Talking 21st Century Storytelling with LeVar Burton
Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton
One in four children in America is functionally illiterate, according to LeVar Burton, host and executive producer of the well-known children’s show, Reading Rainbow. Many recent studies have pointed out that America has fallen from the top ranks of educational standards, now lagging behind in core subjects like math, science, and reading. With students seeming less and less prepared for higher education and jobs every year, there has been a large push in the policy arena to improve education standards, with the somewhat contested Common Core State Standards* initiative at the forefront.
When Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2009, LeVar Burton saw an opportunity in re-launching Reading Rainbow as a tool for learning in the 21st century. With business partner Mark Wolfe, Burton bought the rights to the Reading Rainbow brand and founded RRKidz, Inc. with the mission of providing engaging reading activities to every web-connected child. In 2012, the company released a Reading Rainbow app, which contains e-books, Reading Rainbow’s video field trips, and a reading reward system. Earlier this year, Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the expansion of the app and a new web platform, a classroom version with supplemental teacher resources, and subsidies so that schools in need can use these materials at no cost. The Kickstarter campaign received an overwhelmingly positive response and raised more than 5 million dollars, reaching the first million in less than 24 hours.
Private/public projects like the new Reading Rainbow provide teachers with the tools to lead fun, engaging activities that can help students meet and hopefully, exceed, education standards.
In a conversation with Bedrosian Center Director, Raphael Bostic, LeVar Burton discusses his passion for Reading Rainbow and the impact it can have on education policy and curricula.
Raphael Bostic: What do you think is the enduring “draw” of Reading Rainbow and why has the brand continued to resonate five years after PBS took it off the air?
LeVar Burton: We deal with basic fundamental storytelling, which is an essential part of the human experience. Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time. People have a need and desire to share with one another. Reading Rainbow taps into this, and connects with the essential nature of literature and storytelling of the human, especially with its book reviews.
When you think about storytelling, the thing that has changed over time is the technology used to tell stories. Television technology has been a great way to reach the masses and express stories, for example. Today, though, we need a new medium to deliver the message. To reach kids today, you need to be in the digital realm and be available through tablets and media consoles.
With Reading Rainbow, I saw an opportunity. And while I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, I knew the solution had to be in the digital realm. Our goal was to meet kids where they are and take them where you want them to go. The result has resonated. We have found an entry point to reach kids, and have opened up the world of storytelling to them.
RB: How will the traditional education infrastructure and teaching methods interact with the new Reading Rainbow?
LB: My goal for Reading Rainbow always was to develop a product that can be used. You can see this from our Kickstarter campaign, where we clearly said that we were building a product specifically for classroom use. And I think we are well on our way to success. Teachers are already using the Reading Rainbow app in the classroom in many different ways, even though the app was developed to be a consumer product with a user limit of 5. The possibilities are really limitless.
And this is really no surprise. Teaching is in my family and I got to see firsthand how teachers do their work. The fact is that too often teachers have been just making do. They want to do better and are hungry to do better. We need to do all that we can to make this happen.
RB: How do you manage content development and production and what kind of content oversight is used?
LB: My job at the company is Curator-in-Chief, which means I am responsible for building and managing our library of books and video. We produce 2 new books and a new video every week. We have a very talented team that makes it all happen. On the book side, we are led by our COO and President of Publishing, Sangita Patel.
The video is the secret sauce. Technology today allows us to produce high-quality storytelling at a low cost. But it’s our mission that allows us access to places that allow us to tell great stories. We have gained unprecedented access because people have high respect for our mission and understand its importance. As a result, we have been to the White House and Griffith Park Observatory, among other places, and have been one of the very few organizations given access to the National Archives, the 9-11 site, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These have allowed us to tell amazing stories that grab our audience.
RB: What impact do you think Reading Rainbow will have on education policy and curricula?
LB: I hope that Reading Rainbow leaves an important mark through teachers encouraging more reading and integrating reading into other subjects. We need to be teaching the whole child, and teaching them through the course of the day and not just in the classroom. I’d like young people to not just read, but to develop a love of the written word and the body of literature that is about the human experience.
The Reading Rainbow video field trips are an important piece to this, as they directly tie reading to the real world. The world is vast and complex, and every person needs to find their place. Reading and storytelling allows people to experience the variety of life that’s out there, and figure out where they are and belong in the world.
RB: What are the barriers and challenges to wider use of Reading Rainbow?
LB: The hardest part of getting Reading Rainbow more widely used is trying to work both sides of the street. There is the teacher side, obviously, and working with them to find the best ways to use our content and technology in the classroom. There is a lot of time and effort that needs to go into this.
But there is also the policy side. Frankly, I’m skeptical about the government’s ability to deliver quality education all by itself. There are so many constraints that governments have in terms of action and management. I believe that a public/private model is the right alternative. This is why I am so proud to become the owner of this brand now. I am proud it is a for-profit company because it allows us to pursue this public/private partnership. Being a for-profit company allows me to be effective in ways that government can’t be. But it is important to be clear that I get along well with the government. I have a good relationship with Secretary Duncan. Together we can work to provide the best education we can for our children.
We need to be teaching the whole child, and teaching them through the course of the day and not just in the classroom.
– LeVar Burton
*The Common Core Standards focus on teaching children skills like critical thinking through core competencies in English language arts and mathematics that will help them to be successful in college and their careers. While the standards are consistent across states regarding what children should learn, the actual implementation, including teaching methods, curriculum, and materials, is left to the discretion of state and local leaders. (Common Core) This autonomy provides an opportunity for teachers and local administrators to find creative teaching methods, such as the use of apps and other technology, and to work with community partners to develop innovative resources.