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From 'Reading Rainbow' to The Broad museum app, LeVar Burton loves to teach




LeVar Burton and Chelsea Beck, The Broad’s associate curator for special projects and producer of the audio tours, looking at works by Andy Warhol at The Broad; image courtesy of The Broad
LeVar Burton and Chelsea Beck, The Broad’s associate curator for special projects and producer of the audio tours, looking at works by Andy Warhol at The Broad; image courtesy of The Broad
The Broad

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The Broad museum celebrates its first anniversary in September. Lines to enter the contemporary art museum, which is free except for special galleries like the new Cindy Sherman exhibit, have consistently been long. Many of those people in line have been kids, which is part of why The Broad's demographics skew 10 years younger than the national average for museum-goers.

Once they get inside, the younger guests have their very own audio tour on the museum's app —narrated by LeVar Burton.

The actor is best known for his Emmy-winning role as Kunta Kinte in the original “Roots” and as Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But, he’s also known as a teacher.

Education is the family business. My mom was a teacher and a social worker, my older sister is a teacher. If you’re a Burton, you are in the education field in some way, shape or form.

Burton first entered the nation’s homes in that role when PBS launched “Reading Rainbow” in the summer of 1983. For 21 seasons, he taught kids about their world and invited them to read, with a friendly persona that found a sweet spot between parental figure and pal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBaS3jYmRuQ

I’ve been really fortunate in my life to have been able to interface with what I consider to be master storytellers — Alex Haley, Gene Roddenberry and Fred Rogers. And I suppose it’s Fred that, more than any of the others — aside from Erma, my mom — gave me clues as to how to relate to children.

Rogers taught Burton that the best way to talk to kids was to treat them "like human beings,” he says — “albeit small human beings, but intelligent human beings nonetheless.”

So when The Broad museum decided to create a special audio tour for kids as part of its free app (which has been downloaded more than 60,000 times since the museum opened last year), Burton was an obvious choice to narrate.

I’m a big fan of utilizing technology in the service of educating our children. Television was simply the technology that we used in the ’80s because it gave us access to kids. My goal is to use whatever technology is available at the moment to preach the gospel: that [if you] pick up a book, you can go anywhere and be anything in your imagination — that the world is full of experience.

In the tour, Burton takes listeners on a journey through 11 specific paintings and sculptures — from Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can,” to Robert Therrien’s installation of a gigantic dining room set called “Under the Table.” In his comforting, friendly voice, Burton incorporates background information on the artists and their work with interactive instructions and storytelling.

During a recent visit to the museum, some kids using the app all seemed to be enjoying it. A ten-year-old named Noah was asked what he’d learned.

“That they were in Giant Land,” he said. “That they were hiding under a table, and giants were walking around.”

Noah, 10, listens to LeVar Burton's audio tour while standing
Noah, 10, listens to LeVar Burton's audio tour while standing "Under the Table" at the Broad museum.
Tim Greiving

After 10-year-old Lexi visited the huge Jeff Koons sculpture, “Balloon Dog," she said: “I liked the information [because] the dog — the balloon dog — told us about the artist."

But is LeVar Burton worried that apps like this one just feed kids’ addiction to their iPads and smartphones?

I think the genie is certainly out of the bottle in that regard. My intention is to meet kids where they are, and then take them where we want them to go — redirect them to a place that speaks of more balance. But we’ll never do it if we begin with a punitive sort of approach.

To that end, Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to bring back “Reading Rainbow” — which went off the airwaves in 2006 — for a new generation.

This past March, we introduced Skybrary School — our digital library [of] 900-plus books, 250 video field trips ... there are 40 lesson plans for teachers that are connected to the content in the app. And then, of course, we had a promise to give that product away to over 10,000 classrooms. And we have, at this point, fulfilled that mission.

So if you decide to take your kids to The Broad museum, don’t feel guilty letting them wander around with their iPad. It might just make them smarter. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Take LeVar Burton's...

I like to say that all media is educational. The question is: What are we teaching with it? Knowing that there’s just a plethora of choices out there for kids, I want to make sure that there’s always something that will feed their minds and their souls.



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