A Downtown Man Created a Textbook to Help People on Skid Row Learn to Love Reading

A literacy teacher and his students needed something new

When downtown resident Dan Johnson began teaching a once-weekly literacy course at the Midnight Mission in March 2015, he noticed what he describes as a “huge discrepancy” between the needs of the students and the materials that were being used to tutor them.


“You can get a lot of idealistic stuff over on eighth graders,” Johnson observes, but although many of the men in class hadn’t advanced beyond that reading level, they couldn’t relate to essays and comprehension exercises designed for middle schoolers. Many had slipped through society’s safety nets and were coming up from homelessness; and they’d all elected into the reading class as part of a 12-step program.

“It was a formulaic find-the-answer game,” he says, referring to a curriculum crafted largely for kids preparing to take the SAT or another standardized test. “In the end you don’t retain a lot of the factual material you read. …There was not sufficient engagement to keep them on a footing to experience good literacy improvement.”

Courtesy Dan Johnson

In late January of this year, Johnson—a production assistant and freelance writer who, full disclosure, has written for publications where I previously worked—began teaching students using The Skid Row Reader, a textbook he published with the help of local writers and $2,000 in grants from the Vera Campbell Foundation and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. All of the writers donated their work, and the grant money covered graphic design and printing. “It struck me that something a little bit more couched in a world that these students were familiar with would be a big benefit,” Johnson explains.

The Skid Row Reader has an agenda and it says so in the intro: “[This book] is meant to seduce you into loving books. Our greatest hope is that it will inspire you to ask questions, stoke wonder, and follow your curiosity. …Pull any of the thousand threads of knowledge in the pages and beyond and you’ll discover a host of new perspectives on your city, your world, and your life.”

The book centers on three themes—history, perception, and context—and combines digestible, mostly L.A.-centric essays on relevant people and events, historical writings (“The Gettysburg Address,” for instance), and essays on subjects like bias that students can actively use as they (ideally) continue to absorb the written word elsewhere. Notably, Randall Blythe, lead singer of the metal band Lamb of God, contributed an essay about moving West and living on the streets; Johnson himself contributed several essays under a pseudonym.  

“I certainly don’t have the market cornered on teaching people how to read,” Johnson says. “Innumerable people have figured similar things out. I just made it a little more formal with a perfect-bound book.”

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