Friday, February 09, 2007

Review of the movie Freedom Writers

This is an extra-credit essay I wrote for my education class about the movie Freedom Writers, which tells the story of a teacher and her students in a public school in LA in the mid 90's.

I found Freedom Writers to be a valuable movie for anyone who would like to see real improvement in public education. It’s important to understand the movie is trying to tell an inspirational story. It does not attempt to paint a realistic picture of the problems and solutions of American education. Yet, in telling its story, it does show some first steps we can take in improving education in America.

The film created a strong contrast between Erin Gruwell’s way of teaching and the “standard" school approach of “getting students to obey,” as the movie put it. The movie showed how effective teaching requires us to build off of the everyday experiences of the students.

In an interview I found online, the real Erin Gruwell was asked how other teachers can replicate her success in the classroom. Her answer was, “Allow your students to teach you about what they know and where they come from. Make your curriculum relevant to their lives. I believe this is excellent advice; advice that every teacher should remember and apply. But how can we apply this? A teacher like Mrs. Gruwell’s “opponent” in the movie can stand in front of a class and talk about how important and how “relevant to their lives” it is for them to do their work so they can get into a top college, but is this what Gruwell is talking about? I would argue possibly so in specific cases, but definitely not in general. Gruwell is saying to design your curriculum in a way that applies directly to students’ lives; in a way that might affect how students spend their free time that day.

In the movie, Mrs. Gruwell paid attention to what her students said about the effects of gang violence in their lives, and responded by designing the curriculum around that theme. The lessons involved what the students cared about; not what the teacher or state had required. The first steps to effectively teaching any group of students are to interact with them, “learn what they know and where they come from,” and most importantly, be responsive to who they are.

An important question for teachers to answer is “what is the point of education?” Mrs. Gruwell faces this question the moment she steps into school. Is the point to “follow orders,” to “make the children obey, and learn discipline”? Or should education involve being responsive to individual students? Should teachers restrict their lessons to what the system has decided is best for the students’ futures? Or should teachers take an interest in what the students are interested in?

Mrs. Gruwell made it clear that she was going to put the students ahead of any regulation or requirement the school system had in place. An important part of being a teacher is to make sure that your students know you’re both on the same side; that you genuinely care about their goals for the future; that you will try to help them in whatever issues they are dealing with. Mrs. Gruwell was honest with her students and encouraged them to be honest with her, not to be afraid to voice how they really felt about something. Also she was open to their suggestions about what activities and issues the class should cover. The ability to express their feelings and having some influence over the curriculum were key elements in getting the students to form relationships and “feel like a family” with their classmates. It’s only in such a supportive atmosphere that students like the quiet Latino student will be able to open up and express how “this classroom is the only place where I feel like I’m at home.”

Granted, the movie probably did leave out a lot of the struggle of how hard it would be to reach the average student in the way the students in the movie reacted. I found it a little difficult to believe that students would be so diligent in their reading and so personally affected by The Diary of Anne Frank, etc. just because Mrs. Gruwell assigned the book to them. I think a scene showing Mrs. Gruwell talking about what literature is, how it can affect us, and maybe suggesting some questions for her students to think about while they were reading would have fit well in the movie.

I personally like the idea of ungraded assignments, such as the journals that the kids wrote. I think school should encourage students to explore their different interests and possible career paths freely, without the threat of “bad grades.” But, whether assignments are being graded or not, the important thing is to emphasize what the subject can tell us about how to approach our everyday lives; to emphasize that aspect of education over grades, “getting into the best college,” “getting a high-paying job,” etc. For example, Mrs. Gruwell used journal writing as a means for her students to reflect about who they were and where their life was headed, and used literature as a means for her students to find inspiration and hope that they can look to when making decisions about their life.

Luckily for us, we don’t even have to give emotional speeches about the holocaust, or fly in speakers from around the world to get students to be affected by what they learn in school. Because these issues arise naturally from the subjects we already are studying in classrooms. Unfortunately, the way it is now, pressures of grades and rewards often overshadow the true benefits that education has to offer. But if the emphasis is taken away from grading and rewards, as the movie illustrates, issues about how we live would return to their rightful spot as the central emphasis of the subjects.

I especially appreciated the way the movie paralleled the class’s struggles with Mrs. Gruwell’s own struggles involving family life. Her students are learning to treat the classroom as a place to grow and develop relationships, instead of just somewhere they have to spend the next 45 minutes; she is learning to treat teaching as an important part of who she is, instead of just a job she is doing for money or status. This parallel highlights an important theme of the movie: should we view work (and school also) as a shaping who we are, or should it just be a way for us to make money? Certainly there is no one, correct answer to this issue; everyone must find the balance that is appropriate for themselves and their situation. When her husband leaves (assuredly to go to Seattle and find his true calling in medical school), Erin is clearly hurt and shocked, but her identity is in no way devastated. She has chosen to allow her job as a teacher to define who she is, at least as much, if not more so, than her marriage.

When her father tells Erin how much he genuinely admired what she had accomplished, an important truth about education is revealed. Parents and teachers pressure their children and their students to make good grades and get good jobs as a way of expressing their love and care. At first, her father was skeptical that Erin would be successful as a teacher and so was trying to push her toward law school, a career path he understood. Tragically, this “loving pressure” often discourages children from exploring new areas and, perhaps, from finding a job or activity they would love. Parents and teachers want to expect the highest from their children. Unfortunately making demands and pressuring are the primary ways our culture has taught them to communicate these expectations.

With Mrs. Gruwell as an example, we can learn to pay attention to what children care about, and adapt our expectations with the child’s goals in mind. Like Mrs. Gruwell did in reevaluating her class’s curriculum, we should make sure our expectations are in harmony with what our kids care about and take interest in. We should replace the demanding expectations that we too often believe are “necessary” because “I went through that in school” with supportive expectations that are still set just as high, but, like the journal assignment that Mrs. Gruwell gave her students, are guided by what the students care about.

Mrs. Gruwell’s father’s admission of his admiration is proof that miscommunicated supportive expectations are behind many of the demands placed on students. If we follow the example Mrs. Gruwell sets in Freedom Writers, the power of supportive expectations could be set into motion in classrooms across America. Of course, for this to happen, some fundamental changes need to occur in the way education is approached. Rather than seeing learning as a “one way street” with knowledge passing only from teacher to student, classrooms must:

1) allow students to define for themselves what is interesting about a subject and

2) become places that encourages students to build relationships around their interest so that they will continue to explore the subject as far as their interest takes them.

If there is one message to take from “Freedom Writers,” it is that change is possible. Mrs. Gruwell’s class of Freedom Writers showed us that simply being honest and genuinely caring for eachother make up some of the most powerful motivations available to us and can overcome some of even the hardest obstacles. If we start by simply striving to establish those two values in our classrooms, and we refuse to let the current mess of the system get in the way, I believe we’ll be well on our way.