When my kids were little, they wanted to grow up to be LeVar Burton.
Actually, that’s not quite right. They didn’t want to BE LeVar Burton—they just wanted his job.
They weren’t alone, though. I wanted his job, too.
We all thought there couldn’t be any more fun or more interesting job in the world than to be the host of Reading Rainbow.
So it was a shock this morning when I woke to NPR telling me that today was the last broadcast of Reading Rainbow on PBS. The reporter said, “Even if you can’t remember a specific episode . . . ”
Even if you can’t remember a specific episode?
I can’t count the specific episodes I remember. I mentioned the puppy episode (Book: Best Friends; related segment: Guide Dog puppy raiser), the cat episode (Book: can’t remember; related segments: tigers at the then-MarineWorld/AfricaUSA and actor getting made up for Cats role), the one where Juila Child read the story about the mixed up real and artificial cakes, and the comedy show (Book: Ludlow Laughs, read by Phyllis Diller; related segments on slapstick) in the lament I sent this morning to my daughters (now in their 20s).
My older daughter wrote back:
And the hat one, with Zelda Rubenstein reading the book? And the here-are-all-sorts-of-different-jobs one, with the pizza guy and the dog walker and the professional LEGO builder? And the fashion one? AND THE STAR TREK ONE?!?!?!?! AND WOULD WE EVEN HAVE GONE TO **ANY** RENAISSANCE FAIRS WITHOUT THE RENAISSANCE FAIR ONE?!?!?!??!?!?!
Which, of course, made me think of more: Dinosaur Bob and Dinosaur National Monument; The Ox-Cart Man, read by Lorne Greene, with LeVar visiting Old Sturbridge Village (and because of which Kate and I went to Old Sturbridge Village when we went back east to visit potential colleges for her); the devastatingly affecting Vietnam Memorial episode with Maya Lin; Humphrey the Wayward Whale, which was fun because it used news footage from one of our local TV stations; Abiyoyo, with Pete Seeger; the one with the woman who decorated those amazing Ukrainian eggs; . . . I won’t go on, even though I could easily list a dozen more.
And why are we losing Reading Rainbow after 26 years? (Among PBS children’s shows, only Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers have had longer runs.) We’re losing it because nobody will fund it, because the powers-that-be have decided that “phonics and reading fundamentals”–the how of reading–are now more important than the why of reading, the joy of reading.
Reading Rainbow was never about telling kids that reading was good for them. It was all about showing them the doors that reading opens, the worlds we can reach and explore, the way one adventure leads to another, and more beyond.
No matter how much phonics and decoding skills are dressed up to make them appealing and entertaining, they’re still mechanical skills that kids are told are good for them. Reading’s important, and these are the skills needed to become a successful, serious person—in other words, learning to read’s a chore, and we have to try to make it fun, because otherwise it’d be too boring to bear.
Reading Rainbow always took the approach Frank Smith recommends in Joining the Literacy Club. Learning, Smith says,
is primarily a social rather than an individual accomplishment. We learn from other people, not so much though conscious emulation as by “joining the club” of people we see ourselves as being like, and by being helped to engage in their activities. Usually we are not even aware that we are learning.
Literacy is more than the shunting of information between one person and another. It is the exploration of worlds of ideas and experience.
The NPR story says that Reading Rainbow operated on the idea that its kid viewers already had reading skills, but I’m not so sure about that. My kids were entranced by the show long before they learned to read, but they loved the storybooks on the show and they loved the related segments. We made countless library and book store trips in search of books we learned about from Reading Rainbow and looked into local versions of sites and activities we saw on the show.
Reading Rainbow never helped my kids learn to read, in this dreary modern phonics-and-reading-fundamentals sense. But it helped them in a more truly fundamental way–it helped them WANT to read, and without that, all the decoding skills in the world won’t create a reading child.