"I believe that literacy is the birthright of every single one of us."
With his opening statement, LeVar instantly captured the hearts, minds, and undivided attention of everyone at CanvasCon Online. In what's been a tough and often tiring year for educators (we won't say "unprecedented"), LeVar's keynote address was a healing balm. Wasting no time, he dove into the essential function of literacy in both the individual's and humankind’s ability to reach its highest potential. Literacy for LeVar is much more than fluency in reading and writing. “I believe it’s important to recognize that in this digital age, the definition of literacy must continue to evolve,” he said. It should include a fluency in critical thinking and the ability to communicate complex ideas in a simple form. He linked this to the rise of the STEAM curricula, and then made a case for taking STEAM one step further, to STREAM—we'll let you guess what the "r" stands for.
"There's no doubt in my mind that reading is the single most important activity in which we can engage for building knowledge."
As his keynote unfolded, LeVar's discussion of literacy expanded to the larger, more philosophical concept of storytelling.
“Our stories have always provided us with the context for who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going, and even more importantly, ‘What will my particular contribution be, in the service of achieving our uniquely human destination?’”
Storytelling as a reflection of who we are, he said, has profound implications, especially for kids. As a child, LeVar rarely encountered stories that featured heroes who looked like him. Seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise in “Star Trek” told him there was a place for people like him, for people who looked like him in the future. It made a lasting impact. What does it mean when kids of color don't see themselves reflected in our society's stories? It sends a strong message about one's importance—or the implied lack of it.
Healthy reflections of oneself in popular culture are crucial, LeVar said, and hearing one another's stories is essential in the path to achieving interpersonal empathy and racial equality. He paired an impassioned call for the latter with a personal story about his incredible mother and a clip from "Roots" that moved many attendees to tears. This powerful clip illustrated his point about storytelling and identity. Within the clip, a slave owner attempted to overwrite Kunta Kinte's story by violently forcing him to accept a slave name. Outside the clip, "Roots" changed the collective conversation and memory around slavery and its role in our nation's history.
"We are storytelling itself. We are storytelling personified in physical form."
The clip also illustrated the ways in which storytelling has shifted over the years, from books to television to device-agnostic multimedia experiences. “In short,” he said, "storytelling in the digital age is probably the most advanced system for learning in the history of civilization. Almost every aspect of our lives has been transformed by technology, yet we’re just beginning to understand how it can help to transform education.”
Today's students expect that tech devices and media sources will be available for instant access to content. It's important to reimagine our content for this purpose—to meet children where they are (in the digital realm) and then take them where they need to go. "When we give kids a rich library of media that resonates with them, we provide opportunities for learning that are so much deeper, much more personal, and more importantly, student-driven."
LeVar wrapped up his speech by giving everyone a moment to think of an educator who recognised and encouraged them. It was a profound moment, a moment of quiet self-storytelling, a moment of much-needed connection.
Literacy paves the way to being a lifelong learner - Levar Burton. #canvascon— Kona Jones (@KonaRJones) October 15, 2020
“Literacy is the birthright of every single one of us” - LeVar Burton @levarburton I don't even want to take notes because I will miss something. Will just absorb this one. #CanvasCon pic.twitter.com/PAMV99n8g3— Beth Crook (@bethcrook) October 15, 2020
But you don't have to take our word for it. Watch the entire keynote address at canvascon.com.