LeVar Burton Talks About the Beautiful Origins of 'Reading Rainbow' in His Reddit AMA
In response to the incredible success of his Kickstarter campaign, LeVar Burton did a Reddit AMA today. It’s not the usual celebrity AMA that we’re used to, with short, winningly sarcastic or playful responses. (With a few exceptions: Burton defended a story about Patrick Stewart farting on the set of TNG, saying “To my knowledge, Knights of the Realm do not fart.” Also, Troy and LeVar have been captured by pirates, but the pirates are fans of both TNG and Reading Rainbow, so it’s all working out okay.)
Instead, the thread is full of stories of how Burton’s work changed people’s lives, and Burton responding to them with lengthy, gracious appreciation. He also tells how Reading Rainbow came about, and how groundbreaking it was at the time.
I know we talked about this a little bit before, it seemed to be the right idea at the right time. The original mission for Reading Rainbow was to address the summer phenomenon - when a child is leaning how to read, and cracking the code, they take that 3 months summer break and their reading and comprehension skills start to suffer. So the ideal was, well let’s go to, again, the “point of purchase” - where are kids in America hanging out? The answer was simple - they’re hanging out in front of the TV. It was a revolutionary idea at that time, but in hindsight it seems brilliantly obvious - take advantage of the technology. And it felt pretty radical - because there was this conversation in educational circles that television was the ENEMY of education - but it was the ROOTS experience. I watched this nation become transformed during 8 nights of television, there was a SHIFT that happened. We all got an education that January and February of 1978, about slavery and the cost of slavery. Not the monetary cost, the human cost.
We aired the first episode of Reading Rainbow May 30, 1983. There were crickets, initially, you know? However, we hung in there. And it took about 3 or 4 years before we sort of picked up some steam, because it was teachers who discovered us first, again, people who are at this “point of purchase” - in the classrooms, on the ground, working with kids, helping them further their mission in the classrooms. Reading Rainbow was never about teaching kids to read, it was about fostering a LOVE for the written word. And then slowly but surely, we began to get some traction in homes, and then the research we were doing began to show that among kids who were watching the program during the summer, their reading & comprehension skills were not just being maintained, they were improving, so we knew we were onto something. Again, it’s not rocket science, right ? Although there was a rocket in the introduction. Touche. But we had to look at the population we wanted to reach, and how we could access them, and it was the technology that gave us access, and we came to that audience with a message we believed in. We believed that educating kids could seem like it was effortless, that they would actually gravitate towards it, because we made it fun and exciting.
As an added bonus to wash the Glenn Beck from your brain, Burton also told an adorable story of when he first learned to read.
I was an early reader, I think I cracked the code around 5, 4 or 5. I remember sitting with my aunt, and I was reading aloud, and my mom was in the kitchen cooking, and I got stuck on a word, and I didn’t want to be wrong. And so I wouldn’t say the word. But I thought I knew the word. But I didn’t want to be wrong, so I wouldn’t say the word. The word was “pretty,” I will never forget it. And when my aunt finally gave up, and said “it’s Pretty” I KNEW that, I knew that, and that’s when I knew I could read. I never told that story before.
The memory is really vivid. I can see the chair, the sense of my mom being just out of eyesight around the corner at the stove, the struggling even though I thought I knew what the word was, and as it turned out, I did.