Reading & Literacy Q&A

What Happened With LeVar Burton’s ‘Reading Rainbow’ Kickstarter?

By Ross Brenneman — January 28, 2016 7 min read
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One of the biggest Kickstarter projects in history is trying to make good on its promises.

In May 2014, actor LeVar Burton, executive producer and host of the former hit children’s show “Reading Rainbow,” initiated one of the most ambitious crowd-funding projects in modern history, intended to bring “Reading Rainbow” into the digital age. Burton sought to raise $1 million in the course of a month; investors responded with $6.4 million.

Last May, Burton launched the first big project to emerge from those Kickstarter funds: Skybrary, a subscription-based online library of interactive children’s literature. On Thursday, Burton will use the National Title I Association conference to officially launch the Skybrary school edition, designed for classroom use. (The edition has already been in limited release in schools through use of Kickstarter funding.)

Skybrary brings to the Web what Burton and his company, RRKIDZ, had already designed around mobile devices and tablets, since many more students have Internet access than tablet and smartphone access.

It’s clear from his campaign that Burton is investing heavily in the promise of technology as a means to get children to read and as a route to educational equity. In an interview with Education Week Teacher, Burton expanded on the impact of Kickstarter, the role of teachers in Skybrary’s design, and diversity in children’s literature. Here’s the transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Education Week Teacher: What are you highlighting at the Title I conference?

LeVar Burton: I’m planning on talking about storytelling in the digital age, and the power of storytelling especially when combined with technology. I have, throughout my career, done my best to use the mediums for entertainment—television, film, storytelling in the entertainment realm—to do more than simply entertain. And I think we have a real opportunity in this new digital era to revolutionize the way we teach our children—mostly because of the intrinsic nature of storytelling. It’s an elemental part of the human experience.

Is your message getting heard?

One of the points I would love for people to take away is that we can actually revolutionize the way we educate our children by using storytelling on these digital devices. If we embed whatever content it is we want our children to learn embedded in storytelling, in the native storytelling idioms of the culture that that child is from, add in some rewards and gaming mechanics and we can teach our children anything. We have a significant problem in the United States right now in terms of the quality of education we are giving our children, or the lack of a quality education that most of them are receiving.

You launched your Kickstarter in May 2014, and raised several million dollars. How has progress toward fulfilling the promises of that Kickstarter gone?

We are officially launching Reading Rainbow Skybrary School at the Title I conference in Houston. We are giving every registered teacher a one-year subscription to the service. We’ve already completed 20 percent of our promise to give the product away to 10,000 classrooms. This is our first post-Kickstarter product, the school version of our digital library service. I think we’re doing pretty well. We’re on track.

What feedback have you heard from the 20 percent of teachers who have received Skybrary School?

Our product was built in partnership with teachers, so when we give a subscription away, we know what the response is going to be. Teachers love Skybrary School; it’s a pretty robust tool. Over 800 books, over 200 video field trips, lesson plans, an easy-to-use teacher dashboard, it’s pretty sweet.

And teachers had a hand in designing this?

They gave us feedback all through the building phase and certainly in the testing phase. We wanted to make sure we were giving them something of value. Putting a tool in their hands that is something they would want to use, right?

How were those teachers chosen?

There was a sign-up process where you could reach out to us and say “I want to play!” I mean, teachers are pretty familiar with the Reading Rainbow brand. They were pretty excited, and the consumer product, the iPad app, was already being used by teachers. And that’s what really propelled us to make this product for teachers, for use in the classroom, because they were using our consumer product, but it wasn’t robust enough! You could only have five profiles. On the Skybrary school version you can roster 35 kids. They were putting four or five kids on the profiles, rigging the system, because they love the content.

Talk about responding to the market—we were like, holy mackerel. If this many teachers are writing to us and saying ‘I love this product, and I’m using it in my classroom,’ and they’re willing to, in essence, cheat in order to use it, let’s put in their hands something that’s designed for them.

On the literature itself: Last year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center put out a report showing that only a very small percentage of modern children’s literature features protagonists of color.

[Disheartened] Yeah.

Did you hear about the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign? A New Jersey girl is doing a book drive to collect 1,000 books featuring black girls as the main character, to donate to a school in Jamaica.

How awesome is that.

It seems like there’s been increased awareness in publishing that there’s a real shortage of people of color in children’s literature. And I’m wondering what you make of that.

This is not new. It has been this way since the beginning of children’s book publishing. I know that when we were a television show we went out of our way, we searched far and wide, to find books that reflected the world that we actually live in. And it was—you know, it wasn’t easy. It’s getting easier. But is there parity? By no stretch of the imagination.

We need to continue to speak up, speak out. The gatekeepers in the publishing industry, the makeup of those gatekeepers, is beginning to change, and that’s a good thing.

The same has been true of the entertainment industry. And I’m sure you’ve heard some of the more recent stories, and the issue in that field.

The good news is that we have created a culture in this country that really helps form the belief systems of people all over the world. Specifically, and most especially, movies, television, and music. But you can’t leave books out of that mix. The bad news is that traditionally the point of view being expressed is incredibly narrow, and as the young girl in New Jersey pointed out, it’s often the white male point of view that’s being reflected. That’s not an accurate reflection of the way the world is.

What we do need are people like Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We have a black woman who instituted sweeping changes last week in the academy’s membership practices and voting procedures. It’s what it’s going to take. We’re going to have to change the makeup of the gatekeepers, and that’s when real, lasting, significant change will be possible.

How do you want to see the Reading Rainbow program continue to evolve?

Well, we began on television, now we’re in the digital realm. I’d like to believe we have the kind of brand and strategy for creating products and entertainment that makes sense for children and their families, and that whatever devices and distribution mediums we have in the future, Reading Rainbow will be able to be there.

Unless of course we are successful at creating a society where every child is literate, and has equal access to all of the tools and opportunities and guidance necessary to ensure they can reach their full potential. In that event, there will be no need for Reading Rainbow and I can retire.

Does anyone ever ask you what you’re reading? What are you into right now?

I love science fiction literature. Science fiction is my go-to literature for relaxation. I love reading these compendiums, the Year’s Best Science Fiction, a yearly anthology that is edited and compiled by Gardner Dozois. They’re great short fiction stories, and I can read one in a night or over the span of two nights and it takes me right to the edge of REM sleep.

And I love short fiction because it is not easy. To tell a great story in 30-40 pages, it’s a real talent. I have always enjoyed short stories.

Asimov’s great, but it takes a while to get through.

Yeah, exactly. I mean I love The Master, and Octavia Butler is my goddess, but it’s a commitment.

More on reading and/or rainbows:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.