Back in 2004, Michelle Belnavis, a longtime educator in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), tried something new at her school, Midvale Elementary on Madison’s west side. She wanted 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.
Eighteen years later, her Read Your Heart Out Day has become an institution in Madison schools and throughout the state of Wisconsin.
“I remember that first year in 2004 at Midvale. I still get a little emotional about it because when Read Your Heart Out was born, it was literally one school. It just grew to be more than I thought it ever could be or would be,” Belnavis tells Madison365 in an interview from her home in Charlotte, N.C., where she lives after retiring from more than 40 years in education in Madison.
“That first year I was really just thinking about our Black boys who kept getting removed from classrooms because they were looked at as not able to perform – especially in reading,” she adds. “And it all came down to: what are you giving them to engage them and motivate them to want to read? All of those boys ended up in the basement in my little cubby hole and when they were able to show that they could, it just meant so much to share that with other people who thought they couldn’t succeed. I just see that as such a revolving door still.”
From its humble beginnings at Midvale, “Read Your Heart Out” soon grew to five schools and was moved to February to coincide with “100 Days of School” and National African American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID). Ann Arbor, Mich., Public Schools Principal Joseph Dulin conceived the idea of a NAAPID after accepting the challenge given at the Million Man March to return home and do more to build, involve, and increase their commitment to improving the quality of life in their community, particularly for African Americans.
From those five schools, Read Your Heart Out kept growing year after year until it became huge.
“Right now, we have 30 schools throughout the state in seven school districts,” Belnavis says. “Because of having to adapt to the new way of being in school [during the pandemic], many have chosen to go all virtual for Read Your Heart Out.
“The seven school districts that now host Read Your Heart Out include Madison, of course, Green Bay, Oshkosh, Beloit, Sun Prairie, La Crosse and Verona,” Belnavis continues. “It’s just been amazing to me how those schools that are participating have been so creative in how to execute the Read Your Heart Out.”
Traditionally parents, community members and volunteers read books, recite poetry and connect with students through visual or oral storytelling in the classroom. But RYHO has gotten a little more creative and innovative during the pandemic.
Belnavis just recorded her book reading for Read Your Heart Out 2022 from Charlotte, N.C. Most schools are hosting Read Your Heart Out through a virtual/hybrid platform. MMSD began the annual event this morning with a special virtual Read Your Heart Out kick-off with MMSD’s Superintendent Dr. Carlton D. Jenkins and Dr. Carolyn Stanford Taylor, MMSD’s Interim Assistant Superintendent for Engagement, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“I’m just thankful that we can still keep Read Your Heart Out still visible even though it’s in a different format now. I’m just so grateful for the schools that still, on their list of priorities, put Read Your Heart Out at the top of their list,” Belnavis says.
“When I first started the event back in 2004, we really just wanted to change people’s minds about how to better engage families in schools that didn’t always feel welcome,” Belnavis adds. “We felt it was imperative to connect parents to teachers and to think of a better way to celebrate successes. That’s how it all started.”
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. As she moved to the new position from MMSD, she watched Read Your Heart Out expand to cities throughout Wisconsin.
This year, Read Your Heart Out Day, at age 18, has officially become an adult. It has come a long way in 18 years and impacted many lives. Many of the readers this year were once students who were read to and inspired by Read Your Heart Out as youths.
“I’m just overwhelmed with emotional gratification for the growth. Not only the growth, but also the quality of the event. I am so thankful that we are building on the need to have books and texts read to our students that really signify their value. They are written by people – African American authors and illustrators – who look like them and those books show success in overcoming obstacles and being valued,” Belnavis says. “That is what is most important to me.
“Because we have been able to keep that messaging and make it significantly different than, say, a Dr. Suess Day or a literacy event, this is more like a cultural awareness [event] or building empowerment through books, especially for those students who normally don’t see themselves in books that are read on a daily basis.”
In celebration of National African American Parent Involvement Day, schools across the district and the state will participate in RYHO all month long. And, Belnavis says, hopefully, longer.
“This extends past one day. Because of the event, I’ve noticed how students and teachers and principals and district leaders have invested into making sure that there are books available all the time that reflect positive identities,” she says. “Those are the things that really make me feel so thankful for the event continuing to do the work that’s necessary.”
For more information about Read Your Heart Out in MMSD, click here.