Sept. 14, 2009
The Drake University Writers and Critics Series hosted three “Freedom Writer” teachers last Wednesday.
Three high school teachers in Iowa have applied the Freedom Writer techniques that Erin Grunwell implemented in her classroom 15 years ago.
Grunwell was a novice high school teacher in Long Beach, Calif. Her unorthodox methods for teaching troubled teens worked so well that she founded the Freedom Writers Foundation to “promote innovative teaching.”
Emily Bollinger, Cody Cochran and Katie Williams, all members of the foundation, contributed to the book “Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers.”
The book is a collection of 150 stories from teachers across the United States and Canada. It was written in honor of the 10th anniversary of “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which is composed of journals from Grunwell’s students. The Freedom Riders, participants in the famous bus rides of the civil rights movement, inspired Grunwell’s students to dub themselves the Freedom Writers.
Bollinger said the main purpose of both the Freedom Writers Diary and Teaching Hope is to show that everyone has a voice and that words have power.
“Even though ‘Teaching Hope’ was written by teachers, it’s all about the students,” Bollinger said.
A few of Bollinger’s students from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines shared their classmates’ and their own stories at the presentation.
The students’ narratives were very similar to the memoirs of the original writers. The stories included problems of gang violence, abuse and homelessness.
The students led the entire audience in Grunwell’s famous “Step to the Line” activity. Standing in a circle around a taped line on the floor, they asked anyone who had flown in an airplane to step to the line. Every person stepped to the line.
After a few more general questions, they addressed more personal issues. “Step to the line if you have lost someone to violence.”
The point of the exercise was to recognize the difficulties young people face every day and how these issues can interrupt their education. The results of this activity come as a surprise to many students.
The teachers said they hope the new book will inspire teachers and students alike to change the world.
“The Freedom Writers Foundation helped me find a voice; a voice of hope and a voice of change,” teacher Katie Williams said.