For students living on L.A.’s Skid Row, a book to improve literacy and inspire
The streets of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. Image by Matthew Savino.

For students living on L.A.’s Skid Row, a book to improve literacy and inspire

Alumnus Dan Johnson teaches reading skills to homeless students in Los Angeles with a textbook he created to speak to their experiences. [4 min read]
ByMichelle Boston

When Dan Johnson began teaching a literacy course for adults at the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood, he was new to the profession. Most often he worked as a freelance writer, penning articles for the Los Angeles Downtown News, L.A. Weekly, Salon and the like.

The students in Johnson’s class were in the organization’s education program, beefing up their literacy skills to prepare them for the workforce and other endeavors. The reading materials he was given to teach them with were for an eighth-grade equivalency. They were structured to prepare middle schoolers for standardized tests.

“It felt like I was spending a lot of time — an inordinate amount of time — teaching a test that these guys would never have to take,” Johnson said.

So Johnson, a long-time resident of downtown Los Angeles whose professional writing mainly focuses on the city itself, got the idea to retool his students’ reading materials. He reached out to writers he knew and writers he admired to pull together a collection of essays, short stories and other texts that he thought would be more relevant to his students, touching on the neighborhood where they live and experiences that mirror their day-to-day life.

“It just seemed like an obvious choice to work towards creating a body of work these men could really sink their teeth into,” Johnson said.

The final product, which he dubbed The Skid Row Reader, includes essays on Los Angeles, homelessness, historical analyses, and other topics — even the Gettysburg Address — meant to inspire questions and stoke curiosity in its readers.

Portrait Right

Dan Johnson with a copy of The Skid Row Reader. Photo by Danny Kaminsky.

Rooted in history

Johnson built the textbook on the three themes: history, perception and context. The idea has roots in his history studies at USC Dornsife.

“In creating a document for students on Skid Row, I was hoping to not only seduce them into critical thinking, but to help them see themselves in their social and physical environment,” Johnson explained. Part of that, he says, was letting his students know that every piece was written with intent — and that the intent is based on perception.

“Nowhere do you see that in any more stark colors than in history,” he said.

Johnson, who earned his bachelor’s degree from USC Dornsife in 2008, felt compelled to study history from the get-go when he came to USC.

“Of all the interesting choices, I’ve never been drawn to any subject more than history,” he said. “It’s such an important way of looking at the world, and it is definitely also a great way to disabuse yourself of any notion that you know it all.”

He worked closely with a number of professors during his undergraduate studies including Professor of History William Deverell, who directs the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West at USC Dornsife.

Deverell kept in contact with Johnson over the years and provided financial support for the production of The Skid Row Reader through the institute. Johnson also received funds for the project from the Vera Campbell Foundation.

“Dan has always struck me as an extremely imaginative thinker,” Deverell said. “I’ve always been interested in what he’s been up to, and the literacy work that he does with the homeless population in L.A. is as important as it is inspiring.”

A simple measure of success

Since implementing the textbook in his class, Johnson has seen a noticeable difference in participation — more students are staying awake during their lunchtime meetings to discuss the works in the reader.

Once the course moved from the previous materials, which required students to answer multiple-choice questions after reading a selection, to the new system, where Johnson insisted they ask questions about the reading throughout the course of a lesson, there was a lot more back and forth between the teacher and students.

“I said, ‘Let me know whenever you have questions or want to talk about something or if you see a word you don’t know. We’re just going to skin this cat one sentence at a time.’ That drastically improved the rate of sleepiness in class.”

A sense of dignity and hope

Of the homeless population living in Los Angeles county, 1 in 10 people who lack a “fixed, regular or adequate place to sleep” make the streets of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles their home, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Johnson hopes the reader can help his students find dignity — and hope — in their struggle.

“Being able to work in a medium like that, in a place steeped in that context, where there are so many complexities and so many challenges, it’s invigorating to know that there are important things happening in a small way on the streets where you live. There’s a sense of opportunity that many different things can be accomplished here.”