Back in the early ’90s, the answers a group of my G.A.T.E. (otherwise known as TAG) students made to the above questions broadsided me with their insights, compassion, and depth and I collected them like an excited environmentalist in the rain forest. Their responses were the feelings of our youth, youth who will some day have control over our futures.
We must recognize and nurture human dignity in our children, protect it and preserve it. It must not be negotiated or lost. The process of feeling like a nobody starts early on. We need to make sure that those who teach our children are always understanding and accepting, so our children feel like a somebody when they are being taught in the classroom.
Have you ever watched the movie, “Freedom Writers?” It is an amazing true story of strength, courage, and achievement in the face of social and academic adversity. Back in the Fall of 1994, the year before I retired from teaching English, another idealistic English teacher by the name of Erin Gruwell faced her first group of students, who had been dubbed by the administration as “unteachable, at-risk” teenagers. The class was a diverse class of several cultures, most who had grown up in rough neighborhoods in Long Beach, California.
In the first few weeks of class, the students made it very clear that they were not interested in what their teacher had to say and had no respect for her — one of the main reasons being that she was white. Then something happened in the classroom that would change their lives forever. A student circulated a racial drawing of one of the African-American students. Erin Gruwell angrily intercepted the drawing and compared it to the Nazi caricatures of Jews during the Holocaust. She was amazed when the students responded with puzzled looks. She was also appalled to discover that most of the students had never heard of the Holocaust.
She then asked the students how many of them had ever been shot at. Almost all of them raised their hands. This action sparked a new energy that she used to transform her students’ lives. She encouraged them to rethink rigid beliefs they had always held about themselves and others, to reconsider decisions, and to redirect their futures. Gruwell then hands out journals to her students, purchased with her own money from a second job, because the administration doesn’t believe in her efforts. She tells her students to write about the past, present, future, good days and bad ones. For the first time, these teens experience hope that they can show the world that their lives matter and that they have something to say. Later, when she sits to read the diaries, she is amazed at their stories of hardships.
Gruwell’s teaching method worked because she allowed the students to be real, to be honest, and to be themselves. As a result of Erin and her students’ work, they published the book, “The Freedom Writers Diary.” I was in education for nearly 20 years and highly recommend this book to anyone who is honestly interested in making education a more meaningful experience for the students. It is true that there is some harsh language, sex, and drugs, but the writers don’t glorify sex or drugs. They speak honestly about their lives, including their struggles with addiction, abuse, pregnancy and above all, violence.
For most of these students, Gruwell was the first teacher to treat them with dignity, to believe in their potential and help them see it for themselves. Erin’s steadfast support helped her students to overcome stereotypes, to become critical thinkers, aspiring college students, and citizens for change. They called themselves the “Freedom Writers” in honor of the Civil Rights activists, the “Freedom Riders.”
I have a deep interest, not only in our youth, but in anyone who has the desire to learn, and I desire to see character perfected through study and training that will prepare them for service. I also have a special desire to help those who have been given the gift of writing.
My teaching experience taught me that true education means more than simply taking a certain course of study. It involves the development of all the physical powers and mental faculties we’ve been given. It involves, or should involve, the teaching of love and respect in preparation for all the responsibilities we face in life. And if education is conducted along these lines, it will be an education, which will endure and carry us through.
Life should not be a life of ignorance or laziness. We should always put a high degree of importance on education, especially of our youth. If they study and work hard to perfect their gifts, they can reach intellectual greatness no matter what course they choose.
I believe that the most essential education today is that which will teach how to relate to the world at large. I believe we should require the best training possible of our mental faculties.
I do not believe there is any place for laziness in today’s world.
We need to offer programs that help us become the best we can be. This lays on us the obligation of hiring a teaching staff that understands this obligation.
By the way, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers started The Freedom Writers Foundation to help communities decrease high school drop out rates, to help teachers improve the academic performance of their students, and to provide scholarships for underprivileged youth. What an example they have set for educators!
Closing thought: “While unable to change the past, the past may become the teacher for tomorrow” — Teachers of Tomorrow.
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