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Freedom Writers
What Erin Gruwell Taught Me About Being a Magical Teacher (or “My Badness: The Importance of Enabling Our Kids to Cross Borders”)

What Erin Gruwell from Freedom Writers didn’t know was that teaching at Long Beach was going to change her life forever. One morning she put on the pearls her father gave her and went to school and by lunch she was being cussed out.

This was not the dream. Kids were supposed to listen. Kids were supposed to be hanging on to every word. Kids were supposed to conjugate verbs into the present progressive tense with a certain particular punctuated perfection.

Wrong.

She learned the hard way that teaching was hard.

No—that it sucked.

Kids don’t listen. Kids don’t pay attention. Kids know who Biggie Smalls is but can’t give you an antonym for the word small.

But she also learned she was destined to teach. Through a series of transformative moments, she learned she was doing the job she was born to do.

One such moment is the scene where Gruwell teaches her students about borders, the invisible lines we create to keep ourselves safe, to protect ourselves from the “other.” You have them. I have them. (My favorite movie is Mean Girls. I’m gay. I own something pink. I wear it on Wednesdays. But not only on Wednesdays.) Her students had them.

My students have them too.

Three years ago, I had two TAs and I gave them a job: after they finished working with my English Language Learners on an activity called “echo-reading,” they were to draw me a map of the lunchroom. I wanted them to be productive, and I was curious what they would come up with.

They revealed the rules to me.

“The Samoans sit here,” they said, pointing to the map.

“The Black jocks sit here.”

“The weird kids sit here.”

“The cool Honors kids sit here.”

And there they were. The borders.

I marched to the lunchroom, I knew my kids were better than that. They knew about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the boycotts… everything!

There they sat. I looked down at my map. Everything matched. There was a place for everyone and everyone had a place.

Erin Gruwell forced her students to find common ground, made them play a “game” where she called out a descriptor and students stepped forward if the descriptor described them: Take a step forward if you have the new Snoop Dogg album. Take a step forward if you have seen Boyz N The Hood. If you know someone in a gang. If you’ve been to juvie. If you’ve lost a friend to gang violence. If you’ve lost three. Five.

Suddenly, a faux-game Erin conjured as a community building activity became an authentic moment of classroom clarity.

Over a year, the freshmen, unable to control themselves, their temper, their hatred for one another…

grew together,

learned from one another,

loved one another…

all while being enabled and empowered to become border crossers by a Magical Teacher.

Every month, I change the seating chart in my classroom and every month, I tell students the same lie: “I put your names into the computer and this is what came out. It’s only a month. I think you’ll manage.”

It’s my own Gruwellian approach to teaching students to cross our invisible borders.

“MR. SHINN! Why am I always sitting with all girls?!”

I’m not sure, but I think it’s doing some good.

-

Evin Shinn is a reality television connoisseur who teaches middle school Language Arts and AVID as a side job. Besides knowing who was voted off the island or received the last rose, Evin balances life by renewing his faith, developing his friendships, focusing on his fitness, and becoming a champion teacher and role model for his 7th and 8th graders. An advocate of students learning core knowledge, Evin believes the Myth of the Magical Teacher isn’t a myth at all—it happens everyday in classrooms around the world. You can find out how he wants education to change at talkingabouttyee.wordpress.com or follow his life on Instagram or Twitter.

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