Toggle open
Learning Library Blog LeVar Burton's storytelling tells quite a tale
Expand breadcrumbs

LeVar Burton's storytelling tells quite a tale

By Julie Phillips Randles
December 28, 2018
Img id 173 Version Id6 C72 F6 T85h P1 Wy Du E Bk B 9 X Xbb Vaif Ov

LeVar Burton is an actor, director, producer and author perhaps best known in education circles as the host of the beloved PBS children's series " "Reading Rainbow," " and co-founder/curator-in-chief of the award-winning Reading Rainbow app. 

His acting career began in 1977 when the then-University of Southern California student was cast in the groundbreaking role of Kunta Kinte in the landmark television series " "Roots," " based on the novel by Alex Haley. As a result of his performance, Burton found himself on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 19.

In 1986, Burton achieved further acclaim for his role as Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge in the " "Star Trek: The Next Generation" " television series. Burton has also had roles in dozens of popular television programs, TV movies and films.

But Burton says he's most proud of his role as " "Reading Rainbow's" " host and executive producer. The television series ran from 1983-2009, making it one of the longest running children's television shows in history. Throughout its run, the series garnered more than 200 awards, including multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award.

That's why, committed to improving children's education through innovative uses of storytelling, he co-founded and launched the innovative digital educational publishing company RRKidz with business partner Mark Wolfe in 2012. Together, they hold the global rights to the Reading Rainbow brand through a partnership with series creator wned/Buffalo.

Burton has used that platform to re-imagine Reading Rainbow, which now combines today's forms of media and technology to inspire a new generation of children to read. The all-new Reading Rainbow experience is a digital reading service filled with more than 500 children's fiction and nonfiction books and newly produced video field trips. New content is added every week.

Burton's instincts are proving accurate; Reading Rainbow is the No. 1 educational app on iTunes, where students have enjoyed more than 16 million books and videos since its launch.

This summer, Burton turned to Kickstarter to bring the new Reading Rainbow concept to " "every child, everywhere," " as he puts it and especially to classrooms in need. The campaign met its 35-day goal of $1 million in less than 11 hours and has become the most popular Kickstarter campaign ever, boasting approximately 105,000 backers and raising more than $6.4 million. As a result, RRKidz will soon be launching a new Reading Rainbow edu version, complete with engaging supplemental learning content for teachers and students.

Burton, who has won 12 Emmys, a Grammy and five NAACP awards, is often invited to speak at education and technology events. He's provided presentations for ISTE, NASA and the National Head Start Association.  

If you could have a different career, what would it be?

I studied for the Catholic priesthood for four years, so it would have been as a priest. It was in the seminary that I decided to become an actor instead. The decision to step away from the priesthood was a matter of my universe having been expanded through a specific teacher and through literature, and I was eager to explore the world through a lens different than the lens of a cleric. 

Growing up, who were your heroes? 

First among my heroes is my mom, Erma Gene Christian. I am the man I am today because she is the woman that she is. Sidney Poitier always was, and continues to be, a huge hero of mine.

How were you inspired to become a reader?

The reading, that's all Erma Gene. My mom is and always has been a voracious reader, so I was exposed to a lot of literature early on. I received a critical example from my mother because I always saw her reading.

When people ask me how to get their kids to read, I ask them, " "Do you know what your child's passions are?" "  It's through their passions that these choices are made. Buy them books on the topics they are passionate about; it's the perfect entry point.

The second question I ask is, " "How often do your children see you reading?" " It's that primary modeling that helps us develop our own values as individuals.

Were performing arts and fine arts part of your school day?

Performing arts were not part of my school day until I got to high school at St. Pius X seminary in Galt, California, where the arts were a strong part of the academic program. I was also in band in elementary school. I was a drummer back in the day when we had music in classrooms. But it really wasn't until high school and seminary that my love of theatre blossomed.

You recently completed a remarkably successful Kickstarter initiative to fund a restart of Reading Rainbow. Can you tell us about that?  How many contributors did you have over what period of time?

In the course of 36 days, over 105,000 people donated to the campaign. That's the largest number of backers ever for a crowd-funded campaign. The initial impetus was to raise $1 million to increase our footprint with the app product. We know the app is successful and that kids are coming to the app and reading over 200,000 books a week. So they will come to an app to read, and not just to play games.

However, the app is only currently available on two platforms. In order to be really effective, we need to be on more than just two platforms. Kickstarter was about raising a $1 million to increase the accessibility of the product. If you come from a family with no financial wherewithal to be connected, your child is more likely than not to encounter these technologies in the classroom, and teachers know who we are, what we're about and what our mission is and they support it.

So getting it on the web and making it something teachers can use every day is imperative.

We raised that first $1 million on day one. A total of $6.4 million was raised over 35 days. One intention from the start was to identify schools that couldn't afford a yearly subscription. We felt it was important to give a subscription to schools that couldn't bear the cost and the more money we raised, the more classrooms we could give the product to. So today we're looking at a donation of over 10,000 subscriptions when the product comes out.

And it's looking like the app will be ready in spring 2015.

When Reading Rainbow first came on the scene, the major medium was TV. Today there are so many varied devices available. How does that variety of devices impact your plans for Reading Rainbow today?

When you talk about universal access, we now have the resources to nail that down. We now have the resources to put the Reading Rainbow product on every device available where kids consume content. We will be able to be wherever kids are.

I've always believed in meeting kids where they are and then taking them where you want them to go. To reach kids today, you have to be on multiple platforms on the web, on mobile devices, in schools, on Xbox these are all important ways to reach kids. 

As we understand it, the new Reading Rainbow offers both an app and an online library, as well as print, audio and interactive formats. Can you tell us more about these and how they all work together?

The vision is for a seamless interface for the user and whatever device the user is on at the moment. The idea is that the content follows users seamlessly from device to device.

Right now, we're an app, but the Reading Rainbow app is the first of many products that we envision offering kids. We currently begin with entry-level readers, but we have an interest in providing enriching content for preschoolers and middle school students in the future.

You mentioned that you plan to roll out the Reading Rainbow app by spring. How do you plan to get teachers engaged?

My plan is that when we are ready to launch, teachers will not be able to avoid it! We have the strength of the brand itself and we have a brand ambassador. I have the interest, desire and determination to use all of the arrows in my quiver, including relationships with organizations like ISTE.

We launched the app on " "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," " and it was the first app ever launched on television. I mean it when I say I intend to pull out of the stops in the service of launching this product and in addressing our dilemma around education.

Regarding the rollout, we're currently contemplating which partners we will be engaged with and how, and that will, in part, determine our strategy.

The new Reading Rainbow materials are free to certain low-income schools. What are your plans to help learners in challenged environments?

Our relationship with Title I schools will help inform how we continue to support our mission of bringing Reading Rainbow back for every child, everywhere. We don't have all the answers, but I defy you to find anyone more passionate or more committed to solving this problem. This is not a job for me. This is my life's mission. This is what I do. This has become my vocation. This is why I didn't become a priest.

We have been in the process of capturing feedback from all types of teachers for the past year in preparation for our upcoming education product. This summer, we did some initial testing with a Title I school in which our current digital library was part of a summer reading intervention program for incoming first graders. We learned quite a bit regarding what features they need for the classroom and how we can expand the library. We plan to launch a pilot program this fall to provide more feedback that will inform our product development team. Research and user testing is an important part of our process and will ensure that we meet the needs of learners in all types of environments.     

Clearly, Reading Rainbow has had great reach within the United States. Do you believe it can extend into classrooms globally?

We know we have a tremendous opportunity to establish an international footprint when we have additional bandwidth. The app (as it is now) has been downloaded in over 50 countries and has already proven to be valuable for those who want to learn English as a second language.

We know that the digital library could have an enormous impact globally. Our company is just two years old and we still have fewer than 25 employees. We do believe we can be a strong presence in the international marketplace, and we're having conversations with some players right now to answer how we're going to get there.

You've been quoted as saying, " "It's unacceptable that one in four children in the U.S. will grow up illiterate." " What important role do you believe education technology has to play in changing this statistic?

Education technology can play a pivotal role if we take any content we want our kids to learn and put it in the storytelling format. Storytelling is universal and part of every culture in the world.

We have an opportunity to use engaging technology for storytelling, as well as some of the mechanics of game play to make the process of education an activity that kids will self-select. Like I said, we have kids reading 200,000 books a week. We've proven this theory that through technology, we can get kids interested in their education. Reading Rainbow is about educating kids while they don't know they were being educated. It's also about having fun, and all we need is to just do more of that.

What business model do you envision to keep the new Reading Rainbow project growing?

We don't share what our business model looks like; that's part of our secret sauce. But I can say it involves using everything at our disposal to further our mission. Three ingredients that help us succeed in this challenging marketplace are the stellar nature of the brand, an extremely loyal fan base and the ability to have an ambassador who truly cares about curating quality content. 

I will also say we have a phenomenal, dedicated team that wants to make a difference in kids' lives, and that's a prerequisite for being here at RRKidz.