Reading Rainbow

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last posted June 9, 2014, 12:18 a.m.
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Being an 80s kid, I love Reading Rainbow. But I found myself unexpectedly dismayed by yesterday's Kickstarter.

What is it we loved about Reading Rainbow?

And, setting aside why we enjoyed it, what kind of cultural value did it have?

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It is very hard to tell exactly what kind of product the Kickstarter fundraiser is intended to produce (more on this later). But it seems like a web version of the interactive CD-ROM games we got in the 90s. I haven't tried their existing iPad product, so maybe those who have would have a better idea what kind of UX direction they are headed in.


At first glance it seems easy to get cynical about what Reading Rainbow seems to have morphed into (above).

But I don't think this is the source of my dissatisfaction. The irony of "an interactive website about reading books" is probably no greater than the irony of "a TV show about reading books".


Why do people my age ("Liminals") have such an attachment for Reading Rainbow?

Did it really make us love literacy? Or did we perhaps enjoy it because we already loved literacy? Or some other reason?


Personally: I already enjoyed reading by the time I was old enough to watch Reading Rainbow as a kid. But I really can't say the show made me love reading more. I can't even say I enjoyed the show because I loved reading.


Reasons we probably have an attachment to Reading Rainbow:

  1. It reminded us of what it was like when our parents read books to us (or provided that experience for those whose parents never did that, maybe)
  2. In contrast with most kids' programming at the time and since, Levar addressed us as children with respect, clarity and enthusiasm
  3. It was an imaginative message delivered on a passive medium (television) -- distinctly a leisure activity

Both Reading Rainbow and the being-read-to-as-a-child experience -- the passive enjoyment of picture books -- are not pleasures of literacy. These are precursor-pleasures (or companion pleasures) of literacy.

When thinking about this Kickstarter, it's important not to confuse the two.


I do think all the layers of the Reading Rainbow television show (content, pacing, Levar's personality) somehow just worked, made us receptive to the pleasures of literacy.

Now, was the TV show also therefore a good product for the classroom? Welllllllll...noidon'tthinkso.

(Did anyone encounter or use it in school?)


All of the above explains my first concern with the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter.

It is presented as an exercise in philanthropy by promoting literacy in school classrooms, but Reading Rainbow is not and has never been a direct promoter of literacy itself.

And Reading Rainbow's format -- whether television episodes or online videos -- is and has always been more suited to leisure than to structured learning.


(I could be wrong about that second part, but I would need a counter-example of it in practice that I can't currently conceive of.

I am of course open to the notion that we often learn just as much during our leisure as in structured learning environments. I'm not saying we don't learn from passive & imaginative leisure activities, I'm just saying those activities are not useful in classroom environments, assuming we admit the need for classroom environments in the first place -- not all do!)


My other difficulty is with the Kickstarter campaign itself -- the way they are running it.


A successful Kickstarter campaign will usually explain in detail:

  • "Here is exactly what we plan to build"
  • "Here is what we have done so far"
  • "Here are the experts and vendors we've brought on board"
  • "Here's why we need your help"
  • "Here is how we will use the money"

Declining to include any of the above, Reading Rainbow's campaign instead has this message:


Obviously, LeVar and RR's brand recognition is so big, they don't need to include any information whatsoever in order to attract donors. (It's day 2 and they've already exceeded their $1m goal.)

But leaving out this information seems contrary to the respect and clarity I associated with the show, and seems to presume shamelessly on our emotional attachment as being enough to get us to hand over cash.

(Seriously, just watch the campaign video, especially the first few minutes)


It's also worth noting that Reading Rainbow is a product of RRKIDZ, Inc., a for-profit corporation.

This makes it especially annoying that the campaign is so opaque about the product they intend to build and how the money will be spent.

What kind of salaries are being funded with this campaign? Will RRKIDZ's profit margin be 10%? 50%?

Never mind that there is no insight into whether or not this new website will be useful or effective, or what it is intended to accomplish in classrooms.