Sunday, February 23, 2014

I'm Not the Freedom Writers Teacher

My new work office is on a college campus. Last week, I ran into one of my old students in the hallway of my building. She immediately grabbed a few of her friends and dragged them over.
"Do you see this teacher?!" she exclaimed, "she was like the Freedom Writers teacher! She taught us so much!" We hugged, and caught up, and parted, but I was feeling something I haven't felt in awhile. Seeing her and her excitement gave me the warm fuzzies, but her comparison of me to the Freedom Writers teacher, Erin Gruwell, made me cringe on the inside:
My gut did this when she made the comparison. [via]
When the Freedom Writers movie came out in 2007, I found myself getting compared to Erin Gruwell's self-sacrificing and savior figure teacher quite often. My students were really into the movie and saw themselves reflected in the characters. They saw me reflected in the teacher. I found in conversation with pre-service English teachers that the movie and book was--sometimes-- what brought them into wanting to teach English to urban school kids in the first place. I had to see what the fuss was about. So I watched it. And then I read the book over Spring Break. When it was all over, I was irate. Really? I mean, really? Did my students really think that I was similar to the Freedom Writers lady?
Me, the Nice White Biracial Lady [via]
I kept this feeling inside and took a look at my language and attitude towards my students. Did I act like that about my students? I didn't voice my distaste until a few years later. I was at a big English teacher conference and Erin Gruwell was the keynote speaker. It was ridiculous. I'm not quoting word for word and this was five years ago, but part of her speech went something like this:
"At a time when my student Sally should have been enjoying her childhood and eating popsicles with her friends, she was watching blood the color of red popsicles running down the street in rivers because of gang violence in her neighborhood. I gave her a notebook and a pen and a way to get it all out." 
A people around me were crying and nodding. I could almost read their minds: "Yes. That's why I became a teacher. Uh huh. These kids need saving."
Was she fer reals? [via]
I started thinking about how dangerous it is for teachers--especially white female teachers working in urban schools--to use movie characters (and caricatures) like the Freedom Writers teacher as a reason to become an English teacher. 
It's not real. It's not healthy. It's not good for your relationships, bank account, or personal health. It's not a good way to go into a job. It's not a good way to view your students. No teacher is an island. No teacher is a savior and viewing yourself in that light isn't a good idea. When I started teaching a college course on school and society this year, I found that in the beginning, some of the pre-service English teachers cited the movie as a reason why they wanted to become a teacher. In 2014. 
I was like, "No." [via]
I did an exercise with my college students that I used when I taught a film class and a senior English class. I've used this with adults during presentations as well. It's one of my favorite discussion starters on what it means to view texts through different lenses. I often use media clips and then "counter" media clips to teach my kids about viewing texts differently. These texts and counter-texts are all over the place. Try it...

We watch the trailer for Freedom Writers:
Then I ask for a literal description of the trailer, which helps students practice summarization, which is a common core skill, if anyone asks why you're watching media clips. 

From there, I asked them questions rooted in Critical Race Theory. I've used these questions with kids and adults of all ages. Here are two of them:
How does the text portray people of color? 
What conclusions does it seem to make about people of color? 

THEN, it's time for the counter media clip. This is probably my favorite Youtube video of all time:
My favorite part:
NWL: (Slams hands on the desk) WHY WON'T YOU LET ME TEACH YOU? 
Student: 'Cuz you a white lady. You don't KNOW me. Look at you, in that sweater vest you wearing and that ADORABLE patterned blouse. What you think is gonna happen here? You think you gonna inspire me? You think you gonna break through my tough girl act and teach me the beauty that's inside? You think you gonna make me do and feel things that I never have, never had before? All because you a non-threatening, kind-hearted, beautiful white lady? Is that what you think? Well you wrong. We fightin' for our LIVES in these streets. 
NWL: (Hands her a notebook) Write that down.

Then the good discussion starts. It can get awkward-- in a good way. Like anytime we use texts and counter-texts it ends with people saying that I ruined the original and now they don't know what to do with what they thought before:
Teacher Jen: Messin' with your world view since 2005. 

Last year, one of former students Facebook messaged me, telling me that I definitely wasn't the Freedom Writers teacher. I was more like the teacher from Disney's Recess, Miss Grotke:
That's better.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I hope many people read it. It needs to be said. Over and over again.

Anonymous said...

I REALLY want to take your class!

do_it_ajen said...

Thanks, anonymouses! :)

Bro Joe said...

Nice bi-racial lady!? Well, yeah, but...

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