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My take on a Good Teacher: Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers Diary

Posted on Jul 16, 2014 by Shradha Patnaik | Category: Blog, The Good Teacher Series | Comments: none

Writing is powerful. Whether it’s a little girl hiding from the Nazis in an attic, or Amnesty International writing letters on behalf of political prisoners, the power of telling stories is usually what causes change.Erin Gruwell

This article takes inspiration from Erin Gruwell, a first year teacher who dared to change her class curriculum radically. Erin, along with her students, wrote the book The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. The book went on to become a motion picture, The Freedom Writers, in 2007. You will see me drawing parallels to the movie throughout this narration. It will help the readers connect to what I am trying to put across in this description of a good teacher.It will be most relatable to teachers working with students coming from low income families, families where these children are probably the first generation learners.

When Erin enters her class for the first time, she is welcomed (more like unwelcomed) by a group of students. Classified as the ‘unteachables’ and ‘at risk’ students, she finds it really difficult to get through to them. How does Erin then draw a connection with each one of them? What does she do to engage, enlighten and empower all students in her class? There is a scene in the movie where she tries to teach her students essay writing, all this while they revolt. These are children who do not want to study. They do not connect with the text and don’t see a point as to why they should be reading and studying something completely not related to their lives. This is when a good teacher digresses from the curriculum and tries to make things relevant for her/his students by contextualising what s/he teaches. She hands over journals to each one of these students and asks them to record all the events that have occurred in their lives that have had an impact on them.

I can’t help but draw a connection to this exact same incident that occurred during one of my field trips in the interiors of Odisha. While conducting a case study, I realised that students of class 9 are made to read topics like ‘My Birthday Party’ and ‘Christmas’. What was dismaying was that these children, belonging to farming families and living in one bedroom kutcha houses had no idea about their own birth dates, let alone having a birthday party. The only festivals they probably knew about and could afford to celebrate were the ones related to the crop harvest and a few followed by Hindus. Why is it that no one makes a conscious effort and tries to contextualize reading for these kids?

A good teacher is also sacrificing and resilient. Erin faced a lot of opposition from the school authorities in terms of getting books for her students to read or conducting field visits. Known as Mrs. G to her students, she took up two part time jobs to help sponsor her students’ field visits and books. By the end of the school year, Mrs. G was able to get around 35 computers donated for her students in order for them to write abook; all this, at the risk of losing her husband and inviting the displeasure of her fellow teachers. A good teacher fights against all odds and invents new learning models: kinesthetic, auditory and visual. S/he comes up with innovative curriculum emphasising on self- actualisation, tolerance and the active participation of students by building on their common experience to bring learning to life.

Before all of this, it is of utmost importance for a good teacher to demonstrate leadership qualities and build her/his students’ trust. Erin here demonstrates what it is like to be a true leader. She leads her class against all odds and most of all believes in her students. It is this trust and belief that led to most of her ‘at-risk’ students to work hard and even graduate from school.

Being a good teacher is all about commitment, setting high expectations from students and building a partnership with the students. A good teacher doesn’t let anyone put her/his students down. S/he listens more and makes her/his students feel at home. It is about how effectively and efficiently the teacher is able to help her/his students reach their highest potential. In the end, it is all about caring and giving thought about each student.

I leave you all with a soundtrack from the movie. The song portrays the struggles that most of us go through on a daily basis and also gives the listener that small ray of hope to strive and achieve what s/he really wants.

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About the Author

Shradha Patnaik
Shradha Patnaik
Senior Associate- Corporate Communications

“Education for me is the ability to open my mind to learn things every day. I learn, therefore I am.”
Shradha Patnaik is a graduate in Political Science Honours from Delhi University. She has completed her Post Graduation in Radio and Television Journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Her interest lies in the field of communication and child development. Shradha is also pursuing a Masters degree in Gender and Development Studies from IGNOU.

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