Apr 16, 2009

BEDA 16 - The Seekret to Gruwell's Success?

I read Freedom Writers Diary from the perspective of a teacher in a very large urban(ish) high school who very much desires school reform. I have still not seen the movie.

I can break down, into three categories, the reasons why the students in FWD overcame their often times unbearable living conditions, made education their main priority, learned more than their non-freedom writer peers (even in those in the advanced classes), and made such a splash in the world. Basically, they were given what every young adult needs and deserves from a public education.

#1 - The School Environment

They had a small school environment. Wilson High School could have been the largest school in America, but those students were able to stay with the same group of about 150 students (at least for one class period a day), one willing and able teacher, and several caring adults, for 4 years. Even those who transferred in at a later date benefited immensely from a diverse, socially active, and caring group of peers.

Scheduling like this in a large school is not necessarily an easy thing. Wilson High counselors and building administrators had to be willing to stretch outside of their day to day responsibilities and traditional ways of doing things to make this happen. This means that they had to care enough about those students, and belive in enough in the teacher, to break the status quo.

Field Trips, events, donations, and community involvement were allowed to take place without too much red tape. Public schools today are full of red tape and it can be a deterrent for many over burden teachers to tackle.

Given this type of environment, any student, from any background, with any type of personal hurdle (drug and alcohol addiction, gang involvement, prison record, abusive relationships, language barriers, terminal illness, rape, homelessness, poverty, starvation, etc...) has a very good chance of succeeding in school.

#2 - The Dedicated Educator(s)and other Adults

A teacher, who honestly cared about her students, who had the opportunity to have the same group of students for 4 years, became very much like a family to her. She invested herself in their educational growth and was willing to fight for her students right to an authentic academic and socially aware school experience. She was free of, or ignored, artificial "professional" pressures so that she could communicate with her students in a way they could respect and understand.

Other adults in the community, including parents, public speakers, and business leader, became active stakeholders and philanthropic activists for this group of young adults.

When local teachers and administrators were not supportive of the Ms. Gruwell's methods, or the plans and ideas of her students, district, state, and even national educators took up her cause.

#3 - The curriculum

Here is a very important piece of the equation. The teacher was allowed to decide, in many cases, what literature and writing skills to teach and how to teach her students. She could move away from the decided "norm" and make decisions based on her individual and collective student needs. If she needed to slow down, she could. If she needed to assess differently she was able. If she felt that some traditional lessons or skills were not inherently beneficial to the long term goals of her students, she dropped them.

It didn't appear to me that this teacher felt forced to be a slave to nationally or even state mandated standards, common standardized assessments, or other such academic nonsense. Unfortunately, I see standards treated as the holy grail every day where I teach, and woe to the teacher who does not at least pretend to agree.

Ms. Gruwell's class showed their learning through socially constructed projects, as well as through individual, private, and non assessed writing.

Textbooks were replaced by authentic and good literature that were explored through the students' viewpoint. This included a mix of contemporary YA literature as well as classics that were usually reserved for the AP curriculum.

Just a personal thought here - if more schools would ditch the textbooks and give teachers the time and support to create curriculum from authentic literature and primary sources, schools would save millions a year.

There were exams mentioned in the book, but students found themselves able to respond to the questions without much trouble and all the teens that were mentioned in the book appeared to succeeded in a traditional GPA scale.

** The criticisms of traditional public education.

Many criticisms of this books stem from the statement that this type of learning environment is not possible or (in some cases) not necessary for most high school students. I would disagree with both of these statements. All students can and whould benefit from small school environment, a caring and able teacher, and community support, and if local and state communities decide that this is imporant, it could happen more often.

A database or google search will show you comments from thousands of educators who get discouraged when they read about the personal sacrifices that Erin Gruwell had to make in order to fight for the autonomy to make sound decisions for the learning of her students. I have personally heard administrators, who are not currently in the classroom, and are making large sums of money every year, point to Erin Gruwell and the sacrifices she made as the model for how their educators should live and work. Their mind set seems to be: "why can't other teachers work two jobs, fight with their fellow peers, and sacrifice their family time to make this happen?" I think types of demands would be rare amoung other professionals outside of the classroom.

Would we ever think that a surgeon should work a job at a department store to be able to fund necessary instruments with which to do surgery? Would we ever ask a superintendent to bag groceries so that the senior class would go on college visits?

To these criticisms, I have several responses in the forms of questions:

Why can't our districts and states support a small school environment by hiring more teachers or making decisions for smaller schools?

Why must we have this trend of supermarket schools, where everyone has to know everything, and we as teachers feel forced or compelled to base our methods on political initiatives that require us to machine gun fire knowledge at students for 50 minutes, 7 times week?

Why do we track and move students who can't learn in this type of environment to lower level, "non essential" or sub-standard classes as if they, the students, are the problem and not the system we as a society have created?

Why is a lack of funding always the party line for the lack of consistency in good research based academic programs when we see more and more high paid administrators and consultants being hired?

Why do politicians force schools to adhere to an economic formula that allows for millions to be spent on on big gyms, sports stadiums, textbooks, non essential staffing, and fancy architecture while ensuring that teachers are cut every year, class sizes are larger, and school library and classroom budgets are slashed?

Why do we expect more out of our teachers in terms of professional education and licensing, class sizes, assessment, dicipline, and number of courses taught, when more and more local control over what is taught in the classroom is taken away?

Why do our professional associations fight for trivial things and not concentrate time and funding by encouraging and protecting teachers like Erin Gruwell (of which there are hundreds in every school district)?

Why are socially aware and responsible teachers (like Ms. Gruwell) forced to fight tooth and nail for the right to teach their students in a non traditional way, spend all of their personal and family time (to the determent of their own families), and spend so much of their own hard earned income to help their students succeed?

If classroom environments, and curriculum development, like I read about in Room 203 were the accepted "best practice", then wouldn't there be fewer personal hardships exptect out of teachers who demand the right to use better and more effective methods?

Why are the students in Advanced Placement or who are severally learning disabled permitted to be blessed with a small school environment when research and experience says this is the best way to educate all young people?

How can educators, politicians, and the American public except that 50% to 75% of students in any given school are not worthy of the benefits of a small school environment?

I would like to see these questions answered without one financial or economic excuse given. In real life, we as individuals and as a collective society find and spend money based on what is most important to us. Maybe we need to reassess our priorities?

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