PAM ALLYN & LITWORLD

Pam Allyn is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries. Based on statistics showing that at least 793 million people remain illiterate (two-thirds of them being women), LitWorld was founded in 2008 to cultivate global literacy leaders through transformational literacy experiences that build connection, understanding, resilience and strength. A nationally recognized literacy expert, Pam Allyn is an author and a motivational speaker advocating for reading and writing as human rights that belong to all people. Her personal quest to bring literacy to every child stems from a deeper desire to bring dignity to every child, and to empower children to read and write powerfully, effectively and with passion in ways that will change their worlds and the worlds of others. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I am thrilled today to be joined by Pam Allyn who is the Senior Vice President of innovation for Scholastic Education, and also the founder of LitWorld.  Welcome today, Pam.

Pam Allyn

Great to be here with you, Molly.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I am super excited to hear about this partnership between Scholastic and LitWorld and the work that you guys are doing both to End Book Deserts and also build reading culture, so start by just explaining how your organization or organizations work together to promote book access and reading culture.

Pam Allyn

Yes.  Thanks a lot.  Well, first I started LitWorld in 2007 with the help of many young people, lots of college students, and high school students, and children actually in our own neighborhood where we were raising our own kids, and the kids our local…a local nonprofit called Children’s Village…all of us together really thinking about this idea of both what you’re really advocating in such a powerful way, this idea of ending book deserts, providing book access to kids and teenagers; and also the second part of that being how we create rich community and culture around reading to higher communities.  The thing that LitWorld did from the beginning in 2007 was I said it’s not enough to say how are we going to close that access gap, it’s also got to be how are we doing this in conjunction with communities so that the community itself is saying this is what we need literacy for, this is what we really want literacy for.  So, in 2007 when we started LitWorld…again with a team of young, very excited people thinking about reading in very new and fresh ways…we traveled to many different countries and across the United States and we asked that question, what is important to you about reading; what is important to you about storytelling; what feels like it’s going to matter most?  Responses were different.  In some cases…for example, in Kenya, the women we met there were very much thinking a great deal about…as adult women learning to read for the first time…thinking about using Facebook to sell some of their products, their homemade goods, things that they were making locally…and how literacy could help them really further those ideas.  In other places we went…for example, we went to Liberia right after the very long and devastating Civil War they had that kept going and going for many years and destroyed so much there in that beautiful country.  The answer that I got there was, well, actually, we want to vote(?) (inaudible), we want to read the news.  One memorable day, I remember I was in Monrovia, and a friend of mine pointed to the street where a newspaper seller had laid out all his newspaper and everyone was paying literally, I think, five cents to walk around the one printed news they had.  It was so powerful to me to think about what is the purpose of literacy, why are we seeking to end these book deserts, what is so meaningful about it.  LitWorld really did co-create all of the programs we created around this idea of building an emotionally safe, healthy, strong, and vibrant reading culture was…really came from the communities with whom we work…many different (inaudible) across the United States and around the world.  As that was growing we realized that it was also not only about access to the books in hand or online, but also access to the time spent reading and how could we create these worlds of reading that felt rich and important to all ages.  What we did was we invited our partner communities to think with us about where were the spaces in time that building a reading culture felt the most urgent.  Of course, every moment feels urgent, but one of the big moments that came out for us was summer and the time spent out of school and children not going to school…in many cases since as we worked at LitWorld, children not being in school at all…in one major area these long, long gaps in the summer.  That is true…here in the United States, it’s true.  It’s amazing just visiting district by district and state by state and seeing how long it’s taken for many districts to really say, wait a minute, kids should not just be away from books all summer, it just doesn’t make any sense.  Summer became a place where we started to really innovate.  In 2010 we created a model called Lit Camp which is all about…really to your vision, about this idea of putting books in kids' hands, creating access, making the desert…turning the desert into a growing garden.  Lit Camp was such an incredible idea in the sense that the first summer we held two.  One was in Harlem and the other was in Nairobi.  They were running at the same time.  All summer all we kept hearing was everybody wants to come to Lit Camp.  It was going to be a pilot.  It was going to start with 50 kids, and it just went crazy.  I think Nairobi, that first summer, had over 300 kids by the end of the summer.  Harlem would have had more if we had more space.  We realized we were on to something big.  That’s when Scholastic came to us.  The  Chief Executive Officer of Scholastic, Dick Robinson, approached me and said, I think we have…at Scholastic, we would like to make this scale; we believe in what you’re doing; we believe in this project, let’s make this big.  It was just a wonderful moment; one of those one of a lifetime moments where I was with a kindred spirit, someone who also believes in ending those book deserts, and also someone who had the vision and the way.  Scholastic is 100 years old in 2020 and has been providing children with books for so many years.  His father started that company and he has that core value.  I realized this is my dream partner.  So, we partnered with Scholastic.  It’s a great example of a public/private partnership to close those (inaudible) literacy because they could provide us with the books, with the publishing, with the reach, with the scale; and LitWorld could provide the content, the material, the understanding of local communities and the side-by-side partnership with people across vast differences and similarities culturally, linguistically, and more.  That’s really a kind of amazing thing.  In addition to that we created…together we also collaborate on a holiday called World Read Aloud Day that LitWorld invented in 2010.  Again, Scholastic said, wow, this is something special, really celebrating the power of the Read Aloud…access to, and that is now going to…that’s celebrated all over the world now.  I hope your listeners will join us this year on February 5, 2020.

 

Molly Ness

Let me pause there and just talk about this collaboration a little bit more.  On the podcast, I’ve featured some pretty prominent children’s book authors.  Everybody I assume knows Jason Reynolds and Matt de la Pena.  They talk about the work that they do on an individual scale to End Book Deserts and also point to publishers and other large companies like Scholastic to join in this effort because as you’re saying it is going to take a more comprehensive approach.  We want to certainly applaud Scholastic.  Certainly, most of us know Scholastic for The Red Dog and the trucks that come and do the book fairs at schools, but not everybody knows them as such a partner in providing book access.

Pam Allyn

Yes.  I think that is something that is very unique to Scholastic.  I think the fact that it has...the very DNA of Scholastic, the core value are all about equity and all about every child seeing themselves in the world through the pages of books.  You mentioned Clifford.  I would like to talk about Clifford.  In some ways, we see him so iconic to Scholastic.  One of the great things about Clifford is that I think children take Clifford very, very seriously because he is all about…like, he’s too big, he doesn’t fit, he’s always clumsy, he doesn’t know where he belongs…all of the things children feel and experience.  I think the authentic literature does that so brilliantly.  It’s something Scholastic has been devoted to for all these years.  One of the things that Mr. Robinson has talked to me about is how his father was a teacher and he sat at this table and wrote in those early days these little magazine articles to bring authentic news to children at their developmental level of understanding.  That story has profoundly impacted my thinking because he was doing something that was so radical and ahead of his time so long ago, this idea of bringing news of the world to the children and also being not above them, but really at their side, really accompanying them.  I think that’s what Clifford does.  I think that’s what Harry Potter does.  I think that Harry Potter books are so deep and so brilliant.  Of course, it’s a modern classic.  I also think that the things that’s very special about those books is that they really do represent a value on children having power, which I think is the whole essence of great children’s literature, is the children always have more power than the adults think they should.  In the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling really respects and honors the power of children.  I think that’s something Scholastic does really brilliantly across the board.

 

Molly Ness

Let’s focus a little bit on the Lit Camps.  I grew up spending my childhood at camp.  Obviously, I love books, so you’re talking about the ideal situation for me.  If I were a ten-year-old living in one of these areas you mentioned…that you were originally in Harlem…what would Lit Camp be like?  How is that experience promoting the culture of reading?

Pam Allyn

Well, first of all, I knew I loved you, but now even more that we share both camp and books…our dual passion.  Well, a child in the experience of Lit Camp is experiencing a curriculum that we created at Lit World built on a socially emotionally literacy learning model we call the seven strengths.  Those strengths are belonging, curiosity, kindness, friendship, confidence, courage, and hope.  Those strengths really embed themselves in the curriculum.  We match the books to the strengths the children experience every day.  We call them Lit campers.  They come for the day, and they experience an immersion in the world of literacy.  They’re reading the books provided by Scholastic.  They’re reading and experiencing writing (inaudible) by me and my team at LitWorld that exemplify, we believe, best practices around writing process and writing workshop.  We are giving kids a chance…what we call bunk time…to have independent reading so they get to choose their own books, they get to have agency in what they choose.  We encourage the teachers/counselors to bring the books home and let the kids keep them at home, do not return them at the end of the summer, do not worry if they “lose” them because they just want to keep them so much.  The camps usually run for about five weeks, but in different parts of the country or even around the world we’re seeing sometimes they go longer, sometimes they’re a little bit shorter.  Because the curriculum is built around the seven strengths it’s somewhat flexible…flexible framework.  Each day has activities with the books, but also activities with children’s own narratives.  The age range for Lit Camp starts in Pre-K.  We have actually Camp Pre-K coming in 2020.  We go all the way through Grade 9.  What’s really exciting is now we have all these “graduates” of Lit Camp from Grade 9 who are now interning at Lit Camps in Grades 10, 11, and 12.  That’s amazing.  In the camps, we’re really providing a scaffold not only for the children but for the teachers as well.  We have teachers saying to us, I never felt so…as much that I owned or stand by the importance of authentic text than I did when running Lit Camp and really seeing the impact on the young people in our camp.  It’s a really busy day.  It’s very active.  We have a segment of Lit Camp called Bring the Text to Life where the kids might put on shows or do pretend or build things from the books or do art projects related to the books.  It all goes back to the book.  It’s all about my relationship as a camper to this book and this text.

 

Molly Ness

What I love so much about that is so many of these summer programs that address book access in the off months and trying to prevent the summer slide and there is a whole body of research which legitimized the summer slide, but rather than focusing on hard-core instruction or things like phonics or foundational skills, you’re reminding kids about the joy and the fun of reading and connecting that joy around the real text to their lives as readers and as children.

 

Pam Allyn

Yes.  I really believe in that very deeply.  I call that serious joy because it’s the serious work that children do around building…around play, around joy.  That’s doesn’t stop when they leave.  When they turn five, that’s just beginning even more.  I think we’ve done a real disservice to our kids across this country when we say serious joy doesn’t have a place in the curriculum, it’s not about standards, it’s not about skills when literally every single thing that you do well or anybody listening does well in their life comes from an element of serious joy, whether it’s cooking or gardening or playing sports or a violin.  Every other activity that human beings do in the active learning involves this joy.  When I think about my daughter, she loves poetry and she immerses herself in it.  It’s exciting to her, fascinating to her.  You don’t have to tell her stop…do that or else…some sort of reward.  What we’re trying to build in a reading culture is the intrinsic reward of getting lost in that story, getting lost in the beautiful sentence.  That’s something I feel like a lot of…when we talk about equity, I think a lot of our kids have not had access to it.  To me that’s an equity issue, too…why is it so grueling, why does it feel so harsh, why does it always feel about something that’s very adult at the end of it, the outcome being a standardized test or whatever it is.  To me that’s fine, and actually, I’ll get there by focusing on serious joy, too, but I do think that starting with that is the wrong approach.

 

Molly Ness

That serious joy is what moves us forward as people who continue to read and embrace the culture of reading and the culture of books as lifelong readers.  Without that serious joy we are not going to return to books.

Pam Allyn

Exactly.  That’s where that comes…when I think about your theme around book deserts, it is that serious joy…how are we building the community for serious joy, because that serious joy is what brings a child back, again and again, to want to re-read a book, to want to revisit a character, to want to learn about an author to say, I love Jason Reynolds, I want to read every single book he writes.  That’s the reading culture right there, and really we have to cultivate serious joy.  Serious joy (inaudible) anything else.  People who are highly disciplined in their work are very serious about their work and they’re also very joyful about it.  I want to model that for my students, for my own kids, and really for every child because that…the idea of happiness is very…we care a lot about happiness when it comes to ourselves and our own children.  I think when people are making decisions at the policy level that they push that to the side.  As they put their own kids in the mix, put themselves in the mix, you have to have…happiness is crucial.  I see it when I work side-by-side with children in refugee camps and in very, very challenging areas across the world that they (inaudible) happiness.  They will find it.  The human desire is for it.  What better place to look for it than in the books they read.  Those are such incredible havens of safety and refuge.  I believe in reading as a life-saving part of my life, and I believe it for all children.  I think that is why I feel a sense of urgency about getting the word about Lit Camp out there, getting the world about World Read Aloud Day out there, getting the word about words out there, because to me it is so urgent and so important.  For the sake of our health, our children’s health, too, it’s…their emotional health; that idea of social-emotional learning (inaudible) to do that work and in the pages of the book to read.

 

Molly Ness

I am going to borrow your phrase, serious joy, and apply it to my life and my parenting, and my professional work because I love it so much.  I think back to last year in 2019.  I participated in World Read Aloud Day at a Title I schools somewhat close to my home.  From the second I walked into that school I felt a culture of serious joy around reading.  I remember walking in and the Principal and Vice-Principal were dressed as elephant and piggy from the classic Mo Willems series.  There were enormous posters welcoming all of the outside readers.  The joy was infectious.  It just permeated the entire building and permeated the entire culture.  I look forward to the work that you guys will do to bring about that joy for World Read Aloud Day on February 5, 2020.  As we wrap up let me ask you the question that I ask of all of my guests.  As a lifelong reader, I know this is a nearly impossible question to answer.  I am hoping that you can reflect on a book that really has resonated with you, either one that is from your past or present, that really has transformed you or just never left you.  Maybe it’s a book that’s brought you serious joy.  What is that book that you just want to shout from the hilltops about this one that you read?

 

Pam Allyn

Well, I do love that question and I love the way you asked it because I think most people will say, what’s your favorite book.  I like what you say which is what’s a book that’s resonated with you that you want to shout from the rafters.  I think for me the book that I would shout is…and a book that totally and completely changed my life…I mean there are many that have and I honor them and sorry I speak to you all day.  I could do that with you for 20,000 hours.  For today I would say there’s a book called Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  I’ll tell you, I will never forget when I read that book for the first time.  I felt like…even to this minute, I could feel that energy that was coursing through me.  There was the scene where…I don’t even want to give it away for many people who have not read it because it’s almost undiscovered genius.  There is a scene of love, of great love and great loss in this scene.  It’s horrible and shocking and transformation and beautiful.  It’s like the writing is perfect, but also it’s the character speaking in her own true voice.  It’s a real true voice.  It just…I don’t know, it made me think about everything differently and about what it means to speak courageous in life but also as a writer…Zora Neale Hurston…how did she do it, how did she write like that.  I would shout her from the rooftops, and that book.  I think it’s just…it is a transcendent book.  It really is.

 

Molly Ness

You are taking me back to my experience.  I believe I read it my freshman year in high school, which it was pivotal at the time.  Now I look back and think I should probably return to that book as an adult.  I remember being struck at the time about the language.  The language is a little bit difficult to maneuver through as a 14-year-old, so I certainly need to revisit it, but absolutely a powerful book.  Well, thank you so much for making the time to talk about the amazing work that you are doing, both in collaboration with Scholastic and with LitWorld.  I know our listeners will want to find out more about World Read Aloud Day and how they can get involved in their schools and communities and bringing about the serious joy that you are doing to bring books and reading culture to children all over the world.  Thank you for your time today.

 

Pam Allyn

Thanks for having me to a great podcast.

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