2009 Scholar Blake O’Connor and educator Rosemary Owens started the I Feel the Need to Read Festival in Tampa, Florida to promote literacy among second-grade students and parents nine years ago.
“While education has always been a personal priority, only after my participation in the Bezos Scholars Program did I realize the extent to which education has shaped my values, identity, and aspirations,” notes Blake.
“I was inspired to improve reading opportunities for a demographic to which I could relate: below-level second-grade readers at Title I schools. I had read below level after moving from a low to high performing school district. Fortunately, I was able to catch up because I had access to supportive teachers and parents, and books inside and outside the classroom. Knowing that 35 percent of my district’s students read below grade level upon entering 3rd grade, my Bezos educator, Rosemary, and I began planning the “I Feel the Need to Read” literacy project, which mobilized high school students as reading mentors and promoted literacy education within the community.”
This festival began as a year-long program composed of three literacy events. Throughout the academic year, team members and volunteers of the I Feel the Need to Read visited 14 Title 1 elementary school second-grade classes to read aloud and engage students learning activities. After each read-aloud students were given a book and I Feel the Need to Read bookmark to take home.
The second event of the initial I Feel the Need to Read event was a family literacy night. Families and community members were invited to Freedom High School to hear a panel discussion featuring experts in literacy and education on multiple topics including tips to help children become stronger readers. This event encouraged involvement at the community level. During the panel discussion, children enjoyed a bedtime story-themed drama production. To close out the evening, families heard a Dr. Seuss read-aloud session hosted by a former NFL player.
Finally, the festival culminated with a Dr. Seuss-themed day with Title 1 elementary second-grade students. Student groups rotated through a series of different activities including a read-aloud of “No Dragons for Tea: Fire Safety For Kids” with local firemen, sentence formation skill builders,, a rhyme obstacle course, practice identifying sight words, a read-aloud of The Cat’s Quizzer, and a picture dictionary in which students identified a unique word from a Dr. Seuss book and drew a picture to define it. The first I Feel the Need to Read Festival concluded with a large group read-aloud of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and a recital of the National Education Association’s Reader’s Oath. Before departing, each child was given a gift bag consisting of two books, a bookmark, a flashlight for nighttime reading, an I Feel the Need to Read logo button, a Read Across America pencil, a Certificate of Participation, and handouts for parents and caregivers with eight ways to promote literacy and reading aloud with their child.
Since the I Feel the Need to Read Festival began in 2010, four additional high schools have participated in similar literacy activities, engaging more than 4,000-second grade students, and a service-learning course was launched at Freedom High School. This event continues to date and is one of the Bezos Scholars Program’s longest-running Local Ideas Festivals. Congratulations to Blake and Rosemary on identifying a true community need and creating a thoughtful, well-received response!