Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Freedom Writers

View the video of the film 'Freedom Writers' for inspiration.

A few years ago my sister in law asked me to get a book called 'Freedom Writers' from Amazon for her. It was based on the powerful writing of a class of disadvantaged students from Los Angeles deemed 'unteachable' by their schools.

My sister in law teaches at a big West Auckland School which has a mix of students from a range of cultures. I am not sure how much use was made of the book at the time but it is interesting to know that her school is strongly involved in the Te Kotahitanga approach which is also about realtionships, valuing students 'voice' and respect for students' culture.

Anyway, back to the film which was a battle between uncaring traditional school and a lone creative teacher who really cared for her underprivileged students ; students who lived with first hand exposure to gang violence in a racially divided society. Her students came from African- American, Latino, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Caucasian cultures - the latter very much a minority. All her students had lost friends or family as a result of gang warfare!

The teacher, Erin Gruwell, developed a philosophy that valued and promoted and eventually transformed her students lives. All the more challenging as Erin was a beginning teacher at the time and had to work in an environment of staff and administrative opposition.

After attempting to introduce a traditional curriculum she eventually gained her students respect by learning to listen to the voices, pain and stories of her students. They had made it clear to her that they were not interested in the literature she was trying to introduce them to. Eventually she asked her students to write dairies of their experiences, in any form they wished, and that she would only read them if they asked her to. This diary writing evolved out of studying the Holocaust through the diaries of Ann Franck, and other similar personal stories of bravery against the odds, that resonated with the students own experiences.

As the students began to feel safe, unconditionally accepted and understood they wrote their stories that eventually were published in a book called the 'Freedom Writers'.

The film is he story of a passionate and idealistic teacher but her ideas could be applied in any class at any level. That her teenage students were called 'unteachable' just made her task all the more difficult.

When around the world school are concerned about teenage disengaged learners the book ( and film) provides answers to the problem that go well beyond simplistic 'back to basic' solutions. Students need rich real and relevant students that they can explore in depth.

Erin Gruwell's programme, based on real life experiences, promoted diversity and challenged her students to rethink their rigid racial stereotypes and to become critical thinkers and citizens for future change. Her dedication to her students changed them from apathetic, frustrated, and racially biased to a closely knit but tolerant family or, in current jargon', a 'learning community;.

All teachers, but particularly those who teach teenagers who have lost their love of learning would benefit from applying Erin Gruwell's philosophy.

The philosophy she developed was not anything new - but she had the courage to develop her own approach. Actions aways speak louder than words.

For those who wish to learn more visit the Freedom Writers website. Or just go and see the film.


Anonymous said...

Traditional education 'systems' are by nature conservative and not open to the ideas of creative teachers.In secondary schools creative teachers are straighjacketed by timetables, bells and the pressure to control and sort kids. The film ilustrated such difficulties. American High Schools in low socio-economic districts must be terrible places for the less academic or culturally different kids.It is bad enough in New Zealand.

Bruce said...

Big urban American High Schools, in low socio economic areas, do not seem like much fun for students or teachers!