A think tank of distinguished panelists brought to the forefront the important role of early literacy for not only the Rio Grande Valley but the nation during the kick off March 22 of the 2010 Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) at The University of Texas-Pan American.
In its fifth year, FESTIBA is a weeklong celebration of the arts and humanities as well as a showcase for activities to promote an interest in and love for reading, particularly by children. This year's theme - Reading Revolution -- not only commemorates the centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain, but the urgency to create a culture of literacy from an early age.
Hinojosa said the healthcare bill also included student aid legislation that is the biggest investment ever made in women's and minorities' access to higher education, including $2.55 billion for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions over the next few years and an increase in Pell Grants funds.
Approximately 100 teachers and librarians from South Texas school districts heard from Hinojosa at a Congressional Roundtable on Hispanic Literacy that additionally included U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah (PA-2), also via videoconference; Peter Reynolds, author/illustrator of children's books and co-founder of FableVision Learning; Manilo Argueta, Salvadoran novelist and director of his country's National Public Library; and Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, UTPA president.
The panelists addressed questions on how to improve the literacy rates in Valley communities; what methods are needed to enhance early literacy; and how to meet the challenge of educating multi-lingual learners. Later sessions were held for participants with representatives from Reading is Fundamental (RIF); FableVision Learning: Springboards to Education; and the College Board.
"Working together we have tripled the number of books available to children in school. Children who become strong readers at an early age - from three years to the sixth grade - have a greater chance of graduating from high school, therefore excelling in life," he said.
Fattah, who is regarded as the "father" of the GEAR UP college readiness program, which has impacted more than 10 million students nationally since it began, talked about his work on the Student Bill of Rights legislation. The bill would eliminate the disparity of funding per school district in order to provide an equal learning opportunity for all students. He also stressed the need for parental involvement in getting children interested in reading at the earliest age possible. Argueta, whose first children's book "Magic Dogs of the Volcanoes" was given to the day's participants, talked about the importance of promoting a knowledge-based economy and said that more investment in education in impoverished neighborhoods in his country helped turn them around.
"Literacy is the fundamental building block," Fattah said, describing initiatives he helped start to address literacy issues in his own state of Pennsylvania. "Once young people learn to read, then they can read to learn everything else. It is so critically important."
Nelsen, who assumed UTPA's presidency on Jan. 1, 2010, said he also sees the issue of literacy and the need for more students to graduate from high school as critical.
"In this Valley 40 percent of the people could not read this morning's newspaper because they can't read," Nelsen said. "This Valley has to get it right. We all need to do a better job of reaching out to each and every student that is out there. It is about access and inspiring students."
Reynolds' book, "The Dot," was also given to Educator Day participants. Reynolds, along with his twin brother Paul, an educator and company partner, said their mission was to help all learners reach their true potential by encouraging innovation and creativity in the classroom.
Both he and Argueta stressed the importance of a literate citizenry to democracy and making informed decisions.
"To read is just one piece of literacy - it also requires you to write ... the other pieces of true literacy are speaking - having a voice - and listening," Reynolds said. "Having a voice gives the promise of the American dream. It is important that we teach our children that they have the power to make a difference and that is revolution."
During Reynolds' luncheon presentation he humorously described his early interest in art and his path to becoming an author, illustrator and filmmaker. He displayed some of the most current interactive technology available to excite students and enhance reading and learning. His company's Animation-ish software, which he demonstrated to the audience, allows youngsters to adults to create a picture stories and animate them. He also shared two of his books page by page via a software program his company offers called Big Screen Books.
Norma Saenz, a librarian at Horizon Montessori School in McAllen, attended FESTIBA's Educator Day last year and called it an important outreach effort that the university was doing for the community. She said she enjoyed the networking opportunity with other educators and librarians, and the chance to meet an author as popular and famous as Reynolds.
"I am pleased with all the sessions so far. I went to Reynolds' session on FableVision and learned about new software that I will truly recommend my school to acquire because those are very important tools for the kids and we certainly want to promote reading in the community," she said.
She said parental involvement is crucial for the community and kids to get ahead in reading.
"Reading is the foundation for everything else in life," Saenz said.
FESTIBA activities will continue throughout the week, culminating in a Community Festival on Saturday, March 27, filled with free musical entertainment, exhibits, storytelling and interactive activities for the entire family. For a complete FESTIBA schedule, go to www.utpa.edu/festiba.