Freedom Writers


Several days ago, I watched substantial portions of this little-known movie on Bounce.  In fairness, I did not watch the whole, and background noise in the room drowned out much of the dialogue.

I was unable to suspend disbelief.

The 2005 film stars Hilary Swank, and follows the four-year teaching career of Erin Gruwell, a real person.  As a novice teacher, she was assigned the “at-risk” ninth graders at a prestigious high school.  Many events portrayed are historical.

I student taught in Rochester, New York in 1976.  They sure did things differently in California in 1994.

I student taught for ten weeks.  She student taught for forty.  I had a supervising teacher and regular check-ins with my professor.  She had no mentoring, no support, no background, no curriculum, and an administration that was utterly indifferent to these students’ needs.

They threw her to the wolves.

True to Hollywood form, the film presents her as teaching only one class per day.  Welcome Back, Kotter likewise taught only one small class.  Any teacher in real life teaches at least five classes per day.  In real life, Gruwell taught 150 students, not the fewer than 30 shown here.

The actors who portray the children all look much older than 17, the normal age for “at-risk” students in ninth grade.

She approached her first day without, apparently, a lesson plan.  She wrote her name on an unwashed blackboard.  Now, writing on an unwashed blackboard is hard to read; she could at least have washed it.  I took great offense at this on her students’ behalf, and remained upset about it for some days (sic).

The second day, apparently the students somehow had already done some reading, even writing, about Odysseus; they were in their seats waiting for her to finish writing sentences taken from their work, on the still-unwashed blackboard.  Now, this is not good practice.  (1) Never make students wait.  (2) I had all the blackboard material set up for all five classes before any student set foot in the room.  This normally took me 60-90 minutes the night before.

(My blackboards were an obsession.  I had notebook paper ruled with custom margins, so that my normal handwriting on those lines would correspond exactly to the text that I would write on the boards; in letters 2½ inches high, large enough to read from any point in the room.)

She later started having the children keep diaries, excerpts from which — with authors’ permission — she would present to the class.  Equipping them each to tell one’s own story, she managed to enlist them all as agents of their own liberation.

This is like the “Language Experience Approach,” whereby students may create most of the course content themselves.  Their compositions become reading lessons; spelling words are taken from the words they have misspelled.  There are many pedagogical advantages to this approach.  The downside: it’s highly labor-intensive for the teacher.

Come the next fall, she managed to get all the same 150 students assigned to her for their sophomore year.  And again the next fall, for their junior year.  And again the next fall, for their senior year.  NOTE:  If an “at-risk” student is flourishing under one particular teacher, it’s best to keep that relationship intact.  All 150 graduated.

And then, of course, she left the classroom.

She launched a foundation to teach her methods to others.  I am skeptical that like results can be obtained by any teacher who is less high-functioning or charismatic or less equipped to teach, in fact, self-love and autonomy.

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