CONCORD -- When students at Mt. Diablo High first walk into teacher Dan Reynolds' class, they're often surprised to be welcomed by a 32-year-old man with a mohawk hair cut, pierced ears, a neatly trimmed goatee and hip-casual clothing.
"The first time I saw him, I thought he'd be a cool teacher because of the way he looks," said Zaharina Velazquez, 17, a Bay Point senior in Reynolds' English and human rights classes. "I feel like I can talk to him about anything."
Students and colleagues say Reynolds' innovative teaching, determination and open personality have helped teens to succeed and challenged them to get more involved in the school and district. Driven by his own commitment to social justice, Reynolds is also empowering students by opening their eyes to world problems and showing they can make a difference.
Reynolds grew up in Concord and graduated in 1997 from the school he and his students affectionately call "Mount." His look and his history with the school and community give him an in with a mostly low-income student population that is ethnically diverse and struggling with academic success. "Mount" is the lowest-performing high school campus in the Mt. Diablo district.
"I think my physical appearance -- my hair and piercings and clothes -- they bring me some element of credibility with the kids before I ever open my mouth," Reynolds said, during a lunch break earlier this month. "I want to translate whatever 'street cred' I have to the classroom."
Selected as one of the district's two Teachers of the Year in 2009-10, Reynolds went onto become a semifinalist in the county competition last fall. Students say they appreciate his innovative teaching techniques, which include asking students to "tweet" scenes from Hamlet on the social networking site Twitter and having them rewrite book chapters as Haiku poems and write Facebook status updates in the persona of literary characters they're studying.
Reynolds is piloting a new human rights course at the school, and he helped found a performing arts academy on campus. He also presents a lunchtime lecture program that students say engages them in entertaining ways.
The go-getter shares his teaching techniques at seminars, including the California Teachers of English seminar, for which he will present two workshops Feb. 11-12. One workshop is about condensing writing and the other, titled "The Smurfs Are Evil (and Other Ways To Read A Text)," focuses on reading and analyzing literature in different ways. In addition, he's a vocal member of the school's site council and a teacher's union rep.
"I don't want to overly hype him or overly romanticize him," said his colleague Patrick Oliver, who teaches science. "But he's one of the most inspirational and dedicated people alive today. He's an incredible guy. I feel fortunate to work with him. He inspires me to work harder and take on more responsibility."
When Reynolds has a question, he takes it straight to the school board. He prompted trustees to delay a vote on spending about $200,000 for teachers last fall, after asking why the item hadn't gone before the site council. He also publicly asked why his principal was transferred to Olympic High School during a series of administrative moves last summer, shining light on a move that perplexed many people.
(Superintendent Steven Lawrence said former Principal Cheryl LeBeouf requested the transfer. She has since left the district.)
Vice Principal Absylom Sims said Reynolds is strong-willed and tenacious. When Sims evaluated Reynolds' teaching last year, he challenged Reynolds to create something beyond his classroom that would have a "lasting impact on student learning" throughout the district, the state or the world.
"He took on the task of trying to create a human rights curriculum," Sims said. "He stuck with it. He kept his word, which I really admire. He'd like to have it be a model that could be used by the state. That is just powerful, so I'm proud of him for that."
Reynolds is also on a committee bringing a new film studies curriculum to the board Tuesday. He said he also hopes to spread the word about a major accomplishment of his human rights class: persuading the district to purchase fair trade chocolate so that it won't contribute to slavery in the cocoa industry.
Students approached the school board about this last fall and were amazed when district officials listened, then changed their buying practices. Likewise, the students hope to persuade their classmates and neighbors to stop contributing to child slavery.
Encouraged by Reynolds, they have launched a "Give flowers, not chocolate" Valentine's Day campaign.
"We're trying to get the word out, starting here at Mount," Reynolds told his class, as they designed posters Jan. 28 to promote their cause. "Large chocolate companies are knowingly contributing to slavery."
Reynolds said he is teaching students that there are many avenues available to bring change. Students have also asked the school board to declare Dec. 10 a Day of Human Rights districtwide, after they marked International Human Rights Day at their school with a Human Rights Fair, including informational booths.
"A lot of times, the kids think the only way they can voice their opposition is to protest something," Reynolds said. "I wanted to show them there are other things they can do, like writing a business letter, changing household shopping, and the penultimate: I invited the kids to speak to the school board."
Teens said Reynolds is a role model who teaches them to think critically, voice their opinions and take pride in their individuality and their school. Many also said they feel comfortable talking to him about their lives, as well as their studies.
"He's one of the most inspiring teachers I've ever had," said 17-year-old Jake Cooper, of Concord, who wants to study peace and justice in college. "He makes me want to be a teacher. We are truly doing things for our community and our world."
Reynolds said he works to establish strong relationships with students, then make the curriculum interesting and engaging.
Mark Reifenheiser, 18, of Concord, said Reynolds respects students.
"He treats every student with a good amount of humility and honesty," Reifenheiser said. "He handles them very calmly. He keeps his cool very well."
Velazquez said Reynolds helped her overcome shyness, and she later joined three campus clubs and was voted student body president.
"If more teachers taught like him, I think more students would actually show up to class," Velazquez said. "You can go through the motions, but it doesn't work unless you're connected to your students and I feel he does that."
Hometown: Grew up in Concord, now lives in Martinez.
Claim to fame: One of the Mt. Diablo school district's Teachers of the Year, English and human rights teacher at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord.
Quote: "I have adopted a phrase from my readings in Buddhism as a personal mantra: 'I vow to serve until all are liberated.' My service is teaching. I'm really passionate about language, about helping students become self-actualized human beings, and doing what I can to help education and help fellow teachers."