Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Making of a Public Service Announcement.

I've got this big work meeting today.  I had to shower.  And get dressed in an outfit that didn't include flip flops or yoga pants.  I put on make up.  All of these things are fancy for me.  About 80% of my work stuff is working from home....and let's just say nobody is enforcing a strict dress code there.

So this meeting is a marketing brainstorm session.  Marketing professional I am not. This kind of falls into that "other duties as assigned" category of my job.  As the Coordinator for the Shasta Early Literacy Partnership, I'm the Secretary, Administrator, Accountant, Social Media Manager, Webmaster and Book Sorter for this messy, wonderful group trying to make sure our local kids are learning how to read.  I love the job for a variety of reasons.  Some days I get to lock myself in a closet and sort through hundreds of children's books, performing minor surgery on some with packing tape and strategically placed logo stickers.  Other days I'm meeting with partner organizations trying to create something new and creative that will extend our message and mission a little further into the community.

Today I will attempt to herd the cats in one of my more challenging tasks...determining our "Single Essential Message" that will be used to birth a PSA marketing campaign.

You see, we have some marketing money that we have to spend.  We're funded under a 3-year grant, and we've got about a year to go.  We've spent next to nothing on marketing because we've been busy doing other important work.  Work that we're good at and comes a little easier for us.  But now, we're in a fabulous position of having a budget to hire a professional to do some marketing work for us.  They are going to work up some PSA's for radio and TV to bring our message to the masses.

Daunting, I say.  Daunting.

Because what is the message, really?  How do you convey the importance of reading into a 30-second sound byte?   How do you simultaneously let parents know about ALL the many positive benefits of good reading skills and basic literacy without freaking them out about all the responsibility that falls on their shoulders?  Crime rates, teen pregnancy, drug use, drop out rates, adult earning potential, overall health....tight research shows that good readers do better than poor readers in all these areas.

Wait?  What?  So if my kid isn't a good reader he's going to be a teen father and end up in jail?

Well, no.  Not necessarily.  Clearly every story has many variables and lots of different influences can lead a child straight or astray.

What we do know is that if kids can't read at grade level by 3rd grade, it's tough for them to catch up.  Once they are behind, they typically stay behind.  And they realize they are behind when they see their peers flying through chapter books while they struggle over every other word.  Their self esteem takes a nose dive.  Confidence starts to falter.  They don't understand much of what they're supposed to be learning in school because they haven't mastered basic reading fluency.  If they haven't learned to read, they can't read to learn.

Well, this is just ridiculous, right?  Parents should get their kids a tutor!  Teachers should take extra time to help these kids catch up!  Well, sure.  In a perfect world no kid should fall behind.  Our classrooms should be able to adapt to different learning levels and meet each child where they're at.  YES.  Amen to all of that.

But we're not there.

If your child is enrolled in a traditional classroom, and they fall behind in reading, you have a tough road ahead.  Bringing this message to a parent of a struggling 5th grade reader is disheartening.

Bringing this message to the parent of a newborn is empowerment.  Because reading with your children each day from birth is a a proven catalyst for their success in school and in life. 

If we start early and do it often, reading aloud to our children can rock their world.   This is what I want parents to know. You don't have to BE a good reader to RAISE a good reader.  Access to books, role modeling, reading aloud 20-minutes each day, talking, singing....all of that....GREAT stuff for developing young children into eager readers.

Forget the flash cards and Baby Einstein videos.  Let's get back to the basics.  To develop a love for reading, kids need to see, feel and experience books.  Real books.  Cuddle them when you read to them so they associate reading with being safe and loved.  Ask them questions about the book.  Find examples in your real life that correlate to the stories you read.  Make up stories of your own and encourage your kids to tell you stories. Read the street signs as you drive around town.  Cook together and read the recipe instructions. 

In our overachieving, results-focused society, is this really the right rally cry?  Should we be pushing kids to read before they're ready or be overly concerned if Child A is reading slower than Child B?  I'm the product of a Montessori household, and  my kids started out in Montessori I understand that angle.  All this focus on achievement seems counter intuitive.  Each child is wonderfully and uniquely made and will develop at different rates.  Yes.  True story.  And if your child has access to a form of education that individualizes to their learning level, then I'm not concerned if your kid doesn't learn her letters until she's six.

But in a traditional classroom, that's not going to fly.

At my house, this is a real-world issue.  My first grader is just about in the middle of her peers for reading skills.  Not ahead.  Not behind.  Just right there in the average range.  And I'm totally fine with that.  I don't need her to be Einstein.  But I do want her to be at an appropriate reading level for her grade so she doesn't get left behind.  If she doesn't grasp the finer details of ancient civilizations in her history lesson, or she doesn't quite understand all the steps of the scientific process at this age....I'm OK with that.  Because all that will come together in time.

As long as she can read. 

If our PSA could be a 1,000 word essay, I guess this is it.  How we will smush this into a 30-second message of hope and empowerment for parents, I have no idea.  All I know is, after this meeting I'm going home to put on my comfy clothes and leaving the heavy lifting to the professionals.  They are better dressed, and probably better equipped for the job.