Saturday, December 06, 2014

Teaching Freedom Writers to Year 9s

Dear Diary
I’ve been teaching the film, Freedom Writers, to my Year 9 English students for a couple of years now. It’s one of those films about a charismatic young English teacher who, against all odds, works miracles with a class full of apparent misfits and delinquents, transforming them into model students. (See also To Sir With Love, Stand And Deliver, Dangerous Minds. The list goes on.)

Freedom Writers, with its action, rap music and sympathetic ‘gangsta’ kids, invariably engages every student. The students in the film are fourteen year olds; Freshmen; the equivalent of our Year 9. (Challenging to find a kid in Room 203 at Wilson High School who actually looks fourteen, but that’s Hollywood.)

And of course, Freedom Writers is a film. Easy. Students see this as a soft option. Oh how they curse me when I pause the film and ask questions about the mise-en-scene.

Freedom Writers is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, by ErinGruwell, the Ms G of the film. (Most of my kids might not be so thrilled if they had to read the actual book although some of them would enjoy it.) In the film, Ms Erin Gruwell, a first year teacher, is assigned to teach the ‘integration’ students: disadvantaged students who’re all together in their English class. No one wants to be lumbered with the class. The kids are seen as hopeless by the school admin. Then along comes Ms Gruwell.

It’s a really inspiring film. I tear up every time this particular boy reads his diary entry to the class. In it he describes his horrific life and how Ms G’s classroom is home. She certainly made a difference to those students.

However, teaching this text can be problematic. Beware if you’re past your prime. Your students are going to compare and you might not measure up.

Erin Gruwell is rendered delightfully by toothy, pretty Hilary Swank. Youthful, coltish vivacious, irrepressible Erin – Hilary Swank - Gruwell. She’s cool and she can really teach. Consider yourself warned.

Another problem I have with this film is its stereotyping. Head of Department, Margaret Campbell, looks to be in her fifties. She’s depicted as a frustrated crone who’s been unable to roll with the changes in her school. She guards class sets of books, not wanting to sacrifice them to Ms Gruwell’s students who she is sure will destroy them. Bitter, vicious and condescending, Campbell tries irrationally to thwart all Gruwell’s efforts.

Ms Campbell makes me sad though. In one scene she berates Erin. “I know what it’s like to be loved by a class of students!” She probably does, given she’s been teaching for thirty years. Whether she’s a composite of a few jaded old teachers or based on a real person, I do feel for her. In the closing credits of the film we find that Erin Gruwell only taught high school for three years before following some of her students to college. Ms Campbell, on the other hand, has endured. She may be afraid to teach ‘integration’ students, with their gang affiliations, but she’s probably been a decent teacher with the right sorts of students. That would be a different film though. In Freedom Writers, Ms Campbell is the archetypal harridan who shouldn’t be inflicted on any students.

There’s another thing I'm sceptical about in the film: the way those supposedly educationally delayed students take to reading and writing. I, too, have bought books for my students, sometimes out of my own money. I devote hours to matching kids to books to try to get them reading. I'm ecstatic when a student finally reads an entire book. It does happen occasionally. More often, I struggle to get most students to read anything beyond the classroom. So when I see Ms Gruwell’s students reading on buses, in locker bays, in squats, I'm cynical. Perhaps it’s different in the US.

I'm currently reading The Freedom Writers Diary and it’s incredibly articulate. Must have been some heavy-handed editorial assistance happening.

Perhaps it’s the Hollywood effect that allowed Ms Gruwell to have total success with all her students. I've witnessed some of our kids behaving badly on a visit to Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum. Have also had bored year 11 students moaning through Schindler’s List, complaining because there wasn't enough action in it.

Ah, enough of being Ms Campbell. I love teaching this film and I love the way all students respond to it, even those kids who don’t do a lick of learning. Freedom Writers may be Hollywood Over The Top but it’s so worthy. You'll find heaps of ready made teaching resources on line and your kids will love it.