Volunteers read to students from the book “Dot Buys a Bike,” which discusses media literacy using a chicken trying to buy a new bicycle. (Photos by Jayden Simmons)
USC’s literary outreach program, Cocky’s Reading Express, stopped at A.C. Moore Elementary School on Tuesday to teach kids about news literacy.
The book they read was “Dot Buys a Bike,” written by Rebekah Friedman, a writer for the communications and marketing department at the University of South Carolina.
She said she wrote the book to make young children more aware of misinformation, especially as more of them begin to use social media.
“When we asked the second-graders today how many of them were familiar with YouTube, every single hand shot up,” Friedman said. “It’s important that we begin having those conversations early.”
Friedman’s book follows the story of Dot the chicken, who is buying a new bike, but animals around the city start a rumor about her buying a sports car.
What started as a crossing guard asking Dot about her buying a new sports car turned into social media posts talking about Dot’s driving abilities, whether or not she has a license and who she drives with. Soon, nobody knew the truth, that Dot was just looking for a new bike.
Kids at A.C. Moore participated by saying, “Did you hear about Dot the Chicken?” every time the sports car was shown.
Friedman said one of the challenges that went into writing was trying to communicate misinformation in a way that makes sense to young children.
“We’re so used to using big words like ‘misinformation,’ and sometimes we have to kind of scale it down to their level,” Friedman said. “And so that is why we wanted to tell the story with lots and lots of illustrations and to use things that they’re familiar with, like YouTube, Instagram, various types of social media that they see every day in their lives.”
Cocky’s Reading Express started 15 years ago as a USC student government project focused on addressing literacy concerns across the state, coordinator Valerie Byrd Fort said.
Byrd Fort said USC student volunteers, staff members such as Friedman, and USC mascot Cocky focus on elementary students. They read to students ranging from kindergarten through second-grade and can have crowds of up to 600 students at a time.
“Cocky comes out in the middle of those stories, and then surprises the kids and acts out the books,” Byrd Fort said.
Students at A.C. Moore, located on Rosewood Drive in downtown Columbia, spoke with Friedman as well as Marius Valdes, the book’s illustrator.
The program is housed in the university’s College of Information and Communications, which includes the journalism program, so Byrd Fort said the book choice was very important to her.
“It’s so easy to have fake information on the internet and to doctor photos and to change videos,” Byrd Fort said. “It’s really important to have at a young age kids understanding how to evaluate that information.”
At the end of a trip, Cocky gives each student an ‘I Promise’ sticker, calling for every student to promise to read daily. At A.C. Moore, each student was also given a book of their choice to keep.
“The idea behind the sticker is that a grown-up will ask them, ‘What’s up with that? What did you promise?’” Byrd Fort said. “Then they’ll talk about how important reading is and that they promised Cocky that they’d read every day.”
Volunteering is open to any USC student or staff or faculty member. Anyone interested in participating can contact Byrd Fort via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebekah Friedman asked these second-graders how many of them used social media, such as YouTube, at home. News literacy is important for kids already on the internet, she said.
Volunteers with Cocky’s Reading Express travel to elementary schools, reading and acting out scenes from books.
Kids also got a chance to meet the illustrator, Marius Valdes, of a book they had read. The illustrations help convey the importance of news literacy in a way kids can understand, the volunteers said.
The star of the show was USC mascot Cocky. He surprised the kids and acted out the stories alongside Valerie Byrd Fort and other volunteers.