I was born into a family of avid readers, so my career choice as an urban literacy specialist and author makes perfect sense. My mom was a kindergarten teacher who taught us every nursery rhyme known to man. My dad, an entrepreneur, was always reading when he wasn’t working. His day always started with a copy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a bowl of cereal. He took us to the library or a bookstore at least once a week and my siblings and I always got at least one new book for our birthday and Christmas every year. Needless to say, I learned to read at an early age and never left the house without a book in my hand. This is not the childhood of many children in America.
As a former classroom teacher in an inner-city elementary school, I taught second and third graders who read on a kindergarten level. The year I taught first grade I remember students in my class that could only read their name. Thus, the designated classroom curriculum and resources were not useful for these children. Not only did students in our school not have reading skills, some of them did not even have books in their home. Each week, I would Xerox four-page paper “take home books” that the students would color and practice reading. The books were housed in homemade shoe boxes that each child created and took home every weekend. They also received real books throughout the school year thanks to literacy organizations that donate books to Title I schools. By the end of the school year, the students had a variety of books to take home for the summer.
Summer slide is a problem that exists in schools nationwide, primarily in low-income schools. Summer slide describes when a student’s reading level goes backward in a new school year after not reading consistently for three months. In order to maintain student reading levels and promote reading at home, schools across the country are developing creative summer reading plans to motivate kids to love reading. One of the most effective summer reading programs I have ever seen was in partnership with the Washington Redskins. I had the opportunity to serve as a guest author and literacy advocate for the Redskins Charitable Foundation when their training camp started in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. We teamed up with Chesterfield County Public Schools, a district in which I currently consult as a literacy coach, to implement the Redskins Read summer reading program. By providing motivational phone calls from players, incentives, and prizes including t-shirts and footballs, even the most reluctant readers, especially boys, were logging their reading time. This school district clocked fifty million minutes in one summer. The school with the highest number of minutes earned a surprise assembly with an appearance from current Redskins athletes.
As a national urban literacy specialist, I travel to failing inner-city schools across the country helping schools become fully accredited in reading (often in one school year). Fellow teachers always asked me if I would ever write an educational resource with my tips and tricks. I combined this suggestion with my Redskins Read experience to write and publish Tackle Reading. Tackle Reading is a book replete with motivational tips, supportive guidance, inspirational stories, and engaging activities to promote reading at school and in the home. This resource contains the work of forty-five contributing writers, including NFL athletes, authors, literacy leaders, celebrities, and educational organizations dedicated to literacy education. Tackle Reading was released in October 2016 in conjunction with the football and back-to-school season. During the fall of 2016, I learned about NFL athletes who had written their own books for children and developed foundations to support literacy. This inspired me to kick off the first annual Tackle Reading across America Day, happening tomorrow, March 2, 2017. The date is significant because it’s the birthday of legendary children’s author Dr. Seuss and our event coincides with the National Education Association’s initiative Read Across America, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
I have teamed up with Michelle Staubach Grimes, literacy advocate and children’s author, to promote a love of literacy with a passion for football. Michelle also happens to be the daughter of Roger Staubach, a legendary quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and a reader for Tackle Reading day. On March 2nd, over twenty NFL teams and athletes across the country will visit and host elementary schools in their community to promote reading. All teams on board will receive copies of Michelle’s children’s book Where Is Pidge?, a copy of Beyond the Laces by Bob Salomon, and Tackle Reading to donate to the school they are visiting and reading to that day. Each team and athlete will post pictures and stories from the day on social media using #TackleReading.
Any school can join our tackle reading team, whether they have an NFL team in their backyard or not. Schools can encourage students to wear their favorite team apparel, read football-themed children’s books (or any book!), and invite local high school and college football players to read Dr. Seuss books that day to elementary school classrooms. Any reader can join the team as well by volunteering to be a guest reader in their neighborhood elementary school. We encourage everyone to add their own pictures and moments to social media using #TackleReading.
I have spoken to a countless number of NFL athletes who grew up without a lot of books or a love for reading. Many of them lived in small rural towns, where getting to the library involved a road trip. These individuals are the same guys motivating children to see the value of becoming lifelong readers and learners. Charles Johnson of the Carolina Panthers served as a writer and sponsor for our Tackle Reading book. I asked him why literacy is an important issue for him. Charles expressed, “ Reading is part of practically every job that exists, even football. We have to get kids hooked on reading early on, and we can do this by opening their eyes to the world of learning. As I look back, I sometimes wish I had focused on my academics earlier in life. I thought reading was boring as a child. It’s important [for kids] to find books [they] are interested in.”
The words of these athletes, the actions of our NFL teams, and a love of literacy inspired me to create an innovative day to tackle reading across America. We want to use March 2nd, the birthday of Dr. Seuss, to address reading education in our country, the illiteracy rates in America, and to celebrate a love of literacy partnered with a passion for football. Together, we can tackle reading.
Featured image: courtesy of Kathryn Starke.