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).