Monday, August 31, 2009

Freedom Writers - commentary

"Freedom Writers Diary," by Erin Gruwell: It's a book worth reading. It inspires. It makes you sad. It opens our eyes to a world most of us would rather ignore. The book was first published in 1999 and has since been made into a movie. I missed it in its first wave of popularity but it is a good read anytime.
Gruwell, a young white woman from the privileged class, takes her first teaching job in the Los Angeles school district. Being new, she gets the worst class, the class of at risk students, the worst discipline problems, the ones on whom others have given up.

Most of her students come from the "hood" or the "barrio." Though the school is touted as the most racially diverse in LA, inside it remains segregated by student choice.

Gruwell withstands student attempts to drive her from the profession and hooks them on reading and writing through the diaries of Anne Frank, "Zlata's Diary" and other readings which touches the students where they live. She challenges the students to write diaries of their own. Though Gruwell would probably not put it this way, she formed a gang which had positive guidance for positive ends.

Freedom Writers became the family most of the students never had. In her classroom they found safety, security, and a sense of belonging. They took an oath to pursue education and tolerance and sealed it with a toast.

The book is a compilation of selected student diary entries. A Gruwell entry introduces each section. Most of us have read or heard about homes where children are sexually, physically or mentally molested. Of neighborhoods where people are shot to death because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of people being evicted from their homes with no place to go. Of neighborhoods where education is held up to ridicule and where children are often made fun of for doing well. Of the fear that comes with knowing your parents are illegal immigrants. Of contending with parents who are drug addicts.

It is one thing to hear about these things, but quite another to read about them in the students’ own words as they share their inner feelings about their struggles and their hopes. They reflect a maturity beyond their years in both their ability to express themselves and their depth of understanding. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“…It’s funny how material things mean so much to adolescents. The problem is people grow up thinking that material things are what make them worthwhile. Which is very untrue and causes them to be very shallow. Now as a young adult I’ve realized that love is more important than material things. Material things can’t love you like a father can!”

And, “…Handouts are like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, but John Tu does not give people handouts, he gives people hope. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think that I would meet a millionaire, especially a millionaire that cared about my well-being. John Tu helps people through education, financial support, and high moral standards. I thank God for sending him into my life. He has given so much to me, and because of his actions I want to give to others, and hopefully someone will follow after me and the cycle of hope will continue.”

John Tu is one of the businessmen Gruwell gets involved in her projects. She has a fertile mind for things that will inspire her students and stimulate interest and hope. She works extra jobs to help fund some of these ideas but she also has a way of selling her ideas to people and businesses that can help. Because of this, she is able to get her Freedom Writers out of their neighborhoods to experience a much larger world. She stretches their hopes and dreams with field trips as far afield as Washington D.C. and Europe.

Gruewell has since formed a foundation for the purpose of training other teachers in her approaches to education. The book will inspire individual teachers to make a difference in their own approach, but will it ever have any real impact on education? Consider what this woman did to accomplish the fantastic results she experienced: She worked two jobs so she could help fund her efforts. She created a much needed sense of family for her students. She became mom to 150 kids who needed one. She often tutored kids in their homes and it wasn’t unusual for her to be working with groups of students until 10 o’clock in the evening at the school. One can’t help but admire her and be inspired by her attitude and accomplishments, but if that is what it takes to reach the at risk kids, their cause is lost. Most teachers have families of their own and they are already doing double duty as both parent and teacher. Gruwell has both an unusual work ethic and unusual compassion. Absent from her account was any mention of a husband and kids of her own. To do as she did is to take on responsibilities for society’s problems that are outside a school’s primary mission of educating children.

What can teachers learn from Gruwell? They can learn to adjust priorities. I remember attending a workshop where the presenter commented that the at risk kids were his primary concern. “The other kids are going to make it alright,” he said. The teacher can let the kids’ diaries evoke a new empathy for them and where they are coming from and communicate to the kids that she really cares. And these diaries can inspire teachers to a renewed effort on behalf of the kids at risk. These kids have a lot to offer but all too often their hopes are dashed before they get a chance to cash in on their dreams.

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