Denver Comic Con 2014 – Reading Rainbow: LeVar Burton

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LeVar Burton at Denver Comic Con 2014 2

Panel Name: Reading Rainbow – LeVar Burton

Topic: Reading Rainbow Kickstarter, Q&A

Featured Guests: LeVar Burton

Imagine the thunderous roar of a room full of twenty-somethings as the panel opens with, “Butterfly in the sky…” The crowd chimes in, “I can fly twice as higgggh!” LeVar Burton, whether or not he wants to take credit for it, has helped raise a generation of readers. The revolutionary show Reading Rainbow lasted over twenty years and 150 episodes; each episode was comprised of a guest reader, who would read pages from a children’s book, and field trips, where LeVar would take kids to explore various careers or investigate the moving parts that make everyday activities so interesting. To this day, I’ll always remember the bowling alley episode, where Burton’s explanation of an entire mechanical part of the back room blew my little mind. For most of the 90’s, RR was like my Sesame Street, my Dora the Explorer. I could go on for hours about how great Reading Rainbow is, but I think the rest of the world already knows.

 

Late May 2014, LeVar Burton headed a Kickstarter campaign to make the Reading Rainbow app more accessible to children. The initial goal of $1 Million was intended to bring Reading Rainbow back to schools. Yes, back – we all remember when the teacher would roll in the TV/VCR cart into the classroom, and nurse a hangover while LeVar Burton took the class on a fantastical journey. What a lot of people didn’t know, us included, is that the Reading Rainbow app for tablets had been around for two years. The app works off a subscription basis and instantly gives kids access to hundreds of licensed books, accompanied by virtual field trips and other neat additions to the story to give kids the complete revamped Reading Rainbow experience. With the Kickstarte-funded project, a new app – specifically designed for classrooms – would be able to fund year-long subscriptions for over 1,500 classrooms. The thought of bringing a premium service to mostly under-privileged schools, whose students’ parents may not have the technology at home, made this an easy sell.

Even with over a month-long period to reach the goal, Burton was a little worried it would not get funded. When the Kickstarter went live on May 28th, it reached it’s goal a mere 11 hours into the campaign. LeVar said that he cried when he got the news. He was so endeared that a generation that grew up watching his show is now helping fund the show for the next generation of readers. Now with 15 days left of the campaign, Reading Rainbow’s goal of $5 million is certainly a reachable one, but it will be close. With this new goal, which they are approximately 75% of the way to fulfilling, will give children universal access. That means the app will be available on mobile phones, gaming consoles, OTT boxes – you name it. It also means putting it in the hands of public libraries, who have been seeing book collections shrink and digital media catalogs increase. While Burton did not eliminate the possibility of bringing back the TV show, he was focused on the direction that the app (existing and new) was headed. “To reach today’s children, you need today’s technology.” It’s hard logic to argue with – and the fact that he will be trying to bring it back to the schools and libraries backs up the plan for streamlined service. A good point that somebody in the audience led Burton to was that while the app is ideal for 3-9 year old readers, it works wonders for ESL students.

LeVar Burton at Denver Comic Con 2014 1

 

The panel wasn’t all Kickstarter, though. A lot of questions were aimed at LeVar personally. LeVar shared that he is always reading, and that his summer reading is his “escape” reading, so he always science fiction in the summer. Right now, he’s reading Octavia Butler’s The Goldfinch. He also revealed that his family loves to read books aloud to each other, and stated that the best way to get your children to read is to read in front of them. Burton even gave us an insight of what he used to read his daughter: Goodnight, Moon and  Harry Potter. The two books he recommends most are: Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman for girls and Enemy Pie by Derek Munson for boys. The panel wasn’t even all about reading, as Burton told the audience that he wasn’t even there. He was still with Troy on Community, fighting off pirates on the Gambino. Burton called Donald Glover “one of the most talented people on Earth,” which was just kind of a twist of the knife already in place that Community has been cancelled and Donald Glover left the show before it was over. Glover’s moments on the show with LeVar Burton were some of my most cherished.

Most of those attending the panel had already contributed to the Kickstarter, or were familiar with the what the campaign was trying to accomplish. This panel was all about The House that Love Reading Built. I was astonished at how many teachers and writers and volunteers were directly affected by having this show in their life. Question after question was full of love and a few of those throwing up questions were brought to tears just by getting up to the mic. One of the most sentimental to me was a young lady who had been home-schooled growing up in a poor learning environment. When she got to public school in 8th grade, she had a 2nd grade math level, but a college level reading level – thanks to Reading Rainbow instilling a love for reading. She graduated high school on time and now has a career in writing. That’s just one example of many touching anecdotes we heard at the panel… But you don’t have to take my word for it! We have the full panel on YouTube below.

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