Friday, April 24, 2009

Freedom Writers; Or, Why You Should Not Solicit Book Recommendations from Your Students

One way I've tried to forge "relationships" with my students, and help then to deepen their relationships with each other, is to create a culture of book critics in my classroom. Several times this year, we've done book talks in which each student reads aloud a short selection of a book they are reading or have read and discusses some thoughts and questions the book raised for him or her. I've also spontaneously shared books I've read that they might enjoy, and I've also let them recommend books to me.

On the recommendations of students, I've read Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, The Dream Bearer and Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers, Teen Angst? Nahhhh... by Ned Vizzini, and the entire Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. And honestly, most of those books I enjoyed. I added Scorpions to my author study on Walter Dean Myers. But one recommendation really made me squirm.

"You should read that Freedom Writers book," K, one of my students, suggested to me recently. "I read it. It was real good. It was, like, real."

This was a casual conversation, not a lesson, so it didn't push her too hard to elaborate. Besides, I was familiar with the book--I'd seen the movie with Hilary Swank two years ago. In fact, I'd watched the movie with students at my former school, who'd begged me to watch it. I was a truly new newbie then, and I let the kids do just about anything they expressed an interest in because it was way easier than arguing with them. So we watched it. And, of course, I hated it.

I hate all teacher movies, like most teachers do. (Except Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling and Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas. On a bad day, I can always remind myself that at least I'm not a cokehead [Half Nelson] or a pot-smoking, philandering, failed novelist [Wonder Boys].) Teacher movies make me feel like a pathetic, lousy excuse for a teacher. Teacher movies make me feel like I AM one of those teachers that people complain about; after all, I belong to a union, I don't give out my cell phone number, and sometimes I like to eat lunch by myself in my classroom with my lights off and my door locked. Erin Gruwell, I am not.

Then again, today I reminded myself to tell my principal that I think my grade should go back to having the same lunch period next year instead of being split across two lunch periods. The admins will think it has cut down on discipline problems, but judging from the number of kids in lunch-related detentions, I don't think it has. It also means that I can't lunch with the kids much because I am usually teaching a class when the other class had lunch. I don't mind spending lunches with the kids, really I don't, even a few times a week. Not to do "lunch duty," but to give homework help, provide a quiet space to study, or just hang out and talk. I used to have a group of girls that came faithfully once or twice a week, ostensibly to clean up my classroom library but mostly just to talk about books. And that was fine with me.

But I digress. Since I like to take kids' book recommendations, I picked up The Freedom Writers' Diary and read it. I can say that it is much better than the movie. Gruwell's starring role in the movie is much slighter in the book, allowing the kids to tell the bulk of the story in their own voices and about their own lives. The stories are engaging and moving. And Ms. Gruwell certainly did do an awful lot for her students, who certainly sound like a bright, wonderful group of children--children with challenges, to be sure, but children who deserved and appreciated every bit of second chance she gave them.

My problems...well. My problem is that Gruwell herself refutes the premise of the book, the idea of the "Super Teacher." Yes, she worked three jobs and wrote grants and thank-you notes and begged and pleaded and stayed at school until 10 p.m. and did God only knows what else to make it work. And she did make it work, God bless her.

And then she quit.

Would I have quit? Sure. I'm not sure I would have been standing upright, let alone ready to continue a teaching career, by the time I finished the four years that she did. I would have been out the door right behind her. But she did quit. The pace that she set, the money and time and emotion she poured out, burned her out. Yes, she has stayed involved in education. But she could not be Super Teacher for the rest of her life.

Strange that (darn K and her recommendation!) I should have picked up the book right around the time I read something like this. And the cycle starts over again. Look at everything I don't do, I fret. I don't give out my phone number. I don't work Saturdays. I don't get Miep Gies to come to my school. I'm lucky I managed to cobble together a graduation trip that the kids seem happy about. God, I suck.

Then I have to remind myself that I plan to be in this for a long haul. I plan to retire from this job. I want to be there, year after year, for a long time--possibly in my same school. I love the children I teach, but I am not Super Teacher. And I'm not sure I want to be.

Sure, I can always do more and better. Each year, I select two specific areas in which I want to improve, with the support of my admins. We work together on me improving in those two areas that following year. And then we re-evaluate and it starts over. And, you know, every so often I get an evening or a weekend more or less to myself. It's not a perfect system, but my kids don't seem too deprived and I'm not totally stir-crazy.

I could do what Gruwell did. For about as long as she did. And then I'd quit. And someone else would fill my shoes, starting from Square One like I did (because these days in NYC, no experienced teacher would be hired for my job--they'd hire a cheap noob), guaranteeing at least one shoddy, miserable, desperate year for the unlucky kiddies to populate that class.

Anyway. Thanks, K, for the recommendation. I hope it makes me a Super Teacher that I plan to offer the book to my more mature readers even though I don't like the insidious message it sometimes sends about teachers and teaching. We can agree to disagree on that. And I think K probably just liked the stories about shootings and bullying and things.