Article by Jennifer Moody, Albany Democrat-Herald, September 16, 2016
Bringing reading to the next generation
Principal Rich Sipe wasn’t sure what to make of the email at first. Someone was telling him “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton was available for an assembly at his school.
“My first reaction was, yeah, how many cases of cookie dough do we need to sell?” said Sipe, principal of Liberty Elementary School in Albany.
But the email, from officials at Kickstarter, was legitimate, and so was the assembly.
And it wasn’t just a what-if, Sipe learned: An anonymous Kickstarter donor had purchased several “Reading Rainbow” assemblies with Burton — famous for “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in addition to the children’s television show — as the guest star. One of those assemblies had been donated to Liberty.
“I have no understanding of how we were so lucky,” Sipe said.
On Friday, Sipe’s students became part of Burton’s next generation of “Reading Rainbow” fans. Hosted by Burton, now 59, the show ran for 23 years plus three years of reruns before going off the air in 2009.
In 2012, Burton’s Reading Rainbow app was released for iPad. Two years later, Burton launched a $1 million Kickstarter campaign to make the app available online, in the classroom and on streaming devices. The effort met its goal within hours and eventually garnered more than $5 million.
“Television was the technology that we used back in the ’80s, because it gave us access to where America’s kids were,” Burton said before speaking to Liberty students. “If you want to reach kids today, you need to be in the digital realm on the devices they want to be on. So it was a real challenge to see if we could recreate the brand and keep it relevant for an entirely new generation of digital natives.”
On Friday, however, it was the personal touch that won over the Liberty students. Burton brought an hourlong show to the elementary school, reading aloud two storybooks — including one he wrote with Susan Schaefer Bernardo, “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm” — and showing two video field trips he had recorded for “Reading Rainbow.”
Drawing on his time with “Star Trek” as the character of chief engineer Geordi La Forge, Burton said it had been fun to pretend to be traveling in space. But when you have to do it for real, he said, one question often comes up: How do astronauts use a bathroom?
The answers, provided by the video, include diapers and special suction toilets. In short, “Astronauts really get to go where no one has gone before,” Burton quipped.
The information was a highlight of the assembly for fifth-grader Kylie Carapinha. “I never even knew about the diapers and all,” she said. “It was kind of educational, also.”
Her favorite part, however, was the books Burton shared. “He has, like, the voices of every character, and I thought that was really, really cool.”
At 11, Kylie isn’t old enough to remember anything but “Reading Rainbow” reruns, but she’s been pleased with the reaction she gets when she tells adults about the assembly.
“It was kind of cool, ’cause, like, all the parents are so jealous, and we’re like, oh, we get to meet him, and they’re like, oh, I got to watch him on TV,” she said, laughing.
Burton himself said he doesn’t care who does or doesn’t recognize him when he walks into a school.
“There’s a whole new generation of kids that need to develop a relationship with the written word, especially, I believe, in this ultra-technological age, he said. “I’m in this for the mission. This is what I do.”
He added, “I’ve been really lucky. To have three, what I consider to be, jewels in a 40-year-long career that aren’t simply pieces of entertainment in the popular culture … I believe ‘Roots’ and ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Reading Rainbow’ all have a common thread in that they are, they bring a little something more to the table other than simply entertaining, you know?”
To view the video, click here:
Levar Burton Visits Liberty Elementary