Viral video put teacher on map – now he’s inspiring East Garfield Park 5th graders

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As the new school year kicks off, teachers and students alike may be mulling theirs over.

First-year teacher Dwayne Reed is not. According to the 26-year-old Chicago Heights native, his motivation is the children, and he’s not afraid to stand up on a desk, sing or “make a fool” of himself to let the students, staff or world know it.

“I want them to stay engaged. I’m not afraid to be goofy or make a fool of myself if that’s going to get you listening to me to tell you what 2+2 is. I’ll do it all day, every day,” Reed said during an interview in his fifth-grade classroom at East Garfield Park’s LEARN Charter School Network — Campbell Campus (212 S. Francisco Ave.)

 

It’s this enthusiasm that put the spotlight on Reed in 2016. While student teaching at Jane Stenson Elementary, he made a video to welcome fourth-graders back into the classroom. With more than 1 million hits, the video went viral and caught the eye of music artist Pharrell Williams, who used it to launch a music project for Old Navy’s ONward! platform that focuses on “taking the next generation to the next level.”

The result: eight, short music videos, written and performed by teachers across the country, with important messages for their students. Everyday educators sing about inner beauty, family, overcoming self-doubt and being yourself in music genres such as gospel, folk and rap; one tune is sung in Spanish. Reed, a current East Garfield resident, had a hand in crafting many of those songs, which can be found on YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.

“I got to work to help them craft a song that communicated to their students some of the same things I wanted to communicate to my students,” Reed said. “For me it was: “Hey, I’m fun, but we’re going to work hard.” For other people, it was family: This is the community you’re coming into. It was a massive project that I’m glad I had the opportunity to be a part of.”

Although Reed did not interact one-on-one with Pharrell Williams during the music project, Reed says he is comfortable knowing that the musician knows who he is. Next year, if the campaign re-ups, Reed would like to see celebrities get involved — like Chance the Rapper.

He mentioned that his viral video was just his attempt to connect with people he sees every day — to put parents and students at ease. He feels taking his students to the next level entails finding what they’re into, getting ahead of it and championing it. The rest, says the Stevie Wonder fan, is history.

“I’m just writing a song for my kids, and it’s crazy how you intend for certain things to do stuff, but the purpose can extend way farther than you ever imagined,” the Eastern Illinois University graduate said.

And to think, Reed used to hate his music classes. As the eldest of three growing up in the church, he was always singing, but to this day, he still considers music a hobby. He vows not to have his music videos playing on a loop in his classroom. Instead, the English language arts teacher will be showing his fifth-graders that hard work and fun can coexist. If he has a brand, it is this: Continue to engage, equip and excite learners any chance he gets.

“I don’t think you have to have musical abilities or talents to reach your kids,” Reed said. “I think that whatever makes you, you — you have to utilize that to reach your kids. It doesn’t take a lot to be great; just be you.”

drockett@chicagotribune.com