Twenty schools across the Madison Metropolitan School District will participate in the district’s 14th annual Read Your Heart Out Day, a celebration of National African American Parental Involvement Day, literacy and African-American history. It all kicks off today at Sherman Middle School.

“We’ve always participated in Read Your Heart Out Day, but we’ve really made the push over the last year to increase the number of schools that are ready to really honor black history and National African American Parent Involvement Day and making an intentional choice to use books authored by, illustrated by, or that feature a black protagonist,” Nichelle Nichols, MMSD director of Family, Youth and Community Engagement, tells Madison365. “We’re really excited to see the number of schools that are organizing around Read Your Heart Out this year.”

During the month of February, twenty schools across MMSD will participate in the district’s 14th annual Read Your Heart Out, a school, community and family engagement event created back in 2004 to celebrate National African American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID) in February. Read Your Heart Out engages family and community members as guest readers at schools to build community and relationships. It was first held at Midvale Elementary in Madison and branched out more and more each year to the 20 schools it is currently at in Madison.

Mahlon Mitchell reads to third-grade students at Mendota Elementary School at last year’s Read Your Heart Out Day.

Read Your Heart Out Day officially kicks off at Sherman Middle School today. Tomorrow, Feb. 8, it will take place at Allis Elementary School and on Feb. 15 at Lincoln Elementary School.

Nigel Hayes reads his heart out with Michelle Belnavis.

Next week, Read Your Heart Out Day will take place at Lapham, Midvale, Stephens, Lindbergh, Hawthorne, Lake View, Lowell, Mendota and Schenk elementary schools. The following week it will take place at Shorewood, Falk, Glendale, Kennedy, Leopold, Huegel, Muir, and Orchard Ridge elementary schools.

The event provides a vehicle to open up dialogue among teachers, parents, and students that have led to a more conducive learning environment for every student – from kindergarten through college. Parents are encouraged to participate at Read Your Heart Out and they very often do.

“We’re still looking for more readers,” Nichols says. “All of the schools that are listed are open for more readers.”

The event was originally created by Michelle Belnavis, a longtime Title Reading/Reading Recovery and classroom teacher at Midvale, to build parent engagement around literacy. In 2009, the event evolved into a collaborative initiative with Andreal Davis from the Department of Diversity and Equity/Central Office Literacy Department. Through this partnership, the event grew to include professional development for schools around cultural relevance and literacy.

Michelle Belnavis with students at a previous “Read Your Heart Out” event

“I can still remember when we started in 2004 at Midvale, Falk, Hawthorne and Lowell and over the last 14 years we’ve expanded throughout the Madison school district and beyond,” Belnavis tells Madison365.

Belnavis has spread this event statewide which has released some of her responsibility in the Madison Read Your Heart Out Day organizing to the MMSD’s family, youth and community engagement department. She currently organizing Read Your Heart Out Days in Racine, Sun Prairie and Beloit.

Belnavis is currently the Culturally Responsive Practices Technical Assistance Coordinator at Wisconsin RtI Center, who partner with with MMSD to strengthen opportunities for teachers, students and families across the District to be engaged in literacy and African American history.

Nichelle Nichols

“We work with them each year and do this in collaboration and we consult with them to make sure that we are staying focused on culturally relevant texts and strategies that the schools can implement,” Nichols says.

Belnavis says that they have been collecting data on families from Read Your Heart Out Day for years. “That sense of belonging and that sense of empowerment that they feel – and the fun that they are having – on Read Your Heart Out Day makes them want to come back to school,” Belnavis says. “Because of that day, they feel like they really do belong at school. There are activities that excite them and there’s cultural awareness that is being highlighted. They feel like their cultures and traditions and values are being honored and their voices are being heard. That makes them want to be involved.”

Parental involvement is so important, Belnavis adds. Being in tune with what is happening in a child’s classroom often leads to a child’s academic success.

“We obviously anchor the day to reading and literacy, but more importantly just the presence of family and community members being in our school as the role models that they are and ensuring that our staff and our children see just how valuable our parents are and our community partners are and community members are,” Nichols says.

“Particularly for our African-American kids, it’s important for them to be able to see their family members and community members in the school really focused on the importance of black history, reading, their achievement, and how exceptional they are,” Nichols adds. “It’s a day that we are really excited about.”

The Madison School District is seeking family and community readers for Read Your Heart Out Day 2018. If you are interested in participating, click here.

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.