Reading Rainbow host and cultural icon LeVar Burton is still America’s champion for literacy as he endeavors to once again meet children where they are. Right at the moment of the debut of the documentary Butterfly in the Sky, Burton was already working with technology and educational company Osmo as the company’s Chief Reading Officer, helping them develop reading programs for tablets.
"This is what I've been doing for years, taking the existing technology and putting it to work," he said in a sitdown with Shadow and Act which took place the Friday of the Tribeca Festival debut of the documentary.
“Osmo is a terrific educational technology company, and they are active all over this planet have been successful everywhere their footprint is, and we are partnering on planting a flag in the learning-to-read space.”
“I feel like I’ve been fairly successful in using both television and…computers to spread a joy of reading,” he continued. “And now I want to see if we can have similar success in the sector called learning-to-read. I’m thrilled and excited to be partnered with Osmo in this endeavor. I’m really excited about this next chapter for me in educational technology and what might come of it.”
Burton modestly called his career as the host of popular children's show Reading Rainbow "fairly successful," but to those of us who have grown up with Burton as our guide through the world of books, Burton had a tremendous impact on our lives and, indeed, our minds.
Butterfly in the Sky, directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, covers the full run of Reading Rainbow, including Burton’s experience in his own words. The documentary covers how deeply the team behind the show considered children’s expectations and pain points when it comes to reading and social skills. Just as importantly, the film focuses on the meaning Burton held for many young Black viewers as one of the few positive Black male role models on television.
Burton said Thomason and Whitcomb were "terrific storytellers."
“I love these guys,” he said. “They love this thing that I not only loved, but I’m so deeply proud of. And to have them take a look at it through their lens and then share the story of Reading Rainbow through their lens, which is going to be reflected in the eyes of all of the adults now [who] grew up on the show who loved Reading Rainbow. To see this documentary, it’s a pretty good, warm, fuzzy feeling [type of] experience. At least it was for me. Watching the movie was very much a warm and fuzzy experience for me.”
Burton might have been larger-than-life for Black children watching the show, but he said that he was figuring out on the fly how to model the type of person he wanted to be for his young viewers.
His personal journey is highlighted in the documentary as well, including his insistence on the audience see him change over time. Whenever Burton changed hairstyles, or wore a hoop earring, the young audience was implicitly being taught that role models can be anyone and can look like anyone.
“When we started Reading Rainbow, I was in my twenties. I grew up in a home without a father. My mom was a single parent. She raised three kids–I’m in the middle of two girls. So I was trying to figure out who I was as a man,” he said. “At the same time, I was trying to model what being an open-hearted man was on television…Doing the show helped make me become a much better man.”
One of the biggest changes in Burton's life was taking on a dual role as Geordi La Forge on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'
At first, Burton and the Reading Rainbow crew thought Burton wouldn’t have time to host Reading Rainbow and act as the Enterprise navigator at the same time. But, because of how deeply Burton cared about his job as an ambassador for literacy, Paramount and the Reading Rainbow team worked out a plan for him to be able to do everything.
Rick Berman’s influence might have been part of what helped Burton continue to host Reading Rainbow while on The Next Generation. As Burton said, Berman himself worked in children’s television and knew the importance of educational programming.
“Rick Berman, the executive producer of Star Trek, knew how important Reading Rainbow was. He had produced children’s television himself before Star Trek. Rick Berman produced a show called The Big Blue Marble.”
Burton said that Berman was responsible for allowing the 'Reading Rainbow' crew to film an episode on the 'Star Trek' set.
They were the first camera crew allowed on the closed set, giving young fans an exclusive look at Burton’s second job–which also happened to be one of the most popular shows on television at the time.
“Berman knew the power of Reading Rainbow and the kind of storytelling we were sharing with kids. And he was very much in favor of it.”
The educational television landscape has changed drastically since 'The Next Generation' was on the air.
Gone are the days of Barney and Friends, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Arthur, and, of course, Reading Rainbow. As someone who grew up with PBS in the ’90s, I lamented how unsatisfying some of the current slate of children’s programming is when it comes to learning social skills and emotional intelligence. Burton said that what has made public television change was lack of financial support, a facet of the stark reality Reading Rainbow had to face throughout its run, particularly in the mid-to-late ’90s.
“Public television isn’t supported in the way it used to be, and so its mission has had to change, or the execution of its mission has had to change. They’ve had to become more commercial to keep the lights on,” he said. “And the content coming–there aren’t shows like Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow being developed these days. I think it’s a shame because there is a hole. I think there’s a hole in the television landscape and the programming that’s made for children that really is about enriching and enhancing the lives of children. That’s got to be the number one on your list of objectives. If the commercial aspect is anywhere above number two, then you’re not doing what it is I’m talking about.”
“I’m not saying that you can’t make a living doing public TV. But the primary motivation has to be to use the medium in the service of helping kids making their lives better [and] enriching their lives. And for me, that’s always been the point and the priority to use this very powerful medium, to do something that it’s absolutely perfectly suited to do. And we could do it every time if we cared that much about our kids,” he continued. “It’s not rocket science, it’s storytelling, you know what I’m saying? Of course, if it were simple, everybody could do it–it’s not that simple, it’s a very complex process. But it’s one that is full of artistic achievement and brilliant ideas that we need to continue to present to our kids to help them reach their full potential. That’s the kind of television I love making. Television that’s more than simply entertaining and really does bring something more to the table.”
Burton hopes the programming he's creating with Osmo will continue his personal mission statement of creating entertainment that brings the spirit of education and intellectual exploration to today's children, who are now looking to tablets and other forms of new technology to learn about the world.
“A decade or so ago, this was unthinkable, actually using technology to teach kids how to read. And I think that we have a shot here to move the needle and reach the literacy gap at a very critical point.” he said. “If we can turn a kid who knows how to read into a reader for life, imagine the impact that we can have in a child’s life. If we teach them how to read by having fun…if we make that process of learning, how to read as enjoyable as we can for them, they can learn while they are not aware that they’re learning.”
“Make learning fun,” he continued. “We know that human beings respond really well to that as a strategy for learning and having a good time while doing it makes the information become a part of [a person] at a very deep level…You can’t have an informed populace unless you have an educated populace.”