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This week, we had heroes rush to extinguish a fire and lose their lives in an effort to keep the fertilizer plant in West from exploding. We had smart law enforcement identify and battle bombers. We crowned Kings and saluted attendant royalty who distributed medals to all heroic enough to brave the crowds of Fiesta.
But I want to write about Daniel Guerrero, a fourth grade hero at Beacon Hill Elementary.
The Pride of Beacon Hill
Daniel Guerrero is a Scholastic System 44 All-Star, one of 12 students in the nation presented with the award, the first student from San Antonio to win. Beacon Hill celebrated Daniel Tuesday with his classmates raising signs and a raucous cheer, news media recording, the company handing out oversized checks and Clifford the Big Red Dog giving out books for kids to take home.
Each year, the textbook company holds an essay contest wherein kids submit stories of their experience with Scholastic products. According to his essay, Daniel had a lot of difficulty with reading. He struggles with dyslexia.
After first grade, Daniel was assigned to assistance with his reading. He was defiant, embarrassed that he had to go to a “special” class. Angry and frustrated, he acted out. Then he started System 44. Joni Vara, a literary solutions project manager for Scholastic, said the program is designed for challenged readers.
“System 44 is a breakthrough program that invites our most challenged (reading below the 25th percentile) older students (grades 3-12) to join the community of readers. The program provides research-based instruction using highly motivating, adaptive technology, explicit instruction and age-appropriate texts,” she said Friday. SAISD Special Education employs System 44 in 32 elementary schools and 14 middle schools.
In an interview on Thursday, Daniel said he started with Hunt & Kill, a book about what different animals eat and how they protect themselves.
“Hunt & Kill was very easy to read, but it was also interesting. I liked that book a lot. Now I’m working hard on the books. They get harder and harder. I’m in book 34 (of 36 books in the series), and there are chapters. But I’m working hard – I won’t give up,” Daniel said.
Daniel’s reading intervention teacher is Erin Pawlicki, in her first year with SAISD after eight years of special education teaching in the Austin and Hays County school districts.
“Daniel has really developed good reading comprehension, and he’s an expert in the books. When one of the other children tell him which book they’re reading, he says, ‘Oh, yeah, that book is about…’ and he knows it,” Pawlicki said.
Remove the Obstacles, Change the Behavior
In his essay and in conversation, Daniel says that the books have changed his attitude.
“I used to have anger problems,” Daniel said in his essay (audio link of Daniel reading his essay). “Reading these books helped me calm down.” Pawlicki noticed the difference.
“Daniel was a challenging student, defiant and upset at being sent to a special class. But he had already started on the System 44 books, and he seemed to really like them. When he would get upset in class, I would just hand him one of the books, and he would go and read,” she said.
A Talent for Expression
Last week in her wonderful guest post, Nan Cuba wrote that one can teach writing techniques and provide a guide to literary models, but “you can’t teach talent.” Writing has been a challenge for Daniel.
“His spelling was terrible, and he hated long words – he kind of rushed through them. But focusing on the books has made a big difference in his writing. He’s more patient with multi-syllabic words,” Pawlicki said.
But when she told her students about the essay contest, Daniel came up the next day and “blurted out” his essay. Pawlicki helped him get it down and typed.
“Daniel is very expressive. He has really thought about this, and he recognizes how the program has worked for him. His essay is very accurate and reflects his experience. I wasn’t surprised when he won – I knew it was perfect,” Pawlicki said.
In Daniel’s words, “I have made a lot of growth.”
As we read about test scores and how our schools are “performing,” we sometimes overlook that education is a process of one student at a time. Many SAISD schools have active mentoring programs, where volunteers from the community come to the school and spend time with a student – just 30 minutes a week. Daniel’s mentor is David Williams, a retiree who is one of about 20 volunteers from University Presbyterian Church. Williams said that 30 minutes a week isn’t much time to make an impact, but Daniel sees it differently.
“Mr. Williams is a really good mentor. He took me to the Witte Museum to learn about stuff. And he helped me study for the STAAR test. I told him I was worried about the test, and he told me, ‘Calm down. When you get too stressed out, take a break, close your eyes and think about something else. Then open your eyes and you can work.’ It helps a lot. I tried that on the writing – when I have to write something, I calm down and just start,” Daniel told me.
Beacon Hill Principal Rhea “Trace” Mahbubani said mentors play an important role in each student’s development. “Mentoring is much needed. We want to introduce our children to adults who have higher education, who can know what a university is like and share that expectation. Having somebody who cares about them (the students), who can focus in on them as an individual – there’s no other experience that’s more life changing for a child than to have somebody care about you,” Mahbubani said in a volunteer’s video, Light Up a Life, Be a Mentor.
If Daniel builds on this success and continues as a writer, he will be in good company. F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, Dav Pilkey (author of Captain Underpants) and Jeanne Betancourt (the Pony Pals series) are but a few of the accomplished writers who have achieved success despite – or perhaps with the assistance of – their dyslexia.
Victor Villaseñor, author of Rain of Gold, describes dyslexia as a gift that allowed him to see things differently. In Burro Genius: A Memoir, he wrote that dyslexia “allowed me to see patterns that other people couldn’t see. In high school, it was very difficult at first for me to learn how to play chess, but then once I learned, I quickly became the best chess player at our whole school, even beating our faculty and some of them thought they were great chess players.” For this quote from Villaseñor and 24 successful writers who overcame reading difficulties, see this article.
Yes, I’m Writing about Heroes Again
We have experienced tragedy and the work of first responders this week, and there’s plenty of comedy to be had in the Fiesta events celebrating the heroes of San Jacinto. But as we wrote a few weeks ago, the real heroes are the people who get up every morning and work to defeat the obstacles in their lives. There are often friends and systems to support the struggle. In Daniel’s case, he has teachers, a school system, a well-designed educational product and a mentor in his corner.
But Daniel does the “hard work” and he refuses to give up. The All-Star award came with benefits for himself and for his school. That’s exciting, but Daniel might agree that the real reward is learning to read and write, developing a channel for his powerful talent. Good job Daniel, good job teachers, good job SAISD. You make every student count.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a grandfather. He is half of Extraordinary Words, providing compelling copywriting, marketing communications and editorial services. You can read more of his writing on his personal blog and by searching The Rivard Report for Every Word Counts.