BOOK ACCESS IN COVID19

As schools shuttered in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, organizations had to quickly shift to think through book access. In this episode, I revisit previous guests to see how their work has adapted during these turbulent times. 

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

In March 2020, the world turned upside down. As the coronavirus pandemic increased in numbers across the United States, schools closed – sometimes at first for two weeks, then longer. As of now, an estimated 55 million children are engaging in some sort of nontraditional learning due to COVID19 – be it synchronous or asynchronous schooling or virtual learning. This process happened quickly – and with this expeditated scramble to close schools and shift online, too often books were left in schools and not sent home. For this episode, I revisit guests from previous podcasts to check in on them, to see how the issue of book access is now even more important, and how the work to end book deserts continues during a global pandemic.

Molly Ness

First up, I checked in with David Dotson to find out how Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has adapted. With nearly 140 million books donated, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a book gifting program that mails free books to children from birth to age five. Because so much of the Imagination Library’s work occurs through the postal system – which is an essential service – their book distribution program has not changed. Additionally, they’ve expanded their virtual storytime program.

 

David Dotson

Yes, well, you know, the Imagination Library is, of course, has always been built upon the whole notion of books in the home, you know, that the home is where magic happens, and it’s where kids are learning to love books and love reading.  So, having now a situation where everybody is at home, and just staying at home, it sort of strengthens our value in the home.  So, I would love to say that we spent a very, you know, spent some time quickly convened and came up with the next great idea, but the reality is so often is that just about two weeks ago got a call on a Friday night from Dolly to say, you know, “How we’ve talked about really maybe me reading kid’s stories, seems to me, now is the time, so I want to start recording on Monday.”  So, we immediately kicked into gear because the ideas, always that she has, is spot on in terms of what it is, when the time is right.  But of course, we needed to move quickly to get this.  So, I'm going.  So, Goodnight with Dolly’s series, she already had the name in mind.  Then it was like, which books; how long; how would it be staged; can she do it from her home?  A couple of her staff up in Nashville, you know, helped record it.  So, it’s recorded on an iPhone 11, and you know, temporary lighting, and all those things came together to produce the series.  So, we’re looking now at, we just did the first one on April 2, which is The Little Engine That Could.  So, she reads a book from her bed in her pajamas and sings a little bit at the end of the story where the song that is appropriate to the theme of the book.  And you know, the whole notion is really two things.  Number one, of course, is to bring the story to life in another way in terms of having her read the story, and available to everybody, because it’s all through social media.  But, you know, number two is like we’ve got like in this time when you’re in the home a lot with everybody, to have something like to look forward to, or have moments that you can say, well, on Thursday we’re going to watch Dolly.  Or, on Wednesday night…  I’ve seen people creating a lot of moments during this day because it’s not just the same, you get up, you do the same thing, you go to bed, you know.  So, to be kind of a part of families creating their moments to share together, to make the best of the situation, is really a great place for us to be, and an honor for us to be in that place.  

 

Molly Ness

Similarly, executive director Emily Cicchini of Book Spring explained the unforeseen opportunities – as well as the challenges – that have arisen in the Texas program’s literacy effort.

 

Emily Cicchini 

So, we have now figured out a pipeline through the US Post Office with very cheap packaging materials from Uline – and I guess I can say a brand as far as their services – but, you know, you can get the most, very round paid packaging.  One of the things we discovered, that I share with other literacy programs out there, is that we do qualify for library mail because we’re a non-profit.  So, even though it’s going to a home address, you know, directly to the kid’s homes, we can still do library mail.  So, that was a huge thing for us because when it was first-class or even flat rate, it was like, how are we going to be able to afford it?  But with library mail, we can afford it.  So, our funders have really stepped up, I think, which gives me a lot of hope, because my board was very freaked out at the beginning, as a non-profit.  I was like, look guys, I think there are actually people who want to help out there right now, so, and can.  So, we’re feeling very positive about this.  On Monday we gave out the first…we’re working with our partners to send out message to our families so that they can opt in to this, because you can’t get the information directly from a school, right.  And we have one hundred people signed up for it.  And the books are ready.  They’ve been packed today.  They’re going to go out next week.  And we’re super excited about it.  And we think we can scale it.  So, we’ve been talking to our partners about how we can get it across our entire school district.  

 

Molly Ness

And I'm glad to hear it, because obviously, the work continues.  And in many ways, this whole global pandemic has sort of amplified the inequity that exists out there.  And for so many kids, school and being in the school system is their point of support for medical care, and for food, and certainly for books.  So, still being able to do it, not necessarily on the scale that you might have had, and certainly would have a different version of it, is so important.  

 

Emily Cicchini 

The other thing that we’re doing is really stepping up our digitals support so that families can access books online.  We’ve reviewed a number of different online book resources that are free, and what’s good, and how to use them.  And we’ve also been stepping up a lot of Spanish language resources on our website, which is something we never had enough time to do, and we do them face-to-face.  You know, we have a lot of Spanish speakers in our program, and volunteers, because of our population, food.  It’s things that we’ve always wanted to do that we never had the time to do.  So, that’s kind of a blessing, you know, a silver lining.  

 

Molly Ness

I also hooked up with a somewhat new organization Start Lighthouse, who works in New York and Oakland to build literacy culture. 

 

Rina Madhani 

Start Lighthouse’s mission is to foster lifelong literacy for students and families.  And we believe that in order to cultivate lifelong literacy, it starts by creating access, access to books, and books that are actually culturally responsive, diverse, and engaging, and in which students can find characters that are like themselves, and they can connect with those characters and truly empathize with them.

 

Rina Madhani 

Currently, we are, we have created a book drive in order to collect books for students that have been affected by school and library closures.  And we know that this is happening during unprecedented times.  And I feel like as though the need has never been greater because of the current climate that we’re in.  A lot of students, we’re part of a district that did not necessarily have a concrete plan in terms of remote learning.  And there wasn’t even a contingency plan in place either.

 

Rina Madhani 

So a lot of schools themselves have been struggling to get materials and resources in the hands of their students.  And if we zoom into New York City specifically, a majority of the population there, the student population, the students are homeless.  So they do lack access to Wi-Fi and internet.  And there are so many connectivity issues that are already in play.  And that’s really what's led us to just take initiative and get as many books out as we possibly can to the students that need them the most.

 

Rina Madhani 

So along with the free hot meals that these families and children are receiving, they're also going to be receiving our books.  But these books are essentially being packaged into literacy kits.  So we’re not just giving books, because we realize that there are other supplemental materials that go into literacy.  So we have essentially created interactive guides.  They're being created by a team of educators that students can use to really engage with the material and also deepen their understanding of the tags(?), and allows their families and caregivers to also interact with them as well.

 

Rina Madhani 

We’ve essentially separated our literacy kits into three age groups.  The first bracket is K to 2.  In that literacy kit, you can find two books according to grade level, along with phonics cards, as well as sight word flashcards because we know those are very much needed, especially when you're beginning to learn how to read, along with a pencil pouch that has pencils and crayons.  So, materials that they can use when they're actually engaging with the activity guide.

 

Rina Madhani 

And the activity guide itself includes comprehension questions that parents can ask before they start reading, during the book, and as well as after.  And it’s meant to really streamline the process so that if they have a fiction book as well as a nonfiction book, they have a guide that they can continuously go back to.  And it stays with them throughout the entire year.  And they can always go back to that.  And it allows the parents to really engage with their child as their child is learning to read.

 

Rina Madhani 

And then in terms of 3 to 5, we do have similar materials included.  But the guide is a little more advanced in the sense that there are more activities that the student can engage in- in terms of making sure that they fully comprehended what the book was asking them to do.  And it also includes a reflective exercise that they can engage in.  And then for 6 to 8, we do include two books as well, along with the pencil pouch that has the materials that they’ll need to engage in with the activity guide.

 

Molly Ness

What makes Start Lighthouse’s approach so effective is not only pairing books with these literacy kits – all created by educators – but their connection to schools and partnerships with school leaders. They’ve hooked into community-based food distribution sites within these communities to ensure that while families received food, they also receive books. Last, I checked in with Brian Floriani of Chicago-based Bernie’s Book Bank

 

Brian Floriani 

I'm hoping that one of the silver linings in all this is that it’s just a brighter light that is shown on inequity.  You know, as we’re saying in Chicago at Bernie’s Book Bank, you know, the children we serve are now disproportionally affected again, because they don’t have access to e-learning, right.  And, so the gap just gets wider and wider every day.  And, if education was equitable, to begin with, we wouldn’t have this widening gap.  …we started this Change the Story campaign and were basically asking for $12, right.  And, the reason was we wanted to be sensitive around the fact that that we’re all anxious.  At the same time, if you’re anxious, just think how these children and these families are feeling.  So, the response has been really, really good, and it’s going to be an ongoing thing.  And what’s really interesting is that 72% of those donors are brand new, and to me, that is super interesting, because it means that people of all capacities are finding how valuable it is what we do.  And so, since our Covid response has begun, we have distributed over 100,000 books in the last two weeks.  We’ve got all these distributions lined up.  We’re about to make a big announcement with Chicago public schools.  

 

Brian Floriani 

So, how many books have you given out in the last two weeks?  And, how have you done that?  Are you giving them as kids come to schools to pick up lunches or meals, or how have you handled the logistics?  

 

Brian Floriani 

Well, that’s another reason why a team of solid organization is important because you can imagine, every situation is different, and things are changing rapidly, and we’re trying to be sensitive to our team’s needs, and the psychology, and where they are mentally, and how to stay healthy.  But, every relationship is different.  So, whether it’s through the Northern Illinois food bank, or reach out and read, or WIC, or this school district or that school district, we have to be super nimble because we have to work around what they’re dealing with.  So, it’s a case-by-case situation.  CPS, Chicago Public Schools, they’re going to start off with a wait of 50 that we’re going to go to.  So, our team right now is producing…  We totally re-engineered the whole operation to be able to distribute what we call family packs, so it’s not necessarily by grade level.  It’s a family pack, and mixed pack of books, because we also want this to be no-touch, and we want our partner to not have to do anything.  So, it really has to be, you know, here’s a bag.  So, we re-engineered how our process works.  So, we’re now producing about 17,000 bags of books a week.  

 

Molly Ness

So, any thoughts on how this is changing your mission or your organization for the future?  Obviously, this is a reality that we didn’t ever really anticipate, but there certainly are learning lessons that come out of it, and opportunities that arise from it.  So, what might be some of those for Bernie’s Book Bank?  

 

Brian Floriani 

Well, I totally believe we’re going to merge way stronger than we got it, came into this.  You know, we need to double down now and respond the way we need to respond now and know we need to be prepared to be even more robust when we come out of this.  And, I think one, it was a test.  It was a test to our will and the mission in general.  And, I think that whether you’re an athlete or whether you’re an organization, you’re a business, when you get tested like this, I mean you’ve got to remember that Bernie’s Book Bank was born out of the ashes of the greatest financial crisis of our time, right.  So, we have a little bit of that in our DNA.  And so, but this was a new one, and I think it was a test of our will and a test of how tough are we, and when you get that test and you survive it and you step up, I mean that’s where goodness emerges out of really hard times.  I also think it really without, you know, we bent, but we didn’t break.  It enabled us to see where those challenges might be and where we really need to continue to strengthen up those pieces.

 

Molly Ness

Listeners of the podcast might recall that I ask every guest to share out a book from their personal or professional bookshelves that has had an impact on them. This time, I’m shifting the question slightly – asking guests whether they’ve had the chance to read more – and what they’ve been reading – during the COVID pandemic. And as a side note, at the start of this quarantining period – I naively thought of all of the books I’d be able to read during my stay at home. Spoiler alert: I’ve not been able to read nearly as much as I thought I would have.

 

David Dotson

I'm actually planning on re-reading a book that is one of my all-time favorite books, which is called The Snow Leopard, which is really about a metaphor.  It’s a journey, a metaphoric journey of this fellow who is trying to find the cat in the Dolpo, or wherever it was.  When I read it, it was at a time in my life where I was uncertain what was going on.  It was decades ago.  It was sort of a great book to have because it was about a journey to a perceived destination.  It turns out to be a different kind of destination.  And, I think that’s how we all feel right now.  We realize we’re about to, no matter what has changed, or when we get back, there is a new tomorrow that’s going to be different, and we don’t know exactly what that’s going to be.  So, I think re-reading this book, like it helped me 20, 30 years ago, will help me again navigate what lies ahead.  

 

Molly Ness

Rina Madhani of Start Lighthouse and Emily Cicchini of BookSpring shared out their quarantine reading

 

Rina Madhani 

I read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs many times because I Facetime with my niece, Maya, every single day.  And that’s one of her favorite books.  So that’s been happening in real time.  And then I've also recently read Teacher Wars again.  It’s a book that I had read two years ago.  But I decided to revisit it, just given my own experiences in the classroom, and just trying to frame teaching again in my mind in terms of what it’s supposed to actually look like, and especially given the pandemic that we’re in, and how it also affected educators just as much, who care deeply about their students.  And I wanted to just be able to round it all together.

 

Emily Cicchini 

Yes, it’s been hard for me to digest long things right now, so I’ve been reading Robert Frost poetry, you know, and I really love it.  There is a poem, the first poem in that book was so meaningful to me, because it talks about men work together even when they work alone.  And I loved that poem.  I feel like that’s where we're at.  We’re working together even though we’re alone.  

 

Molly Ness

Before signing off and wishing you all well during these difficult times, I wanted to leave you with the exact words from that Robert Frost poem, titled The Tuft of Flowers…I hope they bring a bit of comfort and the reminder that we are all together even when we are apart.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

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