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World-Renowned Artist Jeff Koons Visits NYC Classroom to Share New Literacy Game

Amid nationwide reading crisis, company Clever Noodle launches game based on science of reading, incorporating Koons's art.

First graders present artist Jeff Koons with drawings and birthday cards, celebrating the 30th birthday of his famous sculpture, Balloon Dog.

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In a brightly lit classroom in midtown Manhattan, first grader Scarlett turned to her tablemates, picked up a playing card and said, “OK, it’s my turn!”

Flipping the card over, she began to read. “When,” she said. “W-H-E-N.” She placed the card back on the table and announced she wanted to keep going.

“Good job!” Madison Schwab, her first-grade co-teacher responded.

She tried another one. “Fret. F-R-E-T,” she carefully and triumphantly sounded out. 

Scarlett and her Success Academy classmates, all sitting in clusters of three or four, were playing a new literacy game called Popped!. 

A work of art in the “Apocalypse” exhibition by American Jeff Koons of a huge red balloon dog at the Royal Academy in London on September 22, 2000. (Hugo Philpott/ Getty Images)

At the next table, a group of students chatted with one of the game’s creators: world-renowned artist Jeff Koons, whose famous sculpture, Balloon Dog, just turned 30 and serves as the game’s mascot. 

“There is a tremendous problem with education,” Koons bluntly told The 74 in an interview Thursday, referring to reading instruction. Of the science of reading, which the game is meant to bolster, he said, “I think it’s wonderful.”

Popped! was created in collaboration with , a company that promotes literacy through table-top games. Jacquelyn Davis founded Clever Noodle after she noticed her son, Madden, struggling to read during the pandemic. 

A former teacher and school leader, she began creating games, which she says are based on the science of reading and its emphasis on phonics instruction, to get her son back on track. At the encouragement of Madden’s teacher, Davis said she decided to fill the need for other students as well. 

“We want reading to be so much fun that they don’t even know they’re learning,” Davis added. “And that’s why we’re beyond grateful that Mr. Koons is going to work with us.”

First grader Scarlett plays Popped! with her classmates. (Amanda Geduld)

In the first-grade classroom, Tanisha, 7, sat at a table in the back, surrounded by colorful posters and signs. Of Popped! she said, “I think it’s fun because I like reading, and I like reading books, too.” Her favorites? Ƶ Fly Guy and Elephant Piggy series. 

Tanisha packed up the game and headed to the rug where Koons was presented with drawings and cards to celebrate Balloon Dog’s big birthday. 

The father of seven thanked the students for their artwork saying, “Each one of these is so special … we are all artists.”

“When you see the blue dog in the future,” he continued, “it’s smiling back at you.”

Clever Noodle released Popped! in the midst of a nationwide literacy crisis and a reckoning with how schools have historically taught reading. As of April, 38 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws or implemented policies related to evidence-based literacy instruction that broadly fall under the science of reading umbrella, according to an   

Davis noted that they were excited to bring the game to Success Academy because they were already integrating the best practices of evidence-based literacy instruction. Since its founding in 2006, the 55-public school charter network, the largest in New York, has used a phonics program for all kindergarten and first grade students. 

Koons and Davis are hoping to extend this sort of learning that is also exciting to other students through the game. 

Koons has his own reading story. He shared that he grew up with a mild astigmatism, a curve in the eye’s surface which blurs vision, which made reading challenging and, he believes, ultimately pulled him more towards the visual world. But, as an adult, reading greatly impacts his work. 

“When I make a body of work I look back and think, ‘Oh, I was reading this philosophical text and I was reading this novel’ … It just activates the mind.”

Koons is widely known for his stainless-steel sculptures depicting everyday objects, including the iconic Rabbit and Balloon Dog pieces. In 2019, a $91 million sale of his Rabbit sculpture set a new , for a living artist. 

Davis relayed that when Koons was younger, he felt intimidated and not welcomed when he walked into a museum. His response was to make art that was accessible, inviting and helped people find themselves. 

“For us, reading is that,” Davis said. “Reading makes the world accessible. Reading makes math accessible. It makes science accessible … I love that [Koons] focuses on accessibility because for me reading is about access to the world.”

“That was put so well,” the artist responded. 

As the presentation concluded, Davis announced that all of the students would get their own Popped! to bring home.

“We hope you have a great time playing … and we hope you do a lot of practice over the summer, so you can stay smart and come back to school ready.”

Disclosure: Campbell Brown sits on Success Academy network board of directors emeritus. Brown co-founded The 74 and sits on its board of directors.

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