C199: Classroom Repression and Expression

A teacher in Perry Township, Marion County, Indiana was suspended without pay for 18 months because she refused to abide by the School Board’s ruling that she stop teaching from the book, The Freedom Writers Diary.

I sent Melissa McEwan a link to this story because she lives in Indiana. She asked if I would write a post. Panic. Frankly, I don’t have school age kids any longer, don’t know fuckall about Indiana, but, but , but . . . But this story infuriated me. I do indeed have opinions about this, despite knowing nothing of Indiana School systems or teaching English courses. Besides, Melissa is hurting so I will make a go of it. To be fair, I hadn’t read the book or seen the movie.
The Freedom Writers Diary, a series of true stories written by inner-city teenagers, was put together by a teacher, Erin Gruwell, and has been celebrated as a model for transforming young lives. It was made into a film with Hilary Swank last year.

Connie Heermann, a teacher for 27 years, sought permission to introduce the book to her students last autumn after attending a training workshop held by the Freedom Writers Foundation.

Boy howdy does this teacher in the movie, Erin Gruwell, give her absolute all to these students. Yes, I watched the movie so I could judge for myself. She lost her husband from his inability to rise to her level of conscious living; she endures her dad, the activist she admires, insulting her judgment and takes two additional jobs to pay for books, field trips for her students.

I am always critical of the bathos in movies, television, commercials to manipulate us all. It is so tacky. The movie was pretty heavy handed and predictable. But, the story is vitally important to the values this progressive hold dear. Besides, the sheeple seem to love it when our moving pictures are slathered in sentimentality. At least that appears to be true given the glut of mawkishness, so it could boost viewing. Right? My snarkiness is another reason I hesitated to write this.

According to the Guardian, UK article, in the case of Ms. Heermann there was, according to the teacher’s union, one school board member who was opposed to swearing in the book and this member persuaded the six other members to take this action.

Heermann and the union say there was no explicit ban on the book when she handed it out to pupils on November 15. But later that day she received an email from the board advising her not to teach the book. “That was the pivotal moment of my life, when I saw how my students were taken with the book, how they loved it, and then I am told not to let them read it? I said no,” she said.

The school board denies book banning and accuses Heermann of insubordination. Barbara Thompson, the school board president, wrote in an email yesterday: “She knew she had defied her supervisors’ direction in her work and that her defiance was ‘insubordination’ and ‘neglect of duty’.”

Neglect of duty? What duty would that be? I am positive that was recorded in Perry Township without irony.

The name Freedom Writers was taken from the 60’s Civil Rights Freedom Riders and the Diary of Anne Frank, two inspiring historic events Erin Gruwell used to teach her students. As Ms. Heermann describes this teaching she thought her students could relate to “young people who want to do something good in their lives despite the environment in which they were raised.”

At the opposite end of the classroom spectrum is a story of an inspired principal in Whitwell, Tennessee who saw that her school was without diversity. She thought this was a problem if students were to be taught about tolerance and diversity. She sent her assistant principal to a State workshop and ultimately the school administration decided they would teach the students about the holocaust. So again Diary of Anne Frank was used to touch the hearts and imagination of these children. My own mother, an elementary school teacher before she married, told me that she was completely captivated by the Diary of Anne Frank. She read it after the war when I was little.

Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the setting for this documentary about an extraordinary experiment in Holocaust education. Struggling to grasp the concept of six-million Holocaust victims, the students decide to collect six-million paper clips to better understand the extent of this crime against humanity. The film details how the students met Holocaust survivors from around the world and how the experience transformed them and their community.
This I learned from a movie I watched last night called Paper Clips. This is a documentary, not a Hollywood film like The Freedom Writers Diary. It had a great deal of sentimentality and music crescendos, but I was moved. My heart felt open and pummeled. These are some good people and endearing rural kids from a town of 1,600 situated in Appalachia, just 100 miles from where the KKK originated.

I cried as I’d cried viewing the Freedom Writers. This was classroom expression at its finest and the entire town of Whitwell was supportive. The fact that I viewed this film was a happy accident. I learned about SnagFilms just yesterday and decided to check it out. I think I will watch it again.

PS - The price of this free film is annoying commercial breaks (thankfully brief) at the dumbest intervals.


NameChanged said...

Cussing? Cussing is a reason to tell kids not to read?!! Give me a break! While I take issue with the movie, the concept that this teacher came up with was wonderful, and she is what is right in education.

That school board is what is wrong!

Great post, and I came here from Shakesville.

katecontinued said...

Welcome all from Shakesville, stop by any time.

Renee said...

I also posted about this story.Let's be honest for just one minute. No child reaching high school has not heard words like shit, fuck or even motherfucker. Are these words that we would like our children to use as a part of their daily language..of course not. Are children irreparably damaged by hearing or reading such language...no. Daily in classrooms across North America Shakespeare is taught and very seldom is their complaint about the violence, misogyny and racism in his plays, and yet the true life story of under privileged youth is deemed too obscene for the classroom.

katecontinued said...

So very true, Renee. I couldn't agree more.

BTW, I just popped over to your blog and found it a place I want to visit again. I am going to link to your place tomorrow with post you did using the accountability video. That is something, speaking of language, that needs to be heard by as many people as possible.

Tom Heermann, husband of suspended teacher said...

Dear Kate:
Thank you for posting my wife Connie's unfortunate plight with the Perry Township School Board on your great blog!

As I google -- and use other search engines-- I am encouraged at the amount of public outrage surrounding her story. It's interesting to see the huge support in the U.K. Certainly The Guardian article sparked this (it was also carried in The Telegraph, also U.K.)

It's a whole new world today as far as news. It used to be a story ran and then was gone. Now it is rekindled over and over on the internet. I think this is good. It gets the important stories before the public -- and they are made more aware of them...

An example of how it's different today. The Guardian reporter wrote me an email after she picked up my reply to a forum post in "filmspotters" which showed up as a print page on google. I had gone to the forum, signed up and replied, thanking the person who posted the entry in support of Connie(and left my email there). Next thing I know The Guardian reporter asked, via my email, if she could interview Connie. The interview was all done by phone; the reporter wanted the story to run as soon as possible...it ran just several days later!!

As I review the blogs -- and I think there are now hundreds that have written about Connie -- only about two or three are not sympathetic. Most of the rest are overwhelmingly positive and puzzled at the severity of the 18-month unpaid suspension. The other thing that astrounded me: I'm picking up blogs in Spanish, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, French, German and Korean. This is amazing (google translates them).

On a recent local TV station, WISH TV, reporter Leslie Olsen covered Connie's trip to attend a five-day Freedom Writers Teachers book-planning and student-curriculum workshop in California, hosted by Erin Gruwell. Olsen interviewed Connie at the airport. At the end of the report, new Schhool Board president Steve Maple comments. He says he gets emails from around the country (on Connie), but makes no further comment. He then says that the Board has been unfairly represented in all the media coverage (ok, yes, sure). Gosh, this might have been a good time to half-heartedly compliment Connie for taking out a week of her summer vacation (now unpaid) to further her education (at her own expense) to help her at-risk students -- whom she can't teach until 18 months later!

The WISH TV piece is very favorable to Connie. I urge you to post the link of the recent WISH-TV coverage and have your readers see this revealing piece for themselves.


Once again, Kate, my sincere thanks.

Tom Heermann
Better known now as "Connie's husband