‘Read­ing Rain­bow’ in the dig­i­tal age

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LIVING - By David Fis­cher

MIAMI >> Take a look, it’s in a book — and on a com­puter, tablet and phone: A “Read­ing Rain­bow.”

More than three decades after the pro­gram to en­cour­age read­ing among chil­dren first aired on PBS, the show’s long­time host, Le­Var Bur­ton, is now fo­cus­ing his ef­forts to pro­mote lit­er­acy in the dig­i­tal realm.

“This gets us to more ac­cess,” Bur­ton said. “Reach­ing ev­ery child, ev­ery­where.”

“Read­ing Rain­bow” was pro­duced for tele­vi­sion from 1983 to 2006 and be­came an iPad app in 2012. But Bur­ton cred­its a suc­cess­ful 2014 Kick­starter cam­paign as a key point in the show’s re­vival.

“As a re­sult of the Kick­starter, we were able to bring the en­tire li­brary ser­vice over to the web and de­velop a prod­uct specif­i­cally for teach­ers to use in the class­room,” Bur­ton said.

The 105,857 back­ers who pledged a to­tal of $5.4 mil­lion through the crowd-fund­ing site set a record at the time for the most in­di­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors. Seth MacFar­lane, the TV and movie writer-pro­ducer-ac­tor whose cred­its in­clude “Ted” and “Fam­ily Guy,” added an­other $1 mil­lion.

“It was re­ally a peo­ple’s move­ment,” Bur­ton said. “And that was pretty hum­bling to see in ac­tion how much peo­ple loved ‘Read­ing Rain­bow’ and wanted to see it con­tinue, wanted to see it go on and have a sim­i­lar im­pact for a whole new gen­er­a­tion of kids.”

As an ac­tor who starred on seven sea­sons of “Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion,” fol­lowed by four movies fea­tur­ing the same char­ac­ter, Bur­ton is a reg­u­lar at sci­ence fic­tion con­ven­tions

around the coun­try, but he said many fans — both par­ents and chil­dren — want to talk about “Read­ing Rain­bow” just as much as “Star Trek.” Bur­ton’s next stop will be Me­gaCon Tampa Bay, which runs this Fri­day to Sun­day. He’ll be there Satur­day and Sun­day.

The Read­ing Rain­bow Sky­brary is a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice that in­cludes an in­ter­ac­tive li­brary of 1,000 dig­i­tal books and 250 video field trips. The ser­vice was ini­tially geared to­ward fam­i­lies, but the Kick­starter cam­paign funded the de­vel­op­ment of a pro­gram de­signed

for teach­ers to use in their class­rooms. The paid ser­vice in­cludes 26 weeks’ worth of hand­outs, les­son plans and a teacher dash­board, and the Kick­starter con­tri­bu­tions led to thou­sands of free sub­scrip­tions for needy schools.

Jen­nifer Evans, who teaches fifth grade at Rod Kelley Ele­men­tary School in Gil­roy, Cal­i­for­nia, has been us­ing Sky­brary School since last fall, be­fore its of­fi­cial re­lease ear­lier this year. She said it’s a great tool that al­lows her stu­dents to find books that in­ter­est them at their read­ing level.

“The best thing for me is that I feel like it’s goodqual­ity lit­er­a­ture,” Evans said “There are other pro­grams on the mar­ket right

now where it’s like one per­son wrote 300 books just be­cause they wanted a spe­cific (read­ing) level, and it’s not real au­thors writ­ing real books. Sky­brary is real pub­lished lit­er­a­ture that is now in an elec­tronic for­mat.”

A va­ri­ety of nar­ra­tors, in­clud­ing Bur­ton him­self, read the books to the stu­dents while in­ter­ac­tive icons and graph­ics move across the screen to help stu­dents get more in­ter­ested, Evans said.

De­spite the changes and up­dates to the new on­line ver­sion of “Read­ing Rain­bow,” Bur­ton said the core idea of bring­ing chil­dren and books to­gether re­mains the same.

One of Bur­ton’s first ma­jor

tele­vi­sion roles was in the 1977 mini-series, “Roots,” which was based on the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning novel by Alex Ha­ley. The mini-series and book both tell the story of an African teen who was cap­tured in the 18th cen­tury and sold into slav­ery in the United States. The show and book are widely cred­ited with stim­u­lat­ing in­ter­est in African-Amer­i­can his­tory.

“It was the ‘Roots’ ex­pe­ri­ence that re­ally showed me how pow­er­ful the medium could be to the pur­pose,” Bur­ton said. “And so when the idea for ‘Read­ing Rain­bow’ was pitched to me... the idea to do the coun­ter­in­tu­itive, to use the medium of tele­vi­sion to steer

kids back in the di­rec­tion of lit­er­a­ture, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to me.”

And that for­mat still works for some teach­ers. Bar­bara Phillips, who teaches se­cond grade at Mon­roe Ele­men­tary School in Mon­roe, Ohio, con­tin­ues to show the old “Read­ing Rain­bow” episodes to her stu­dents to sup­ple­ment her les­son plans.

“Even though they’re not the best pro­duc­tion qual­ity, the con­tent is still rel­e­vant to to­day,” Phillips said.

The sim­ple, pre­dictable for­mat of the old episodes keeps chil­dren fo­cused, Phillips said. And she pointed out the show’s iconic theme song is just as catchy as it was 30 years ago.

“There’s noth­ing like that ‘Read­ing Rain­bow’ song,” Phillips said. “Even to­day’s kids, there’s some­thing about that song that draws them in. The kids know that tune when it starts, and when it’s over, they’re hum­ming and singing it.”

The new “Read­ing Rain­bow” is still grow­ing. A Span­ish ver­sion of the pro­gram is be­ing de­vel­oped for next year, and a univer­sal app is set to re­lease next month, bring­ing the Sky­brary from com­put­ers and tablets all the way down to smart­phones. On­line: http://mega­con­tam­pabay.com/


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