UofSC alumna Leeza Gibbons reads a book on video for Cocky's Reading Express

Bird watching: UofSC literacy efforts go virtual during COVID-19

YouTube playlist features a line-up of guest readers and Cocky

When then-student Chris Campbell traveled to an out-of-state football game 10 years ago with his fellow Gamecock track and field team members, he bumped into a fan. But his status as an athlete wasn’t why she was so excited to see him. 

“I kid you not, this little girl points at us and says ‘Mama! Mama! Those are the Cocky’s Reading Express folks,’” Campbell says with a laugh.

Cocky’s Reading Express is the university’s literacy outreach program that primarily serves pre-K through second grade students. For nearly 15 years, volunteers like Campbell — along with Cocky himself — have visited Title 1 schools across South Carolina to read books and emphasize the importance of daily reading. These are schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families. To date, the program has distributed nearly 140,000 new books in all 46 counties.

COVID-19 has meant putting a hold on in-person programming, but Cocky’s Reading Express hasn’t stopped — it’s gone online. Since April, its Virtual Storytime YouTube playlist has featured a line-up of guest readers, including former mascots, Miss Gamecock 2020, and even famed talk show host and University of South Carolina alumna Leeza Gibbons. 

“Pretty much everyone on earth started doing read-alouds,” says Cocky's Reading Express coordinator Valerie Byrd Fort. “So, this just kind of naturally grew from that because this is what we do. We share books with students and get them excited about reading.”

But the group's playlist has something other read-alouds don’t: South Carolina’s mascot. Pre-COVID, Cocky’s routine was to surprise the audience mid-program to act out the stories.

“It was a completely different atmosphere when Cocky came in the room,” Campbell says. “You could just feel the energy lift up. It was like everyone was on the edge of their seats.”

Now, Fort sends Cocky videos of the guest readers so that he can record himself acting out the books from home. The communications team at the College of Information and Communications then splices the two videos together.

“Cocky has been wonderful through this and I know he’s ready to get back on campus,” Fort says. “But this has been a really great way for him to still share books with students and read some books himself.”

Virtual read-alongs aren’t the only way the literacy initiative has shifted gears during the pandemic. In May, Cocky's Reading Express teamed up with students in a podcasting class in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications to record nearly 30 classic stories and poems for the Salvation Army and the Richland County Foster Parent Association. Those have been posted on the Cocky's Reading Express website for public viewing.

And in the fall, Cocky's Reading Express will offer virtual visits with schools. Fort says she's even exploring ways her team can drop off books.

Callie Farrell, Miss Gamecock 2020, read How Do You Dance for the playlist. The junior mass communications major first got involved with the reading program as a way to meet new people after transferring to the university as a Gamecock Gateway student. She says she misses the in-person visits but sees the new format as a chance to grow.

“We’re just going to be able to have more cool alumni volunteer and maybe even some students who aren’t comfortable going to schools,” Farrell says.

It’s been a chance to bring old volunteers back, too — even from the other side of the world. Campbell read This is Not My Hat all the way from Portugal, where he now works as an attorney. He enjoyed serving as a virtual reader and hopes others will be inspired to do the same.

“No amount of time is too small,” Campbell says. “If you want to engage, you just want to come in and read one story, just come do it. Even doing one recording is worth its weight in gold.”

And, as always, Cocky will be on hand to help.

“I hope our viewers are feeling that same element of surprise,” Fort says. “When you see Cocky, you just smile. I hope that it’s bringing a smile to their face when they see him pop up on the screen.”

Learn more

To learn more about becoming a sponsor or volunteer, visit the Cocky’s Reading Express website.

Banner image: Talk show host and University of South Carolina alumna Leeza Gibbons reads a book in a recording for Cocky’s Reading Express. Gibbons is just one of the guest readers recruited by the literacy outreach program as it has adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by creating a Virtual Storytime YouTube playlist. Each storytime features video of Cocky acting out the books as they are read.

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