July 11th, 2008
WRITE and WRONG – have journalists learned???
By Leo Laurence
WRITE and WRONG is a one-page essay by Anna Quidlen in the July 21st issue of Newsweek. It is about “a teacher who is psyched about engaging struggling students (and who) learns that bureaucracy is more important that pedogogy,” the essayist write.
Maybe journalists can learn a lesson from this.
In the Newsweek essay, Quindlen reports on a teacher named Donnie Heermann who was placed on an 18-month suspension without pay for using The Freedom Writer’s Diary as a teaching tool by her school board in Perry County, Indiana.
The book grew out of the work of a new teacher of a class of “at-risk” students in California. “‘At-risk’ is edu-code for students who are poor, usually minority, with chaotic home lives and are likely to drop out,” Quindlen writes.
That teacher, Erin Gruwell, decided that “the road to success was for her students to write about their lives,” the essay continues. “They kept diaries about everything from self-doubt to incest to gang membership.”
“Some of the students used profanity and racial slurs; but a reader notices that, as their writing improves, that disappears. As they wrote more, they made better choices. They also had better lives.
“The students in Gruwell’s classes started out believing that they might not survive high school – literally. By the end of the book, they’re headed for college,” Quindlen writes.
The students in Heermann’s classes at Perry Meridan High School in Indiana were not so much different from the ones in the book.
So, Heermann bought 150 copies of The Freedom Writer’s Diary and gave them as a gift to her students, after reporting her intentions to her superiors. She even got permission slips from her students’ parents.
After handing out the books, she was almost immediately ordered to get them back, and to keep a list of those students who refused to comply. Most of the kids kept their copies, which were a personal gift from the teacher.
Heermann was told she would be fired if she didn’t resign.
She was forbidden to contact her former students, and forced to go overnight from a powerful influence on her students to nothingness. She heard that some quit going to class and dropped out of school.
These are kids who assume that they will get a shaft from the government, school or anyone else in authority. That’s also what “at-risk” means.
She doesn’t regret what she did. “You know what,” she said. “My kids still have the book. They kept The Freedom Writer’s Diary. They kept the book,” she added.
“It’s hard to unearth exactly why (the Indiana school board) was so hellbent on keeping The Freedom Writer’s Diary out of the classroom. Maybe it was the use of a particular racial slur, the one that keeps getting people riled up about Huckleberry Finn, and that keeps (out) the perfect teaching moment for discussing racial divisions in America – at least if you’re not paralized by cowardice.
“You have to wonder if the (Indiana) school board ever read the book. Maybe they never got to the entry by the student who wrote: Who would have thought the ‘at-risk’ kids making it this far? But, we did, even though the educational system desperately tried to hold us down,” Quindlen writes.
Something similar happened in San Diego. For over 4-1/2 years, the local SPJ “pro” chapter sponsored the unprecedented High School Journalism Project (HSJP). Local journalists, editors, photo-journalists and even page designers from print and broadcast media taught high-school students about their profession every week in those classes.
The HSJP was even featured in two, illustrated stories in the Quill, the SPJ’s monthly magazine.
Did the HSJP work? Several participating students are now working on their journalism degrees in universities. Mike Ritter, a HSJP participant who was the Sports Editor of the Patriot Press at San Diego’s Patrick Henry High Schoo, later became the Sports Editor of the daily newspaper at the University of Arizona.
At the ripe age of 21, Ritter was hired this year to cover major-leage beaseball for MLB.com.
He totally credits the HSJP for his success.
“On a personal level, as sports editor for the Patriot Press in high school, Leo and I worked one-on-one during the production of our sports’ section,” Ritter wrote.
“He helped instill great journalism passion in me. I was waivering between several different college majors as a high-school senior. But, after working with Leo, it was easy for me to pick journalism,” Ritter added.
For unknown reasons, the SPJ’s local chapter dropped their sponsorship of the HSJP.
More recently, the journalism class at San Diego’s flagship institution, San Diego High School, the oldest in the city, has for decades produced the school’s official newspaper, The Russ.
That journalism course was dropped as a regular f-r-credit class and downgraded to an extra-curricular activity. The local SPJ did nothing about it, though a board member was asked to help.
Some believe our high-school students deserve more.