Michelle Belnavis’s Baby, Read Your Heart Out, is All Grown Up

Michelle Belnavis’s Baby, Read Your Heart Out, is All Grown Up

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Throughout the month of February schools across Wisconsin will be participating in Read Your Heart Out, an event that brings kids and adults together to experience the joy of reading.

Read Your Heart Out was once just a one-day event that took place at Midvale Elementary after being originated by Michelle Belnavis, a first and second-grade teacher. But today it is a widespread event that includes children, teachers, parents, the Badgers and community leaders at over 30 schools in Madison, and will expand to schools in Green Bay, Oshkosh, Sun Prairie and Beloit..

“So this event started fifteen years ago at Midvale where I was a first and second-grade classroom teacher,” Belnavis told Madison365. “It was in an effort to increase engagement from our families in our school who did not feel like they were welcomed or really belonged in the school. So I started to bring in families to observe their students reading. And I brought in Grade 1 and Grade 2 kids to use it as an opportunity to change people’s minds about how kids could do reading, especially books with positive identity development and using books with characters who looked like them. It expanded when teachers saw the impact it was having and seeing families come to school that normally don’t come to school. So it grew into an event that expanded into other schools.”

The focus was especially on African-American kids. According to Wisconsin Literacy Inc, Wisconsin has one of the widest gaps in achievement between African-American and white students on 4th and 5th-grade reading and math tests (2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress).

Every year, schools choose one day to invite community members to come see children read and have community members read to the children. In addition to sororities, fraternities and pastors, 100 Black Men of Madison have been one of the top participants in Read Your Heart out, an event that attracts everyone from elected officials to the UW Badgers basketball team. This year’s first events, at Marquette and Allis schools, drew members of the LaFollette and East basketball teams, Governor Tony Evers — a former educator —  State Rep. Shelia Stubbs, Alder Mo Cheeks and many other community members.

“We have averaged approximately 200 visitors at each site,” Belnavis told Madison365. “That’s the highest number we’ve documented. Most schools have the whole school involved so that the whole student body can kick off the event. We have families who normally wouldn’t be present at schools come back because they feel like they’re building trusting relationships.”

Belnavis says the reading with kids and having the community present is important. But as anyone who participates can see, the reading is about more than just, well, reading.

“It’s not just a literacy day or literacy event. It’s about celebrating a culture of students that are often not celebrated in the way that they should be,” Belnavis said. “So that’s important messaging. You have to think about the impact the event has on positive identity for those students who are underrepresented. We’ve expanded to other districts that need that message. The focus is books that are written and illustrated by African American authors.”

One thing Read Your Heart Out does is partner with community organizations and restaurants that celebrate diversity and bring food in as well for a luncheon. Community organizations bring in cultural things for the students so that African-American kids can see the power of black culture in a tangible way. Students sing and perform dance during the luncheon.

Belnavis is currently training people in the Green Bay and Oshkosh areas to be able to host Read Your Heart Out in 2020.  

For the students and for anyone participating, Read Your Heart Out is a fun way to connect culturally and inspire the imaginations of kids through reading.

But for Michelle Belnavis it is much more personal.

“Read Your Heart Out is my baby and I have watched it grow into its’ teenage years!” Belnavis told Madison365. “I’m finally seeing the fruits of my labor. This is something I have spent half of my 35-year career doing. More people are seeking guidance in how to make this whole system work. And it’s all about our kids and how we can do better.”

Volunteers are needed at the following Read Your Heart Out events. Those interested in volunteering can register using this form.

  • Emerson Elementary – February 14, all day
  • Falk Elementary – February 22, all day
  • Franklin Elementary – February 26
  • Glendale Elementary – February 26, all day
  • Gompers Elementary – February 15, 9am-3pm
  • Hawthorne Elementary – February 22, 8am-2pm
  • Huegel Elementary – February 22, TBD
  • Kennedy Elementary – February 22, 8:30am-12pm
  • Lake View Elementary – February 12, 8am-12pm
  • Lapham Elementary – February 15, 12:30-1pm
  • Leopold Elementary – February 15, 8am-11am
  • Lincoln Elementary – February 15, 9am-3pm
  • Lindbergh Elementary – February 20, all day
  • Marquette Elementary – February 7, 8am-2pm
  • Mendota Elementary – February 15, 10am-2pm NOT ACCEPTING READERS AT THIS TIME
  • Midvale Elementary – February 20, 8:30am-3:30pm
  • Muir Elementary – February 22, 11am-12pm
  • Olson Elementary – February 13 6-7pm, February 14 8:30-11:30am
  • Orchard Ridge Elementary – February 26, 9am-2pm
  • Sandburg Elementary – February 14, 8:30-11am
  • Schenk Elementary – February 22, 9am-1pm
  • Shorewood Elementary – February 1, 9-11am; 1-3pm
  • Stephens Elementary – February 15, 11:30am-2:30pm

Written by Nicholas Garton

Nicholas Garton

Nicholas Garton is a Madison365 graduate and a reporter for Madison365.

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