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English 201 Finale

By knkeller May 05, 2014 2089 Words
Kimberly Keller
R. Anderson
English 201
24 March 2014
When Your Teacher Believes in You
Imagine being a student whose biggest concern was trying to get through the day alive. Surrounded by drugs, gangs, guns and violence, you can see why the rhythm of poetry isn’t the concern of students. This was the life of the students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Many of these students had a choice between attending school or boot camp; few aspired beyond basic survival. Add to this, a school recently integrated that in the past two years was one of the top scholastic schools. Most of the teachers are bitter because of this change and are frustrated with the caliber of students present because academics aren’t their priority. Mrs. Gruwell is a newly hired, optimistic teacher, which breaks that mold. She is committed to do all she can to make sure her students succeed, not only with English but also with learning to respect one another. Student teacher relationships are essential to a student’s learning. Without a positive relationship present in the classroom the learning process may not be successful. The movie Freedom Writers suggests that education needs to encourage a more motivating teaching style, remove the focus from grades so students are able to participate without the fear of grades, and nurture student teacher relationships to help relate with students. The first major argument the film seems to make is that our current education system needs to encourage a more motivating teaching style. Pamela Harris and Ralph Johnson state, “The traditional teaching approaches are generally teacher-directed and follow cookbook steps of activities and demonstrations. This approach may not provide students with valuable skills or even with a body of knowledge that lasts much beyond the end of the term” (par 2). As an education major, you are being taught how to teach in college. But when you get in front of your actual class, you have to be flexible enough to know how to use the tools you were given and adjust them to meet the needs of the students in your classroom. In the movie Freedom Writers, Mrs. Gruwell is not your average teacher; she is excited about her students and enthusiastically wants to teach them. She runs into several battles early on. One battle is realizing that these are not the students she expected from her college education and she will have to adapt her ways to even get their attention in her classroom. After many days of not connecting with her students, Mrs. Gruwell realizes that she will have to scrap the lesson plans she had prepared before she knew who her class was. Playing a line game in her classroom, Mrs. Gruwell finds out how many students have been shot at, have had family members killed, have been in juvenile detention, know where to get drugs, etc. Questions most of us would not be able to relate to. It dawns on her that The Diary of Anne Frank would be a great book for her students to read, due to similar life stories. Anne Frank’s experience in the holocaust is much like these students; hated because of the race they are and the struggle to survive due to the conflicts that come out of the hatred. The other battle is between she and her department head staff on what is the best teaching method to use on these students. When Mrs. Gruwell approached her department head about this idea of using Anne Frank’s book, she was turned down. The department head proceeded to tell her the books are in too good of condition to give to the students and are above their reading level. She says to Mrs. Gruwell, “You can’t make someone want an education, the best you can do is get them to obey and to learn discipline, that would be a good accomplishment for them.” Students deserve more out of their education than just learning to obey. They need to be inspired to love learning and figure out what their interests are to make something of themselves. Mrs. Gruwell could not accept the fact that every classroom should be taught by a cookie cutter method and believed you have to adapt for what works with students. Knowing in her heart that it was the right thing to do, Mrs. Gruwell bought the books herself for her students. The students connected just the way she had hoped. Traditional teaching methods usually give rewards based on performance; you typically see students being taken on a field trip because they “earned” the right to go. Many educators do not feel Mrs. Gruwell’s caliber of student warrants the effort or cost of a field trip. According to Sonia Jackson, there are three new teaching methods that improve the educational process, one of which is engagement. “Under a new teaching method called “engagement” students are urged to engage with the real world, analyze everything that happens in different life spheres” (par 13). This new teaching method was present in the movie Freedom Writers when Mrs. Gruwell took a nontraditional look and realized that most of her students hadn’t been or experienced life outside of Long Beach and field trips would be a successful method to teach them. When a student drew a caricature of a classmate, interest in the holocaust was sparked beyond d the reading of Anne Frank. Mrs. Gruwell decided a trip to the holocaust museum would be their first educational field trip. Upon leaving the holocaust museum, the students enjoyed a dinner at a nice restaurant with holocaust survivors in attendance. Gatto notes, “The work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around” (300). Jackson & Gatto would have supported this nontraditional teaching method due to the fact it had the students out experiencing not only history but also culture and developing social skills. This movie shows that sometimes thinking outside of the box is what you have to do to reach a group of students that aren’t your mainstream students. The second major argument the film seems to make is that our current education system needs to remove the focus from grades so students are able to participate without the fear of grades. Since survival is the main priority in her students’ lives, Mrs. Gruwell understands that a letter grade on a paper means absolutely nothing to them. Mrs. Gruwell didn’t push the importance of the letter grade upon her students. She instead wanted to get her students interested in the material that she was teaching. On the other hand many other teachers have a problem with leaving the importance of the letter grade out of education. According to Kohn, “One series of studies, for example, found that students given numerical grades were significantly less creative than those who received qualitative feedback but no grades. The more the task required creative thinking, in fact, the worse the performance of students who knew they were going to be graded” (287). Students respond and work more when it’s for them and not for the class or the teacher. Mrs. Gruwell caught on to this fact about her students. One method Mrs. Gruwell developed to get past this barrier was providing the students a brand new journal, which was all their own. These journals were a way for her students to share their lives with their teacher. They were able to write anything they desired; their innermost thoughts. Mrs. Gruwell made a promise not to read the journals unless they granted her permission. To her surprise, all of her students granted her permission to read their journals. For the first time someone was listening to them, respect was born. In a recent interview Kohn also was even so blunt to say, “to put it positively, students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply. The evidence on all of these effects is very clear, and it seems to apply to students of all ages” (par 7). This was proven to be true in the movie Freedom Writers. When the students were able to write without fear of judgment, via a grade on their feelings and opinions, 100% of the students in Mrs. Gruwell’s class participated in the journals. This opened the door to being able to teach them the art of communication. The final major argument the film seems to make is that our current education system needs to nurture student teacher relationships to help relate with students. In a study conducted by Judith Diane Northup, she found that “most frequently students reported two themes about caring: a caring teacher motivates them to come to class or school, and a caring teacher wants them to succeed and helps them to be successful” (77). To a certain degree you have to reach your students where they are at; in this case Mrs. Gruwell was extremely successful with her relationship with her students. She became vulnerable to her students in her desire to understand them and reach them and because of that, they opened up to her. Once Mrs. Gruwell got a snap shot of their lives, she recognized she needed to use books and language that mirrored their culture; this meant using raps from Tupac to teach poetry instead of her beloved Shakespeare. This caused the students to open up even more to her. Now because of the trust that had developed between teacher and student, not only were the students writing for her, but their interest in reading had developed as well. The students loved Mrs. Gruwell so much that they devoted their time and energy outside of class to help her raise money to buy their learning materials and pay for field trips. Beth Bernstein-Yamashiro and Gill Noam claim in their journal article that “While the relationships can be fulfilling and stimulating, they can also be confusing, draining, and overwhelming. Teachers must determine how their own emotional lives figure into their relationships and how much energy they can devote to students” (70-71). Mrs. Gruwell had such passion for her calling in life, teaching, that she felt the cost of being emotionally connected to her students was worth it to her. Because of her personal sacrifice Mrs. Gruwell’s students performed beyond all expectations once they saw someone who they felt actually cared about them, respected them and believed they could succeed. The bond was so strong that the school district allowed her to teach these same students all throughout their high school career. Education is a complicated matter because we as a society want our young people to all reach a given level of education that makes the student a productive member of society. Children come from many walks of life; some not even covered in this movie, for example language barriers. The job of a teacher is to form relationships with her students and be a positive motivator for them throughout their learning process. The school system has to be flexible and creative enough to reach every student that comes through its doors and be able to provide the teachers with the tools to do so. Freedom Writers was a great example of how one teacher had success in her classroom when she used a motivating teaching style that encouraged her students, removed the focus from grades and created a strong student teacher relationship that connected her with her students. Her students were successful beyond all expectations on the day they stepped foot in Mrs. Gruwell’s classroom in Woodrow Wilson High School.

Works Cited
Bernstein-Yamashiro, Beth, and Gil G. Noam. "Establishing And Maintaining Boundaries In Teacher-Student Relationships." New Directions For Youth Development 137 (2013): 69-84.
Ellis, Jessica. “Do Grades Do Any Good?” Education.com (2009). Freedom Writers, Dir. Richard LaGravenese. Paramount Pictures, 2007. Gatto, John Taylor. “Against School.” Miller 300-307. Print. Harris, Pamela, and Johnson, Ralph. Non-Traditional Teaching & Learning Strategies. Montana State University. Web. 24 March 2014.

Jackson, Sonia. 3 New Teaching Methods Improve the Educational Process. Getting Smart. 2012. Web. 24 March 2014.

Kohn, Alfie. “From Degrading to De-grading.” Miller 286-96. Print. Miller, James S., ed. Acting Out Culture: Reading and Writing. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.
Northup, Judith Diane. “Teacher and Student Relationships and Student Outcomes.” Diss. University of Colorado at Denver, 2011. Print.

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