“Hey, Miss, did you know Gucci has a book? I want to read it.”
“Really? You are telling me you actually want to read book?”
“Yeah, but only that one.”
I go to my computer, click on Amazon, and look for a new book by Gucci. I find:
These cannot be the books Daniel is talking about. I know this kid. He was in my junior English class last year — part of the class with the tissue issue, and now I had him as a senior.
“How do you know Gucci has a book?” I asked.
“I saw it on his Instagram,” Daniel said, showing me his phone.
Dear Reader, you are ahead of me on this, aren’t you?
I admit to being on the edge of old. I had no idea before this conversation with this student that his Gucci was not handbags and luxury leather goods. Because Daniel tends to mumble, it took me a while to figure out he was referring to Gucci Mane.
Daniel’s favorite rapper had a new book.
So I bought it.
When I first met Daniel, we had trouble. He sat in the back of the room, fake reading, sleeping, tossing pencils, goofing off so others laughed. I moved him to the front, and he slid low in his chair and sulked. Every day. And every day when I conferred with readers, I leaned over Daniel’s shoulder and asked what I could do to help him want to be a part of my class.
Eventually, he responded. He told me he’d read Gary Soto’s books in 10th grade. I wasn’t sure I could believe him, fake-reading tough guy and all, but I passed him the two Soto books I have in my library. He read them both.
Then, he started reading Matt de la Pena’s books. Ball Don’t Lie took Daniel a long time to get through, but he finished it and started Mexican Whiteboy. I’m pretty sure he read four books that semester — more than he’d ever read in his 16 years.
In conferences I asked Daniel about his life outside of school. He told me he wanted to work on cars like his brother and that he took the bus to the career center after my class every day, so he could take courses in auto mechanics. Based on our conversations, I do not think another general ed teacher had ever talked to this young man about what mattered to him: cars.
In education, we hear about the importance of building relationships a lot, and my experience with Daniel is a testament to the power of taking the time to get to know a student. Because he knew I cared, Daniel started to care about his English class. He began asking for help and coming to tutorials. He started showing up in spirit and not just as a warm body slumped in a chair. He felt like he belonged.
Did Daniel excel? Not exactly. But he passed, which was something a bit surprising to both of us after his I’m-too-cool-for-school-to-do-anything rocky start.
Flash forward to this year. I moved to senior English, and Daniel got his original schedule changed so he could be in my class. He walked in my room the first day with the same too-cool attitude. (Appearances are everything, and I know this game.) Again, I gently started conversations.
When Daniel scored an A on his first essay, he pretty much called me a liar. On his
next essay, he told me he stayed up all night so his brother could help him, so he wouldn’t show up to class empty handed. When we did a project on careers, and he presented to the class, Daniel spoke with confidence and detail about the field of auto mechanics. He’s read at least two books this fall and a lot of articles in The Wall Street Journal. This past Friday he came to tutorials for an hour, so I could review what he needed to do to pass his last state exam so he can graduate this spring. I don’t know if he will, but I sure hope so.
There are thousands of young men like Daniel in our schools. I wonder if teachers have the time, resources, and energy to give them the attention they need. There are 28 students in Daniel’s class this year. There were 32 in his class last fall.
There is one of me.
I cannot help but think of the famous starfish story. You know the one that ends with “I made a difference to that one.” I know I’ve made a difference to Daniel. I still call him a punk. He still mumbles when he talks to me. But he knows I like him. I really like him. And he even let me interview him, so you can like him, too. (The smile at the end is the best part.)
Choice matters! If you are reading this post, you probably already believe that as much as I do. I hope you do. Daniel’s story is not unique. We make a difference to many young people just like him when we open spaces for talk, engage in real conversations about what matters to them, and allow for self-selected reading in our instruction.
I would love to hear the stories of your Daniels. Please share in the comments.
Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. She spends a ton of money on books with the hope of helping every child develop as a reader. And while she does not listen to rap, she does learn a lot from those who do. Follow her @amyrass