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LeVar Burton, 'Right to Read' Director Jenny Mackenzie on the Soft Underbelly of America's Literacy Crisis

RIGHT TO READ RIGHT TO READ WHEN DIRECTOR Jenny Mackenzie begins work on her latest documentary , this is a story about kindergarten readiness and pre-literacy. But once she met Kareem Weaver, a former educator and member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee, the documentary’s game-changing story began.

Historically, many of the ways in which America’s literacy crisis has been recognized and addressed have been a powerful and eye-opening challenge. The Right to Read focuses on Kareem’s civil rights work, and the efforts of several Black and Brown families facing low literacy rates in cities across the country to ensure that Their children succeed in school and beyond.

But unlike past examinations of illiteracy among school-aged children, this document shifts the eye of accountability from a resource-poor household to a more ominous, long-term Influence. “They’re different. They get blamed. “There’s no dad in the picture,” right? MacKenzie on the stereotypes Black and brown parents face when it comes to their children’s educational outcomes.

In THE RIGHT TO READ , the director instead launched a decades-long educational fight framing agencies should use to teach children Reading takes center stage. Through this, she begins to unravel how a branch of scholarly publishing is enriching itself at the expense of the country’s children and, ultimately, American democracy.

is a jaw-dropping indictment of the nation’s historical and current failures in education and political leadership. But it’s also a passionate call to action for action to dismantle an educational theory — holistic language literacy — that has had an impact on American education a century; theories asserted by the documentary may simply not work for any child in this country, regardless of race.

To help tell this story, Mackenzie focuses not only on Kareem and His education activities in Oakland also focus on Sabrina Causey, an Oakland first-grade teacher. Her courses can better improve literacy skills and better avoid incarceration, homelessness and unemployment. She also focused on several American families, Including Teresa, Isaiah and their daughter Ivy Hunter, as well as Melinda Adams and Fred Adams, and their son Fred Jr. – they all strive to provide the basics for a lifetime of success

The film premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February and will be shown at this year’s SXSW Edu on March 7, available at

Watch it for freetherighttoreadfilm.org, from today until March 9th, it’s available at

Play on : 48 pm PT celebrating National Reading Day.

In its SXSW Edu premiere The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Mackenzie and executives prior to the screening Producer

LeVar Burton About how they are going about changing the conversations surrounding the causes of America’s literacy crisis and the threats facing modern access to reading that Black and brown children are facing.

Kareem Weaver works in schools through the NAACP and is one of core figures. Why is he one of your key figures and arguably the through train to all your thoughts?

JENNY MACKENZIE We have known Kareem for a year and a half during the making of the film and this is the ultimate important. We went into the filmmaking process thinking we were going to make a film that was more focused on kindergarten prep and preschool and what parents could do at home. In particular we’re working on educational technology tools. You’ll meet Ivy’s amazing family and Frederick’s amazing family who are doing everything they can to make their kids successful. And then we realized, kids started going to class, and while parents strongly advocated for their kids to succeed in elementary school, kids were still at extremely high risk if reading wasn’t taught properly in schools. About a year and a half into filming, we met Kareem through a literacy coach in Oakland, and we heard about his time as an infantry soldier in the NAACP. Clearly the hero’s journey is a man who has been a teacher and principal, in training principles, had his own health issues, lost his father and said, I’m back to do what I was called to do in My Own Community – Creating Big Change. So he can be sure — you said it perfectly — that he’s the through line we need to connect us to the families we’re advocating for all the good things for their kids and their futures.

Kareem Weaver at Right to read

Courtesy of the movie


Do you think the American school system mainly teaches Children’s ways are not valid, and this is the main reason why our children are illiterate. How did you arrive at your conclusions and angles for this document?

MACKENZIE Emily Hanford is an incredible investigative reporter who has done four A podcast focused on early literacy and how children learn to read. Her latest podcast just came out in October, and I think she just discovered all the research and data we’ve had for decades on how children learn to read. But she originally discovered this story because she was observing adults with dyslexia, and that’s my story. So I was diagnosed with dyslexia 10age. Really, I’m ashamed. I’m very secretive, but I come from a family with resources and I’m able to cover it up. And I was able to learn ways to compensate and get through it. I am very lucky. My parents were able to get me tested, support me, provide me with resources. So this really set me on fire listening to Emily’s podcast and I understood that if all children were taught the way we should teach children with any learning disabilities, it would be dyslexia – it was very clear, Very systematic, step-by-step — and then we really create massive change. So I think it’s a combination of listening to Emily’s podcast, meeting Kareem, and really paying attention to families who are doing everything they can to give their kids the tools to succeed in kindergarten, but they’re still struggling.

You feature communities from across the country sharing the state of literacy everywhere. How did you decide which communities to zero in on?

MACKENZIE We actually had several families that we had to make in the movie [missing] , because we have too many characters. So we decided not to include other non-Black and Brown families. First of all, there’s only so much information in a documentary, as much storyline as we can go, you hope you can win hearts and minds, you hope it’s an opportunity for people to feel an experience by going intimately into the lives of the characters. in the movie. But we had to let go of several characters, and it was a tough decision. As soon as we met Kareem, I knew that with his inspiring activism—his entire storyline about literacy as our greatest civil right—this story had to be about black and brown families. Because that’s his job. So it makes sense to keep Melinda and Fred’s family and Teresa and Isaia’s family inside. We really try to only have geographic diversity — California, Virginia, we have a family in Utah, we have another family in another part of Virginia, and Mississippi.

In fact, Virginia is doing very well. Virginia made some breaking changes, especially in Virginia Beach, because they implemented evidence-based reading instruction. So the story of Teresa-Isaiah-Ivy and what really happened in Virginia Beach allows us to say that there are programs that are very effective and are effectively putting research and data into practice. When we meet Melinda, Fred, and Fred Jr., they’re in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, and Mississippi is actually doing some great things. Mississippi has been a leader in this kind of evidence-based reading instruction, but they can’t find jobs in the rural delta. They were both native Mississippis who had to move financially out of Mississippi to find work.

When Kareem and others interviewed for this document say that children cannot read, what does that mean in its most basic form? They can’t fit the letters on the page? Even if they can read it, they can’t understand the words in the sentence according to the context?

MACKENZIE Your list is a small selection of all the above. In my opinion, this is something we should be shouting about from the rooftops. When we look at the national transcripts, those NAEP scores we recognize in the movie, now 48 percent of children below the basic level. It’s complicated under Basic, but it really means they’re functionally illiterate. They cannot read. LeVar said, “What happens to kids when they grow up?” Well, they’re adults who can’t read. Literacy, being able to be a critical thinker – this is something we hope will happen once we understand it, as you can see from the amazing Dr Kenyana Burke who is working on the five The pillars and how you build on those foundations – allowing people to fully participate in our democracy. This means being able to fill out job applications. Not everyone will become a college professor. Not everyone is going to be an actor. However, electricians, plumbers, people with blue collar jobs need to be able to bid, need to read to find out parts. We’re voting for our elected officials. We have to be able to read the ballots. I think that’s a big risk. When we look at literacy rates and those students who are below the basic level, they are at risk for a range of challenges that they face throughout their lives. They face homelessness. They face various mental health challenges. Increased risk of incarceration. The increased risk of teenage pregnancy and high school dropout — we can go on and on. So if we want to focus on our democracy and our economy and getting people to participate in our economy, it’s going to cost us billions of dollars. This is nonpartisan.

Teresa and Ivy Hunter in 'The Right to Read'

Teresa and Ivy Hunter read at Right

There is a section in this doc celebrating the work of shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company to serve as supplementary material outside of the classroom. Is it part of your show’s goals to support this literacy movement with Reading Rainbow, LeVar?

LEVAR BURTON This is not a conscious part. It kind of became a de facto part of the work I did on that show. I am acutely aware of the value of media representation and have been able to address this issue through much of my work throughout my career. I see PBS as a place to get work done. I was drawn to that, I was drawn to this opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children – a positive change, and I was well aware of the importance of developing a relationship with the written word as an English teacher. So it’s been through my career. As Jenny mentioned, both literacy and social justice have been very prominent in my past work 11 year and the subject – and especially this documentary – are just right for me.

Having been involved in the public literacy discussion for so long, can you talk about the changes you’ve seen? What might not?

BURTON I think I’m already part of the movement to use technology to educate our children. First, TV technology. That’s where our kids are at That’s why I’m reinventing Reading Rainbow as an app for the digital generation. Because that’s where information and information travels — the electronic realm and personal devices. I’m interested in using any method at our disposal to make sure that our children have the skills they need, the survival skills they need, to maximize their potential in terms of life literacy, to be the best at them. What we’re trying to do with technology is take a child who can read and make them a reader for life. Because that’s the key. If you are a lifelong reader, then you can teach yourself. No one can blind your eyes. For example, no one can tell you that elections were stolen. You can pick up a book and read it, right? You can research that shit yourself. As Jenny said, it’s critical in terms of being able to participate in this kind of democracy. So the idea that technology can be a help and a huge help in the service of this responsibility that we have as adults in society, I’m all for it because I’ve seen it work.

You directly link the policies and practices of enslavement in the United States to the state of literacy in various racialized communities in the United States. Why does it feel like this is an important element?

MACKENZIE I think that scene is so pivotal and important, this documentary is amazing with us The project was an intense collaboration between editor Chelsi Bullard and producer Kareem. This is really his story. I want to be right. I want to get him involved. It’s been a unique journey for me as a filmmaker, and I’m white. So for me to make this film as a civil rights and social justice defender, I wanted to make sure we got it right. Chelsea, our wonderful editor, said, you know, when we look back at the history of the NAACP and the work they’ve done and the fact that this isn’t a new issue. I find it very surprising that Kareem just used Alabama’s slave code in a demo he did. Chelsea, who is originally from Memphis, began working on it. I have a very diverse team that came together. I said, Kareem, “God, I think we have to invoke Alabama’s slave law. I think we need to see it. I think we need to see it, we need to get it.” When you talk about the nation The history of the NAACP and the work they did. Because this is not a new problem. Shame on us that this has happened not just for decades but for centuries.

BURTON Ironically, I come from generations of people who only knew how to read was illegal. I would certainly be flogged and possibly even executed for being literate. Growing up in this culture in this country and being a literacy advocate has been especially meaningful to me and my family.

You caught something that really feels unknown and little known, it’s literacy wars and reality, the whole industry is basically based on Making money at the expense of children’s literacy. Can you talk about how you want to focus on this?

MACKENZIE Emily Hanford reveals on her podcast weakness. So you have six hours of material there. But it’s very important to us that I think Kareem is telling the truth because many of the courses that have been used for decades are not actually researched on different populations. So they’ve tested it on predominantly white kids from certain socioeconomic classes. When you really look at the robust, rigorous, effective research that comes from the educational programs that will be used to teach our babies to read, it needs to be based on evidence and research and tested by a very diverse group of people to know that it works . We speak naturally. We innately know that language is acquired and we will learn to speak, but learning how to read is a complex neuroscientific task. It has to be done in a very definite way. So I think some of these publishing companies used the same old data and used internal data and they didn’t do the research the way the new companies did, let’s say the data has validity or rigor in the research field. To me Speaking of which, I think LeVal used the best words a few weeks ago when he said it was a crime.

Sabrina Causey in 'The Right to Read'

Sabrina Causey at right to read

Courtesy of the movie

Kareem discusses the need to fund classroom libraries at the beginning of the document. It’s only having a brief moment, but the topic of access to books is an important one surrounding child literacy, and in some states it’s under threat. How important is this aspect of this wider conversation to protecting your literacy?

BURTON One of the reasons I love this documentary so much is because it puts the question Positioned in the field of civil rights – early childhood literacy is a civil rights issue. Through this lens, we truly see the injustices we commit against our children. These are our kids, and we choose not to be the best at them, just to enrich our own pockets, as you say. And I do believe that the Betsy DeVos of the world who are trying to privatize public education think it’s against publishers that are governed and somewhat controlled by the states of Texas and Florida Choice, since they buy most of the books, they get a say in what most people get published. We do not make these decisions based on what is best for our children. We didn’t make that decision when we started trying out ways to teach kids to read. So, this is a documentary that tries to be part of the conversation. Yes, agendas are being pushed through banning books or mass erasers trying to erase truth based on whatever personal preference. We need to clarify this. It’s all part of the same problem: the disenfranchisement of America’s children.

When it comes to black and brown kids, American classics have a complicated history. It is historically exclusive in representing them, and if it does or when it does, it may do so in a biased way. This was prompted by a recent discussion of Roald Dahl’s books. Do you feel the need for more respectful editors for children?

BURTON I would say when you know better you have to do better . We know better. We now know the downside of lack of diversity and lack of diverse voices in all media, including books. So we know better. We must do better. It’s that simple. The old methods no longer work. They were not serving at the time. They serve, but the population they serve is narrow. They don’t serve everyone. In a democracy where these rights are supposed to be upheld for all concerned citizens? We just need to do better.

MACKENZIE YOU CAN, and possibility is probably the most critical thing a child has in terms of seeing their future One of the experiences — being a gay person, being a person of color wherever they are on the gender continuum. Learning from women and seeing stories of women succeeding, making a difference, and living their lives has always been critical to me. We know this is how we are influenced and how we learn in a social learning theory way, by seeing other people who represent us. So I think there’s a lot of excitement on the horizon as we continue to share news stories, transform stories, and effectively show that representation in books and movies.

You have talked about the key relationship between democracy and literacy, and at the end of the document, you show a group of citizens who are trying to challenge the political leadership of the current teaching methods. Why does this feel like one of the ways you want to end your document?

MACKENZIE Change has to start in our own little corner of the universe, right? The real takeaway here, I think, is that literacy is freedom. This is ultimate freedom. This is freedom of mind, body and soul. So, for me, I think our films are about activism and propaganda. You see these families who are speaking out for their children, you see the amazing and inspiring Kareem Weaver, an activist who not only fights for his children, his biological children, his own children , and fought for every kid he taught and every kid that was a part of his community. So here’s why. Because literacy is our greatest freedom, it is something we must do. We have to change things in our own corner of the universe, hopefully policy will follow, but we can’t wait.

Interview edited for length and clarity.



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