Every year, Read Your Heart Out celebrates National African American Parent Involvement Day (NAAPID) in February. The event was first hosted way back in 2004 at Midvale Elementary on Madison’s west side by founder Michelle Belnavis, longtime Title Reading/Reading Recovery and classroom teacher at Midvale, who wanted to host a big event to build parent engagement around literacy.
“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 school that didn’t always feel welcome,” Belnavis says. “We felt it we imperative to connect parents to teachers and to think of a better way to celebrate successes. That’s how it all started.”
Belnavis is now 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. Every year, she has watched her Read Your Heart Out, what she calls “her baby,” grow. This year, her baby has turned 16 years old and is now in six school districts and more than 30 schools, including 27 schools in the MMSD. Over the years, the event has branched out from just Madison to Verona, Sun Prairie, Beloit and now to La Crosse, Green Bay and Oshkosh.
“We are now really statewide! It is a defining moment in the Read Your Heart Out progression that we now have schools in the northern part of the state participating,” Belnavis tells Madison365. “We are very excited about it.”
For the first time in history, Read Your Heart Out will be taking place in the Fox Valley – at Webster Stanley Elementary School in Oshkosh on today and at Howe Elementary in Green Bay on Feb. 21.
“When I first started, I did not think the event would grow as wide and deep as it has,” Belnavis says. “Over the 16 years, we have brought in six school districts now so there is a definite feeling that it is expanding so much that its kind of overwhelming.
“Overwhelming in a good way,” she adds, smiling. “In a very good way.”
During the month of February, at least 30 schools will participate in the 16th annual Read Your Heart Out, a specific outreach to African American students, parents and community members where adults read to children throughout the district. But Read Your Heart Out is not just a literacy/reading day. It’s so much more.
“It’s a celebration of culture and engaging families through ways that make them feel like they belong and are comfortable at school celebrating their history and making sure that they want to come back,” Belnavis says.
It’s a challenge to keep up with how many schools are now hosting Read Your Heart Out events because it keeps growing.
“I put it at 30 with a “plus” after it when I send out information because Madison alone is engaging with so many elementary schools. There are two schools in Sun Prairie, three schools in Beloit, one school in Green Bay and one school in Oskkosh,” Belnavis says.
“I just got a memo last week from a school in La Crosse who is also hosting an event from a former teacher in Madison who is now a principal in La Crosse and that teacher has originated the event at her school,” she adds. “So that’s really cool.”
There are many local celebrity leaders who come and read at Read Your Heart Out Day including high schoolers who have excelled in sports, academics, music, spoken-word poetry, art, and more.
“I envisioned this event at the very beginning to celebrate potential for a lot of our most striving-to-succeed students. Changing that ‘struggling’ name that we give them when they are not achieving the way that they should to ‘striving to succeed’ automatically puts them in a different mindset in how they perform,” Belnavis says. “So when we have our high schoolers come and read at the Read Your Heart Out event who are alumni from a lot of the elementary schools that they are chosen to read at, it is really, really maximizing their level of potential in themselves and the successful outcomes that come along with that.”
Belnavis says that when she was a kid, seeing positive role models that looked like her really excited her about her future. She hopes that Read Your Heart Out Day does the same thing.
“Teachers and principals often think that this day is all about reading, but it is very much about helping students reach their full potential and seeing what successes can come out of the event as far as producing leaders in positions that they never may have thought were possible,” Belnavis says. “Giving students a voice is such a powerful way to know how we can do better as educators for our students who have been marginalized.”
Parents and community members interested in reading to a class at Read Your Heart Out can click here to find out when the event is happening at schools throughout the MMSD.