LeVar Burton walks on stage to a packed house in the Pfister Hotel’s Grand Ballroom – he’s the featured speaker at Sharp Literacy’s A Novel Event, a fundraiser for the organization whose mission is to address urban literacy, “by inspiring engagement in reading, writing and research.”
Burton begins by talking about his mother. “My mother is my hero. When I talk about role models in my life – and I have had many – I always go, first, to my mom,” he said. “See, Erma Jean didn’t play when it came to raising her kids.”
“She established boundaries for us and, almost more importantly, expectations,” said Burton. “The expectations that my mother held for me are those fundamental guideposts that have brought me to where I am, in life. I like to say that I am the man I am because my mother was the woman that she is.”
Erma Jean, who was a teacher, social worker and a voracious reader, herself, knew that reading would come with curiosity and fostered that interest in her children, Burton and his two sisters. “My mother knew that the key to getting me to read was to play on that which I was passionate about … so, you see, from the very beginning, my mother put me on the pathway that would become my life.”
And Burton takes the same approach. Parents, he says, often ask him how to get their kids to read more; he simply asks them one question: Have you discovered what your child’s passions are?
How do you find your child’s passion? It’s really not that hard, Burton tells me. “What are your kids like? Our passions are pretty much on the surface of who we are. It is not difficult, as a child grows and matures, to tell what it is they are passionate about. And, it’s there for a reason, it’s on the surface for a reason: so that that might be encouraged and stimulated, because it is our passions that really drive what our contribution is in life.”
“I believe that we are all here to deliver our gift and that gift that we have to give is largely based in that which we are passionate about.”
For Burton, that passion was science fiction, largely, because it dares to ask, ‘What if?’ “I’m a big fan of life and life experience. I’m motivated by fun and adventure,” he says. “Visiting new places, exploring new things has always been a chief motivator, inspirer, driver, for me. And I think a lot of people have that, sort of, thirst for curiosity. We are very curious beings, humans, and I think it’s that natural curiosity that is so prevalent in children that we really need to keep alive – it, sort of, gets tampered and dampened, as we grow older. And I do believe that it’s that innate curiosity that drives much of the innovation and inspiration that exists in this world.”
Burton, who’s known for hosting the PBS show Reading Rainbow that aired for more than 20 years, told the crowd we have to do something, now, to address the issue of literacy. “We have a tremendous crisis in this country – a crisis of education – and we’re losing kids every single day. Three thousand seniors drop out of high school almost every day, in America, and most of them are poor readers … We can do better.”
“We used to do a remarkable job of educating our nation’s children. However, we’ve taken our eyes off the ball, in my opinion. Now, I believe, as much as the next man, in the need and necessity for safety and security. And, I also see that we have spent an inordinate amount of money in the last 10 to 15 years on war and machineries of war and we have sacrificed our children. And, for me, that is not okay.”
But Burton has hope; a lot of it. “I believe that we have, within our hands, the very key to turn this situation around.”
“Reading Rainbow … used the very unique model of meeting children where they were and taking them where we wanted them to go. The medium was television because that’s where America’s kids were hanging out at the time.”
“What we did with Reading Rainbow the television series was to use the prevailing technology of the time to get kids interested in the oldest technology to spark the imagination that there is: good old-fashioned storytelling.”
“If you want to reach a kid, today, you need to be in the digital realm,” says Burton.
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After Reading Rainbow was taken off the air, Burton pursued the rights and, now, has a exclusive, worldwide, perpetual license to the brand. “What that means to me is that we can continue this mission of engaging children around literature, inspiring them to use their imaginations in such a way as to invent the future in their own image.”
In the summer of 2012, Reading Rainbow hit the Apple App Store and almost immediately became the number one education app. Today, two years later, kids are reading 200,000 books a week through it.
“I genuinely believe that, if we take this very engaging technology and fill it with whatever information we choose – science, social studies, math, music, English – and put it in the form of storytelling, right? Why? Why storytelling? Because every culture on this planet has a tradition of storytelling. We have told stories to ourselves since the dawn of mankind; it is how we define who we are and why we are here. I believe that, if we use storytelling combined with this very engaging technology, we can, literally, revolutionize the way we educate our children.”
For Burton, the decision to bring education and reading into the digital age is a no-brainer. “We have, within our grasp, the tools essential to moving the culture forward. Putting those tools in the service of educating our children is the thing that makes the most sense.”
It wouldn’t be a bad way to be remembered, either. “I think a legacy of Reading Rainbow and child literacy, for the son of an English teacher, that’s not a bad legacy. To have been a part of inspiring generations of children to develop a personal connection with the written word, I’ll take that,” says Burton. “I’ll take it.”
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