Thursday, December 27, 2007

Freedom Writers

I recently watched Freedom Writers via the Xbox Video Marketplace. It's not a standout film by any means. In fact, you've probably seen it before. It's basically the same as Dangerous Minds or Take the Lead, or to a lesser extent Dead Poet's Society, The Emperor's Club, Mr. Holland's Opus, or even Save the Last Dance. Take disadvantaged/disillusioned students, throw in an inspirational teacher, and have them overcome the system to create a heart warming, life changing story. This particular "naïve white teacher thrown in with inner-city kids" movie isn't bad, but it certainly isn't revolutionary either.

So why am I talking about it? Well, in this (true) story, the teacher in question stays with the same students for four years before moving on to a job at a university. She doesn't try to recreate her direct teaching impact with another generation of disadvantaged kids. Throughout the movie she alienates her fellow staff members instead of motivating them. And the extreme focus on her students leads to the failure of her marriage. Nothing about her story seems repeatable or sustainable.

Yet the tale is supposed to be inspirational. We're supposed to look at this and say "Hey, if you just put enough elbow grease into teaching, those kids will stop stabbing each other and become world leaders!" Hard to validate, because her success story is singular. But somehow this four year experience with the same class of students is supposed to create a foundation for educational reform. Maybe I've been watching too many documentaries lately, but I expect a little more critical thinking and a little less tear-jerking.

I realize that I can't completely relate to this story. I went to school in Gig Harbor, which is about as far from the inner-city as you can get. I had some great teachers at times, but I never experienced anything close to the life-altering hug-fest depicted in dramatic teaching movies. I spent a short stint in college studying education and practicing on real kids in real schools (much more real than the schools I went too). I definitely have concerns over the education system, but to be inspired I need more than "Hey, I tried this thing once and it kinda worked."

There are some interesting ideas to extract from this story, like having students progress year to year with the same teacher. With an extended exposure the teacher has an improved chance to connect with individual students. And by being forced to work with the same peers students can learn that family is something that can grow out of other sources than blood or ethnicity. When people deal with each other for a prolonged period of time they have to work out their differences, even if they still don't like each other. In my opinion that's the most important lesson of family, and it'd be great if school reinforced it. If you can just float on from class to class you never really have to learn how to resolve individual differences.

There are drawbacks, of course. If you only ever deal with the same set of people you won't be as good at meeting and befriending new people (something that I personally am still terrible at). And creating a new scope of "us" has the side effect of designating a new "them" (although I'd argue that the more tribes you belong to the less of a problem that is). So I don't think this is an idea taken to the extreme. But some more non-elective social persistence in the schools sounds like a good thing.

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