23 Jan
  • By Justin Pauly
  • Cause in

A Life Without Boundaries: Malcolm Mitchell Shares the Magic of Reading

Malcom Mitchell

In Malcolm Mitchell’s first children’s book, “The Magician’s Hat,” a magician arrives at a local library with a big hat and a bag of tricks. He spins a story for the children about a book he found long ago that inspired him to become a magician.

He then invites everyone to reach deep into his magic hat, where they also find books that inspire them to follow their own dreams.

It’s a tale that, in many ways, mirrors Mitchell’s own story.

Today, Malcolm Mitchell is known for a number of accomplishments. Not only is the Valdosta, Georgia-native a Super Bowl champion and legendary University of Georgia football star, Mitchell is also a Georgia Children’s Author of the Year and a dedicated crusader for children’s literacy.

It all started with a magical trip to an Athens bookstore.

A life without boundaries

As a freshman at the University of Georgia, Malcolm was one of the top wide receivers in the country, but he struggled in the classroom – especially with his reading, which was around an eighthgrade level at the time.

“Second semester of my freshman year at UGA, I was in English class and a teacher asked another student to read out loud,” said Mitchell. “She sounded so clear when she read that it was almost poetic. I wasn’t a strong reader and that was the first time I had the urge to do something about it.”

Later that year, Mitchell and a friend were shopping in a local Barnes and Noble bookstore and Mitchell asked another random shopper and mother of five, Kathy Rackley, if she could recommend a good book for him to read. The discussion led to Rackley’s own neighborhood book club made up of a dozen or so middle-aged women.

Mitchell asked if he could join. Rackley ran the idea by the other members. They agreed and Mitchell joined the club, where he attended meetings regularly over the next two years.

“That’s when I started to really dive in and look at reading as a whole,” Mitchell said. “Whenever I listened to people I considered to be successful, there was a common theme: They all talked about reading books. I started to equate any amount of success with the ability to read effectively.”

The importance of book ownership

The more Mitchell read, the more he felt the effects of reading. He graduated from UGA in December 2015 with a degree in communications and was drafted by the New England Patriots in May 2016. That year, he also wrote “The Magician’s Hat.”

While at UGA, Mitchell founded his own youth literacy initiative, Read with Malcolm, which is committed to introducing book ownership to all students and improving literacy for kids with below grade-level reading skills in households where reading is not a priority.

Research shows that the motivation to read decreases with age. Combine that statistic with the fact that some 61% of low-income families have no age-appropriate books in their home and the outcome is bleak. Children who can’t read by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than students who are proficient readers.

On the other hand, multiple studies show that children in homes with at least 20 age-appropriate books get three years more schooling than those in homes without books and that book ownership fosters literacy and an overall interest in reading.

“In Georgia alone, 65% of third grade students are not proficient readers,” said Beth Pann, executive director of the Share the Magic Foundation, Mitchell’s nonprofit organization. “That is important because beginning in fourth grade, kids transition from learning to read to reading to learn about other things. Having a home library helps inspire them to read and develop skills that are on grade level.”

As part of the Read with Malcolm program, Mitchell holds Reading Rallies where he visits schools and community organizations to share his love of reading. At these rallies, Mitchell shares his story with students and leads a group read-along session. A magician also performs.

“It’s really more like a pep rally than an author’s visit,” said Anne Sapp, director of the Read with Malcolm programs. “The kids all dance and move around and have fun. Malcolm shares his personal story and why reading is so important to him and then they all pull out their books and read together. The idea is for the students to connect with Malcolm and also make the connection that reading is exciting and fun.”

Mitchell himself remembers what it’s like to grow up in a home without books and not having money to purchase books from the school book fair. At each Reading Rally, every student receives a copy of Mitchell’s book, regardless of their financial circumstances, so that they have at least once book to take home.

“Most kids don’t have age appropriate books to read. I was one of those kids growing up,” said Mitchell. “It wasn’t because my Mom didn’t care, it’s just the way it was. If we are talking to kids about the importance of reading, we have to provide them with the tools. They have to have a book to read.”

Sharing the magic

Mitchell’s Share the Magic Foundation was created in 2016 to promote the long-term benefits of reading and book ownership for low-income students in underserved communities across the country. The foundation partners with schools and organizations to find corporate sponsors and grants to cover the cost of the books for the rallies.

To date, more than 46,700 students in over 190 elementary schools, children’s hospitals and community service organizations have received a copy of Mitchell’s book. Copies of “The Magician’s Hat” have been donated to charitable organizations and libraries across the country and Mitchell himself has conducted Reading Rallies at over 50 elementary schools.

In addition to the Reading Rallies, an Early Learning Reading Initiative provides schools with “The Magician’s Hat” for each student, an animated video of Malcolm reading the book, and a teacher’s guide with extension activities such as vocabulary lessons, writing tasks and assessments.

The foundation also offers virtual learning programs including READCamp, a free virtual training camp and summer reading campaign to encourage K-12 students to read over summer break. Students participate in drills and practice with “Head Coach” Mitchell to maintain their literacy skills by reading six books in eight weeks. Students who read 10 books are named “MVPs.”Students across the countryparticipated in READCamp this year, reading nearly 200,000 minutes over their summer break.

READBowl is another program to get students excited about reading that kicks off the same day as the College Football National Championship Game and runs for four weeks, wrapping up on Super Bowl Sunday. In 2018, over 5,200 K-12 students in 187 classrooms across the country joined the challenge and read a combined 1.4 million minutes during the 2018 READBowl.

The 2018 READBowl national reading champions included a fourth grade class in Valdosta, Georgia; a sixth grade class in Nantucket, Massachusetts; and a high school English class in Lumpkin, Georgia.

“The idea of READBowl is to inspire students to gain a positive attitude about reading while at the same time providing teachers with resources for their classrooms,” said Pann. “Teachers can be creative with the program, creating competitions with other classes and rival schools in the community. It’s a great leverage point to start off the year.”

Reading Ambassadors, another Read with Malcolm service learning program, encourages middle and high school students to go out into their communities and read to young readers. As Reading Ambassadors, students take a copy of “The Magician’s Hat” to local elementary schools and youth centers and read aloud to younger students to mentor and inspire them, as well as to strengthen their own reading skills.

“This past spring, a high school in Lithonia picked 100 athletes to participate in the program. They each received a book and Malcolm spoke to them and shared how he developed a love for learning when he started going out into the community and reading to elementary school kids,” said Sapp. “A week or so later, thehigh school students went to a local elementary school and read to their reading buddies. They were all in the hallways and cafeteria, paired up and reading the book together, and then the high school students gave their books to the younger students to keep.”

One school in New England that participated in the Reading Ambassador program has even purchased additional books throughout the year to share with their reading buddies, Sapp said.

Other Read with Malcolm programs include Teacher Tuesdays and Friday Nights Read, designed to use popular social media platforms to promote what teachers are doing to encourage excitement and “change the game” of reading in the classroom. Every Tuesday throughout the school year, a teacher is featured on the foundation’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. On Fridays, students are encouraged to share what – and where – they are reading on Friday nights.

For the 2018-19 school year, the Share the Magic Foundation has partnered with the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA to start an after school literacy program for youth at high risk of academic failure. The READTeam initiative will serve as a pilot for other low-income communities to improve literacy rates and promote the benefits of reading.  Another program, Read with Malcolm’s “Carry the Torch for Literacy,” followed the theme of the 2018 Winter Olympics to creatively inspire kids to read after school. Some 2,500 kids participated nationally, reading 500,000 minutes at home over two weeks.

Follow your dreams wherever you want to go

Since 2016, Read with Malcolm’s literacy programs have directly impacted over 54,000 students through in-school programs and national reading challenges. In 2017, over 11,500 students directly participated in one of Read with Malcolm’s literacy programs.

In 2018, as of August 31, over 22,500 students had participated in a Read with Malcolm program including 65 schools in 32 citiesin seven states. Another 100 elementary school students in Georgia received “The Magician’s Hat” as part of the Reading Ambassador program.

For Mitchell, reading has done more than just improve his literacy skills. It’s personal.

“The more I read, the more I feel the effects of reading and witness them in my own life,” Mitchell said. “It has changed the way I think about problems, how I interact with other people, and has encouraged me to try new things I wouldn’t normally do – like write a book. It’s essential that kids understand the magic of reading because it really opens the door to a lot of opportunities.”

Mitchell realizes that the opportunities reading offers extend far beyond sports.

“Someone asked me once if I would ever steer a kid away from football. I said never – I wouldn’t steer them away from anything they want to do. I’m just saying that you can be better at anything you want to do if you read. You can give yourself a better chance of accomplishing your goals.”

For Mitchell, the next step is to write another book and put books – all kinds of books – into the hands of millions of kids.

Mitchell understands the magic of books. His favorite book, “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls, describes a childhood full of imagination and unconditional love – a story of children who find the strength to overcome all odds and improve their situation.

“So many people discredit the art of reading,” said Mitchell. “As you are reading along, you are building this whole universe that you can’t really see. It’s not a movie they are showing you. It’s just words. You are building this universe in your head as you map out the story. That’s the magic piece I want to help kids understand.”

 

The READBowl 2019 National Championship of Reading – the biggest reading contest of the year – kicks off January 7, 2019. The national reading champions will be crowned on Super Bowl Sunday.

Share the Magic Foundation hopes to involve 25,000 kids this year in over 800 classrooms across the U.S. including every K-8 classroom in Georgia.

Winners will win a variety of prizes including copies of Mitchell’s book, gift certificates for teachers to purchase more books for their classrooms, and a special message from Mitchell for the winning classrooms.

Registration for READBowl 2019 opens on November 1st and is free. You can also join Malcolm for “A Magical Evening of Literacy” on February 28, 2019 at The Foundry at Puritan Mill in Atlanta to learn more about his mission to inspire kids to read.

For more information about registration and tickets to these events and more, visit www.readwithmalcolm.com.

 

 

Justin Pauly