Student Spotlight: Hilaria

Two Tolton Staff members recently attended a training hosted by HandsOn Tech Chicago and conducted by Let’s Dabble. The training showed how with any camera (including a camera phone or even an iPad, which is what we used) and editing software that comes pre-installed on computers (we used iMovie), you could make a video to tell a story. So after the training, we brainstormed a bit and approached one of our students with an idea. She agreed to it and we got to filming.

Far too many hours of editing later, this is the story we’d like to tell.

Margarita and Jesus came to Tolton’s Family Literacy Program at Casa Juan Diego back in September of last year. This year has been full of learning together, playing together and best of all, achieving their dreams together.

We are so proud of Margarita and Jesus and their accomplishments this year. We are honored to have worked with them this year and to have the opportunity to share their story with all of you.

We cannot give enough thanks to HandsOn Tech Chicago and Let’s Dabble. Anthony over at Let’s Dabble answered so many of our technical questions during the editing process. So thank you thank you to both of you!

(Music in video: “Swansong (Instrumental)” by Josh Woodward)

Bee Branch: Celebrating African-American History


I know that each year, when May rolls around we marvel at how the year has escaped us! Like every other year, we just cannot believe that we are wrapping up another school year and getting ready to send our students out, armed with knowledge, confidence and a strong support system.
This post is from a bit ago but I wanted to share it because it touches on something that is so important to us here at Tolton Center: celebrating our rich histories and legacies.
Pamela Clemons, coordinator at our Bee Branch site, submitted this reflection on her students’ time of studying the legacy of African-Americans:
During the month of February the Tolton Center located at the Chicago Bee Branch Library had a month-long opportunity to really delve into the rich legacy of those African-Americans who have played a vital role in shaping not only America but the entire world. Students read about some of the following famous African-Americans via insightful biographies: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Matthew Henson, Benjamin Banneker, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.C. Handy, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Willie Mays, Wilma Rudolph, Daniel Hale Williams, and last but not least Jean Baptiste Du Sable. Not only did students get to meet these famous trailblazers in the fields of medicine, education science, civil rights, law, music, and sports, they were also able to discuss the impact of having learned about these powerful African-Americans. Many students even shared highlights from channel 11 and the BET cable network channel. Both featured wonderful programming during African-American history month. Some students commented that they watched “Roots” for the first time with their children or other powerful documentaries during this special month.
Fifteen students and five staff visited the Du Sable Museum of African–American History on Thursday, February 28, 2013. It was a perfect way to end this month.
This field trip was absolutely wonderful! We didn’t have a tour guide but students and staff were able to enjoy the excellent exhibits on our own and visit canadian pharmacy no prescription . Even one of our students, Emmanuel, who is from Ghana, was more than willing to talk about his homeland. The exhibit “Africa Speaks” was intriguing because Emmnauel made looking at the sculptures, masks, artifacts, and textiles from West Africa come alive.
According to the students, the most memorable exhibits were the exhibit “A Slow Walk to Greatness: The Harold Washington Story”, Geoffrey & Carmen: A Memoir in Four Movements, and the carved wooden mural of events from slavery to emancipation. In short, this field trip proved to be a valuable history lesson that many students will not forget.
Thank you so much to Pam for taking the time to share their experiences with all of us!

Congratulations, Mary Ellen.

maryellen congrats

I don’t often identify myself here on but my name is Emily Arvizu and I am the voice behind this blog (as well as our Facebook page and our Twitter account). Generally, I write about our experiences at Tolton in the 1st person plural, as “we.” As in: “We love taking field trips!” and “We’re excited for this training!” and “We thank you!”. But today, I wanted to share something from me, personally.
I came to Tolton Center seven years ago as part of a volunteer organization called Mission Year. I had graduated with a degree in Elementary Education and Latin American Studies and wanted to do something different for a year before returning to the East Coast to put that degree to use. So I came out to Chicago and bumped into Tolton Center at Legler Library. I began volunteering about thirty hours a week and soon fell in love. With the students. With the positive atmosphere. But most of all, with the staff.
When I finished my year-long volunteer program, I faced a decision: to stay on with Tolton Center or to return home to the life I had planned to live as an elementary teacher.
I remember talking on the phone with my mom one night. As we talked, I realized my decision had already been made. I told her, “Mom, what 22 year old has a job that they truly, truly love?” And with that, I stayed.
Seven years later, I’m still in Chicago. I stay for many reasons, but one of the biggest is the work I do at Tolton. I still love my students. I still love the positive atmosphere. And above all, I still love this staff.
In the years that I’ve been here, I have had the absolute privilege of working alongside Mary Ellen Lesniak. With her guidance, her patience, and her incredible passion I have become a good teacher. From her, I have learned the importance of a student-centered classroom built upon a foundation of  community. A classroom where the students speak far more than the teacher. Where everyone supports each other. Where students walk to class together and leave together as well. Where barriers to education are addressed and human needs are met. A classroom where “Everyone teaches and everyone learns.”
Mary Ellen has continually taught me that an excellent leader leads by example and that an excellent leader always says “Thank you.” While this account is my own personal experience, I know that my other co-workers would agree, that Mary Ellen is their biggest fan and best source of support. She sees something in each of us and encourages that in us until we begin to see it ourselves. When I was only 22 years old, fresh out of college with no idea what I was doing, she saw something in me and mentored me into the teacher I am now.
It is no surprise to me at all that Mary Ellen was selected as Toyota’s Runner-up Teacher of the Year. The way I feel as Mary Ellen’s co-worker is the very same way students feel in her classroom: Welcomed. Appreciated. Supported. And cared for. Mary Ellen has devoted so much time and energy to her work at Tolton Center and I am so pleased to see her being recognized. Mary Ellen will tell you that it is not she who is being recognized, it is the program. But it is Mary Ellen, and so many other dedicated staff members, who have made this program what it is.
So I hope you will join me in congratulating Mary Ellen for this incredible award. I hope you’ll thank her for her hard work and I hope you’ll give her a hug when you see her next.
I’d love for anyone to leave a comment here and tell us your favorite Mary Ellen stories. Or perhaps leave a comment on our Facebook page to congratulate her! (To do so, click here!)
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for supporting Tolton’s work!
Emily Arvizu


Spring Fundraiser: Bee Home and Garden


Last Thursday evening, Tolton staff, friends and supporters gathered at Bee Home and Garden in Oak Park for an evening of wine and shopping. Throughout the evening, shoppers sipped wine, chatted with friends and perused the unique and beautiful merchandise available.


Bee Home and Garden, located at 128 Chicago Ave in Oak Park, offers a wide variety of home goods and gardening essentials. Within the store, shoppers find anything from pillows to placemats, custom upholstered furniture to stationery, soaps to scarves. Tolton supporters shared how excited they were to discover a store with such beautiful items.


Similarly, Tolton staff were happy to introduce our friends and supporters to this wonderful, local business with a social mission. Taken from Bee Home and Garden’s Facebook page, “Founded by Colleen Moroney Maia, this L3C aspires to do more. Driven by our social mission, we have teamed up with this local high school to help provide job and enrichment opportunities for first generation college bound students. We hope to wake the entrepreneurial spirit in a young girl’s heart and set her up for success in the next step of her education.”


Thank you once again to everyone who came out to Bee Home and Garden to support our work! And a huge thank you to Colleen for hosting us in her beautiful store!

Legler: Trip to Chicago History Museum

Hello and happy Wednesday! We have been a bit quiet around here on the blog, but outside of blogland we have been keeping very busy: teaching classes, writing grants, visiting libraries, engaging our kids in activities, reading together, attending professional development trainings and conferences, and, of course, going on field trips!
This morning we wanted to share with you our Tolton Center/ Legler program’s recent trip to the Chicago History Museum. Instructor Joanne Corwin graciously took some time to write about their visit and send some photos to share with all of you.
Here’s what Joanne had to say about their trip:
Students and staff from the Tolton Adult Education Center at the Legler Library enjoyed an informative and inspirational field trip to the Chicago History Museum on North Clark St. on Thursday, Feb. 20th.  Exhibits on the tour included the history of Chicago in the areas of politics, architecture, communication, economics, theatre, transportation, Chicago  jazz and blues, the Chicago Fire, the mercantile industries, and ethnic groups and their contributions.  Many students participated in hands-on displays with technology and visual aids to enhance their experience.  They, also, read many wonderful stories that helped make Chicago the great American city we love and enjoy today.
Joanne sent us some absolutely wonderful photos of students enjoying the day and learning together:
Marietta Milton pedaling strong on an old-fashioned bike!
Willie Pearl Richardson with a statue of Ida B. Wells at the train station, in the early days of African-Americans who helped shape Chicago history.
Musically inclined students at the speakeasy!

Why we love field trips!


This coming Tuesday, our ESL/Family Literacy programs will be heading out to the Planetarium for a day of excitement to learn about the planets and our solar system! We are so thrilled to have the opportunity to enjoy the day with our school-age children who have the day off from school.

Here on the Tolton Center blog, we talk quite a bit about all the field trips we take throughout the year. Just in the past four months alone, we have gone to:

  • the Museum of Science and Industry
  • the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
  • Shedd Aquarium, Brookfield Zoo
  • a UIC basketball game
  • the Book-a-mania event at the Harold Washington Library
  • the Christmas trees downtown at Macy’s and at Daley Plaza
  • and, this coming week, the Planetarium.

UIC mascot

During class yesterday, students listed out reasons why they continue to attend field trip after field trip. They came up with some beautiful reasons and I wanted to share them with all who might wonder why they continuously see Tolton Center all over the city.
These are the reasons we came up with:
  • To spend time together as a family
  • To learn together
  • To practice our English
  • To expose our children to experiences and interests
  • To go new places
  • and to play and have fun!

For Tolton Center staff, the most excitement comes in the weeks and months after a trip. We love hearing about families independently returning to places we have taken field trips to!

We’ll be sure to share photos from the Planetarium on our facebook page. Make sure you’ve liked us on Facebook to receive all our updates. (Click the  Facebook link below and then click “like”.)

ESL: Visiting the Doctor’s Office

As part of our ESL curriculum, Tolton staff includes a unit focused on health. In class, students participate in discussions of all types of health. In the past, specialists have visited us to present and answer questions about physical and mental health. Students have always reported enjoying this unit due in large part to the practicality of the lessons. Tolton Center staff focuses on real-life learning, meaning that students practice in the classroom the skills they will need to communicate outside of the classroom.

MaryEllen Lesniak’s class at Tepeyac has been doing just that. In this video, students practice visiting a doctor’s office. Armed with information and practice, students always return to class sharing their positive experiences in real-life doctors offices!


A most sincere thank you.

We at Tolton Center have been working in the immigrant communities of Chicago’s Little Village and Pilsen for the past eight years. In those eight years, we teachers and volunteers have formed strong friendships and partnerships with students, libraries, educational organizations, churches, non-violence movements, and community activists. These people and organizations have shared their spaces, their stories, their lives with us. With each of those relationships in mind, it is with great joy that we extend our gratitude to the Illinois State Senate, House of Representatives, Governor Pat Quinn and the Highway Safety Coalition for their role in the passage of the Highway Safety Legislation, SB 957.

SB 957 provides an opportunity for undocumented immigrants to obtain a Temporary Visitor Driver’s License. In order to obtain the license, drivers will have to pass vision screening as well as the written and road tests. They will also need to provide documentation of name, date of birth and proof of their IL address. In addition, they will have to submit proof of insurance. (For more information on SB 957, please visit Latino Policy Forum and Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.)

At Tolton Center, we have long believed and taught in our classrooms that every single person is important. That everyone has a voice and that that voice must be utilized for the common good. We have taught EL/Civics through the years and encouraged our students to get involved in the community and in government. Regardless of whether students were able to vote or not, we encouraged them to educate themselves so that they would be able to educate others. Students and teachers alike have written countless letters to local and national politicians, imploring them to act justly and to keep in mind our immigrant community.
We have witnessed first hand the devastation that can accompany a minor traffic violation for a family of undocumented immigrants. We look forward to the day when spouses no longer worry about each other on their way to work and children no longer wonder if their parents will make it home this evening.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that ”Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
To the bill’s sponsors and the organizations that work tirelessly to ensure a brighter future for our families, Tolton Center staff and volunteers sincerely thank you.

The ESL Programs Venture Out!

Tolton Center’s ESL/Family Literacy Program often extends beyond the walls of a classroom. Tolton staff believe that a vital part of education is taking what we’ve learned in the classroom and putting it to the test in the “real world.” Adult ESL classes study public transportation, including important vocabulary and phrases, how to read maps and use google maps to plan routes, and understanding fare charts. Students have opportunities throughout the year to take trips to various locations on CTA buses and trains to put their knowledge to the test!

A few weeks back, ESL families rode the Pink Line from Pilsen to Harold Washington Library for the annual Book-a-mania event. Families from our program at Tepeyac Head Start took the bus to the Aquarium back in October.  This week, students had the opportunity to take the bus or the train to the Loop. Families checked out the windows decorated for Christmas at Macy’s, visited the tree in Macy’s and walked over to Daley Plaza for the Christkindlmarket.


Often when students first come to Tolton ESL programs, they share how fearful they are to ride public transportation, not understanding the costs, the process of buying a farecard or the routes of the buses and trains. By offering them an opportunity to venture out as group, students feel comfortable trying out public transportation. Once they see how easy it is, they report going back to various locations with their families! We, the Tolton staff, are so thrilled and celebrate every time someone shares their experience of venturing out! We encourage families to take advantage of all the wonderful events and learning opportunities that this great city provides.

To you, our readers, thank you so much for your continued interest in and support of Tolton Center! You have made these trips possible. Our staff and students cannot thank you enough!