Sunday, June 29, 2008

Indiana English teacher suspended over choosing "Freedom Writers" book for class

CNN this evening reported the story of English teacher Connie Heermann at Perry Meridian High. She was suspended for over a year without pay for not getting permission from her school district to use the acclaimed “Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” compiled and edited by Erin Gruwell (from Broadway Books, published in 1999). This book was made into a motion picture by Paramount and MTV, directed and written by Richard La Gravenese, opening early 2007. I saw this film on opening night in a new AMC theater in Georgetown in Washington DC, to a sold out crowd.

The book is well known. A teacher in an inner city LA school inspired her students to write journals of ghetto life and edited them into book form. English teachers often encourage students to write in-class journals for a few minutes each class. A few enterprising teachers have even tried carefully supervised experiments with blogging. So it’s logical that a well-conceived set of inner city journals could make a book, and offer a revealing view of inner city life, and of how to express it to others.

The school district’s objection to the book seems to be related to incidental use of "bad words" within the book, as realistic depiction of daily ghetto speech. Now, literature has often depicted speech in other eras with naturalism, but in environments distant enough as not to be perceived as “inappropriate.” With lessons from much more contemporary literature, school district officials in a conservative Midwestern community (south of Indianapolis) questioned the personal “role model” that Mrs. Heermann provided in presenting speech and behavior like that depicted in the book, however realistically . To me, that sounds a bit off-base.

But the bigger problem may be that Ms. Heermann was perceived as insubordinate. She did have the principal’s OK, but not the school district’s. She found a sponsor for the book and obtained individual permission from 149 of 150 parents. The school district demanded that she ask the students to return the book.

The book is available in the Perry Meridian High School library, but more lenient standards are used to approve school library books (which often become controversial with certain subject matter, like LGBT). The book was not selected as a "text book" but as a supplementary source. It would not replace study of accepted and "well established" curricula for literature in high school English courses.

The teacher has taught for 27 years and is highly compensated for that geographical area. She felt that her offering the book in her lesson plans was a matter showing of passion and conscience as a teacher.

The school district does seem out of step with much of the country on his matter. Students told reporters that they got a lot out of the book and enjoyed the class when she taught it.

A typical story is in the Southside Times (Indianapolis), by Sarah True, “Teacher faces dismissal for not getting book OK,” Jan. 24, 2008, link here.

Indiana TV station WTHR has a story April 16, 2008, link here.

The CNN video story with Gary Tuckman is here.

Update June 30 (from New York):

The AP has a story by Frank Eltman, provided by USA Today online June 30, about the expense of firing tenured teachers in New York State when incompetent. It happens, but it is expensive. John Stossel has reported on this issue on "Give me a break" on BAC 20/20, about suspended teachers in "holding pens" in New York City. The link is here.

Picture: classroom at a historical one-room school in Boyds MD (from past days of segregation).


Hall Monitor said...

This story made! Voted #1 source for crazy education news.

JoshX said...

Write and email on the techer's behalf. The school board president's email address is
pass it around


Anonymous said...

This is not an issue of censorship, it's a issue of disobedience! Why is this still considered to be a big deal? I thought it was over when Thompson swung the gavel at the hearing!

You said, "She was suspended for over a year without pay for not getting permission from her school district to use the acclaimed “Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” compiled and edited by Erin Gruwell (from Broadway Books, published in 1999)."

She was actually suspended for over a year without pay for using the books despite the principal's and school board's request not to use it. I think it's great that she wanted to engage her students (even if she has a few loose bolts up in the cranium); however, as an employee of Metropolitan School District of Perry Township she is expected to abide by their standards.

If she really wanted to teach the Freedom Writers story, shouldn't she have applied again for approval (my senior English teacher tried several times to get Beloved approved) rather than make decisions that prevent her from teaching?

Having talked with her several times throughout my duration at PMHS, I can honestly say I am not sad to see her go at all. I would also like to warn her future employers of her bipolar-esque behavior and inability to react to authority.

- '08 Falcon Graduate

P.S. I'd also like to share a satirical editorial written by Colton Irwin, a writer for the PMHS school newspaper:

Proposing a not so modest solution

By Colton Irwin
Interim Superintendent Dennis Nichols will be ready to hand me the keys to Perry Township after he reads this article. I’ve had an epiphany; I now see the answer to all Perry Meridian’s problems.
The answer is now clear to me. From now on, teachers and students should take into account only their personal wants and wishes. Care not about what is good for those around you, but rather do what you wish to do for your own gratification. Forget loyalty, forget patience, forget obedience. Do what you want to do. Teachers, instead of gearing your lesson plans around state standards or your department’s directives or whatever, teach only the curriculum that interests you. If you are an English teacher, let’s say, find something that fires you up. If the school won’t buy the books you want when you want, go get ‘em yourself. If that is the only way you can stay enthused about your lesson plans there should be no argument. It shouldn’t matter if the students end up understanding any particular lesson or not; this is about you!
If a calculus teacher wants to teach kids how to beat Vegas or some such thing, he should feel free to go for it. If your new assertiveness bothers someone and they complain, then you should make the obvious decision. Walk away. What good is being a teacher if you can’t teach what you want to teach? Oh, be sure to later blame others for running you off. I mean, if they won’t let you do what you want to do they’re obviously wrong. If you can’t have your way then you have to quit. That’s like cause and effect. Anyone with half a brain can see that.
Students, this attitude works just as well for you as it does the teachers. Next time a teacher hands out an assignment, really think about whether or not that’s the assignment you want to do. The rest of those people doing what they’re told just don’t care as much as you do. What does the school know anyway? They can’t teach the same things in a fancy big state university that you learned on the mean streets of Meridian Woods. As students, you should do whatever you feel will make your time at Perry worthwhile. Even if it means your time is better spent not showing up to school at all. Hey, if all else fails fight someone. Or cry on TV.
So there it is. Think of it as an immodest proposal. Care about yourself and no one else. I’m sure this will solve all your problems.
You know, never mind what I said about applause; I want to hear it from my locker.

Connie Heermann said...

Much heartfelt thanks to all who are posting support for my plight, and NO. IT DID NOT END WHEN BARBARA THOMPSON POUNDED HER GAVEL (anonymous 2008 grad). The CNN coverage of my case last Sunday (6:50 pm CST) has ignited another round of passionate & fiery support from across the country. But I must respond to the Colton Irwin editorial which "supposedly" appeared in our school newspaper on February 28. I say supposedly because 1. none of MY students recall reading this and 2. I cannot locate an actual copy of this issue. The website for THE FOCUS stopped posting issues online some time in January.

Three very important facts need to be shared with readers to understand how things operate in my school district:

1. When they removed me from my classroom on November 26, my students were enraged. I was forbidden to have any contact with them, but they saught answers. Teachers, counselors, & administrators gave them none. They were told it was a legal matter therefore could not be discussed.
My students wrote letters to the school paper in support of me. None were allowed to be printed. (see the November 30 issue for their explanation why:'Some stories the FOCUS just can't tell.'

2. Colton Irwin is a white, AP senior who I never met in my life.

3. The board snuck his editorial into my hearing and used it as evidence against me. I say snuck because both the attorney for the board (who earned $350.00 an/hour prosecuting me] and my legal advisor provided by my union (she wasn't even a lawyer) were to have in their possession all evidence to be used BEFORE THE HEARING BEGAN, but my counsel & I saw this editorial for the first time DURING MY HEARING.
At my sentencing on March 24 two weeks after my hearing, a public board meeting, board member, Nancy Walsh quoted from Colton's editorial to explain why I must be punished: 'I had set such a poor example for the students at my school.' I had to sit there and listen without being able to comment afterwards, without being able to point out that MY student's voices were smothered.

Although I encountered many unjust actions between November and March, this issue is the one that haunts me daily. As an English teacher for 27 years, I have ALWAYS tried to instill in my students the power of words and how with skill and deliberate consideration, their voices CAN make a difference. I regret that the very institution from which I tried to send this message, defeated me in doing so.


Connie Heermann

Bill Boushka said...

Hello everyone, I am the webmaster of this blog, and since I have substitute taught myself recently, this debate is very interesting to me.

I really appreciate the detailed, specific comments on this issue, and multiple points of view. (I could not find the URL in the school paper for that student’s article either, and I tried to find it – with Google, of course.) I was a substitute teacher myself and ran into some problems, and these are documented on these blogs. If you follow the “1st Amendment rights” and “substitute teacher” labels you will find what happened to me. (See esp. June 11, May 12, April 28, Feb 15, Feb. 5 (especially! This one)). Also, if you go to my main “billboushka” blog (see the Blogger Profile) and go to July 25, 26 and 27 2007 (esp July 27) you’ll see more legal details. I think teachers will find this incident provoking. You’ll also find that I have been involved heavily in the political fights about “don’t ask don’t tell” and Internet censorship (COPA), and more recently the Myspace (and “reputation defender”) problem. You may not at first agree with my actions, but if you think about the total context of all these issues I hope you will see what I am getting at. The problem at the high school regarding the “Freedom Writers” text is more about teacher free speech in the classroom; mine was about speech outside the classroom on the Internet in my own space. But in all cases, I run into administrations that live in a sheltered world and “closed culture” that does not welcome “messengers” from the real world (like me, with 31 years of IT) of people who deal with the complexities and “moral ambiguities” in a world where products and ideas are invented and tried and where money must be made.

The Newseum in Washington DC has a major exhibit on school free speech on the 5th Floor. I hope some of you will visit it.

One other technical point: I’ve had some trouble making Blogger label pick up all the matching past posts (more than 10 at a time). I have another blog on Wordpress to track legal Internet (and free speech) issues and the Wordpress category feature seems to be easier to use (for me at least). Feel free to visit it.

I would have been a good high school math teacher. I think my postings would probably convince you of that.

Anyone may communicate privately through the contact info in the Profile (email