Teach with Your Heart

Educational Internship Program

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BOOK REVIEW

Two major techniques and one major lesson are always present in the classroom of Erin Gruwell. Tolerance is a vital part of life and Gruwell makes sure that both her students and her readers recognize the importance of their words and their actions. The Freedom Writers (Gruwell's first class of students) have a way of drawing everyone from Steven Spielberg to the Kennedys into their story of growth and activism. Gruwell is excellent at connecting with her students and she does just as brilliant a job of connecting with her readers. Rarely do you hear about a teacher who cares so much for her students that she works two jobs purely to pay for extra supplies and opportunities for her students. It is very easy to see how Gruwell has impacted the lives of her students and how teachers everywhere could make the same progress. Teachers will find this book inspiring and everyone else will find it eye opening to how much work a good teacher will put forth to benefit his/her students. Gruwell is a great example of what a good teacher should be and how they should be helping their students. Although Gruwell taught underprivileged kids in a troubled area, her techniques are applicable to any teacher who wants to make a difference in their students' lives. She demonstrates growth in a number of ways including her transformation from a scared student teacher to a teacher who inspires people nationwide.

REFLECTION

All of the main lessons in Erin Gruwell's book involve connecting with her students and making her lessons come alive. Student-Teacher connections are a major feature in all successful learning environments. There are many teachers who do not spend any time trying to form a connection with their students. In order for me to feel comfortable in a classroom I need to feel as if the teacher really cares about me and my progress. The most difficult classes I've ever taken were difficult because I felt as if I couldn't ask for help. Teachers who try to interact with their students and make them feel as if they are welcome generally have students who make the most progress throughout the year. Erin Gruwell did an excellent job of connecting with her students. So much so, that her students rallied to keep her as their teacher throughout their entire high school education. If every teacher put forth the time and effort that Gruwell did to connect with her students, I imagine the state of our education system would be far better. More students would be compelled to finish school and to go on to higher education. I have never been more motivated to succeed than I have in a class where I know the teacher is really rooting for me.


Gruwell also uses experience as a lesson tool. This includes plenty of field trips and guest speakers. Field trips are extremely good tools for letting students experience their lessons first hand. Most of what I know about Missouri history stems from a fourth grade field trip to Jefferson City. Fifth grade provided an opportunity for us to become businessmen and women during a trip to Exchange City. I learned all about the behind the scenes parts of business. Although field trips generally become more and more scarce as students grow older, they can be especially valuable to high school students. Even a destination as simple as a public library can prove highly helpful to high school students writing research papers. Traveling to the Kansas City Public Library three years in a row helped me to become more invested in my projects and also gave me a more in depth look at my community which I had not yet been exposed to. Public speakers also do a great deal when it comes to giving students a look at reality. Everything I know about fire safety came from a visiting firefighter to our elementary school. The recent Breakfast with the Experts gave me new insights to possible future careers. Field trips and public speakers are not only wonderful learning tools but they also foster lasting memories for students and teachers alike.


Aside from the English lessons taught in her class, Erin Gruwell also ignited in her students a sense of activism and tolerance. It is truly inspiring to read about high school students who did so much to change their futures and the futures of those around them. Being from Liberty it isn't always easy to grasp how dangerous and frightening other places in the United States are. This book really helped open my eyes to some of the real life terrors people my age face in different parts of the country. Murder, drug addiction, and drive by shootings were normal occurrences in the Freedom Writers' world. I've never had to deal with anything so difficult. At the moment my biggest worries are tests and papers and grades. Other teenagers across the country and around the world are facing true difficulties that I will never be able to truly understand. But by reading this book I am more aware than I ever have been when it comes to the subject of teenage murder and crimes.

USES IN THE CLASSROOM

The teacher in this book took great interest in all of her students. She considered their strengths, weaknesses, and interests in all of her lessons. These are wonderful methods to employ when working with all students. They would be useful in a classroom because they allow the teacher to connect with his/her students which, in turn, allows the lessons taught by said teacher to really sink in and last well beyond their days in the classroom. My cooperating teacher uses these methods in her classroom. She works to discover each students' personal interests and uses those interests to encourage their learning. An example of this is the "Book Fairy". Along with the arrival of book order books comes a whole other stack of picture, chapter, and informational books. Each student will receive a book from the "Book Fairy" to take home and keep. Little do they know that the "Book Fairy" is their very own teacher. She looks through all of the books and picks books for each kid that would likely interest them and encourage their reading. The books are also chosen based on each one's personal reading level. Students on higher levels receive chapter books, while those who seem to be struggling receive books that are better suited for their abilities. This is a great example of using your students' interests to engage them because it really becomes about the student, not the teacher. The teacher remains behind the scenes, all the while seeing how influential her choices and actions are in the progress of their learning.


Another way Gruwell related her student's interest to her learning was through analogies. For example, she would try to relate lessons to football after she found out most of her students were interested in the sport. She went out of her way to research all she needed to know to properly incorporate the topic into all of her lessons. She could have went on with her lesson as usual, but she made the extra effort to involve her students. This is a very important lesson for all teachers. By actively involving your students you make the lesson so much more impactful. This technique would also make teaching more interesting. Lessons would be different year after year and teaching would always be new and exciting.


Field trips were also an important feature in Gruwell's classroom. However, while a great source of learning, field trips are not easily accessible because of funding problems in most public schools. A way to remedy this is to create in-class field trips. Similar to a "staycation", an in-class field trip gives the feeling of being away from the class without actually leaving. Many websites offer virtual field trips and there is always the option of leaving the classroom, but staying on campus. Science classes can observe nature around their school and sometimes a change of scenery can be very beneficial to students. When field trips are an option, however, they should be utilized. Field trips allow students a rare, upfront experience to what they are learning whether it be a first hand look at a one room schoolhouse or the chance to experience business up close.


A fourth technique utilized by Erin Gruwell was to invite guest speakers to her class (or take her students to the speaker). In Gruwell's case the speakers were people who had faced adversity in their lives. But anyone who has any lesson to teach can be a guest speaker. The main way this technique is utilized at Liberty North is through their Breakfast with the Experts program. The many different opportunities students have to discuss careers with professionals is beneficial because it allows the students to consider their options before they leave high school. Recently this technique was used at Lewis and Clark Elementary when they invited Gary Lezak to speak to the younger grades about weather. Guest speakers shine a new light on their respective subjects, topics, and lessons. Students are able to learn from people who have real life experience.

QUESTIONS

  • Funding would be a big issue for most teachers. How could a teacher create the same type of experiences as Erin Gruwell did for her students if they have a limited budget?
  • It is highly unlikely that a teacher would be able to remain with the same group of students for all four years of high school. How could you make the same kind of connections in shorter period of time?
  • The students in Gruwell's class were mostly underprivileged and/or in a minority. She used their struggle as means to connect with them. How could you connect with students that haven't experienced as much hardship? Would they be more difficult to connect with or easier?
  • Erin Gruwell had plenty of support from all kinds of different people. Is it possible to make the kind of progress she did with little or no support?
  • As class sizes grow larger it will become more difficult to connect with students individually. What methods could a teacher use to make sure they connect with their students on a more personal/individual level?
  • Is it common to face teachers that are as disinterested in their profession as Gruwell's colleagues? What ways could we change the profession of teaching that will make it more desirable? How could we truly determine which teachers are dedicated and which teachers would rather be somewhere else?
  • Would teachers be more motivated to connect with their students if there were more rewards for the teachers? Is negative reinforcement a better method than positive reinforcement, by not letting teachers go if their students do well on tests rather than giving them a positive reward for teaching their students more than just test material?
  • Would education benefit from more news stories such as the ones about Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers? Would more people advocate change if they were more aware of the state of our educational system?

ERIN GRUWELL TED TALK

In this video, Gruwell discusses the importance of change in education and society.
Becoming a Catalyst for Change: Erin Gruwell at TEDxChapmanU