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Read, Read, READ - The READ IN! Foundation Faces Technology Challenges

May 2002

Riverbank, Calif. -- On May 16, 2002, students around the world will curl up with a good book to celebrate reading on the 10th annual READ IN!™, organized by the Read In Foundation. Created in 1993 by Jane Coffey, the READ IN! began as a way to use children's affinity for technology to encourage them to read. Her story shows the power of the Internet to spread a good idea, as well as the limits of technology to sustain it.

Read In Online Event Cancelled
This year, due to technical challenges beyond the foundation's control, they will not offer the interactive online component of the event. In a letter posted to the Read In web site (www.readin.org), Coffey wrote: "Every effort has been made, every avenue has been explored to find the resources and technical support to host the May 16th event. Therefore, we are now forced to make this heartbreaking decision."

When Coffey announced the cancellation of the READ IN!, one author offered to fund the whole event. While the foundation will not turn away contributions, they need technical expertise and moderator experience to make the event work. There is no time to train or find resources for this year.

According to Joni Podolsky, Program Director for Wired For Good at the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits, the foundation's problem is not uncommon for volunteer-based non-profits. "Many nonprofits have to rely on an individual or volunteer to accomplish something because they don't have the funds or resources to hire someone in-house. To succeed, they have to control at least two sides of the "triangle of constraints": scope, resources, and time.

Within days of posting her message, Coffey received 900 letters from teachers and students, assuring her that they would still hold their READ IN!. The power of the idea--a daylong celebration of reading and books--remains and spreads through the Web site, experience and word of mouth even without the online activities that first sparked interest.

Connecting Students to Authors
The computer technician at an elementary school in 1993, Mrs. Coffey grew weary of her students' fascination with computers and lack of interest in reading. They would come to her lab and ask to play games. They did not understand that the intelligent readers excelled at games because they read to find out more about the context, rules and strategy. She decided to connect students with the most popular children's authors over the Internet.

At the first READ IN!, two 3rd grade classes connected over an America Online Account and asked an author questions. She watched as the children became engaged and imagined READ IN!s with hundreds of thousands of students around the world participating.

The READ IN! Interface
Coffey and her volunteers organize a day-long event where participating schools log-in to the READ IN! site and participate in a moderated interview of their favorite author. The day begins at 8 am on the East Coast and goes until 4 pm Pacific Time with a different author scheduled every 30 minutes. Some of the most popular authors of children and young adult literature have participated (http://www.readin.org/authors/authors.htm).

The Virtual Space
(http://www.readin.org/event/how_does_it_work.htm) consists of two text-based screens. The virtual auditorium is a secure space where the moderator pastes questions sent in by participating schools and the author responds. The room scrolls slowly so that students can follow along and look for their school's questions to appear. The question room allows students and teachers to type questions for the moderator's review.

Coffey takes pride in the safe environment for children created by the READ IN!. They have made many modifications over the years so that students cannot talk to each other, and everyone knows that they have to use appropriate language or risk their whole school's access. The moderation and technology are essential to meeting children's expectations and to creating the experience Coffey values.

Engaging Reluctant Readers
Coffey and her volunteers have hundreds of stories to tell about the impact of the READ IN! on individuals. Just one illustrates the power of motivation. A 4th grade student did not want to learn to read. His teacher told him that he could write to an author through the READ IN!, but he still wasn't interested. He saw her preparing for the READ IN! typing a message and getting an instant reply. This peaked his curiosity. He asked her if he could type the questions at the READ IN!. She made a deal with him, if he read a book by the event in three weeks, he could type. He finished his first book ever in 2.5 weeks, typed in a question, and it was selected by the moderator. He has been reading ever since.

Will the READ IN! Survive?
The READ IN! depended on the technology expertise and support of one organization that has gone the way of many Internet companies. However, the purpose of the foundation is "to promote and encourage global literacy and the use of telecommunications technology in education." Whether or not it can revive the READ IN! event with new technology and new support, it has created a worldwide community dedicated to literacy and a treasure trove of resources on its Web site. The latest addition to the site aligns the READ IN! with the President's research-based reading initiative with hundreds of activities, links to web sites, and suggested books.

Perhaps this excerpt from the Web site says it best:
Again, we cannot stress strongly enough: DO NOT plan to have your students sit in front of a computer monitor for seven hours!...HOW BORING!...Plan a fun day...take breaks...visit other classrooms...Encourage community members to come in and read...Have "Plan B" ready, just in case the technology does not cooperate! Remember, this is an exciting time to be part of technology, but it is also a time of experimentation and uncertainty...We are pioneers and as such, we have to pave the way for those that follow!