LeVar Burton, Mr. Cultural Touchstone. Off-Ramp for December 8, 2012

LeVar Burton's Kickstarter campaign for Reading Rainbow is a runaway best-seller

Reading Rainbow/Kickstarter

Reading Rainbow/Kickstarter screen grab

UPDATE 5/29/2014: Reading Rainbow's Kickstarter campaign to get the long-running show on the web and into classrooms was an immediate success. As I write this, LeVar Burton's request for $1m in funding has been almost doubled.

First, not all families have access to tablets. Our goal is to cultivate a love of reading in all children, not just those that have tablets. To reach kids everywhere, we need to be everywhere: we need to be on the web. 

Second, a resounding number of teachers have told me that they want Reading Rainbow in their classrooms, where they know it can make a difference. We will provide it, along with the tools that teachers need, including teacher guides, leveling, and dashboards. And in disadvantaged classrooms, we'll provide it for free.

-- Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign

I spoke with LeVar Burton in 2012, soon after he and business partner Mark Wolfe launched the Reading Rainbow app, and you can hear the passion in his voice as we talk about using books to connect kids with ideas and the world around them. We also spoke about "Roots," "Star Trek," and his childhood in Germany.

(Full disclosure: Off-Ramp believes reading is, as they used to say, fundamental.)

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"It must have been an incredible burden for you as an actor," I said, "to be the son of Richard Burton." Without batting an eye, LeVar Burton responds, "Well, he is what we referred to as the white sheep of the family, and so we don't talk about him."

But then, LeVar Burton goes immediately into a story about how, growing up without a father, he'd pretend his father was Peter O'Toole, one of those actors who at that time (the 1960s), embodied civilization.

Burton has added a lot to civilization. He played Kunta Kinte in Roots, the epic miniseries. He brought depth and humor to the role of Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But the thing he's most proud of is hosting Reading Rainbow for some 25 years, a show that's become a cultural touchstone for generations. It explored books and connected lit to the real world.

The show went off the air a few years ago, the victim, Burton says, of No Child Left Behind, which favored teaching the fundamentals over engaging them further in literature.

But Burton isn't wallowing in the past. Just as there probably won't be another Roots, a nation-uniting media event, he's embraced the idea that maybe Reading Rainbow can thrive best in the new media atmosphere. To that end, this year, Burton and business partner Mark Wolfe revived Reading Rainbow as an app, where it quickly became the fastest growing educational application.

In our wide ranging conversation, Burton and I talk about early influences, his respect for St Augustine, what he learned from comic books, and much more, including "Magical Negroes."


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