Book helps teachers reach students

Posted: Monday, August 31, 2009

How do you respond to a student who blurts out that she's pregnant and afraid to tell her mother?

Or the one who tearfully confides that she shot her stepfather after he repeatedly forced himself on her?

Or the one who says she misses her mother, then explains that her mother killed herself after the two of them had an especially strident argument?

How does a teacher engage a student preoccupied by threats that his mother will send him to live with a father he's never known?

Or one who acts tough to mask his fear of living homeless on dangerous, unforgiving streets?

Or one who announces from Day One that he doesn't respect you because all teachers are just in it for the money?

The 150 essays in a new book, "Teaching Hope," describe how teachers across the United States (and some in Canada) have tried to reach teens across barriers that all too often separate young people from a decent education, a productive future and a belief in their own potential.

"I need to try to find a way to undo the message she received somewhere that she is bad and stupid. That is always the biggest obstacle for me, because I know that it can make a difference in a child succeeding or falling through the cracks, unnoticed. These kids are the big secret in my community. They are brilliant, talented, lovable kids, and so few recognize them." - Essay 46

"I couldn't contain my curiosity, so I asked Monique, 'What happened? You're walking around all confident. You're doing good work. You got new hair extensions. Do you have a boyfriend or something?'

"'I feel safe here now. Once I knew you cared, I had a reason to do the work. I didn't want to let you down."' - Essay 47

"The other kids were silent as they listened to their story coming from Marcus's mouth. ... Kids who have been quiet all year couldn't wait for their turn to share their own stories. Marcus made it okay to talk about the reality that many of these kids live every day. ... I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be rich. I've always known this, but I needed a reminder of why I do what I do. It's Marcus. I teach for him." - Essay 67

The teachers in the book, none of whom are named, have embraced the methods of educator and motivational speaker Erin Gruwell. She used books about the Holocaust, the Bosnian war and other stories about survivors to teach at-risk high schoolers in Los Angeles to take control of their lives.

By having them write about and share the struggles they thought no one cared about, she not only improved their academic skills but helped them build the trust they needed to develop confidence, optimism and determination. The students' journal entries were published in a book, Freedom Writers, which became a 2007 movie.

Now, the Freedom Writers Foundation in California trains teachers to use the book and other techniques in their classrooms. Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard provided the 150 Freedom Writers teachers with laptops so they could craft essays that captured their work.

"Teaching Hope" is a captivating read.

It includes essays from Kerrie Bourland, who teaches English at the Birdville, Texas, school district's Shannon Learning Center, and Sefakor Amaa, who used "Freedom Writer" strategies at Dunbar Middle School in Fort Worth and this year at Kirkpatrick Middle School.

In Essay 41, Amaa writes about a young girl she pulled away from a cafeteria confrontation.

"'Butler Housing Projects, huh? Is that where you're from?' I ask. She nods. I continue, 'So that makes you a gangster? Girl, you're just a Wangster. I'm from the Cabrini Green Projects in Chicago - I'm a real GANGSTER!'

"At the thought of a teacher living in the projects, she laughs, softly at first, and then her laughter grows with intensity until she's laughing and crying at the same time. ... Away from the crowd, she goes limp against my arm. I carry her weight. This girl doesn't want to fight, but she doesn't know how to not fight."

One of Bourland's former students, Nathan Haidusek, attended a book-signing last week featuring Amaa and Bourland at a Fort Worth Barnes & Noble. He said he "never got along with teachers" before attending the school where Bourland teaches. She "helped me write more and helped me open up," he said.

He graduated in the spring and is hoping to study radiology in college, he said.

The "Teaching Hope" essays aren't all success stories. But they all tell of lessons learned.

• Linda P. Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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