BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Butterfly in the sky, counting money twice as high?
With 91,600 backers, LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow reboot has now become the most popular Kickstarter project ever, surpassing other high profile efforts like the much-discussed Veronica Mars movie. Burton previously launched an updated version of Reading Rainbow as an app for tablets, but his new ambition is to expand the educational program online.
There’s no one reason why the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter has been so successful, but there are several logical conclusions one can infer based on the massive enthusiasm for the project. For one thing, Reading Rainbow feels essential in a world where reading seems to be less and less of a priority. With the constant onslaught of digital media, the love of physical books is more precious than ever. Reading Rainbow reminds those who grew up with it of a time before the Internet—when the very act of reading was no less important, but seemed all the more prevalent.
American literacy remains in a state of stagnancy. According to last year’s findings from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, there are as many illiterate adults in America now as there were ten years ago. So one the one hand, things aren’t getting any worse, but on the other, they aren’t getting any better either.
While it’s foolhardy to assume that the illiteracy rate in America has a direct relationship to any one program like Reading Rainbow (though it should be noted that the lack of improvement in literacy over the last ten years coincides with the increased inescapability of the Internet), the fact that improving the rate of literacy doesn’t seem to be a priority for this country is extremely troubling.
DoSomething.org also features a disturbing list of statistics about literacy in the U.S. According to the numbers, two-thirds of “students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare,” while “over 70 percent of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.” Even worse, statistics show that “53 percent of 4th graders admitted to reading recreationally ‘almost every day,’ while only 20 percent of 8th graders could say the same.”
These numbers demonstrate the whole thesis behind programs like Reading Rainbow, showing why teaching literacy from a young age is undeniably necessary. But how does one teach children not only how to read, but to keep reading? If the amount of kids who like to read can drop by 33 percentage points in four grades, clearly there’s a problem with making these skills stick.
Part of the battle is about getting parents involved. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should be reading to their kids every day. Teaching reading in schools is one thing, but for kids to enjoy reading beyond their younger years, fostering appreciation for reading at home is oftentimes what has a lasting impact. Reading Rainbow never did the job for parents entirely, but one of its strengths was showing that reading had a place outside of school––in the home. With parents’ help, it made reading less of a chore and more of a pastime.
And to state the obvious, more literate children equals more literate adults. Megan Rogers of Inside Higher Ed reports, “The Survey of Adult Skills by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that despite having higher than average levels of educational attainment, adults in the United States have below-average basic literacy and numeracy skills.” Again, it’s impossible to shoulder all of this responsibility on the likes of Reading Rainbow, but the fervor its Kickstarter has elicited shows that there are adults out there who care about building a more literature future. The problem is that they appear to be in the minority.
At the risk of sounding alarmist, it’s hard not to believe that the rise of the digital world doesn’t at least play some part in Americans’ laissez-faire attitude towards reading. In an essay called “The Lazy Machines Kill Literacy,” Daniel J. Flynn of The American Spectator ranted:
According the Bureau of Labor, Americans spend about fifteen minutes a day reading. They spend about two-and-a-half hours a weekday watching television and nearly an hour playing games or messing about on the computer… Hints of where we head come while traveling. People don’t read much on planes, trains, and buses any longer. They text, game, and generously share with fellow passengers the rap music they listen to. Televisions even play as unwelcome companions in the backseats of taxis. The lazy machines that anesthetize rather than stimulate thought have supplanted books.
Of course the truth is that Flynn’s view of technology’s relationship to literacy is, like everything else on The American Standard, incredibly one-sided, not to mention fairly simplistic. After all, the new Reading Rainbow started as an app. And Scholastic has a whole section on their website about how technology can actually be used to promote literacy.
Education Week did a profile on teachers who have tested this theory, and the website’s Katie Ash describes one such educator. Ash wrote:
Lisa Parisi, a 5th grade teacher in New York’s 4,000-student Herricks Union Free School District, on Long Island, and co-author of the forthcoming book Blogging in the Middle Years, places a major focus on her students’ reading skills.
‘The last two years I really looked at the data to see how the kids were doing using all of this technology, and in both the past two years, I ended the year with no children below grade level in reading,’ she says. ‘I do think that technology has a very large part in that.’
The only question about such methods is whether they do a better job of promoting traditional literacy or technological literacy. Engaging students is an important step in any facet of education, but when children are already exposed to so much technology from a young age, one starts to wonder whether the joy of turning good old fashioned pages will be lost on them.
This is at the heart of what makes people so affectionate toward Reading Rainbow. The show represents a time of Scholastic reading clubs and book fairs. It represents a time that preceded tablets and kindles and constant Internet saturation.
That Reading Rainbow could live on in the minds of those who cherished it demonstrates a certain kind of appreciation for classic book-reading which refuses to be extinguished altogether. The people who feel this way may be in the minority––but they are a strong-willed minority. Think about how antiquated the notion of a PBS show where the host talked to the camera about books, and children payed attention, really is. And yet it has survived in our collective consciousness lo these many years.
If you need further proof that a vocal demographic of booklovers still exists out there, look at the discussion surrounding e-books. Although some obviously enjoy them for traveling or other on-the-go situations, there is a resounding sentiment that print books will always be superior.
Even the debate around YA literature shows that those who have loved reading since a young age continue to have lots of opinions on the subject. It’s almost as if the pro-YA side doesn’t want to let go of their initial tastes and the anti-YA side believes literary evolution is necessary to be a “good” reader. Even if the twain shall never meet, literature’s ability to continue to spark heated debate is nothing but good news for the future of reading.
Some of the support the new Reading Rainbow is getting surely has to do with the kind of pervasive nostalgia (especially for the ‘90s) that the Internet loves. But that nostalgia is proving to be a beautiful thing in this case. The nostalgia for Reading Rainbow isn’t just about remembering the old children’s programming of PBS, or the affability of LeVar Burton, or the general look and feel of the show. It’s partially about those things, but it’s more about remembering back when reading first felt like an adventure.
That Burton is using the Internet to bring back Reading Rainbow can’t be ignored. It’s probably true that we all want to remember the show as part of a world without the Internet, when things seemed so much simpler (even though they likely weren’t). But Internet or not, the world is better with Reading Rainbow in it––just as the world is better with reading itself in it.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.