Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers and Erin Gruwell
By The Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell
When I made the decision to become a teacher, I enthusiastically studied the principles of pedagogy at my university, but the moment I stepped foot in Room 203 at Wilson High School, I discovered how really unprepared I was for the difficulty of working with vulnerable teenagers. Like so many idealistic college students who watched movies about education, I suppose that I expected my students to stand on their desks and say "Oh Captain, My Captain," as the students did in Dead Poets Society, or to overcome all obstacles like Jaime Escalante's students in Stand and Deliver. So there I stood in front of a room full of unruly, apathetic freshmen, with chalk on my butt, a pained smile, and a fragile facade.
My students took one look at me, with my white polka dots, my white pearls, and my "white privilege," and immediately began to make wagers on how long I would last. Luckily, my naivete shielded me from their foregone conclusion that I would give up by the end of the week. One of them folded my syllabus into an airplane and threw it at me; some called me naughty names in Spanish; and too many defiantly carved their gang affiliations into their desks. It became painfully obvious that every theory I had memorized in my graduate courses paled in comparison to the raw lessons I would learn everyday in my urban classroom.
I planned to teach my students about Shakespeare and his sonnets and about Homer and his tale of an odyssey, but I quickly realized that my students couldn't care less about figurative language and metaphors. At fourteen, everything in their lives was literal, focused on reality. When you feel the pang of hunger in the pit of your stomach, that's reality. When you are shot at on your way to school, that's reality. When you have been a pallbearer at your friend's funeral, that's reality. In order to reach my students, I would have to understand their predicaments and make my lessons reflect their reality. Shakespeare's sonnets would have to mirror the eulogies they gave at their friends' funerals, and Odysseus's struggle to return to Greece would have to personify their everyday struggles to make it home alive.
Once I recognized the importance of seeing my students as individuals, I realized that in order for them to embrace any academic lesson, I would have to build a bridge between what they already knew and what I wanted to teach them. One of the activities I used to engage them was the Line Game. I separated the class in two, divided by a piece of tape on the floor, and then asked students to walk to the line if my questions pertained to them: "Stand on the line if you know where to get drugs." "Stand on the line if you've visited a relative in jail." "Stand on the line if you've lost someone to senseless gang violence." Prior to this provocative exercise, my students' journal writing had been perfunctory and uninspiring.
One student, Maria, had written in her composition book, "I hate Erin Gruwell, I hate Erin Gruwell, and if I wasn't on probation, I would probably shank her!" Yet when Maria and the other students courageously walked to the line, exposing their vulnerabilities, they realized that everyone has a story; they just needed the opportunity to be heard and an entree to the healing power of writing. Suddenly, their journals began to bear witness to the death of a cousin, to a father being incarcerated, or to the shame that came with being homeless. We saw one another with new eyes, and as a result, we treated one another differently. Room 203 became a safe haven for students to be honest, to write about their most painful moments, and to dismantle the barriers between us.
As my students became more like a family, I was surprised by how difficult a balancing act being a teacher really is. At the end of each day it became more impossible to leave my students' problems in the classroom. Then there was the fact that my social life was beginning to implode, and I was spending way too much of my own money on school supplies.
All too often, after a brilliant lesson failed to make any noticeable impact and I feared I wasn't getting through to my students, I began to question myself: "If they don't care, why should I?"
When I sought solace from my colleagues, the naysayers in the teacher's lounge often made me feel worse. To them, I was idealistic and burdening my students with unrealistic academic expectations.
As I packed up my students' work to take home with me at night, I often felt as though I was shouldering every student's burden. But when I got home, I had problems of my own: student loans to pay; a husband who would rather have me make dinner than grade papers; and the all-too-noticeable effects of sleep deprivation. And after another late night of reading students' journals, before I knew it, it would be 6 a.m. again and I would have to muster up the courage to face my frustrations again.
As I made that forty-five-minute commute back to work, contemplating how to make my lesson plan relevant this time, I tried to ignore the nagging voice that often asked, "Do I really want to be a teacher?"
But every time one of my struggling students had an aha! moment, I knew that I had made the right decision. Those priceless moments when students' faces lit up, their hands flew in the air, and I knew they "got it," validated all the sleepless nights and began to ease my self-doubt. The small victories rejuvenated my spirit and set the stage for my students' legacy. To pay homage to the 1960s civil rights activists the Freedom Riders, my students decided to band together and call themselves Freedom Writers. However unlikely it had seemed when we started, the Freedom Writers now follow in the footsteps of authors who came before them, those same authors on my syllabus that was once folded and thrown at me.