Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

The music pounds, the crowd roars and in storm football players, clutching something surprising — children’s books.

So begins Richland Library’s 18th annual Pigskin Poets. Held in the college town of Columbia, South Carolina, the popular summer event is an unlikely mash-up of literacy and football, where the crowd is mostly young children, the stadium field is replaced by a library auditorium and the University of South Carolina Gamecocks are ready to read!  

“It’s pure excitement,” says Rebecca Thomas, youth services supervisor at Richland Library, the community lead organization for the local grade-level reading campaign, which is embedded in the county’s preexisting Literacy 2030 initiative.  

As star student athletes enthusiastically read the children’s bestseller Chicka Chicka Boom Boom on stage to the crowd, the message is clear. “Children idolize these guys on the field, so seeing them at the library excited about books shows that reading is cool and important,” says Thomas. “We really see the children taking that in.”  

The event also draws local and regional media attention, which “brings a lot of exposure” to the library’s other programs and services that support early learning, family literacy and, ultimately, grade-level reading and success in school and beyond.

 

Those efforts include Project Summer Stride, a four-week-long program designed to help rising first- through third-grade students who struggle with reading. Held at a school next to a low-income housing complex where many of the children live, the project is funded through a United Way grant and has school district support. The library staff, teachers and volunteers provide one-on-one enrichment activities four days a week, as well as books to build children’s home libraries. 

"We try to reach children where they live and learn,” says Thomas. “This school year, we’ll return to the same complex to engage families with preschool-age children during our Here Comes Kindergarten, which provides resources to prepare children for school success. We’ll be in that community for a full year and grow a cycle of literacy.”  

Held in July, Pigskin Poets drew about 25 players from the team (ranked eighth in the nation last season by the Associated Press) and 400 community members, including many children who attend the Boys & Girls Club, summer camps and child care programs.  

“I love giving back to kids,” Kaiwan Lewis, last season’s starting middle linebacker, says in a University of South Carolina video of the event. Noting the importance of “still learning in the summer,” especially “when a lot of kids are focused on just having fun,” Lewis praises the event’s “great vibe and great environment.”  

Initially a rite-of-passage for freshman players, Pigskin Poets now includes older players who request to return, including Lewis and Sharrod Golightly. “It’s always a big pleasure to read to them,” says Golightly, last season’s starting spur linebacker, in the video. “It makes me reflect back on when I was in second grade. I love seeing the smiles on their faces.”  

The event also produces great visuals of huge players sitting cross-legged on the floor with youngsters, high-fiving excited kids and proudly wearing the Summer Learning Challenge medal that children can earn by completing the library’s Summer Learning Challenge.  

“This unique event helps both the library and the team spread the message about how important reading is for success in school and life,” says Thomas. “It’s a great experience for the student athletes to be out in the community giving back before the season even begins.”  

And children often leave Pigskin Poets with books in hand — including this year, for the first time, a free children’s book by Columbia author Delia Corrigan. Many also picked out library books after hobnobbing with players who fanned out across the Children’s Room to sign autographs.  

“It was great to see the kids take a break from getting autographs to pick out books, sit on the floor and read them,” says Thomas.

 

For more information, contact  Rebecca Thomas at 803-988-0891 or rthomas@richlandlibrary.com.

Photos: Richland Library; Publication Date: Summer 2014

To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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