I'm 78," Charles Boone said recently by cell phone from behind the wheel. Asked about his latest endeavor at this stage in his life: "It is my reason for being right now."
Boone was on the road in east Shelby County, but he wasn't on the phone to talk about himself. The more important subject was "it" in the above quote: Reading Bear, a free (and ad-free) nonprofit website designed to teach children ages 4 to 7 how to read. Correction: to teach anyone of any age how to read — and that goes for non-English-speakers.
Log on to readingbear.org, and users find voiceover audio/video guides to sounding out consonants and vowels, combining those letters into words, and combining those words into whole sentences for a total of 50 sessions. The site is home to more than 1,200 basic vocabulary items. And it's bright and inviting and couldn't be more user-friendly. Users can go at their own pace, review lessons, test themselves, and chart their progress. They can do so without any outside pressure. And they can take a break now and then during the site's "Interludes," which are brief but impressive introductions to pieces from classical music and masterpieces of western art. And let me repeat: Reading Bear is 100 percent open to all, no matter one's income.
"Yeah, it's completely free," Boone said. "Anybody can use it — people in their 70s, people in prisons, anybody with a literacy problem. But the major emphasis is head start. I want to get Reading Bear into every head-start program in the country. I want it for parents who can't afford to spend $20,000 to send their kids to kindergarten. I want the disadvantaged to have a leg up in school.
"And yeah, I've funded the thing," Boone admitted after previously preferring to remain an anonymous donor.
Back in what Boone called the Eisenhower years, he "fooled around" buying properties adjacent to what would become Shelby County's I-40 corridor, and according to him, "it worked out real well."
Boone's working relationship with Larry Sanger has worked out really well too, even though Boone admitted that he's not "all that technical" when it comes to carefully linked, highly interactive computer programming.
Sanger is the co-founder of Wikipedia, and in 2008 Boone approached him about designing and launching a project he had in mind. That project is called WatchKnowLearn, a free online index — designed for grades K through 12 — of 50,000 or so educational videos from a number of website domains (YouTube, Google, National Geographic, among them) and featuring top instructors. (The "American Idol of teachers" is how Boone described it.)
Then Sanger conceived of, designed, and in 2011 launched Reading Bear as a side project to WatchKnowLearn, with Boone as a major financial contributor to both projects through the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, a charitable corporation.
What's been the reaction to Reading Bear among parents, educators, librarians, home-schoolers, whole school districts, tech bloggers, and reading experts? Judging from the endorsements on its website: overwhelmingly positive.
Reading Bear has appealed to children as young as 2. It's helped with those suffering from speech impediments. And it's proven useful in teaching English as a second language, with online praise from all over the globe and in languages from Arabic and Russian to Telugu and Thai. Closer to home, the site has been recognized by Tennessee's first lady, Crissy Haslam. And nationally recognized expert in the teaching of phonics, Don Potter, emailed his unsolicited praise when Reading Bear launched:
"I commend you and all the people who helped with the Reading Bear project. ... Now we can really get busy promoting it so illiteracy can become a Thing of the Past."
Among those who helped with the task of Reading Bear in addition to Larry Sanger: managing editor Joe Thomas, Melissa Moats who does the voiceovers, Reading Bear's editorial team, and Shutterstock, which donated or discounted images and videos. But the efforts that went into Reading Bear and that still go into it haven't been all work.
In the words of one key team member, Charles Boone: "It's been my pleasure."