Teachers as Freedom Writers
Local men are among 150 educators contributing to sequel to bestselling The Freedom Writers Diary
David McKay vividly remembers the moment when he first knew he wanted to be a teacher. He was 16 years old, and he was helping a kid learn to swim.
Sitting in his office at Fair View High School, where he is vice principal, McKay described the experience and the terrified boy—“the look on his face”—who finally learned to trust his swim instructors, allowing them to teach him skills that would save his life, despite his reluctance at first.
That connected relationship requires trust, something McKay says cannot happen overnight.
Trust is the key ingredient in education and yet is often missing. “It became very clear to me early on that kids would not do their best unless they trusted the teacher,” McKay said.
His fellow teacher Scott Bailey, who works with special-education students through the Butte County Office of Education, agrees with him on this issue. That’s part of the reason the men worked together, along with about 150 other teachers, on a new book, Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers, edited by Erin Gruwell.
This publication is a sequel to Gruwell’s bestselling book, The Freedom Writers Diary (which in 2007 became a feature film, Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank). A little more than a week after the book came out, on Aug. 28, it listed at No. 33 on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
The diverse group of educators met with Gruwell several times in Long Beach, and learned about alternative teaching methods from her and the original group of Freedom Writers, McKay said.
Whereas in the original book the diary entries were written by Gruwell’s students, in this book the teachers do the writing. Short, anonymous selections illustrate events over the course of an academic year, “from the anticipation of the first day to the disillusionment, challenges and triumphs of the school year,” as described on the back of the book.
“These are the voices of teachers who persevere in the face of intolerance, rigid administration and countless other challenges, and continue to reach out and teach those who are deemed unteachable.”
As McKay describes the book, “those stories represent us. … These are our kids; these stories commemorate their lives.”
In 1994 Gruwell, who’d grown up in tony Newport Beach, began her first teaching job at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, where her students were labeled as “delinquent” and to a large extent acted the part. When she learned that none of them had heard of the Holocaust, but all had been shot at, she decided to use diaries as the foundation of her teaching—with remarkable success, as it turned out.
Students read Anne Frank’s diary as well as Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, discovering violence in the books similar to that in their own lives. More important, they began keeping their own journals depicting the hardships of their lives, writings that were later used in her book.
Gruwell is the founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds scholarships and provides workshops and seminars at the Freedom Writers Institute.
She “has always been this constant support,” said Bailey, who first got to know Gruwell after he had his students read her book. Bailey has been teaching 11 years, mostly with students with emotional disturbances in special-education settings such as juvenile hall, court schools and day-treatment classes. He was looking for a book that would reach out to his students, he said.
After his class read the book, his students wrote letters to Gruwell, and he attempted to get in touch with her. One day she called back, during class so he could put her on the speaker phone. The students listened so intensely that “you could have heard a pin drop.”
Subsequently, Bailey organized a writing exchange program in his classes. His students write anonymous journal entries about events in their lives, and various classes share work with each other. He was even able to involve students from the juvenile hall in Fresno in the program.
Some of his classes have been able to take trips to Sacramento to hear Gruwell and the original Freedom Writers speak—an event for which Gruwell provided tickets free to Bailey’s students. She also spoke with them after the event, signed autographs and took pictures.
“You can really get a lot from students if you open your door and let them write about their lives,” Bailey said.
When students tell you stories about their hardships, Bailey said, it gives the teacher a glimpse of why they might have “so many difficulties in life and in school.” For instance, Bailey learned about a student who was constantly beaten in the face by his father and then kept at home from school until the bruises healed.
“I have students who have lived incredibly difficult lives,” he continued. “Many of them won’t put it on paper or tell anyone if they think it will be reported.”
Bailey and McKay didn’t know each other until they were connected by Gruwell, even though they often taught the same students. Like Bailey, McKay had read her book and become inspired about alternative ways to engage disadvantaged and at-risk students.
His career in education began in 1999 at Chico High, teaching remedial English to kids who were struggling in the classroom. Inspired by Gruwell, who had also fought to keep her students together in a classroom for four years to maintain their trust, he decided to organize a similar program, known as the SOUL program.
McKay and Pedro Caldera, now assistant principal at Chico Junior High, reached out to these at-risk students and organized classes at Chico High in which they tried to keep students together for longer than one year. In 2005 a group of students who had stayed together for four years graduated, a group McKay says discovered they could succeed despite their hardships.
For the past three years, McKay has been at Fair View, the continuation high school where students receive an alternative form of education. In the past, he said, students were sent to Fair View as a “catch-up” plan and then sent back to their original schooling environment. Problem is, that would create only short-term success because most of these students reverted to their natural environments and behaviors.
Teaching strategies at Fair View have evolved. “We aren’t just a fix-’em-up and send-them-back program,” he said. Rather, the school offers “a different way, a different path for students to meet and reach the same high standards of learning.”
It works. From 1995 to 2006 the alternative high school averaged 20 expulsions and 200 out-of-school suspensions a year, he said. In the last two years there have been no expulsions and maybe 10 days of out-of-school suspensions.
With only 260 students on campus, each student gets individualized attention and discipline is tight. Fair View offers a nine-period school day; students stay on campus until 5 p.m., but there’s less emphasis on homework. Not everyone goes home to an environment conducive to doing homework, so instead students focus on their studies at school.
Also, administrators and instructors are aware that some of these kids may have a lot of baggage and understand that acting out may not be due to the problem at hand. For instance, McKay says, a student saying no to a teacher is usually a symptom of something else, like pain or stress from something in their lives, and the goal is “to uncork that issue.”
Many students are used to adults letting them down, so McKay says the goal is to develop that relationship with trust. He used an example of a burrito, relating trust to the tortilla that holds the burrito together.
“The relationship is the tortilla,” he said. “Kids need to know that you understand or at least can empathize with their story. Not pity, but you need to show them that you get it.”