Sunday, September 13, 2009
Reflections from a Freedom Writer Teacher
Editor: The next issue of our journal will be on the theme of "Art, Social Imagination and Democratic Education" and will appear soon. We have interpreted art in that issue very generically to include visual art, music, performing art, and theatre as well as literature and poetry. Kirsten Jensen, an English teacher at the Nooksack Valley High School here in Washington state, has joined a very interesting movement started by Erin Gruwell called the Freedom Writers. Some of you may be aware of Gruwell's foundation and her earlier book, The Freedom Writers Diary. A graduate from our own MIT program here at the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University, Kirsten wrote of her experience teaching reading and writing workshops in Gruwell's latest book, Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers." In the Bellingham Herald recently, she described her goals, "Often (teachers) try to control what students do, and I think it's hard to step away from that...The whole Freedom Writers experience ... has been one of the most impactful professional development activities for me." Kirsten joined other freedom writer teachers along with some of her own students at Village Books, our town's independent bookstore, to share her experiences with teachers and others in our community recently. In her post below, Kirsten describes her use of "memoir" writing as a way of helping her students find their own voice. We thank Kirsten for sharing with our readers another innovative way to create a democratic classroom.
The Power of Memoir Writing, Relevant Literature and Diversity Education in a Fight for Educational Equity; A Freedom Writer Teacher’s Experience
by Kirsten Jensen
Teacher, Nooksack Valley High School
Every year a new stream of students enters through our classroom doors, each with his or her own story that either supports their educational success, or makes it all the more difficult for them to make it a priority in their lives. Over time, some of these students have experienced moment after moment of disappointment and failure and are beginning to give up on the possibility of achieving a passing grade or even graduating from high school. I have these students in each of my classes in a Washington State rural, low-income school.
I remember the first time I began teaching Memoir writing. One day I asked students to leave their composition books for me to read. That night as I flipped through the pages of each notebook, I found myself shocked and saddened by the obstacles many of them faced. That same week a fellow teacher left the book The Freedom Writers Diary in my box in the teacher’s lounge. That night I read through entries written by Erin Gruwell’s 150 students from Long Beach, California. Students who were dealing with homelessness, drug addicted parents, avoiding deportation, teenage pregnancy, and abuse at home, I couldn’t help to see some similarities between these students and my own. I contacted the Foundation to find they were starting a teacher-training program to train 150 teachers in the methods that helped Gruwell’s students achieve educational success. The vision of the Freedom Writers Foundation is to publicly and systematically promote an educational philosophy that honors diversity and gives all students the opportunity to reach their full potential. The Foundation empowers students and teachers through curriculum, outreach and scholarships to help break the cycle of inequity that still continues in our educational systems. This was the reason I entered the teaching profession.
As I got off the plane in Long Beach I was greeted by teachers from around the country and Canada, all with a similar visions and passions for teaching. We learned ways to engage students in meaningful and relevant curriculum, teach students to write, read and listen to each others stories and experiences, teach Holocaust education and diversity awareness, and most of all, form relationships that allow all voices to be heard in a safe classroom community.
When I returned to my students, I witnessed some that seemed to have become "failure-acceptors" experience moments of success and begin to see that with motivation and work they could feel a sense of accomplishment. By getting the right book in the right student’s hand at the right time, a student was able to actually read a book for the first time, read more books, and perhaps become a life long reader. By getting students to develop some sense of empathy through diversity awareness teachings, the safety in my classroom increased and more students felt comfortable and willing to share their personal writing and experiences with others.
Every student has the potential to contribute something positive to our community and world. By finding ways to reach students that often fall through the cracks and help them experience success, more students will graduate high school with the skills they need to become contributing citizens to our world. These citizens may one day have their own children that they will be able to support and help to experience this same success. Education has the power to help affect the social inequities that exist in this country. Helping all students find voice and relevancy in their education may be the first step.
The Freedom Writers Foundation is still accepting teachers into its training program in Long Beach. For more information visit http://www.freedomwritersfoundation.org/