Kyle Morris ’72
One day in the early 2000s, Kyle Morris ’72 was sitting in his New York City apartment when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was Richie Havens, the folk music legend who opened Woodstock and made music history with his impromptu hit, “Freedom.”
In his soulful drawl, Havens told Morris that he wanted to branch out into children’s music, but he would only do so on two conditions: If it involved Morris’s teaching methodology and, more importantly, if it involved Morris.
Morris’s response? “Come on over.”
This was the beginning of the duo’s working relationship. The pair trialed other media to promote literacy before deciding to produce an album in 2010: Richie Havens and Pals: Mixed Bag for Kids of All Ages.
Last February, Morris released a song and picture book of the same name to accompany the album. The book uses Morris’s methodology he calls Lyrics 4 Literacy, “a music-driven mentoring method that makes learning how to read as natural as singing a song together.” It contains Havens’s lyrics, which readers can follow along with as they sing the tunes.
The songs aren’t the same bubblegum pop found on many children’s albums, Morris notes. Instead, they’re reminiscent of the soulful sounds Havens created on his other records.
The two had met years before when Morris, a screenwriter by trade, was trying to cast Havens in an off-Broadway play. (Morris has commissioned screenplays for Time Warner, Fox, and Disney.) Even back then, Morris said, Havens was interested in the work he was doing for children’s literacy, an issue near and dear to Morris’s heart.
“He was just magical to be with,” Morris said of the late Havens, who died in 2013.
Using music as a vehicle for learning isn’t a new idea, but through Lyrics 4 Literacy, Morris hopes to help children harness that way of learning. The song and picture book is more than just a book, he said, it’s a whole teaching method.
“The only physical activity that activates every bit of the human brain all at once is music,” Morris says. That’s why we remember lyrics to songs we loved from years ago, but not small details from our daily lives, he explains.
In addition to lyrics, the book also includes activities that give adults the chance to have one-on-one time with children. The activities were created with the help of elementary school teachers.
Children’s literacy is a subject Morris had been interested in for a long time. “I made this promise to the universe that I was going to do something about literacy and children in honor of someone I loved very much who’s no longer here,” he says. “It was something I had in my heart.”
With the album and book, he’s kept that promise. He hopes to expand his literacy outreach through more books, including ones with varying genres and activities.
Today, in Morris’s living room, a photo of Havens hangs on the wall, not far from where Morris took that life-changing phone call.
“Everything I’m doing with this is a reflection of what we believed in,” Morris said.
For more information on Morris’s book, visit his website, SharingWorld.com.
— Rebecca Docter