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LeVar Burton seeks to integrate storytelling into education

Published by Aubrey Hicks on

Originally published on the USC Price website, February 11, 2015

Television icon LeVar Burton discussed how he’d like to see storytelling better integrated into education during a Jan. 28 Holt lecture series event presented by the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise.

Burton made his acting debut as Kunta Kinte in the award-winning 1977 drama series Roots, while a student at USC. He also played the role of Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In addition, Burton won 12 Emmy awards as host and executive producer of the educational show Reading Rainbow that ran on PBS for 23 years.

“Having Burton as our Holt speaker was truly an honor,” USC Bedrosian Director Raphael Bostic, who led the conversation. “His cultivation and development of the Reading Rainbow franchise is both interesting and innovative. His vision, passion and warmth were on full display, providing inspiration for me and our audience.”

After Reading Rainbow went off the air, Burton and his business partner acquired the rights to the brand and turned it into the No. 1 educational app. In 2014, he went to Kickstarter to help revive Reading Rainbow as a web series, and it became the most popular Kickstarter campaign ever with over 105,000 backers and a final tally of $6.4 million, well over its $1 million goal.

Many USC students attending the event grew up watching Reading Rainbow.

“It was nice to see and spend some time with a figure I had known about in my childhood and is now taking on the same content of my childhood, but looking at it in the 21st century digital information age,” said Rhett Paranay, a dual master of public policy and master of planning student at USC Price.

Burton remarked that all forms of media are educational, it’s just a matter of what is being taught. When Reading Rainbow started, America’s children were hanging out in front of the television.

“We wanted them to read more, so we went on TV and steered them back in the direction of the written word,” Burton explained. “That was revolutionary. The conversation at that time was television was rotting the brains of our children and will be the death knell of education in America, and we were able to prove that wasn’t the case.”

Now children are on their tablet computers, and they are reading 200,000 books a week through the RRKidz application.

The conclusion he’s drawn from Reading Rainbow‘s success, both on television and as an app, revolves around the importance of storytelling to capture a child’s attention.

“Storytelling, being such an essential element of the human experience, is an invaluable tool in the service of educating our children,” Burton said. “That’s our secret sauce. We believe in the power of storytelling.”

Where Burton hopes to have an impact on public policy is bringing storytelling into the classroom. He said the Reading Rainbow classroom edition will go through testing over the next couple months with the goal of being ready for the next school year in September.

Burton hopes to see new education policy that would require literature and reading become more of an integrated part of all aspects of the curriculum.

“Storytelling is a shorthand language that all human beings have in common,” Burton said. “My belief is that if we are successful in bringing more storytelling into the educational process, we will be more successful at educating our children.”

Bedrosian Center