaster workers are Social Workers. And, as Anna points out, Social Workers are there for people across the lifespan, from birth to death.

She frames Social Workers as being there to remedy broken connections between different levels of the system. They negotiate legal, educational, welfare, and family systems. Social Workers have to identify the difficulties in the relationships and connections, whilst communicating in a way that each level of the system can understand them. Essentially, Social Workers are multi-lingual. That’s a superpower in itself.

Their role among several layers of the system also requires the ability to emulate a wide range of different superheroes, depending on the situation. Sometimes that requires Professor X levels of knowing who is where doing what, and when. On other occasions, it requires being an investigative curious person, with powers of compassion and understanding on a level with The Doctor. Sometimes it requires fortitude like Lara Croft, speed and dexterity like Spiderman, or strength like Superman.


Social Work is more than a job. Like superheroes, it’s a vocation; a way of life. And, like the best superheroes, Social Workers don’t ask for any treatment or consideration. They do what they have to do.

Most superheroes aren’t trained. They are born a certain way, they become a certain type of person through accidents or circumstances beyond their control. They are pushed and impassioned to save the world.

Unfortunately, this requires having the financial means by which to achieve a Social Work higher education course and not all potential superheroes get to train at the Superhero Academy.

It’s not a given that all superheroes will be empowering to the ‘little people’. They save the day, certainly, but not all superheroes will also provide the tools for people to support themselves. There are salient examples of empowering superheroes, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The most notable thing about Buffy is that she reaches out to the community around her. Whilst she is strong and supports others, she also receives support from them – her mother, her friends, her partners, colleagues, and her guide Giles who is like the policies and procedures which guide Social Workers. The power of community in Buffy usually keeps people well and safe. Social Workers, likewise, harness the power and support that is already out there, to keep people well and safe.

This is what Anna mentioned – the strengths-based approach to pulling people’s best from them. Another honourable mention for Professor X is required here, as he empowers mutants to teach, learn and grow. In her TED talk, Anna references Social Workers developing programmes for bullying and school dropouts, and Social Workers at higher levels of policy and management. In the X-Men world we can see mutants working at a range of levels – The Beast being in politics, for example, whilst others are in education, or on-the-ground activism.

It’s also possible that Social Workers are beyond being like most ‘superheroes’. Unlike many superheroes, Social Workers don’t just put the ‘bad guys’ away in prisons, for example. Social Workers also work within the prison system, to support the ‘bad guys’ and their families towards more positive futures. Of course, Ant Man is a notable exception of ex-con superhero. Mental health and wellbeing problems are rife within prison institutions, and Social Workers are equipped to deal with these added difficulties, without getting stuck in a ‘bad guy’ mentality.

Alongside Sherlock Holmes, Social Workers like their evidence. Anna mentioned evidence-based practice in her TED talk. Evidence-based practice can support people to make decisions with a greater likelihood of a positive outcome, and reduce the effects of human bias. This, however, has to be balanced with therapeutic humanity. Gilgun (2005) suggested that Social Work still has a journey to take in order to integrate the evidence base with practice.

There are also issues with the evidence base of the social sciences suffering from publication bias where null results are far less likely to be published, making it less clear which interventions probably won’t work. Finally, especially with psychological research, there is a risk of comparmentalising and segregating different ‘problems’ without looking at the whole person. However, being naturally social in origin puts social workers in a good position to integrate different types of social and psychological evidence.

A final note, however, should be made about the system. A number of superheroes try to change the system in which they live, rather than tackling the symptoms such as crime. Some have argued that an evidence-based epistemology, part of the medicalised system of physical and social wellbeing in the global West, undermines the human part of being a social worker. Others argue that Social Workers are covering the slack for governments that don’t care about their most vulnerable. Like all superheroes, there are mistakes where innocents get hurt. Sometimes this is under the weight of targets and bureaucracy. Sometimes it’s because the superhero academy accepted inappropriate candidates.

Pain, frustration, loneliness, stress, hard work, community, problem-solving, ethical dilemmas, joy, and triumph are part of any superhero’s repertoire of experience. And, like any superhero, it’s not done for their own personal gain, but because this world isn’t perfect and it needs someone within the system to support the greater good. As already mentioned, superheroes and Social Workers do all of this without expecting the thanks and kudos that are rightfully deserved.

So, let’s take a moment, then. For all the superheroes, both real and fictional. For all the people who have found their superpower thanks to a Social Worker. And finally, for Social Workers themselves – a special, multi-talented breed of superhero, stay empowered!

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