ALAMEDA -- Encinal High School history teacher Brian Rodriguez's 10th-graders conducted business as un-usual on Tuesday as they performed rap-style debates on the pros and cons of political philosophies.
Clad in knit hats, baseball caps and other accessories, small groups poetically clipped out their take on socialism, conservatism, nationalism and other party beliefs. Each rapper was flanked by a disc jockey operating the music and a student sidekick or two dancing to the beat.
Rodriguez sat in the back of the class smiling, his foot tapping to the rhythms. His wife, Marilyn, mother, Lois, and daughter, Alexandra, were present. Just minutes before the musical debate, members of the school board, Mayor Marie Gilmore and Encinal High Principal Roxanne Brown-Garcia stopped by to congratulate Rodriguez for a recent honor.
It isn't every day, or even every year, that teachers win a national Claes Nobel Educator of the Year award. In fact, only 10 teachers in the United States are selected for the annual prize, and Rodriguez was among those selected for the 2012 honors.
The prize, named after Claes Nobel, a member of the family that established Nobel Prize and a chair for the National Society of High School Scholars, recognizes educators for modeling best teaching practices, outstanding leadership and being a positive influence for students and peers.
In August, Rodriguez will attend a society ceremony in Washington, D.C. In addition to the honors, he will receive a $500 award toward educational initiatives. Rodriguez said he was stunned when he got word of the prize, though he is no stranger to being honored. In 2008, he was nominated by a student for a distinguished educator award, another society award program that he won. The society contacted him, asking if he would submit an application for the Claes award. Besides awards, he has been granted at least part of his 15 minutes of fame, having been written about in Newsweek twice.
He came to Alameda schools after teaching in his native Oakland for several years. Without being specific, he cited some disappointment in that district and wanted to continue to work with students who really needed his help, particularly students of socioeconomic disadvantage. Encinal's student body is very diverse, he said, with students speaking 26 native languages and half of them qualifying for the free lunch program. He and other Encinal and district staffers have been instrumental in opening advanced placement classes for more district students, based on their potential and talents rather than solely on their grade point averages.
School board member Trish Herrera-Spencer credited Rodriguez with changing the course of her daughter's college career. He encouraged Herrera-Spencer's daughter to apply for Harvard University or other Ivy League schools. Though she and her family hadn't considered it because of the costs, she applied, was admitted, and the school has helped the family with financial arrangements.
"He has changed me and my studying and learning," student Juan Molina said of Rodriguez, adding that with the skills he has gotten from the teacher, he will be easily prepared for college.
Student Josh O'Neil said, "Every minute in his class is better than an hour in another class."
Both said they learn more quickly in Rodriguez's class, in part because of assignments such as the rap debate. Brown-Garcia called Rodriguez "one of the finest educators I've ever met."
"He's passionate about what he does," she said.