The chance to work with Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein and Caroline Kennedy opened Keith Meacham’s eyes to the importance of reading proficiency as an indicator of a child’s success in life. Not one to back away from a challenge, Keith helped develop an app — Learn with Homer, a platform designed to inspire children to become confident readers. Keith has traveled far and wide, only to find that her calling returns her to her Southern roots. It is with great pleasure that we introduce you to Keith Meacham.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Mississippi, but after I left for college at the University of Virginia, I spent the next 24 years away from the South — first in Northern France, where I lived and taught for a couple of years, then in Washington and then in New York, where our family spent 17 years. Moving to Nashville has been like coming home after a long time away. My husband, our three kids and I love it here.
What is the Learn with Homer app?
My very good friend and longtime colleague, Stephanie Dua, and I launched Learn with Homer with an amazing team of educators, illustrators and developers last August. Learn with Homer is a global literacy platform built for children ages 3 to 6 to help them become strong, confident readers. We cover reading skills from pre-K to first grade, provide an amazing digital library of songs and stories, and expose children to hundreds of new vocabulary words through our virtual science and history field trips (the most recent: a trip to Monticello). The app is absolutely gorgeous – with fantastic animations and Caldecott-worthy illustrations by our team of digital artists. In a couple of weeks, we’re launching a brand-new product – Homer’s Pigeon Post. It’s a safe, invitation-only family share program that allows grandparents, aunts, uncles and faraway friends to create personalized postcards online and send them through our app to the children they love.
With so much competition in the app world, what about this project piqued your interest?
Stephanie is the head and heart behind Learn with Homer, which she founded in 2012. She’s an extraordinary business and creative force, so I knew when I joined the company that we’d be building something really special. The two of us have been a team for a long time. We worked together at the New York City Fund for Public Schools under Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein and Caroline Kennedy, and then as advisors to the Common Core State Standards effort. No matter what education reform project we were working on, it seemed that every big education problem could be traced back to one hard truth: a child’s reading level by the third grade is the biggest predictor of later success. And that year after year, two-thirds of fourth-graders are reading below grade level. At the same time we were working on big policy efforts, we were also mothers to young children who were just learning to read. We’d seen amazing work in some of the best classrooms in the world, and we wanted to bring those great classrooms directly to families who were looking for something better than the standard edutainment fare out there. So Learn with Homer was born.
Read aloud. Every day. Even when your children are older. My 9-year-old and I just finished reading Harriet the Spy together. She’s a great reader, but there is something incredibly powerful about reading aloud, and every study out there shows that it increases fluency in children. Also, nonfiction deserves a place on a child’s bookshelf. The more complex vocabulary children are exposed to from subjects that are not part of their daily experience — like science and history — the better their comprehension skills will be later on.
What is your favorite children’s book?
Gosh. There are so many. But if I had to pick, I’d say Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen because of its yummy, whimsical use of language. That and The Secret Garden, which was the first real book I ever read. I spent four solid days ignoring everyone, skipping recess, reading, reading, reading because I couldn’t wait to get to the end.
I had this wonderful ninth-grade humanities teacher who was fresh out of college and so excited about the work he was doing. He pushed me to read and write and think in ways I didn’t know were possible, and in his class I learned that there is deep joy in working really, really hard. He was a Great Books guy, and to this day I am deeply grateful to him for introducing me to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and for making me memorize Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which I can still recite, much to my children’s chagrin.
What is a valuable piece of advice you have been given?
Lower the bar. I know that sounds counterintuitive in the age of “leaning in” and all that, but it is a piece of advice my father gave me years ago when I was setting an impossibly high standard for something I was working on. It has always been oddly comforting to me. It doesn’t always have to be perfect.
Your husband, Jon Meacham, just wrote an article for Time Magazine about Nashville’s popularity as a Southern city. What impresses you about Nashville these days?
We lived in New York City for 17 years while Jon was at Newsweek. The pace of our life in those years was pretty crazy, but every summer we’d pack the whole family up and decamp to Sewanee, TN, where we have a great old house. Going back to apartment living every August was really tough for all of us — no matter how exciting city life was. So about three years ago we decided to start poking around, looking at real estate, thinking about a move south. We thought it would take us years to pull the plug, but we came to Nashville to look at houses on one of those golden fall weekends when Tennessee is at the peak of its beauty. A week later we had bought a house. What we love most about Nashville is that it has this great Southern feeling and easy pace without being at all provincial.
What event are you looking forward to attending?
On May 22 and 23, Oz Contemporary Arts Center will be hosting a production of “The Suit,” a play directed by Peter Brook, created at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. It is based on a story by the South African writer Can Themba. Wow.
Is there a recent meal at a local restaurant that has wowed you?
We love The 404 Kitchen! It’s cozy and intimate with the perfect lighting, and the food is as good as anything in New York. We were there a few weeks ago, and I had burrata with Benton’s country ham — what could be more delicious?
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
The lack of sidewalks. I miss walking places.
What books are on your bedside table?
I just finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and now I’m re-reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I picked it up again because I’ve been dreaming of sunny places like Corfu, where the story is set.
Do you have any irrational fears?
Falling from a great height.
What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?
I love McDonald’s cheeseburgers.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
I know it sounds pretty boring, but Sewanee is the place I’m most happy in the world. I’d rather be on my screened porch there than just about anywhere.
What are a few things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
My J Brand jeans and ballet flats. That’s my uniform.
Thanks, Keith! For more information about Learn With Homer, visit the website: learnwithhomer.com.
Thanks also to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photographs. See more of her work here: ashleyhylbert.com.