Tuesday, September 01, 2009

RIP, Reading Rainbow

Butterfly in the sky...
I can go twice as high!
Take a look!
It's in a book!

If you are of a certain age (or have kids of a certain age), those lines will probably evoke memories of watching Reading Rainbow. The show aired new episodes on PBS from 1983-2006. But now, even the reruns are no more.

According to the NPR article linked above, no one is willing to put up the money to renew the broadcast rights of the books in the episodes. The economy is only partly to blame:

"John Grant, who is in charge of content at ... Reading Rainbow's home station[,] ... says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that's not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.

And no, that was not the point of the show. The point of the show was to revel in the joys of reading, the love of reading, and exploring all the wonderful things than can be found in books. It is the piece that tells kids why they should read. If there is no why, is it any wonder that kids struggle more with how?

This is not to disparage the newer shows that focus on teaching kids how to read. I've sat down and watched Between the Lions a number of times, and even Super WHY! once, and they are entertaining and educationally sound. There's certainly some real magic to Between the Lions, and I've seen it first hand up on a stage with the puppeteers, reading to one of the puppets before a packed auditorium. That one may resonate strongly with today's kids the way Reading Rainbow did with us. But this is the strong, obviously educational piece of the puzzle. Reading Rainbow never felt like work. The two concepts should really go hand in hand.

I have no doubt that Reading Rainbow was a strong influence on me. I always wanted to be one of the kids giving book recommendations to other kids. And look at me now. What am I doing? Giving book recommendations to kids! Somehow I don't think there's a coincidence there.

And yet there is a sense that this ending is inevitable somehow. I have to say that I wasn't aware that the show was still producing new episodes as late as 2006. The last new episode was November of that year, and I began my professional career in May. No one ever came in to ask about the latest Reading Rainbow book.

We still have books from the 1980s that have special markings designating them as Reading Rainbow books. If you ask my colleague, they'll tell you that back then it was a huge deal, and you really had to be up on it. I think I've had exactly one parent of a current young child mention that the kid had a beloved book because he saw it on Reading Rainbow and checked it out of the library.

So, it may indeed be time to say goodbye to this show, as it doesn't seem to resonate with kids that strongly anymore. Or maybe it's just been in a bad time slot, or missing a marketable cartoon character for merchandise. Who knows?

But I think that pulling reruns entirely because instilling the love of reading is not as important as teaching building blocks of reading is poor pedagogy. I would hope that someone has the foresight and energy to create a new show for today's kids that explores these ideas.

In the meantime, we librarians will carry on as the bearers of the flame for the joys of reading. We'll just have to do it with a few less "butterflies in the sky..."

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.

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