Boxes of tissues lie scattered on the bleachers and when the lights come on after a documentary screening, they reveal spellbound teachers, some wiping their eyes with emotion.
Renowned educator Erin Gruwell, the inspiration for the movie The Freedom Writers, comes to the front of the gym and talks about the stories in the documentary about at-risk students that echoes the stories these teachers see every day in their community of Saddle Lake. She reminds the teachers about how important they can be in the lives of their kids.
“You need to be that force,” she says during a teachers’ Personal Development Day, Sept. 1, held at the Saddle Lake Youth Centre, explaining that teachers need to be present and emotionally available for the kids. “Because the kids then know that someone cares, someone’s looking out for them. That means they matter.”
Gruwell, who now acts as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation and travels nationwide to speak about education, echoes her character as played by Hilary Swank in the 2007 Hollywood movie - an enthusiastic, caring and committed teacher who puts the students first.
Gruwell landed her first English teaching job at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California in the 1990s. The education system had written off Gruwell’s students as “unteachable,” “below average” and “delinquents,” since many of them grew up in poverty or surrounded by gang violence and crime. But Gruwell strove to make the kids succeed by making the curriculum relevant to them.
“To make it relevant, I had to know their stories, their journey, their lives,” she said. Gruwell assigned the students with a diary project, to write their own stories. “For me, it was all about telling the Freedom Writers, ‘You have a voice. You have an amazing story to tell.’” The kids began connecting their lives with the stories she assigned them, for instance, by seeing the parallels between the Bloods and Crips gangs with family rivalries in Romeo and Juliet. Even though they were the kids that weren’t supposed to make it, in 1998, 150 Freedom Writers, as they called themselves, crossed the graduation stage to collect their high school diploma. Their stories were even published in a book, The Freedom Writers Diary.
“The students I had come from abject poverty,” she noted. “When kids grow up in poverty, there can be a sense of hopelessness and often times, there can be a sense of why try?”
That was something she saw could also be the situation for marginalized aboriginal kids in Saddle Lake – a situation one teacher present described as an “undeclared war zone.”
While aboriginals have been the victim of marginalization and poverty, Gruwell applauded initiatives to reintegrate Cree language and culture into the education curriculum, and efforts to make children proud of their identity. “This is a place where things are happening,” she told the assembled teachers, who came not only from local schools Kihew Asiniy and Onchaminahos, but also from surrounding reserves.
The teachers of Saddle Lake noted they were putting a lot of love into their kids, but shared stories of heartbreak. One teacher said she had a Grade 4 student who had been a sweet kid, but over the summer, she had seen a clip of him on the Internet acting like a gang member, just like his dad. She worried about whether the boy would follow in his father’s footsteps.
“You have to stalk your kids,” said Gruwell, noting that lessons don’t end at the door of the classroom. Instead, teachers need to be present in the arenas, at community dances, or wherever their kids are, and let the kids know that they’re watching them and that they care about them. “Maybe that boy thinks his dad is the only one who thinks he matters,” she said, adding teachers have to show the child that’s not true.
Community member Bernie Makokis was a key person responsible for bringing Gruwell to Saddle Lake, something he said he felt he had to do after seeing her speak at a conference in Edmonton. “In my mind, as a community, we need to inspire our teachers,” he said.
With the help of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Medical Services (Health Canada) and Victor Houle from Enoch, he raised the funds to bring Gruwell to Saddle Lake, followed by a trip to Enoch and Hobbema First Nations the following two days. The whole intent is to find ways to inspire the community’s kids to stay in school, improve their academics and get parents involved in that mission, he said. From the comments on evaluation cards, stating they were “deeply touched” and impressed with Gruwell’s “compassion and understanding,” it seemed her message struck home with several teachers, he said.
At the end of the day, the message for teachers was that they had a huge role to play in the lives of their students and making those students succeed. For Gruwell, that point was captured in a poignant quote she once came across that, to her, says what it can mean to be a teacher: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.”