Read Your Heart Out is turning 20 years old today.
School communities throughout the Madison Metropolitan School District will celebrate the 20th-anniversary milestone Monday by having families and community volunteers read to students in their classrooms.
Michelle Belnavis, the founder of Read Your Heart Out, was a longtime educator in the MMSD and remembers the humble beginnings in Midvale Elementary School that have now been expanded to the entire district. This month, all schools across MMSD will participate in the district’s annual Read Your Heart Out event in celebration of National African American Parent Involvement Day.
“Honestly speaking, I had no idea that Read Your Heart Out would grow to span throughout the state from the basement of little old Midvale [Elementary School] where I was teaching our students of color how to read,” Belnavis tells Madison365 in a phone interview speaking from her home in Charlotte, N.C.
Every year at Read Your Heart Out (RYHO), family members, community members and volunteers read books, recite poetry or connect with students through visual or oral storytelling in the classroom during the month of February. RYHO 2024 will officially kick off today, which is also National African American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID), at Lincoln Elementary School on Madison’s South Side.
“I’m so excited for the official kickoff for Read Your Heart Out 20-year commemoration. At 8:30 a.m., we will have the Commemorative Reception & Breakfast at the Lincoln School library with all of the principals and past teachers and superintendents,” Belnavis says. “At 10 a.m., we’re moving into the gym, for the official kickoff with the students. That’s going to be broadcast on the MMSD YouTube TV channel. And all of the schools will be tuned into that as their kick-off.”
The official kickoff event for the 20th year of Read Your Heart Out will feature speeches and performances from MMSD students, administrators, and community leaders.
Belnavis will be flying into Madison from Charlotte, N.C., where she now lives after retiring from more than 40 years in education in Madison. Belnavis’s last position before her retirement in 2020 was as the culturally responsive practices technical assistance coordinator for Wisconsin Rtl Center, who partner with MMSD to strengthen opportunities for teachers, students and families across the District to be engaged in literacy and African American history.
Back in 2004, RYHO started when she tried something new at her school, Midvale Elementary on Madison’s West Side. It was her desire to host a big event to celebrate Black families and community members and to build parent engagement around literacy by inviting them into schools to read a book or share any form of literacy with students.
“The students were having difficulties with the materials and the curriculum in the classroom just wasn’t keeping them motivated and stimulated and they ended up being sent out in the classroom or losing instructional time sitting in the office and I just couldn’t bear to continue to see that,” Belnavis remembers. “So when I asked for families to come in and really watch and see how to get their child to do better with that, that’s how it all started in the basement at Midvale.
“We had a parent day where they could come in and watch and see that their kids can read after they kept hearing the message that they couldn’t,” Belnavis continues. “I had no idea that from that meeting, an invitation to come to the basement and watch your child read, it would spread in the way that it did. And it was all about the kids … and that’s why I want to make sure the focus is on the kids.”
Read Your Heart Out Day was born on that day in 2004 and it soon expanded to five more schools and was moved to February to coincide with “100 Days of School” and National African American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID). “Midvale, Lincoln, Falk (Now Anana Elementary), Lowell, Hawthorne and Mendota. Those were the schools that really took that idea and grew with it,” Belnavis says. “We did training with them and visited at their staff meetings to help them with book selection and different protocols we would use to teach the children. That’s how Read Your Heart Out grew.”
Year after year, Read Your Heart Out involved more community leaders and community groups like the 100 Black Men of Madison and non-profit organizations. And more and more schools, too.
“You could see the kids’ determination to do better came out of this. You could see their creativity. They made their own books and brought them home to their parents and families. It was just more than the classroom. It went beyond,” Belnavis says. “It turns out the whole time that the students just needed support of curriculum that met their needs.”
And now it’s at every school in Madison.
“It’s like a requirement now. That is so amazing. That was a big thing for the 20-year celebration that we are celebrating every single elementary school in Madison. We have spread to six school districts now throughout the state and 10 more schools,” Belnavis says.
Although Belnavis moved to Charlotte in 2021 after retirement to be close to family, she still has been heavily involved with Read Your Heart Out.
“I’m still doing the work … this work never retires. When you give your life to something, it never goes away. I have been training teams in the Madison and Sun Prairie areas to ensure that Read Your Heart Out stays true to form,” Belnavis says.
“I want to make sure that we feel the heartbeat in the same way as we did 20 years ago. And that means making sure that we focus on National African American Parent Involvement Day and include that population with priority,” she continues. “We want to make sure that we are engaging our students with the texts that are being read where they see themselves with positive identities.”
Belnavis is leaving weather in the 60s in North Carolina for the cold winter of Wisconsin to be at today’s event, but, she says, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“I said to myself, I will never come back to Wisconsin in February after being so spoiled [with the weather] here for the last three years,” Belnavis laughs. “But I’m so excited to be in Madison and the Engagement, Diversity, and Inclusion equity team at the district office has done an amazing job putting everything together to make this a special day and a special kickoff for year 20.
“I’m very thankful. I’m very excited to celebrate this special occasion. I’m just moved beyond words.”