Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crossed Out

Kids don't read.

This statement is so overused and hackneyed it's akin to a pair of frayed shoes, scuffed and scraped to the point where the soles are falling apart from overuse. "Kids don't read" is no longer an opinion, its an unquestioned fact, passing beyond the world of cliche and into the realm of truism.

My first year I was teaching a phonetics class designed for elementary school students as part of the LANGUAGE! program. Unfortunately, the class was filled with unruly high school freshman who rebelled at the thought of having to read Dr. Seuss and Dick and Jane. One of them insisted that he read "as good" as any other student at the school.

I'd taught the class for weeks, and by this point the kids are in open revolt. It's the end of the day, they don't want to be there, and as a new teacher I'm fresh meat. I'm about to to lose my temper.

"Than let's see how a general ed student reads." I declared grandly.

Outside the bungalow I spotted a teenager wearing a black Metallica T-shirt slouching across the quad. "Hey kid!" I called out. "C'mere, I need you for something."

As the teenager approached, braces glinting in the afternoon sun, my class of special ed students began to freak out, terrified at the thought of being embarrassed in front of a student from general ed. In a school of 5000 students, there is anonymity, but there isn't a special ed student alive who isn't terrified of being "outed"; of being thought of as dumb.

My students covered their heads, raised up their hoods, retreating to the back of the room - one ran and hid in the closet. When Metallica gets to my room I handed him one of the phonetics books.

"Read this."

Metallica stared at the book, confused. A second later he made an attempt to read it.


The class cracked up, backs straightening, terror evaporating, fear gone in an instant. My student in the closet leapt outward, bounding up to the front of the room.

"You see, Mister!" she laughs. "You see! We do read as good as all the other kids."

I shouldn't have been surprised.
Kids don't read.

By my second year I realized part of the problem was lack of reading material, what was available was either too easy or too difficult. Precious little was in the comprehension "sweet spot", easy enough to be decoded, but interesting enough to be challenging. I scoured book rooms and searched book stores in a never ending quest for stories that would spark interest.

There wasn't much. The district claims they have identified 4,700 books that are high interest, low readability material, but that is a gross exaggeration.

I put the number at less than ten. House on Mango Street, Holes, The Outsiders, A Child Called It - how many times can I teach the same novel? Animal Farm? Too abstract. To Kill a Mockingbird? Too different, the deep South might as well be science fiction and take place on Mars. For the majority of the students, even vampire goth drivel like Twilight is a challenge.

After a few years, it occurred to me that perhaps I should begin writing my own stories. After all, who knows their audience better?

Once upon a time, before I was a teacher, I was a writer.

I decided to write a survival story about a student who is afraid to come to school because he doesn't want to get "jumped" by a rival gang. Each chapter was kept to a few pages, written in 14 font with shorter margins and wide spaces to make it easier for struggling readers. Unlike most novels, I was writing in a setting that "mirrored" the students world, an inner city high school, a story that kids could immediately pick up, access, and understand.

They devoured the first chapter. What happens next, Mister! What happens next! I wrote a second chapter from the point of view of a girl who secretly has a crush on the kid hiding from the gang, then a third chapter from a "stoners" perspective. By the time I get to the goth girl in chapter 7, I was starting to realize I had a book.

And so Crossed Out: A City Tales Novel, was born.

I passed out some of the chapters to other special ed teachers, and almost instantly they wanted their own classroom sets. The book became viral, taking on a life of its own as it wound its way through the school. Soon regular ed teachers were asking about the book, eager to offer it to their own struggling readers.

Crossed Out isn't just a book for special ed, it's a book for ESL and anyone in developmental reading. It's a book for all the students who read below grade level, for every kid who has never read a novel, who doesn't have books at home, who has parents that are functionally illiterate.

Crossed Out is a book for over half the LAUSD school district.

Students approach me in the hallways now, some I know, others are strangers.

"I love your book, Mister!"
"Hey, Leiken! Good book."
"Hey teacher! Did you write that book? It's awesome!"

I acknowledge them with a smile a wave. For some students, Crossed Out is the first book they have ever finished.

A few even want to take the book home, refusing to let go, fingers glued to the pages.

"Can I take it home Mr. Leiken?" Sam says. "I promise to return it."

Normally I would say no. The copies I have keep on disappearing, but in Sam's case, a demote who should be a senior, I'll make an exception. I've never seen him excited about anything, at least anything to do with reading or school.

He returns the book the next day.

"It was excellent, Mister. Best book I've read."

Sam is a slow reader. At 180 pages, I'm a little surprised he could finish Crossed Out that quickly. "You finished it in one day?" I ask. "How long did it take you to read it?"

"It took me all night, but I couldn't put it down!"

A student reading for fun? A student reading for pleasure? It's not possible.

Because kids don't read.


  1. They read about themselves, and you made that happen for them as a writer and a teacher:)

    So proud of you, son.



  2. Your stories keep making me cry!!!