Some teachers can't ever give up teaching.
Linda Augustyn, a 26-year resident of Oak Park is one of them. Even after working as an English Department Chair and teacher at Proviso West High School, and as a reading specialist at Downers Grove North High School for over twenty years, she never lost her passion for education.
She retired in June last year, but found that she just couldn't sit still. Soon after retiring, she began working as a volunteer with the Chicago-based bookstore and literacy nonprofit Open Books and with the Better Boys Foundation. All that, and she still finds time to help students in Oak Park and Downers Grove with their college admission essays.
A volunteer that does this much to help the community deserves a moment in the spotlight. Patch sat down with Augustyn recently to talk about her work with Open Books and how she continues to find enjoyment in spreading a passion for reading and writing.
Patch: How did you get involved with working at Open Books?
Linda Augustyn: I first found out about Open Books when I decided to downsize. My late husband and I had so many books, and I knew I needed to part with them before I made my move into an apartment in central Oak Park. I discovered Open Books through an Internet search. They came out and picked up all the books I wanted to donate and even provided me with a tax voucher!
From there, I researched the organization further and decided to check out their volunteer opportunities at an introductory session run by Ava Zeligson, the volunteer coordinator. Her opening presentation excited me about so many possibilities to teach through Open Books. One of the last things she said to me on that day was, “Some teachers are just not ready to retire.” That idea stuck in my head. More than anything, I have loved teaching and while I knew it was time to give up the headaches of administrative responsibilities, I was not done teaching.
Patch: Did you always want to be a teacher?
Augustyn: When I was 17, I had the opportunity to work in a Headstart summer program at St. Pius School at 19th and Ashland [in Chicago]. One of my students, a little girl named Susie, broke away from the group on the playground and scampered up the fire escape on the other building until she was at least five stories in the air. The only person she let coax her down the stairs was I.
I had been her reading buddy every morning, and the conversations she had at 8 a.m. with me every morning must have convinced her that I was the “right” choice to get her down the stairs safely. From that moment, I was hooked on teaching. One minute you are teaching reading and writing, and the next, you can be influencing them even high on a fire escape. I will never forget that moment!
Patch: What are the programs you currently volunteer with at Open Books?
Augustyn: I became involved in three of Open Books Programs.
I go to Otis School on Mondays and Wednesdays to work with struggling second and third grade readers [through the Reading Buddies program]. Currently one of the students that I am working with is a little third grader who has not been able to “catch on” to the reading process. I have loved working with her and am so proud that she now recognizes ten sight words and can supply them when I am reading a story to her.
Open Books supplies all of the books and reading materials I need to work with the students. They even do entry level testing so that all of the volunteers know the appropriate level of entry books for the kids. The school is fantastic, and everyone from the principal to the office secretary is friendly and welcoming.
I also work in the Read/Write program with three high school students at the Chicago Talent Charter High School, which rents space on the top floor of Crane High School. There, I have the privilege to work with students inside of a traditional English classroom. I get to work with them at reading a shared novel, and I am also assisting them with their writing of personal memoirs.
Patch: What are they writing about in their personal memoirs?
Augustyn: These memoirs are poignant and from the heart. One student is writing about a teacher who turned him around in middle school and made him goal oriented. Another is writing a beautiful lament about a lost boyfriend, and another is reflecting on how her sexual orientation has made her encounter life’s realities at an early age in a piece she currently entitles, Same and Different.
All of the students working in the Read/Write program will be honored at book signing at the Open Books Office in early April where they will receive a published anthology of their stories, which will be available for purchase. The students are very excited about this!
Patch: What makes the work you do with Open Books challenging?
Augustyn: Open Books is challenging because our two goals, although simple, require every volunteer’s head and heart into the volunteer experience that they have chosen. I think the goals we have are what all teachers in classrooms are trying to reach every day. One, how do we help students to learn more? And two, how do we motivate students to want to learn more?
These are not easy goals to reach, but Open Books, with their variety of programs, their dynamic young facilitators, and their incredible ability to find ways to make instruction student centered and fun are succeeding.
Patch: What makes the program rewarding to work with?
Augustyn: The students at all levels make the program rewarding. There is not a volunteer day that goes by when I don’t get a hug, or a high five from one of my students. The ranges of volunteers, who all come from different backgrounds, also make the program exciting. Volunteers include graduate students, stay at home moms, retirees, restaurant managers, nurses and doctors.
It is exciting to work with such committed volunteers. I always feel like a member of a team at Open Books.
Patch: How do you think getting kids to write about their personal experiences helps them? Do you see a change in students as they accomplish their goals and see their thoughts expressed through their writing?
Augustyn: From an English teacher’s perspective, the most wonderful aspect of having students write personal memoirs is their desire to get them right on paper.
Every English teacher knows that if students have their heart in a piece of writing, they will revise extensively. Often the persuasive writing assignments that are required as part of the new state approved common core curriculum don’t invite [as much] student investment as the personal memoirs do. I can get my students in the Read/ Write programs to reconsider openings, think about the inclusion of meaningful figurative language and to write honestly from their hearts.
I am convinced that the more students write from their hearts and not from just an external rubric, they are much more likely to be internally motivated to work on a piece over time.
Patch: How can others interested in volunteering with Open Books sign up and help out?
Augustyn: Open Books is always in need of volunteers. The great thing about the program is that the commitment times are usually only for one to three hours, once or twice a week. Ava Zeligson, our amazing volunteer coordinator is always running introductory sessions and will also meet with interested potential volunteers privately to discuss all of the options available.
Patch: Thanks Linda, and congratulations on all your work and success!