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Patterson Foundation connects with summer readers online

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"This Book is Cool!" is an online show that helps students connect with books over the summer.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Behind a desk, in front of a green screen, sits a host in a cardigan.

“Welcome, my friends,” she says with a gleaming smile and familiar tone. “Today, we have a wonderful book prepared for you.”

Although there are no children in the TV studio at Sarasota Education Channel, the crew of production assistants is captivated. The delivery is reminiscent of legendary TV host Fred Rogers, whose work inspired the woman preparing to tape another episode of “This Book is Cool!”

It’s Beth Duda, the director of The Patterson Foundation’s Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, in the middle of the foundation’s newest way to connect with summer readers.

Bill Wagy films Beth Duda during a taping of "This Book is Cool!"

The foundation has a history of ensuring children have access to high-quality summer learning opportunities, such as the Suncoast Summer Reading Challenge, which encouraged children to read at least six grade-level books over the summer. Last year more than 6,500 kids participated.

However, with COVID-19 restrictions eliminating many traditional summer reading programs, the group had to rethink its approach.

“The average asset-limited child without high-quality summer intervention loses between two and two-and-a-half months of reading skills every summer, so we knew we had to do something,” Duda said. “So we began thinking about how we could reach families directly.”

Thus, the online children’s show “This Book is Cool!” was born. “This Book is Cool!” is a web series focusing on children’s books for elementary school children. 

In each episode, Duda talks about the featured book, highlights a word bank pertaining to the book, creates a craft and interviews a community member through Zoom.

For example, Duda spoke with Sarasota Ballet principal dancer Danielle Brown about the book “Brontorina,” which features a dinosaur wanting to be a ballerina.

“We all just feel a great call to action,” Duda said. “Reading is a skill that is absolutely essential for not only school success but life success, so it’s critically important that we do everything we can to help our students succeed.”

Around 1,000 children are signed up to participate directly through the Suncoast initiative, and another 3,000 are participating through their summer reading programs. Those who qualify through the initiative will receive copies of 20 books.

Episodes are created for students in pre-K through third grade. There are two episodes for each grade level a week, so Duda and her team — video producer Bill Wagy, who is Duda’s husband, and production manager Kelli Karen —  produce 10 episodes each week.

The episodes are filmed in the Education Channel headquarters on the Suncoast Sarasota Technical College campus, which is something STC broadcast and production manager John Flowerree said that he was happy to assist with.

“We were ecstatic to work on this project because it’s in support of education,” Flowerree said. “It’s supportive of education, summer learning, grade-level reading — all the things we want for our kids. So to be able to utilize the studio for something like that, it’s a win-win.”

Beth Duda blows bubbles during an activity segment of "This Book is Cool!"

The studio is hectic, with segments filmed back-to-back. While Duda changes her outfit in between takes, Karen resets the stage, and Wagy prepares the next guest for an interview.

“You could not find anyone better to host this show,” whispers Wagy in between takes. “The way she connects with children, in person and through the screen, it’s captivating. She has the same ingredient Mr. Rogers had. It’s magical.”

As Duda works her way through an episode, she is methodical, making sure each phrase is articulated in a way children can understand.

She smiles at the camera, she asks questions of the kids who will be watching, and she laughs in anticipation of the laughs that will come as the students watch.

“It is just so joyous and humbling to do this,” Duda said. 

Six hours into taping, and Duda still has a smile on her face. 

She giggles as she blows a large bubble and then focuses on camera one.

“It’s been wonderful having you here with us today,” Duda says with a wave. “Thanks for joining us. Bye for now.”

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