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February 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 5

Turn & Talk / LeVar Burton on Literacy as the Key to Freedom

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LeVar Burton on Literacy as the Key to Freedom

Arguably one of the most well-known advocates of children's literacy in the world, actor and producer LeVar Burton believes that learning how to read is the key to freedom and knowledge. His famed television show Reading Rainbow encouraged kids to "take a look, it's in a book," and his literacy initiatives such as Skybrary School are bringing more and more books to children each day. Here, Burton shares with EL some of his thoughts about diverse books, the best platforms to reach kids about reading, and what he hopes to get across to educators in his keynote address during ASCD's Empower 2020 conference in Los Angeles in March 2020.
What is the first book you can remember reading that felt magical?
Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous. I was completely immersed in the story to the point that upon its completion, I got as depressed as a 3rd grader can possibly be.
Why is encouraging a lifelong love of reading in children such an important mission for you?
In my worldview, literacy is freedom! If you can read in at least one language, you have the facility to educate yourself on any subject. On Reading Rainbow I always said, "But, you don't have to take my word for it!" Meaning: don't depend on me, go pick up a book yourself.
What's the most inspiring evidence you've seen that your digital library learning platform, Skybrary School, is making a difference for students in terms of improving reading and learning?
Since its launch, literally millions of books have been downloaded and read in the Skybrary app. Recently, we have been able to put the entire digital library in the hands of Reading Is Fundamental, the nonprofit in Washington, D.C., as part of their digital strategy to continue to put millions of books in the hands of children every year.
From television to podcasts to digital reading, you've been involved in bringing books to and developing a love of reading within people using very different platforms. Which one has been the most effective?
Well, I say all of the time that television is the most powerful tool in the history of humankind for storytelling. That's because of its ubiquitous nature and there is no barrier to entry for most people. Unlike books, you don't necessarily need to know how to read in order to enjoy TV.
Using technology to promote and encourage reading makes so much sense to me, especially where children are concerned. The engagement factor of electronic media is undeniably powerful.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to improving literacy and lifelong reading skills for all kids?
Our penchant as a nation for buying bombs over books. We are failing miserably at educating our children the way we should.
On Reading Rainbow, one of your goals was to ensure that kids were exposed to books that reflected themselves and their world. Has access to diverse books in schools improved for kids in the last few decades?
There has been some improvement, however not enough in the world of children's publishing. Hell, there aren't enough books, period, in many schools in this country, let alone diverse enough books that all children can see themselves in the literature they read in school.
You are going to be one of our keynote speakers at Empower 2020. What's the one message you want educators to take away from your talk?
I suppose if they leave with a sense of optimism around the importance of what they do, of just how vital they are to a civilized world, I'll be pleased. Especially in a time when we need to equip our children with the kind of discernment that will enable them to distinguish for themselves truth from fiction, in the media they consume as well as in the books they read.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

Tara Laskowski is senior editor for Educational Leadership.

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