Story Shares strives to give the right platform to teenagers to enhance their literacy skills and help them cultivate a reading habit.
by Aisiri Amin
Reading is the easiest way to travel the world and Louise Baigelman is taking hundreds of students across the world on the voyage. In the journey to improve key literacy skills in the US and spark reading interest in young teens with age-appropriate books, Louise Baigelman and Gary Herman founded Boston-based online library, Story Shares for struggling readers.
For Louise it is not just about getting people to read, it’s about what they read. As a teacher, she drew from her experience to revolutionise the learning platform for students. Louise Baigelman talks to INKLINE about her fascinating journey with stories, children and the magical worlds in between.
INKLINE: What was the reason behind founding Story Shares?
Louise Baigelman: Millions of teens and young adults across the globe are not proficient readers and it affects their education, their careers, and the quality of their lives more broadly. It’s easy to overlook the number of times each day that some activity requires the ability to understand and interpret text. If you are not able to read, it impacts your daily life in so many ways. Without literacy, there’s no forward momentum, no ability to grow.
As a middle school teacher, I worked with students who had fallen behind in reading. Many of my students did not enjoy reading, partly because they were not interested in the books available to them. A 13-year-old who reads at a third grade level does not want to read books written for third graders: those books are unappealing and embarrassing to her. But because of her lower literacy skills, the books written for 13-year-olds are too hard for her to access. So what does she read in order to improve?
After teaching, I had the opportunity to work at a family foundation, where they were interested in the same problem. This is where Story Shares was born.
I: As founder, what went behind building the organisation?
L: Story Shares bridges the gap by crowd-sourcing unique stories that blend age-appropriate content with language and structure that is approachable. We’ve created a new shelf of books specifically with older, struggling readers in mind.
We actually began as a project, and the success of the project provided us with the opportunity to evolve into an independent organization.
At the centre of our work is the problem we know we need to solve: that older students who struggle with reading need a new kind of book, one that’s aligned with both their interests and their reading level. During the project phase, we ran a writing contest to test the viability of one proposed solution. Could we provide the tools, incentives, and support to get writers to create the right content for this genre?
While running the contest, we also developed a basic digital platform: a book publishing tool for writers to create and submit their eBooks to the contest, and a reader/library tool for students and teachers to read the selected eBooks.
The response to the contest was overwhelming: in just four months, we drove the creation of almost 600 new stories, many of which were right on target for our readers. This success inspired us to take this idea to the next level. We received seed funding and support, and were able to build a small team dedicated to establishing Story Shares as a new approach to improve global literacy outcomes.
I: What is the difference between general reading, and age appropriate reading? Why is that important?
L: The difference between the two is engagement, and it’s critical. General reading applies to avid readers, or minimally, individuals reading at the “expected level.” Think of assigned textbooks chapters or the lists handed out for summer reading. The problem with general reading is that there’s no such thing as standard learning.
No two students learn in the same way or at the same time. Those who aren’t meeting grade level standards often feel overlooked and left out, and quickly become frustrated.
We avoid this by generating a wide range of books for readers with different intersections of reading level and age/interests. Our collection, called Relevant Reads, contains stories that are relatable and interesting to teens and young adults, but which are written at lower reading levels so that they can be consumed and understood independently.
I: On your website you say that about 90 million teens and adults in America lack crucial literacy skills. What are the reasons behind this?
L: There are many reasons why someone may lack key literacy skills: the teens and adults we serve include English Language Learners, readers with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, or those from underserved communities who have not had enough access to books and quality reading instruction.
Currently, the focus on reading instruction and support happens when students are in elementary school. When a student moves beyond this point, but still lacks crucial skills, they no longer have access to the kind of support and resources they need to improve. And at that point, we expect them to be able to read proficiently, so that they can access new information and continue to learn.
This means that a middle school student who is reading below grade level just falls further and further behind. This middle schooler then becomes a high schooler and then an adult, without ever having the tools to address this major (and growing) skill gap. The cycle even continues with their own children, who may not get exposure to early reading because their parents are not able to provide it.
I: How do you give a solution to the problem? What is Story Shares Hub?
L: Our “literacy hub” is a platform where we bring together writers and readers to provide a new reading experience for those who struggle. First, we generate new stories that meet readers at their individual intersections of interest level and reading ability. To get the content without breaking the bank, we employ a crowd-sourcing model where we actively engage with writer communities. That is, we motivate and equip authors to write Relevant Reads: books that are interesting to older audiences, but accessible at lower reading levels.
On our digital platform, we enhance this content with built-in reading assists, such as a visual glossary, text-to-speech, and a student-tracking dashboard. Students can engage with the books they read by saving them to their personal bookshelves, recommending them to friends, writing their own ratings and reviews, or even publishing their own sequels.
We are getting students reading again by providing them with relevant, compelling books that are delivered in an appealing and interactive way.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?
L: The most uplifting part of this journey is seeing the Story Shares solution work! I always love hearing from educators and parents who reach out to share successes: students skipping recess to write prequels to their favourites stories; teens who are typically averse to books asking to read ahead to find out what happens next.
On the writer side, it is beyond inspiring to engage with these writers who are eager to contribute their work to serve struggling readers. I have been amazed by their generosity of spirit: it is one of the fundamental elements making this approach effective.
Our growing user base, on both sides of the equation, feels like a growing community building a library and reaching more and more students each day. These things are the fuel that drives us forward.
I: What has been most challenging part?
L: There are many challenges around starting a new organisation, and also around addressing a complex problem like this one. There have been a lot of unknowns: questions I didn’t feel equipped to answer or decisions I didn’t feel equipped to make.
This is a journey that has required a blend of confidence and humility, flexibility and focus. Because we are a small team, we needed to be adaptive at each new turn, to fulfil for the roles required of us.
I’m the executive director, for example, but when the situation dictates it, I’m also the human resources department, the grant writer, the editor. Perhaps the most challenging part is remaining both steadfast and reflective in a rapidly changing environment. As we scale, we will continue to encounter new questions and problems, and we’re committed to executing, but also learning, every step of the way.
I: Any advice for young entrepreneurs and young readers out there?
L: To young entrepreneurs: you never know where opportunity may present itself so you may not feel ready to dive in. If you discover an area where you can do something new and make a difference, pursue it. Don’t let fear of the unknown get in the way.
To young readers: reading opens a world of possibilities. It is a fundamental skill, one that you will use in so many areas of your life. It enables you to educate yourself, to communicate with others, to connect with characters and situations that make you feel understood, that push your thinking, or that challenge the world you know. It can be difficult and discouraging, but once you overcome that, it is a tool for life. It is worth investing in this skill!
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).