Making a Difference: Read Your Heart Out builds positive identities

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV)-- When an excited Falk Elementary School student asked Michelle Belnavis if she was the "owner" of Read Your Heart Out, Belnavis proudly answered, "I'm the mother of Read Your Heart Out. This is my Baby that I've nurtured for 16 years now."

My, how Belnavis' "baby" has grown! Students and educators now celebrate Read Your Heart Out Day in more than 35 Wisconsin schools. It’s held in conjunction with Black History Month and National African-American Parent Involvement Day.

At Read Your Heart Out (RYHO), African-American community leaders and parents come in to the schools to read books written by black authors, or featuring African-American characters. Belnavis said, it's not just about reading, it's about celebrating diversity and building positive identities.

She said, "So many of our students of color do not feel like they are represented in a positive way. So this is an opportunity to show books...where they can overcome obstacles, when they can strive to succeed, when they can do what others maybe think they can't do. They can be beautiful, see themselves as a beautiful person inside and out.”

She added, “That is my big takeaway for RYHO, and seeing the families come in. Their eyes light up when they see themselves present. (Understanding) I belong here, I matter…and making that really intentional makes it all what it’s supposed to be—not only for kids, but also for adults. They’re learning a lot about cultures they might not know about.”

Belnavis said she came up with the idea in 2004. “It started with a small group of students that I was working with in Reading Recovery, and really having some opportunities to see themselves in the books they were reading." She added, "One of the challenges is to find texts where our students see themselves as powerful, as successful, and really doing the things they dream to do.” She added, “My dream is to see our most striving-to-succeed students—specifically our students of color—be successful, specifically with reading.”

After seeing the excitement in Falk Elementary School students, who welcomed guests to RYHO, even played instruments and danced, Belnavis said: "They felt important, like they mattered, and that they had 'ownership' in the day. That's what 'RYHO' is all about--above and beyond reading culturally relevant books. It's about a sense of belonging, centered on our students and their families."

One volunteer reader at Falk Elementary’s RYHO, Zakiya Catlin, coincidentally had Michelle Belnavis as a teacher at Midvale Elementary School in the early 90s. Catlin understands the power of feeling accepted, and understands how gifted Belnavis is as an educator.
When Catlin moved to Madison from Chicago, she had some trouble fitting in, being one of the few kids of color in her new school and city. Belnavis made her feel accepted and welcome.

Catlin said, “Coming here, to predominantly white institutions, that was a major, major culture shock for me. I think that Michelle really helped me to successfully navigate this lifestyle, this culture, this place, where it was very different from where I was from. She really helped me open my eyes to see the opportunities that were here, and I would still be able to shine."

She added, " I just remember being so encompassed with love, compassion, and understanding with her. I feel that’s what always made me really love her, as a human being on this earth. It was so fulfilling to me.”

Reading to classrooms as a RYHO volunteer has also been fulfilling for Catlin, who still remembers Belnavis reading to her as a child in class. Looking over at Belnavis, she said, “I would just like to say thank you to my second Mom for doing this program (RYHO), for being all that you were to me back then. It’s such a star on my heart, and it makes me feel so fulfilled. I can’t wait to have my kids come in to be a part of this program when they’re old enough.”

Moved by Catlin’s comments, Belnavis thanked her former student and hugged her. The magic of Read Your Heart Out Day…just might last a lifetime.

For more information on Read Your Heart Out, and bringing it to your school, contact:
Michelle Belnavis
Culturally Responsive Practices
Technical Assistance Coordinator
Wisconsin RtI Center

Zakiya Catlin (Back row, 3rd from right) in Michelle Bledsoe’s (now Belnavis) classroom. (1991)