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139. Bringing Reading to Underserved Communities with Kristen Walter
Episode 13921st March 2022 • Learning Unboxed • Annalies Corbin
00:00:00 00:33:30

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Reading and literacy are skills we can often take for granted, but they aren’t as accessible as we might think. Many children – and parents alike – don’t have access to reading material that can allow them to learn at their own pace. That’s where Worldreader and their mission comes in.

The Worldreader website and app offer a digital library of books as part of their Keep Children Reading US programming and provides access to books in English and Spanish to families who otherwise struggle to access books and reading in a meaningful way.

Kristen Walters is the Director of US Programs. She shares how the organization tackles overcoming the barriers to learning, helps parents and their kids connect and learn together, and provides reading materials around the country.

To learn more, visit: pastfoundation.org

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Learning Unboxed is produced in part by Crate Media

Transcripts

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But bringing in that adult learning piece really helps elevate the literacy level of the whole home and really puts parents in a better position for

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children's learning.

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Welcome to Learning Unboxed, a conversation about teaching, learning, and the future of work.

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This is Annalies Corbin, Chief Goddess of the PAST Foundation and your host.

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We hear frequently that the global education system is broken.

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In fact, we spend billions of dollars trying to fix something that's actually not broken at all, but rather irrelevant.

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It's obsolete.

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A hundred years ago, it functioned fine.

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So, let's talk about how we reimagine, rethink, and redesign our educational system.

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Welcome to today's episode.

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We are going to have a super fun conversation talking about an incredible app, actually, that's out there in the world, desperately needed.

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And so, we're going to have a fun conversation learning more about Worldreader's BookSmart app, and Worldreaders app and website is a

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digital library available on cellphones and tablets, and it's a key part of Worldreader's Keep Children Reading US programming and provides access to

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books in English and Spanish to families who, otherwise, struggle to access books in reading in a meaningful way.

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And joining us for that conversation is the Director of US Programs, Kristen Walter.

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So, Kristen, welcome to the program.

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Thank you for having me.

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I was super excited, actually, about this conversation, because we have recently been involved about the last 18 months or so really thinking

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a lot about literacy and access to high-quality reading programs.

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And we've found some wonderful resources and partners out there, but I love the fact that this work is multilingual.

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And so, I want to start this conversation, Kristen, today with, share a little bit sort of about the work of Worldreaders first and foremost, and then

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why on earth this BookSmart app?

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Sure. And we actually just also launched on laptops, so that's been a really big game changer with platforms just to make it, again, that step of accessibility.

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But our mission and our vision is just really that we believe that readers do build a better world.

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And we work through partners, and support vulnerable and underserved communities with this digital reading component.

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But one of the reasons the bilingualism, which is one of my favorite parts of this, you think about equity and access, and I'm so glad that you started with

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many of our children in US, in the school system, but also just many of the children in this country, English is not their first language.

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Right now, in our application, we have books that are in Spanish, as well as in English, just because most of the children who are bilingual in the United

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And so, when we first launched, we were in English only, but very quickly pivoted when we saw the need that most of those in the communities that we

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their families were Spanish speaking, but just really because of wanting to provide equity and access, knowing that stories can help parents facilitate

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can help parents become collaborators in their child's education if they can access the content in their home language.

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Right. Absolutely. It's so desperately needed and it's meaningful, and it does, in fact, make a difference.

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So, our listeners come from all over the world, so give us just a little bit of context, if you would, about Worldreaders.

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So, the company itself, sort of set the stage for us, and then to help us better understand then sort of the journey or the mission, if it will, of the

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bigger umbrella organization?

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Sure. Absolutely.

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So, Worldreader began about 12 years ago in the global south.

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So, in West Africa and East Africa, just noticing that there was a need for books that our co-founders were in communities and seeing in

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schools or then the places where you might find literacy tools, that it would be like the history of Utah would be donated, just not books that people wanted

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spend time in reading, although I'm sure that's a fascinating read for some.

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But just noticing that there is a need and technology is such a great tool to use, and so why not use it for the greater good of literacy?

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And so, 12 years ago, we began in providing book access to communities where you could read in a very contained tablet.

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We've evolved to being in East Africa, West Africa, we have a location in India, we have a location in Peru, but really thinking through beyond just

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now, to provide a device, what if we provided a library on a device that people already have in their homes and have access to?

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And when we launched in the United States last year, it was in response to COVID, but also in response to realizing that we also have book deserts in this

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Mm-hmm.

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No question.

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Yeah, I mean, definitely book deserts.

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And a lot of times, they are connected to people's access to broadband.

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If you're in a very rural or even urban location, you may not have reliable access to the internet.

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And if that's how you're getting your information, we've suddenly cut you off from the information that everybody in the country is accessing.

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And so, when we first launched last year, it was mainly on cellphones, because that was the device that parents had access to.

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We make the apps so that you can download books for offline reading.

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They're optimized for low data usage.

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In the book themselves, it's over 400 titles that anybody can access it at bebooksmart.org, but Worldreader just really felt like not only do we want

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but we want to enable parents to be engaged in their children's learning.

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And so, let's also provide some activities very specific to a weekly book that we push out so that parents can have in-depth conversations with their children

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skills, or to touch on social emotional learning, or even to do something play -based outside of the book, but then is developing a child's world literacy,

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something that happened in the book while you're playing a game or you're cooking together.

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But that's kind of the evolution of going from looking at book deserts outside of the country to suddenly looking at book deserts in the country, as well as

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parents to really have an experience with their children around literacy.

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Yeah, that's absolutely fabulous.

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And I'm actually super, super curious about two things.

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So, the first one, and I love everything about this concept is so needed, I can't wait to be an advocate for this program, but my

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first question for you is, it's not the same reading a digital book as it is a physical book, and

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there's a real difference.

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And so, I'm really, really curious about the difference between the physical book, not from the access standpoint, but the

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skills the students and the parents in some cases need to acquire to be successful in that format.

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And since you've been doing this for a number of years and you've explored this in a variety of places around the world, I have no doubt that this sort of this

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up. And I'm super, super curious about the conversations in the decision-making and understanding about how consuming information in that format is actually a

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way of learning, and what you're thinking about that.

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Right. I am so glad you asked that question, because I would say that consumes about 95% of my day, looking through what are—because I think

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not only starts with parents, early program readers, digital reading is different.

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I would say one thing that I really love about our books is we don't detract from the reading experience.

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It's not a game. There are not pop-ups that come—it's not detracting from the comprehension component that a child might have from spinning or a family might

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time in the text.

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But we work in a couple of ways.

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So, Worldreader works with partners to come alongside who may have an in-person component that is hard copy print books, and you can only have so many print

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You can only carry around so many print books.

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And it's not sustainable in many ways, right?

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Absolutely. And especially with so many shutdowns and people not being able to deliver in-person services, we really had to rethink that model of everyone's

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And digital books have been a really great way to do that, being able to share them on a laptop via Zoom.

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Now, if I'm a home visitor, a program leader, I can share my screen model to the parent, how to read this digital book, the types of questions to

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ask, but now, I'm putting 400 books in a person's home where they have lots of choice and they have a linguistic choice, versus the amount of books I can

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I mean, a lot of our mobile, transient communities, children and families don't get to carry a lot of belongings around.

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We work on feature phones, so even if you have a very low model cellphone, you can still access this reading in the book.

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So, it's something that you take with you, but kind of the difference is it's there, and I think about how many apps I have on my phone that I download, which

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really fired up about, and then I didn't use after a few weeks, just kind of-

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Me, too, totally guilty of that.

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Yeah.

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So, I wouldn't say that it's a problem, I think it's very much an opportunity, is if we're working through a partner, we work very diligently

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to help ensure that that partner themselves has strong digital literacy skills.

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A lot of our partners may be at a different starting point.

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You have to really begin where people are, not where you want them to be or where you think they are.

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It's the same thing with digital reading.

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It's, how do we enable and empower our program leaders who are on the ground and who have very close relationships with families to be able to support a digital

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program? And so, we do that by having a session on, here's how you share your screen via Zoom, something that may seem like it's not an automatic, but it's

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Here's how you model silly conversations with kids.

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But then, also, here's how you talk to parents about replacement behaviors.

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We know that parents are doing something with their children on a phone, whether it's a video, a game, but now, let's talk about, how can we replace five minutes

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book and read it very quickly?

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And it doesn't have to be when you're sitting in your house.

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It can be when you're sitting in the drive-thru and you're three cars behind the

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It can be when you're waiting for another child.

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It can be at the bus stop.

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That's one place we probably messaged a lot around is while you're sitting at the bus stop with your child, scan the QR code, read a book right here, but it's

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that you can read anywhere.

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If you have five minutes of reading sprinkled throughout your day, four times, that's 20 minutes a day.

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If you do that all year, suddenly, you're hitting over a million words that you're exposing your child to.

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So, I think it's a great opportunity to really turn how we think about reading on its side and think about, it's not something that you are doing

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extra in your day. It's not something we're asking parents who work two and three jobs to now sit down for 20 minutes and read.

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It's, let's look at the whole day, and where can we sprinkle these reading experiences in?

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Because now, you have it on your phone, or your laptop, or your tablet, but most likely-

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No. Absolutely.

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And that's a great transition, because my second question tied to those components was really about the parents, because that's one of the things, for

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all the time, in the programming that we designed and developed, and the partnerships and the communities that we go into is that, oftentimes, the

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desperate need and desire, in most cases, that the families, the parents, the adults, and the environment, however that becomes defined, are as

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hungry for the opportunity to learn as they are on behalf of or for their children.

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And so, I think it's fascinating that part of the way you've structured this is that sort of co-learning and experienced environment.

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And I would assume that, and you made mention to some of this, but there has to be along the way a lot of opportunity for the parents, A, to

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learn how to, as you pointed out earlier, how to sit down, and when to, and what to consume, how to ask the questions with your kiddos, but I'm super

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about sort of the experience, and whether or not there's data, or monitoring, or what you know from the standpoint of this opportunity for parents to learn

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their students.

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In particular, families that you mentioned, there's a lot of transient components around the world.

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We certainly see in our big urban cities.

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And oftentimes, you have parents with very low education, reading comprehension, and this could potentially become a mechanism to

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upskill yourself along with your child.

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So, I'm curious about what or how you're thinking about that opportunity as an organization.

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We think about that quite a lot.

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Again, another one of my favorite questions, because one of the things we do, a lot of the parents that we work with, we realize have low

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access to literacy skills themselves.

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So, if we're putting really text-heavy content in a parent's hand, we're not meeting them where they are.

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We're not doing anything to enhance them to be a-

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And they won't read with their child, because they can't read with their child.

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And I think sometimes, we forget, so I'm really loving this piece of the puzzle that you're trying to solve.

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Yeah.

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Well, I think not only as a society, it's a piece that we need to solve, because we know that literacy evolves into civic literacy and that's a component that we

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But as a school community as well, we know that children who have parents who are involved, who engage in family engagement, that's a bigger indicator of

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for children than even if your school has free and reduced lunch.

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If there is an engagement component, but how do we engage families if they do have low access to skills themselves in the reading literacy development?

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Are we giving them a choice that you might have—and this is just my educator hat , are you able to listen to a recording?

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We're kind of moving into some of our parent support tools, we're starting them as videos.

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Now, here's a video of how to use the app.

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Are we giving them an opportunity to engage with their child and learning in the language that they can access?

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With the Spanish component, that's very helpful, but not everybody's—it's a second language for a learner in the United States, it may not be their

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So, are we providing, like we have a large collection of wordless books, pictures, so wordless books?

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How do you help parents navigate the fact that you can build oral literacy skills and prime the child up for a deeper development of written and

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read literacy skills by talking about the sequence of the story, talking about what you see when you read a book, trying to anticipate what's going to

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So, again, I think meeting parents where they are.

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We are launching in the summer something we're incredibly excited about is a family reading bookshelf, so that one of the bookshelves will have two

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adult, especially an adult book, this high-level content, so very engaging and adult-appropriate, but at a lower literacy level so that, now, the parent can

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conversation with their child, because all three of those books will be around the same theme, all three of those books will have this family engagement

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short, very few characters, very picture-based.

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What's one thing you found funny, or what do you think this picture would smell like if you were sitting there, or write three sentences, or

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draw a picture, and then narrate it, or just very specific things to do around the book.

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But bringing in that adult learning piece really helps elevate the literacy level of the whole home and really puts parents in a better position for

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children's learning.

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Yeah. No, that is absolutely fabulous.

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I'm also curious about, what is the mechanism for—back to recognizing that we have a fair

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number of adults with low literacy skills.

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And so, let's say that family gets access to this program, and we'll talk about the access piece of it in a minute, but I am really, really curious,

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how and where do you—or what have you seen in terms of the sort of fear factor?

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Because a lot of parents are afraid, right?

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They're afraid to try something that is so new to them.

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And whether English is their first language or it's not, there's a lot of stigma from a social and emotional standpoint tied

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to being illiterate.

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And oftentimes, it's really, really difficult to get those families to take that very first step.

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So, what is the mechanism to get people to be brave enough to step out there and sort of go with that effort?

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I think that always having—I think it's relational.

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When I was a teacher and worked in a school, in a very rural school, a lot of the parents that I worked with did not have a great school experience, so we

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outside of the box to make school a safe place to come in, whether in terms of because of lower access to education skills or because you may

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have not conform to the school system the way it was set up.

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And I think it's the same thing when we're thinking about a digital component, how are we presenting in a way we've always presented it that some people have

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people don't, and that's that?

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And I think, no, we can't, that we really have to work through, especially with hesitant parents, work through very close ties in the community.

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And that's one thing we really strive to do is making partnerships with community leaders and trusted leaders, whether that's someone in a church, in a

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-focused, or whether that's in a store, or a bookstore, or just that relationship, I think, is where it has to begin, and having someone

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that a parent can trust present the resource, which is one of the reasons we work so hard with our partners to develop our program leaders, is because that's

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point for a lot of parents.

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And if it's a trusted resource saying, "You can try this", I will say we don't require registration, so we take the barrier out, because sometimes, it's like

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is a very complicated process.

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It's not.

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With two clicks, you're in the book.

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The idea that you can do this on your own without somebody watching, but then, again, if we're working through a partner that is home visiting,

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reading is not an activity that has to be very reverent and set aside.

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Really, if you're cooking with your child, you're reading, ask them to find everything in the closet that starts with G, ask the parent, how many things in

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with G? Green beans, that kind of thing.

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But really, with the adult learner, essentially, building on what they bring to the table, really looking at those funds of knowledge,

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and adding that digital component to that and that digital skill of reading on your phone, a device that you get a lot of joy out of, sometimes, especially if,

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your window to the world and other friends through your social media apps, I think that's another fund of knowledge that we have to build off of when we're

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appearances, what's the joy point to reading?

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And then, you're looking how much reading you do throughout the day.

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Absolutely.

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And really, have that excitement and that joy of, you read this post, you did this, this stat, now, how can you transfer that kind of activity to what you're

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It's looking for this natural connection points.

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Yeah. And getting folks to swap out that time in a meaningful way, right?

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Absolutely.

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And that's a bit of a lift, but definitely one that you're collectively working on.

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So, let's talk about the access piece.

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So, how do parents—you've mentioned working with community partners, and I assume that you've got partnerships that actually take this program into school

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big question is, how do parents know?

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And how do communities who want this, if they've heard about it, or a lot of our audiences, obviously, teachers and schools, for this program, so they're hearing

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talk about this like, "Oh, my gosh, I need this, my parents need to know about this".

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How do most parents, and families, schools, or even teachers get access to this, and then deploy it broadly with fidelity and

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grace's tests?

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Absolutely. And I'm going to say it's going to sound so simple, but it's very true.

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It's through a URL.

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We have an open book collection that's through bebooksmart.org.

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Anybody can access the books.

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The weekly books are pushed out every—every Monday, it changes that set of weekly books to help prepare its focus, but then there are also multiple

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speak to them.

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We know that continuous engagement piece is what drives digital reading engagement, so if we know someone's working with us, we have a monthly resource

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for schools, we tie in the common core reading standards to those activities that you would see in the weekly books.

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We talk about graphic organizers or ways in the use of a book in the classroom.

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But for partners who are engaging with parents, whether they're teachers or a community social service partner, we also provide text groups.

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If you're communicating by text or you're communicating by—that you just cut and paste it, stick it in your monthly communications.

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It always has the link.

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We're always thinking about, again, continuous engagement, constantly driving parents back to that link.

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I just did an edWeb webinar, actually, which is very far and wide with teachers who I looked—I'm a data person.

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I looked on the backend, there are spikes and data on the use.

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I think specific calls to action, if I'm a program leader, for parents is very helpful.

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If I just say, here's bebooksmart, go read, I get very little traction.

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Right.

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Right? But if I say, read the book Sammy shares and ask your child to write with their senses on what the bar looks like, smells like, with the

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conversation Sammy and Gabby had together.

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That's a very specific task that, now, I'm sending the link to the book, I've got a visual picture that goes with a book, also, all the parents just click,

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and I've given them something to do about it.

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So, drilling into those very specific actions that we know get results, and then

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family engagement coordinators know that that's the communication that's going to drive that engagement for families.

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Yeah, that's absolutely fabulous.

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I love that you also mentioned that you like data, because that was my sort of next big question is, how do you know this works?

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I mean, every teacher, every school is contemplating bringing in program and there's resources, especially in the sort of quasi post-pandemic, I'm not even

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moment that we're in right now, sort of world that we're living in, or trying to make decisions about, what do they push out?

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What do they advocate for?

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And so, on your side of sort of behind the curtain aspect, how do you know from a data standpoint that you are having the impact,

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the engagement, and the outcomes that you're looking for?

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How are you measuring success?

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Right. And so, I love that we've talked on access books, continuous engagement in data, our ABCED model.

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So, with the data, we look at a couple of ways.

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With the open collection, anybody can access the books.

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I just look at the general open collection data.

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I look at, how many minutes are being read?

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How many people access the application each day?

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Are people coming back?

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What types of books are being read?

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Is it the books that we picked as a weekly book?

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If it's not, why not?

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Let's drill into the content.

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How many activities are being completed?

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So, just as generic as a US program director, I look at the US data like that technical level.

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If I'm working with a partner who wants a very deep partnership, and wants to have that data piece, and wants to have the app look like it comes from their

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I meet with them every month or our program manager meets with them every month.

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And it's very much like a coaching model where we set a goal, we use the data, we look at what our baseline is, we talk about some benchmarking, but if we are

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to push out a specific book, we go, and look, and see if that book was read, if that increased their number of minutes, if there's something they did in the

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And then, had children do that at home, did that spark engagement, deeper engagement?

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So, it's really, if we find a strategy, let's not hold it as a secret, let's spread that far and wide, but we use the data to do that.

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If I notice the program has five readers, but they are reading 90 minutes a day, I have a lot of questions about that.

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And a lot of times, that tells me that they're using the application as a center in their literacy block.

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And so, each child is reading the same story and your application is open for a long time, and then that provides me the opportunity to say, and what was the

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component?

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So, the thing I love about data is that it gives us better questions to ask as we move, as we go to the next stage.

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And so, it's really sitting with our partners and looking at, is this happening like you thought it was?

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The thing about digital books is there's no hiding from the data.

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There's no assumptions. There's no, of course, they're reading these books.

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Well, how do you know?

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Because I'm looking at the data.

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No, it's either, yes, they are, or no, they are not.

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And so, really being honest about the data.

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I think data conversations can be hard, but I think it's the way you set it up .

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And we always set it up as we're just looking to see what's happening, so we can always be in this state of improvement.

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There's no reason to be ashamed of your data, to be embarrassed about the data.

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It's a really great diagnostic tool.

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It is a great tool, but I think a lot of people are intimidated by data, right?

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Because it's not something that we've spent the last 50 or 75 years in our educational system teaching people its value and to understand how to

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use. So, I understand that sort of internal struggle that you would have.

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I always like to close the program thinking about the listener who's just had this experience and the questions that they have, or how they're

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going to take what they just heard and apply it into their own communities.

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one of the things that I would imagine from this conversation that folks are wondering is, so currently, at least in the US, and please clarify if I have

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incorrect, the opportunities are in English and in Spanish.

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And so, is it the same opportunities or—so, for example, is every book in both language that you're making available or are they different books because books

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naturally being produced in one language versus the other?

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So, I think that folks would be wondering that.

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Sure. So, that's a really great question, actually.

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And we have a couple of options with it.

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So, a lot of our weekly books are mirrored, so it's the same title in Spanish and in English.

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If they're not mirrored in that weekly bookshelf, then they're around the same theme.

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So, I might have one book that's in Spanish, but a book that's similar in English.

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Some of our books are just in Spanish that are outside of that weekly—at the top shelf, there will be a weekly book, and then there might be a book of

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popular new books, three books, that kind of thing.

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You can just keep scrolling through multiple categories.

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Some of those stories are only in English or only in Spanish.

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We have a few books in Arabic on the application as well, just because we're a global organization.

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And a lot of our books come from Africa and India.

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We feel it's important to have that global aspect that makes us unique and provides a unique experience.

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And so, reading stories from Africa in Spanish or reading series from India in Spanish has been a really cool experience for the children.

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Some of our Latin American books come from Peru.

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And so, it just depends on the book, our relationship with the publisher, we have several books from highlights, which we've translated, which are

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mirrored, we have a really—it's a great collection, great organization, and we're very excited to have those books there.

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But yeah.

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So, some of them are mirrored. Some of them are not mirrored.

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But again, looking at that, what kind of equitable experience are we providing for families?

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Yeah, I think that's wonderful.

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So, my last question as we wrap up then back to sort of language issues is just sort of thinking about what's next as it relates to either different languages

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adding in, or different programming or opportunity that you're thinking about as an organization.

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I always like to sort of finish up with, well, what's next for you?

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Right. That's a really great question.

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So, because we have the data piece, because we have the continued engagement piece, we are constantly examining, what are the barriers to reading for family?

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And so, I would say the what's next is digging down into some of those things that we have found are barriers.

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Digital literacy skills, how that's a barrier, sometimes, more so for the adult than it is for the child.

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So, how do we educate, and bring people along, and bring this digital literacy skills up for people?

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That's something we're looking at.

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The adult reading component, combined with the child component to raise the literacy level for the whole family is something that we're diving into.

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Social, emotional learning.

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We have a new collection coming out based on a book called My Special Word out of an organization in Ohio that we've partnered with.

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We're launching that program at the end of the summer, where we'll have a bookshelf, the whole month of September will be social, emotional learning

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help parents do this as well, but what's my special word?

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How do I—that word through thick and thin?

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But really thinking through very specific collections and how those drive reading engagement.

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again, if I just say, let's read, I don't get a lot of conversation, but if I say we're going to focus on social, emotional learning, here's a book to read to

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learning, we're going to focus on bilingualism, here's a book to do that, or here's a program leader, here's why that's important.

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So, really looking at, what are the tools that we can use to drive engagement?

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What have we found that's a barrier to learning?

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How can we empower program leaders to overcome those barriers in our parents as well?

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And then, how can we drive into really some special opportunities to drive reading engagement?

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Yeah, that's absolutely fabulous.

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Kristen, thank you so much for taking time today to have a conversation, but more importantly, thank you so much for the work that you and Worldreader

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does, because it's super important, and what an amazing asset and resource for our global community.

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So, thank you so much.

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Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

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Again, I love talking about this application and programming.

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I think it's so important.

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And I think, again, like let's look outside the box at how we're distributing, reading, and driving reading engagement with our families, and I think having a

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that.

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Oh, absolutely.

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Enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

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Sure. Thank you.

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Thank you for joining us for Learning Unboxed, a conversation about teaching, learning, and the future of work.

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I want to thank my guests and encourage you all to be part of the conversation.

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Meet me on social media at Annalies Corbin, and join me next time as we stand up, step back, and lean in to reimagine education.

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