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College of Mass Communications and Information Studies


Cocky's Reading Express celebrates 10 years of working to improve literacy in the state

Posted July 23, 2014
By Chrysti Shain, '85, journalism

Why spend your free time traveling across the state to read to kids? Because everyone loves Cocky, and it's part of our larger mission to improve literacy in South Carolina. (And it's a ton of fun.)


Want to be part of the most exciting service program at USC? Sign on to Cocky's Reading Express™.

You'll get to travel around the state with Cocky, read cool books to kids and best of all, you'll see first-hand what it feels like to make a difference in a child's life.

"It seems so simple: Go into a school. Read. Give them a book," says Kim Jeffcoat, director of Cocky's Reading Express. "But the fact that it's Cocky — it's hard to imagine the impact that he has."

Cocky's Reading Express, one of the outreach programs based at the S.C. Center for Children's Books and Literacy, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It's part of a larger strategy at the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies to help improve literacy in South Carolina called Children, Libraries and Literacy. And it has some numbers to crow about (crow, get it?)

  • 70,000 books given to school children.
  • More than 13,000 miles logged in across the state.
  • More than 1,250 student volunteers.
  • Visited schools in all of S.C.'s 46 counties, and some counties many times.

Making a difference and having fun at the same time? It's all part of the plan.

"The minimum expectation we have of you is to change the world and leave it a better place," says Dr. Samantha Hastings, director of the School of Library and Information Science.

Getting involved

Cocky's Reading Express is a partnership between our college and USC's student government. Any student can volunteer to spend a few hours, a day or more. And it's fun (did you get that part yet?)

"We want to instill in them the desire to serve, and the students who come just love it, love it, love it," Jeffcoat says. 'Sometimes students will come once. but most often, once they come, they're hooked.

Students who might not ever have been to other parts of South Carolina get to see the state up close in a way they could never experience in a lecture hall. They also get a cool T-shirt, plus they sometimes get to represent the university at other events.

Student volunteers who had logged the most miles with Cocky last year got to go to the 2014 Outback Bowl, march in the parade and give out books to kids in Tampa.

"It's a great way for us to show university students what service is all about," Jeffcoat says.

So here's how it goes down: When Cocky visits an elementary school, the kids don't know he's coming. Students from kindergarten through second grade are brought into an assembly area — a gym or auditorium. Some USC students come out and start reading a book or two to the crowd. Then they ask for volunteers to help. And of course, out pops Cocky.

"The room just goes wild," Jeffcoat says. "The energy shifts. It's something we've found to be quite powerful. It's really is like a wall of energy.

Cocky, as you probably know, doesn't speak, so he helps act out the stories while the USC students read.

"He's not just hopping up and down waving his beak," she says. "He's interacting with the stories. He knows what's coming next.

At the end of the visit, each child gets a book. And he asks them to make a promise: Read every day.

It's amazing how well it works. Shortly after a visit from Cocky, librarian Susan Morris ran into a first grader at the grocery store in their rural Calhoun County town.

"The first thing he told me was that he has already read his new book he got from Cocky," says Morris, who works at St. Matthews K-8 School. "He said 'I am keeping my promise to Cocky and reading. Do you think Cocky can see us reading at home like Santa does.

"As a media specialist, my goal is to instill of love of reading with all our students," Morris says. "Participating in this … has truly made an impact to help with sharing the love of reading." 

In the past 10 years, Cocky's Reading Express has expanded some of its programs to involve the whole family. Sometimes visits are scheduled at night, with separate programs for the kids and parents. For instance, Cocky might read a book about fractions to the kids while the parents hear from a banker about budgeting. Or the kids might read a book about nutrition while the parents get a cooking demonstration from USC First Lady Patricia Moore-Pastides.

"Our goal is to take what we know works with Cocky's Reading Express and reach out to multiple generations," Jeffcoat says.

The rest of the story

Cocky's Reading Express is only part of the college's three-part strategy to increase our literacy footprint in South Carolina. Before Cocky and his friends hit the road, the center's role in evaluating books helps choose what will best serve a particular school.

The center houses a working collection of children's literature and evaluates books for school libraries across the state.

"We watch what's trending in children's publishing, get books, and see how to match them with schools," Jeffcoat says. "That gives us the basis to be able to have the successful literacy outreach, which is Cocky's Reading Express.

The third part of the strategy is a partnership with USC Press to publish a series of books for children and young adults written by S.C. authors. The books mainly are historical, but told in a modern way.

"Very often the only books that exist about a certain part of South Carolina history were written 50 years ago," Jeffcoat says. "The faces of South Carolina children are not the same as in the '60s and '70s. We're publishing the books that don't exist that tell the stories of South Carolina."

Will some of those books be the ones Cocky gives out? Yes, when the topic fits the school's needs.

"We're really trying to raise the literacy in that larger sense of the word."

Want to volunteer for Cocky's Reading Express? Contact Christine Shelek at christineshelek@sc.edu