When Erin McChesney went to her principal with a new book for her high school English students, he was skeptical.
Consider the cover. The title, “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.,” is scrawled in a graffiti-style font. A cartoonish drawing depicts a man half-dressed in graduation regalia, half in trademark gangster attire.
But Bob Wilkerson, principal at Vista Nueva Career and Technical High School, agreed to read it. Not only did he give McChesney the green light to use it in her classroom, he assigned it to his entire staff to read during last year’s summer break. And after McChesney scraped together funds to bring the book’s author, Victor Rios, to campus, Wilkerson relished a day of watching his students engage so deeply in an educational opportunity.
“You know what? I’ve got to get these kids to read. I’ve got to help them read better,” said Wilkerson, a longtime educator. “What I have to think about – within reason – is what is best for my students. And if they’re going to read that – if they’re going to read the autobiography of Derek Jeter – I’m OK with that, because they’re reading.”
On Wednesday, Rios – a former Oakland gangster who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara – spent the morning at the continuation high school sharing his story and fielding questions about his path from gangs to academia. Speaking to an audience primarily filled with students of color from the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the East Del Paso Heights campus, Rios spoke of his family’s struggles spanning from Mexico to a drug-infested Oakland neighborhood. He talked about poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, dropping out of a school system that did not engage him – and the teacher from that system who ultimately inspired him.
Sounds like a good learning experience. Additionally, it is good to see a sociologist using his work and life to help inspire others.
What other sociology texts might be similarly inspiring to high school students? Perhaps books of a similar ilk, ones that are both personal and interesting in terms of explaining social phenomena not easily understood, would work. Is appealing more to high schooler’s sense of identity formation and construction the way to go or can some of them understand a more structural approach? If I remember correctly, the sociology class offered at my high school (which I did not take) tended to rely on pop sociology books like Fast Food Nation.