Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Erin Gruwell: Teach With Your Heart

As anyone who's seen the 2007 film "Freedom Writers" starring Hilary Swank can attest, teacher Erin Gruwell's educational journey--from being a young, insecure student teacher to becoming one of the most prominent, respected, and sought-after educators in the country--is a remarkable one. I watched "Freedom Writers" and found myself blown away by the powerful tale of what one determined teacher was able to do with a large, ethnically diverse group of teenagers who all faced struggles no young person should have to experience: homelessness, violence, substance abuse. Worst of all, the educational system in their hometown of Long Beach, CA--the very system that was supposed to empower them and lead them to a brighter future--had written them off as the undesirables, the unsaveables. In Teach With Your Heart, Erin Gruwell chronicles the amazing journey she took with her students as they accomplished feats that no one imagined (or expected) they could.

Despite its rather didactic title, Teach With Your Heart is less a teacher's guide than a personal memoir in which Gruwell takes us behind the scenes of her years as a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School and beyond. Relating to the "book versus movie" saying, this particular book shows us there is much more to Gruwell's story than the film "Freedom Writers" could ever show. The book resonated with me as I consider myself someone passionate about education and educational causes, and I suspect teachers and other education-focused individuals are this book's main audience. However, I would urge anyone looking for a powerful, moving story to consider Gruwell's work.

The reading in Teach With Your Heart is extremely accessible, and what you will inevitably find is a poignant, candid, and inspiring portrait of the years that Gruwell tenaciously fought the apathy of her students, the condescension and disapproval of her colleagues, racial and socioeconomic stereotypes in her community, and the educational system itself. Sacrificing her time and financial resources for the sake of her students, Gruwell transformed her students--who called themselves the Freedom Writers as a tribute to the original Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement and as an acknowledgment of writing's ability to liberate--from cynical, marginalized young people to mature individuals eager to make change for new generations of students.

On various book sites and blogs, some have expressed their doubt about Gruwell, calling her self-serving and a "sellout" in writing Teach With Your Heart. I beg to differ, as I question how many individuals, let alone schoolteachers, go on to achieve the quantity--and caliber--of accomplishments that this woman shares with us in her memoir. Should a person not be able to share his/her story after winning a plethora of prestigious prizes, in and out of the education realm; appearing on shows like "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The View" and "Primetime"; being asked to speak to crowds of thousands around the country; starting her own nonprofit organization to help struggling youth; and forever changing the lives of her students through innovative teaching strategies, personally-funded and -coordinated field trips, and by exposing them to great works of literature? Gruwell's memoir isn't a tribute to herself; it's ultimately a tribute to all teachers, all educators who make great things happen and who touch the lives of their students on a daily basis.


Wynnde Vessup said...

Incredibly EXCELLENT and inspiring MUST-READ!!!I excited about reading more books by Erin and writing my own story.Thank You!

Wynnde Vessup said...

THANK YOU!!!! One of the BEST inspiring, empowering, encouraging books I have read.