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To Make High Schoolers Want To Read, Miami Teacher Makes It A Competition

Daniel Dickey. Photo- John O'Connor, WLRN
Daniel Dickey. Photo- John O'Connor, WLRN

Miami Northwestern High School English teacher Daniel Dickey has found a way to make his 10th graders brag about their reading skills.

Mischael Saint-Sume and Ciji Wright tease each other about who's going to read one million words first -- a contest Dickey created.

“Did you put him in his place?" Dickey asked Wright. "Because Mischael, he’s popping in my classroom every day with a new book."

“Oh don’t worry about it because I’ve got plenty of books for him,” Wright replied.

“But it ends today, by the way," Saint-Sume said. “I’m going to hit a million.”

“Not if I take my test before you,” Wright said.

Dickey teaches 10th-grade writing. As a rookie teacher last year, Dickey saw too many students not pass the state writing test.

So he came up with a contest: the Million Word Campaign. He wanted each of his students to read a million words last year.

His wall is covered in student photos. A sticky note on each one tallies the number of words they’ve read. Students add to their total if they pass an oral quiz on each book.

“The look on faces when I said, 'You’re going to read a million words,' " Dickey laughs, "kids are: ‘Mr. Dickey, I’ve never read one word. I’m not reading a million words.’"

Wright has read 865,680 words so far this school year. Saint-Sume has read 992,076. Last year, Prince Cenat topped the class at 1.5 million words.

For years Northwestern was labeled a bad school, where students couldn’t read, write or do math at grade level and didn’t graduate.

Northwestern is now an A-rated school after years of work. That includes strict teaching and curriculum requirements from Miami-Dade schools.

“You’re going to come in and do a bell-ringer," Dickey says, explaining the district's requirements. "You’re going to do an ‘I do,’ where you show the kids something. A ‘We do’ – we do it together.

"And all these were great, but at no point did anyone say ‘And then we’re going to have kids read.’ In order to be a great writer you have to be a great reader.”

At 28, Dickey is older than most second-year teachers. The South Florida native says it took him a while to find himself after high school.

He kicked around New York City, trying his hand at comedy and writing.
Some of the books in Daniel Dickey's library.

One day, a neighbor’s refuse caught his eye.

“I was walking out of my apartment, about to hop on the subway," Dickey says, "and I saw there was a bunch of books in front of this stoop on my apartment."

One book jumped out.

The title was profane: “The F--- Up” by Arthur Nersesian.

“And after I read that book, I think something changed in me," Dickey says, "and I think I saw some parallels in this guy, who, he was going somewhere, but he was taking a lot of detours to get there.”

Dickey decided he wanted to finish college, eventually earning a degree from Florida Atlantic University. There, he applied to Teach For America and got the job at Northwestern.

The Million Word Campaign was his first big idea. Dickey has gathered a small library of books. If something catches a student's interest, he'll buy the book for them.

Young adult fiction is popular, like “The Hunger Games” trilogy at 301,583 words. No one has taken on David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” yet -- it's 484,001 words.

Tiondre Toomer loves biographies about leaders -- Barack Obama, Dwyane Wade, Andrew Jackson.

Bedjina Nortellus likes books about Greek mythology. Cenat got started with "The Alchemist," an adventure tale he said reminded him of his experience as an immigrant.

Another student said he wanted to make guap -- a slang term for money. So Dickey gave him a copy of "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" to read.

"He came in the next morning," Dickey says, "he said 'Mr. Dickey, I need to stop buying Nikes. I need to start buying houses. What can we do today to start making some guap?' "

But not every student dives into the challenge. Keenan James’ struggles on the state writing test started in elementary school.

“They gave me a one," he says. "Then, the next year, fourth grade, they gave me another one.”

He says he didn’t like to read or write. He prefers musical theater. He disrupted classes.

“I mean, I didn’t like Mr. Dickey at all," James says. "When I walked into that classroom I was like ‘Oh my God, who is this teacher? All he do is talk about reading and writing and I hate both of them.' "

Another teacher booted James from her class and ordered him to write an essay on disrespect. James asked Dickey for help.

James asked about the Million Word Campaign. Dickey gave the student a copy of “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. The book caught James' attention. He kept reading.

And then he got his FCAT writing test results back last year.

“The score came back and I had a four," James said. "And I was like ‘A four?’ I was like ‘Wait, wait, wait, you must have got me mixed up with somebody else, 'cause I know I ain’t got no four.' "

It was the first time he passed the test. Keenan says he couldn’t have done it with Mr. Dickey.

“For so long I felt like I accomplished something," James said. "And it felt so good.”