To say that PBS programming was a big part of my childhood is an understatement. PBS shows were everything. I grew up on Sesame Street and Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, transitioned to Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and Ghostwriter as I grew up, and even developed a love for Arthur‘s off beat humor in high school. But of all the shows PBS broadcast into my living room over the years, none made an impact on me quite like Reading Rainbow. Big Bird may have helped me learn how to read, but LeVar Burton taught me to love it.
Contributing to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign was an easy decision. Of course there was a heavy nostalgia factor involved; this is probably a big motivator for many people my age. I haven’t watched the show in decades, but the theme song is still stuck in my head (“Butterfly in the skyyyyyy/I can go twice as hiiiiiiigh!”). My favorite part of each episode was always the book narrated by a celebrity, and I have particularly strong memories of Buddy Ebsen reading Paul Bunyan and Lorne Greene’s rendition of Ox-Cart Man. The famous voices may have been lost on me, but the stories they read went on to become some of my favorites.
Childhood memories aside, I want to bring Reading Rainbow back in a big way for another important reason. Rainbow was created to foster a love of reading. Its magic certainly worked on me– I have a rapidly filling bookshelf and a few years worth of reading lists to prove it. I have no doubt that LeVar and his team can do the same for a new generation of children, even though they are meeting them online instead of on the television.
While there’s been some criticism that this won’t do much to improve literacy rates in the US, I would beg to differ. This may not be a perfect analogy, but math was always my least favorite school subject. My teachers’ constant refrains of “You’ll need to use this in real life!” did nothing to spark my interest. Of course I understood the practical applications of math as a kid– balancing a checkbook, measuring in cooking, making a budget– but they were all very grown up and boring.
Where I came alive in the classroom was during reading. It wasn’t phonics worksheets or spelling tests that inspired me to learn this necessary skill– it was the books I saw every day in the classroom, at home, in the library, and on Reading Rainbow. As much as I loved the illustrations, I wanted to know what the words said too. Learning to read became important to me because I recognized that the adults in my life weren’t always available to read to me, and if I couldn’t read to myself then I was missing half the story. The practical applications of literacy would become apparent to me as I grew older, but at the start I just wanted to escape into a fun story. This is what inspired me to practice and do my homework, not the knowledge that I’d one day need to understand legal contracts or read street signs.
To me, Reading Rainbow is an important tool in promoting literacy. Will it decrease illiteracy rates in the US by itself? No, but putting it in the hands of kids who are struggling to read will encourage them to keep practicing. Providing the app to children who would rather play on a tablet will show them that reading is more fun and rewarding than Angry Birds. Bringing Reading Rainbow in classrooms will inspire a new generation of students to pick up a book, where they can “go anywhere” and “be anything.” But you don’t have to take my word for it.