Sarah Hager Mosby
WASHINGTON—This holiday season, the American Federation of Teachers is launching a multiyear literacy campaign called “Reading Opens the World,” designed to support students, educators and families and foster an ongoing love of reading—because reading is foundational to everything we do. Every educator would tell you that first we need to help our students learn to read, and then they can read to learn. So now more than ever, after two years of disruption as the result of COVID-19, harnessing the love of reading is key to helping our students and families recover.
The campaign, which launches today at Malcolm X. Elementary School in Washington, D.C., includes four key prongs:
- Giving teachers and school staff the tools and professional development that translates the science of reading into useable resources to help students read and read well;
- Giving parents and caregivers fun and research-based tips and tools to support literacy;
- Building on and forging new connections between families, communities, educators and schools to be partners in students’ literacy; and
- Giving children and young people free books to read, love and keep.
“Reading is key to life, to joy—to our very existence,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Whether you’re a kid in rural West Virginia, in the suburbs of Texas or in a shelter in New York City, opening a book means you’re opening the world. Reading opens possibilities and makes dreams more of a reality. It creates confidence. But reading is hard without books. That’s why the AFT is launching the Reading Opens the World campaign—to first and foremost give children and young people free books to read, love and keep, and to open their world.
“But this campaign is more than a book giveaway. It’s a long-term investment in working with parents, caregivers, teachers and support staff to help support them as they support their students and children in learning to read, and then reading to learn. And we’re launching this campaign today because this multiprong investment can’t wait after the two years of disruption and isolation that kids, families and communities have endured as a result of the pandemic. So the AFT is dedicating $2 million this year to kick off this multiyear effort, and we look forward to other partners joining us, in addition to our inaugural partners, First Book and the AFL-CIO.”
This work has always been important, but it is now so more than ever. According to recent AFT polling, one-third of teachers say that in a typical year, more than half of their students start the year below grade level in reading. And among teachers that provide reading instruction, only 44 percent of them feel “fairly well prepared” or “very well prepared” to teach reading to struggling and below-grade-level readers in their classes. As Louisa C. Moats wrote in her recent American Educator piece, “Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science”—an updated version of her seminal 1999 report of the same name—reading instruction remains a challenge for many public school educators. Moats wrote, “The fact that teachers need better preparation, professional development, and resources to carry out deliberate instruction in reading … should prompt action rather than criticism. It should highlight the chronic gap between what teachers need and what they have been given.” And teachers are telling us that this year, the conditions are so challenging, they need this help more than ever. Only 3 percent of teachers are “very satisfied” with the overall conditions they are facing today.
“While the American Rescue Plan should provide funding to address some of these challenges, like more personnel and lowering class sizes to better meet the needs of students, this campaign addresses some of these challenges as well,” said Weingarten. “First, teachers want high-quality school- and district-based professional development that is centered around the science of reading. Having long offered extensive in-person professional development on how to teach reading, the AFT is now developing a more accessible 10-hour online course so any member can learn about the science of reading and high-leverage instructional practices for supporting literacy in young learners. And for those who need something to use in the classroom the very next day, we are building out our resources on Share My Lesson, and beginning in January we are kicking off a series of webinars to translate the science of reading into actionable teaching practices that educators can quickly implement. Teachers know what students need, and they want to help. So, we’re helping them get the tools they need to do that.
“And this work isn’t confined to school buildings or the school day: This campaign aims to bring parents and teachers together—through events like family literacy nights and reading circles for the entire community. Our goal is to connect, engage and bring joy through reading.”
Among the AFT’s partners on this campaign is the nonprofit First Book, which the AFT has worked with for a decade. First Book works to break down barriers to quality education by providing teachers, librarians, after-school program leaders and others serving children in need with millions of free and affordable high-quality books.
“For years, experts have underscored the importance of children reading at home for 20 minutes or more every day, but this is simply not possible for millions of children growing up in book deserts without access to books,” said First Book President, CEO and co-founder Kyle Zimmer.
“In First Book surveys and in book wishes from educators, we hear over and over about the desperate need for books for children to take home. Together, the AFT and First Book are joining hands to help more children build home libraries and give families the opportunity to share stories and create a joy of reading. These books will quite literally open up a world of possibilities, enabling more children to explore places far beyond their neighborhoods, see themselves in books and expand their dreams for the future. We need great, big actions like this to support our educators and students—and we hope others will step in to join us.”
In a recent First Book survey, 99 percent of educators responding ranked books as their top priority for the students they serve, and 85 percent of educators indicated they would send those books home for their students. In addition, of the 98 percent of educators indicating they spent their own money on resources for their classrooms and programs, 91 percent used that money to buy books for their students.
In addition to today’s launch event in Washington, D.C., through the month of December, more than 20 AFT locals are holding events to engage families and caregivers and to provide books and literacy resources for kids, including:
- The Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico held family fiestas at four schools in rural and remote locations across Puerto Rico;
- AFT Massachusetts and the Lawrence Teachers Union will be hosting a book and literacy event at Lawrence High School’s Mobile Market;
- AFT-Wisconsin will host several family literacy events in rural parts of Wisconsin in partnership with the Butternut Federation of Teachers, Menasha Federation of Teachers and St. Croix Federation of Teachers and other community partners;
- AFT-West Virginia, AFT Marion County and AFT Randolph are hosting holiday family literacy events and distributing family-friendly books;
- The Florida Education Association is distributing more than 1,000 books for every family at Lake Forest Elementary in Alachua County;
- The Gary Teachers Union in Indiana is inviting families to the union office to choose books to read over the winter break and stock their home libraries;
- The Texas AFT and the Houston Federation of Teachers are providing bilingual, STEAM and social and emotional learning books to families of middle and elementary school students;
- The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Red River United and the Jefferson Federation of Teachers are distributing more than 1,500 books to families in need this holiday season;
- The Nashua Teachers’ Union in New Hampshire distributed hundreds of books at Elm Street Elementary’s family vaccination clinic;
- The Ohio Federation of Teachers and Ontario Federation of Teachers are starting Coffee at the Curb to provide books and literacy information to families at morning drop-off at Stingel Elementary School;
- The Oregon School Employees Association—in partnership with OSEA Chapter 600 Head Start of Lane County, OSEA Chapter 603 Mt. Hood Community College Head Start, OSEA Chapter Willamette ESD, NeighborImpact Head Start and Clackamas County Children’s Commission Head Start—is distributing nearly 2,000 early childhood education books and literacy materials to families at Head Start centers across the state; and
- United Teachers Los Angeles is distributing 1,000 bilingual, STEAM and social and emotional learning books as part of Winter Wonderland Week events to encourage reading over the winter break.
“I’ve seen kids’ faces light up in Puerto Rico when we hand out free books in both Spanish and English,” said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus. “You can tell they can’t wait to explore the world through reading. They just need the books and the opportunities. Teachers just need the tools to teach reading, and parents need the access and support to guide their kids on their reading journey. That’s what this campaign will give them. This holiday season, we hope children can grab a book, share it with their family and create lasting memories.”
“We chose the holiday season to launch this campaign to spread some joy after more than a year and a half of trauma and loss,” Weingarten added. “But we’re continuing this past the holidays because it’s what teachers, students and entire communities need. Instead of seeing educators dig into their own pockets for supplies, or seeing news like teachers competing for money for school supplies in South Dakota, we are finding ways to get books into those classrooms for free. We are finding ways to get teachers the tools they need to teach kids the science of reading. We’re bringing everyone together to experience the joy of reading.”
In 2022, the AFT will expand the campaign and continue to connect with communities by hosting book events, holding webinars for educators, taking a brand-new bookmobile to book deserts around the country and hosting ongoing programs for family engagement in rural and hard-to-reach areas. And we will work with others to access even more funds to continue this campaign for years to come.
You can find out more about the campaign and how to get involved by visiting www.aft.org/read.