Dwayne Reed, SIMON B. RHYMIN'

Dwayne Reed, SIMON B. RHYMIN'

Zibby is joined by Dwayne Reed, the teacher who went viral for his creative and educational YouTube videos, to talk about his latest book, Simon B. Rhymin’. Dwayne shares how he became an educator, what messages he wants his books to convey, and the importance of teaching children lessons that extend outside of the classroom.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dwayne. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Simon B. Rhymin’ and everything else you’re doing.

Dwayne Reed: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’m so excited to speak about Simon and everything else that’s going on.

Zibby: I have to say, this might have been the most fun interview prep I’ve ever done watching all of your YouTube videos with my kids and having us all sing around. “Welcome to the fourth grade.” We were all over it. So much fun. Thank you for that entertainment. It was awesome.

Dwayne: Thanks for scouting me out over the internet. It’s always funny when people, they say, oh, I’ve met you, kind of, sort of. Me and my kids have met you. We know all your songs. It’s always so funny. I’m like, okay, great.

Zibby: Your book was fantastic, also, just the fact that you’ve used YouTube and your amazing musical talents to reinvigorate school and teaching, especially this year where the communities of schools have just been so completely smashed apart as we’ve all been at home. Yet there you are being like, this is great, and dressing up like Albert Einstein and teaching kids how to eat healthy and teaching them how to wear masks and teaching all these things in such a fun way. I’m like, how come I can’t teach like that? It’s great. Your son is so lucky that he has you as a dad. That’s just the coolest. Tell me how this whole thing got started, both the book and your approach to teaching and rhyming. Every other page of the book is another rhyme making everything really fun and digestible. How did you get started on this whole path?

Dwayne: I like to teach the way that I like to learn, very visual, like you said, at a digestible level, at a lower level. Hey, if I can understand it, a first grader can understand it, then anybody can understand it. First graders can understand rhyme and rap. That started when I did my “Welcome to the Fourth Grade” music video. I wanted to introduce myself to my kids. I wanted to let them know the fun that they were going to be getting into. I wanted them to see that, yeah, it was going to be two plus two and ABC, but it was going to be fun and exciting. You are going to enjoy being in class every day. I thought, what better way to do that than a music video where I dress up like Albert Einstein or a music video where I’m rapping? They know, okay, my teacher’s into rap, into hip-hop. That’s how we’re going to get down. That’s where that came from way back in 2016. As you know, that went viral, Good Morning America, everywhere across the globe. Since then, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it type thing. I’ve just been trying to continue to produce content that I know kids and adults need. We need to know we got to be healthy when we eat, eat our fruit, eat our vegetables. We need to know that mask safety is important. We need to know those things. We also need to know how to count coins.

Zibby: I saw that one, yes.

Dwayne: These are things I feel like are really important in our time. I just want to make them sound fun. As we get into the book, yes, there are important truths about not bullying. There’s important truths about finding your voice and sticking up for yourself or being empathic toward others. It’s not just these thoughts and feelings and prayers, but this action that’s driven by compassion. I think it’s important to hear those truths. Also, if they rhyme, they’re going to be more memorable. Hopefully, you’re going to put them to action because you remember them. They’re on your heart. I think that’s where the music, the rhymes, the rap comes into play.

Zibby: Are you going to take the rhymes from this book and make them into a video of you rapping all of these? What’s the visual component plan for this? There must be something.

Dwayne: That is such a great question. I feel like, man, if you ever want to come on my team and be the visionary director, Zibby, you’ve got a spot. I would love to create an album of songs. In the story, in the book, Simon’s rhyming in his mind. They’re short, little bits. However, I would like to — have you ever seen the movie Despicable Me 2?

Zibby: Oh, yes. Yes, I have.

Dwayne: Pharrell is a mastermind. Shout out to Pharrell. Pharrell, he produced the song “Happy.” He’s got this little, itty bit of a song clip that’s playing for thirty, forty-five seconds. In the real world, he’s got the song “Happy” and the music video “Happy” that changed the world. That’s what I want for Simon’s songs. He’s rhyming in his head. Okay, okay, but I want to take them from the Creighton Park, Chicago, in the story, and I want to bring it into the real world and make a song that changes people’s lives. That’s where I see music and videos that long go past the story of Simon B. Rhymin’.

Zibby: Do you have songs that you’ve already written?

Dwayne: Man, I’ve got little bits here and there, things written on napkins and things in my notebook, things in my iPhone notes. Nothing a hundred percent done yet. Just waiting for that right moment to piece it all together. That’s something that I’ve found, Zibby. Sometimes you’ve got what you think to be really good ideas, really great ideas. It’s just not their time. It’s just not the right moment. When it is the right moment, that’s when it’s going to catch hearts. I didn’t start teaching until I was twenty-five years old. I think had I started teaching when I was eighteen, nineteen like some of my peers, I don’t think I would’ve done the “Welcome to the Fourth Grade” music video, or I don’t think it would’ve hit just right. It hit exactly when it was supposed to, when I was the older guy, when I was twenty-five, when I was trying to break into the education scene in 2016. I think that’s true with music. I think that’s true with art. I think that’s true with anything. It’s got to be the right moment for it.

Zibby: Take me back in your life a little if you don’t mind. You wrote in the acknowledgments about your older brother and your sister and how you read to keep up with him, and because he was reading a really long book, you had to then read longer books, and how your sister started a book club, and how your mom used to take you guys to the library all the time. You’re like, it really paid off. I’ll even sign your book, ha, ha, ha. You obviously had this huge family influence for your reading and literary aspirations and all that. What happened in between then and age twenty-five when you started teaching?

Dwayne: Again, great questions. I can see why you have this podcast. My mother, she would take my brother and I, he’s three my younger, my brother and I to the library. We would go there every week religiously. It was like church service for us. Instead of a pastor, we had librarians. She would take us there. I don’t know what she would be doing, research, market research. I don’t know, but it seemed like she was there for no apparent reason. My brother and I, we would be bored because we didn’t understand what it meant to be surround by so many books, surrounded by so much life. It wasn’t until a librarian came who would see us often and said, “Hey, do you want me to take them down to the young people section?” My mom was like, “Yeah, sure.” We went. It wasn’t just, okay, we were here and she’s like, all right, have fun. She asked us what things we were interested in. She asked my brother what he was interested in. He says, “I like the military. I like all things History Channel,” and all that boring stuff that he likes. Lo and behold, years later he’s now a commander in the army, Army Ranger, the works. For me, I liked Mary-Kate & Ashley, the mystery novels that they had, the series. I wouldn’t tell anybody that, but the librarian knew my secret. I didn’t become a mystery novelist. However, I did become a lifelong reader. I did become interested in pop culture, which I think ties me to my work, having my ears to the ground in what’s popular. That’s my start in the literary game. Then my little sister, when I went off to college, she said, “I want to start a book club.” I said, “Okay, let’s do it. What book do you want to read?” She wanted to read a book called The Help that was really popular.

Zibby: So good.

Dwayne: We read that. We spoke about things. We got to the nitty-gritty. It wasn’t the whitewashed, okay, let’s see how Hollywood saves black people. No, it wasn’t that. It was like, look, let’s talk on some real stuff. She would’ve been ten, eleven years old by that time. We’re going to have some age-appropriate conversations about the way our society is and how to make it better. Man, she was all up about that, so I was all up about that. Books and literature are really important to my family, to my mother. She always had a book in her hand. I want to continue her legacy, so I did something like write a book called Simon B. Rhymin’.

Zibby: What did you do between college and when you started teaching at age twenty-five?

Dwayne: What I did between that time — actually, I started college in 2009 when I was seventeen, eighteen. I dropped out of school. The out-of-state tuition was a little too much for my family to afford. I just moved back to Chicago. I was working part time. I was working at a movie theater. I loved it. I loved being able to see so many different people. We saw a bunch of famous people and celebrities. I loved being able to watch movies and to be inspired by books on display at the show, is what we call it. I was really just figuring out who I wanted to be as a human being. I was going to school part time at a community college. Between that time, I figured out, man, I really want to impact the world by being in the lives of young people, kids. I went back and eventually got my degree in elementary education. Then the moment I graduated from college, I said, oh, yeah, I’m coming onto the scene heavy. That’s when I released the “Welcome to the Fourth Grade” music video. Since then, since 2016, my life has kind of been under a microscope as far as education is concerned. I’ve loved it, being able to grow. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve seen a lot of success because, man, I guess putting kids first is the best way to do it.

Zibby: Totally. Even in the book you have this whole passage where Simon is like, why would I want to go to school? School is boring. Why is my mom excited? Now I have to give up Minecraft and doing all these things. I have four kids. They’re like, what? No. I’m like, “What are you looking forward to at school today?” They’re like, “Nothing.” I’m like, “Come on. There must be something.” I feel like you just totally get in the kid mindset. You just get them.

Dwayne: I think being around kids so often — we got five days a week, 180 days a year, seven hours, eight hours a day. That’s just being in school with them. You also got to account for the time — I do these things called Weekends with Mr. Reed, this is pre-COVID, but these Weekends with Mr. Reed where I would get permission to take these kids. We would go downtown. We would go ice skating. We would go to the movies. We’d go to restaurants. I’d get them Chick-fil-A. Some of my kids had never tasted Chick-fil-A before. Taking them to Chick-fil-A, “Y’all got to try this sauce, I’m telling you.” They’re like, “Mr. Reed…” I’m like, “No, y’all got to try it.” They’d be like, “Mr. Reed!” I’m like, “I told you.” Being able to expose them to just the world around them, a lot of kids, sometimes they don’t leave their neighborhood. That’s all they know, which is fine, but if I could expose them to what I think to be grander opportunities, if I could expose them to Chick-fil-A, I feel like that’s job well done on me. It’s more than the ABCs and the one, two, threes. It’s showing them something that maybe they might not have otherwise known about. Yeah, so you might have to give up Minecraft. You might have to give up Roblox and Fortnite and eating pizza rolls and getting ice cream whenever you want, staying up late. When you step foot into my classroom or when you step foot into Mr. James’s classroom, who is the teacher in Simon B. Rhymin’, it’s not just going to be boring. It’s going to be, oh, wow, we’re actually doing something. We’re doing something that’s going to translate outside of the classroom.

Zibby: All right, I have a confession. I also have never been to Chick-fil-A.

Dwayne: What?

Zibby: I don’t know why it never happened. Maybe now I’ll have to put it on the list.

Dwayne: Let me tell you this. I have a confession too, Zibby. Thank you for sharing and being vulnerable. When Chick-fil-A made its way up to Chicago, the Midwest, initially, I did not like it. I thought that it didn’t taste any type of good. I thought that it was wet. I was like, no chicken should be wet. Why is this? I was the biggest opponent of it. However, over time, it grew on me. I got the chicken nuggets. I started to say to myself, you know what, Chick-fil-A, you’re good in my book. Hey, there’s still time.

Zibby: There’s still time. I know. All right, it’s on the list. I’m inspired. Back to Simon’s classroom and Mr. James, the big incident in the book is that Mr. James assigns this big oral project. Simon ends up profiling this man named Sunny who’s in his sixties and homeless and has this big musical talent and a huge heart and tries to get his friends and classmates and community to really recognize that homeless people are not invisible and that they’re people with talents and emotions. The part that struck my heart the most is when you talked about how Sunny hadn’t been hugged in so long. Simon’s like, “My mom hugs me all the time,” and how sad that part was. I won’t give the ending away, but Simon does such a great job of teaching everybody not to judge and to treat people the way you want to be treated and all that. Tell me about coming up with that plot and how you crafted that.

Dwayne: On one of those Weekends with Mr. Reed, my scholars and I, there was probably about ten of us, nine, ten, eleven-year-olds. We went ice skating. While we were ice skating, we came across someone who was asking for money who would be known as “homeless” or someone struggling with homelessness. My scholars did not pass the test. They were making fun of him to the side. They were casting all type of jokes. Some of them just completely disregarded his request and just looked right past him. It broke my heart. I’m not the kind of person that’s like, well, we’ll talk about this later. No, no, no, I’m the type of teacher that’s like, we’re going to talk about this now. I pulled them to the side. I got them together. I said, “This is a whole human being. That’s a person.” I got on them. “Y’all don’t walk by nobody and don’t say nothing to them. If your mama said good morning to you in the morning, I guarantee you would say good morning back to your mama, wouldn’t you? That’s a whole person just like your mama. Y’all better say something to that individual. You can say, sorry, I don’t have any money, or sorry, not this time, but you better say something.” I was hurt by them. We had built and developed a relationship at that point where Mr. Reed could keep it a hundred, where Mr. Reed could say to their face, “Yo, I’m disappointed in y’all because of this action. I want to see y’all do it better.”

That’s where that idea came from. I want to speak to people seeing people as people and not seeing people as the things that they struggle with, but seeing them as human beings. Sometimes I can’t be as preachy as I am to my kids, so you have to find alternative methods. That was in writing Simon. How can I communicate to the population at large? How can I communicate to kids that those struggling with homelessness or poverty are still human, still deserve to be seen, still deserve to be hugged and treated as somebody’s baby? Sunny is somebody’s baby. The man struggling with homelessness in the story, he’s somebody’s baby, somebody’s child, somebody’s friend. I think literature does a good job of putting that in your face without smacking you across the face with it. You know what I mean, Zibby? That was the reason for that plot line. Plus, Simon is a very empathic individual. While he might not be aware of his own insightfulness and empathy, the reader picks up on that. It’s because Simon is like Sunny. Simon gets overlooked. Simon, you only see what’s on the outside. The reason Sunny’s story resonates with Simon is because it’s very similar to his own story. He wants to be seen for what’s on the inside and not what’s on the outside. That was my story. I wanted to be seen as more than the short kid with the big head. I wanted to be seen as someone who had a voice and wanted to use it to help support and change his community. That’s where we get that story with Simon and his community.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that. By the way, as someone who is 5’2″, I completely relate to this whole short subplot. My kids are now realizing that they are not going to be giants either. I’m like, I’m sorry. Look at her mom. Her mom is 5’11”. She is going to be taller than you. Sorry. I’ll hopefully give you other things, but you’re not getting height.

Dwayne: What is it? Heart over height.

Zibby: Heart over height, ooh, I love it. T-shirts, please.

Dwayne: I think that’s something, again, that Simon begins to see throughout the story. That’s something I didn’t have. I didn’t have heart. I had a heart, but I didn’t have heart. Drake has this line, the rapper, he says, “Just cuz he got a heart don’t mean he got heart.” I like that distinction. I had a heart. I got this aorta. I got this beating inside my chest, but as a child, I wasn’t confident. I think that’s what Simon has that I don’t have. He has this heart. He has this bark. Ruff! He has this thing that I wasn’t able to develop until I was twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight. Him being eleven years old with the help of his friends, CJ and Maria, and interacting with people like Sunny and Mr. James, they start to remind him and produce in him, no, you have this bark. You just need to use it. That’s what I try to do with my scholars. I try to remind them, I’m not giving you a voice. You already have this voice. You just need to use it. Hey, if your kids are 5’2″ or 5’5″ or 4 foot nothing, it’s heart over height.

Zibby: Tell me about All Good in the Hood.

Dwayne: There’s a lot of negativity surrounding the city of Chicago, number one, which is why I set Simon B. Rhymin’ on the West Side of Chicago. There’s a lot of negative talk around the West and South sides of Chicago, which is really racist, by the way. What I wanted to do was cast Chicago in the light that it should be cast in, full of vibrancy, full of love, full of beauty. The hood ain’t such a bad place. That’s why Simon was cast in Chicago. Then also, this picture book that I’ve got coming out with Little Brown, it’s called All Good in the Hood. I wanted to dispel this idea that “the hood” is this terrible place. So often, we’ll see books about kids going into the woods. We’ll see books about rural land, farmland. We’ll see books about the South. Everything’s great. Everything’s like, oh, man, this is awesome. You want to visit here. Then we’ll see these books about the hood or we’ll see new stories about the hood and it’s like, no, death, destruction. No, no, no, the bad stuff of life happens everywhere. It happens in the hood. It happens in the city. Happens in urban life. Happens everywhere. We never talk about the good stuff of the hood. That’s what I want to address.

The little boy, his name is Little Bro, he’s going throughout his neighborhood on Juneteenth. Not only did I want to celebrate the hood, but I want to celebrate Juneteenth, which is when black people who were formerly enslaved got word that they were legally free. I wanted to celebrate Juneteenth, which I don’t think enough people know about and celebrate. That’s the backdrop of the story. You’ve got this little boy who’s scared. He’s afraid of the sights and the sounds of his neighborhood. He’s got this big brother that’s like, nah, homie, ain’t no reason for you to be scared. It’s all good in the hood. They go throughout their neighborhood. They run into things like a big scary dog, which you’ll see in the hood. He’s afraid, but his brother saves the day. I won’t give too much away. All Good in the Hood is definitely a book that you need whether you’re in the hood, the city, rural America. You need that book in your library.

Zibby: When does that come out?

Dwayne: It comes out spring/summer 2023, so we got a little minute. I’m going to be bigging it up all way until it comes out.

Zibby: Amazing. It was just announced. That’s very exciting.

Dwayne: When you’ve had a story in you for so many years and it’s like, ugh, I’ve got to wait to see this be manifested, it can be a lot. Once it comes out, it’s worth it. It’s like having a baby.

Zibby: That’s right. You could actually have a couple babies by then, which you probably will. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Dwayne: I do. When I was younger and I wanted to be a rapper, I recognized that I “didn’t have the voice.” I didn’t have the right voice. Now you got Kayne West whose voice sounds very distinct and unique. You got Biggie Smalls whose voice and the way he swings when he raps — you even got Jay Z. You’ve got all these artists who have a very distinct voice. DMX, rest in peace, he’s got a very distinct voice. “Y’all going to make me –” I didn’t have that. Get a little DMX for your listeners. I didn’t have that. It made me self-conscious. It made me feel like my voice didn’t matter. However, as I got older and I heard these artists like Chance the Rapper come out, whose voice is like, whoa, his voice is his voice, it made me think, oh, my voice is my voice. Can’t nobody do my voice like me. That would be one piece of advice that I would give to aspiring authors. Can’t nobody do your voice like you. Can’t nobody write like you. Sure, we might say the exact same thing, Zibby. We could write, “The boy went to the store and got milk for his mother and then brought the milk back.” I’m going to say it, “Look, his mama said, boy, you better go down to that store and get me that two-percent milk. Make sure you bring my change back. Make sure it’s exact because they give you a receipt.” I’m going to tell that story different than you tell that story, Zibby.

Zibby: I’m going to be like, “Go to Citarella and pick up some oat milk. Order some oat milk on FreshDirect, if you don’t mind.” That would be mine.

Dwayne: My mama would be like, “Boy, you better go down to that Walgreens. Go ahead and grab that milk. Make sure you bring me my change back. It better be exact.” I’m going to be like, “Okay, Mom.” I’m down there sweating. My mom said bring exact change. Again, we have to tell the story our way. That’s what makes it important. That would be my big piece of advice to aspiring authors.

Zibby: That’s so great. Awesome. Dwayne, this was so fun. Thank you so much for coming on the show and talking about your book and for all the entertainment, this multimedia entertainment universe you’re crafting here. Thank you.

Dwayne: Thank you for having me on. I hope that every single one of your children, regardless of their height, reads Simon B. Rhymin’ where they can dive into the world of the West Side of Chicago and see really what it means to stand up to bullies, to stand up for yourself, and to use your voice. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to be on here, Zibby.

Zibby: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Dwayne: See you.

Zibby: Bye.

Dwayne Reed, SIMON B. RHYMIN'

SIMON B. RHYMIN’ by Dwayne Reed

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