Freedom Writers Socratic Seminar

When I said on Thursday I’d finish my post about how my class and I came together tomorrow, I obviously meant Monday. Right? Right.

This actually ties back to a previous post about the movie Freedom Writers. I’d mentioned that I’d shown my kids the movie and they’d been loving it, and that I was planning to finish with a Socratic seminar about the movie. Which I did. I gave them a little seminar pre-planner, nothing extensive, just to get them to think about it a bit and so they’d hopefully have something to say during the seminar – favorite part, least favorite part, anything they didn’t understand, and lessons they could take from the movie to apply to writing, school and life.

For the seminar itself, we started with everyone going around the circle and saying one word that connected to the movie in some way for them (which was so effective as an opening, by the way – I got the idea from a colleague and it rocked!), and then they started talking. We’ve done Socratic seminars before, though not too often, and they enjoy the process, but they’re still figuring it out, so I do get nervous about the whole thing. It’s that whole student-centered classroom in which I have to give up all control – it’s terrifying! But as per usual, they were rock stars and blew me away with their level of conversation and critical thinking about the movie and its issues.

The thing with seminars is they always want my opinion too. I like to flatter myself that it’s because they’re actually interested in what I think, but the odds are good that really they just want to listen to me ramble on rather than have to talk themselves – it’s easier.

And I don’t participate in seminars, as they know, but they were really insistent this time.

And I was nervous about how they would interpret Gruwell’s seventeen jobs to pay for everything in the world for her students.

And I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to screw over their future teachers by leaving my kids with an expectation that a teacher can only be good by giving up everything personal to be a super teacher.

And so I broke my seminar rule about not talking, and I told them that at the end, I would give them five minutes and they could ask me anything they wanted about the movie and I would answer their questions.

And I did. My favorite part? The part where Gruwell is talking to one of her students who had stopped showing up to class when his brother was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, and then when he does come back, he says all he deserves is an F. A lot of my kids like it too because she says his attitude is a big fuck you to her and his classmates, and she also uses the word balls, and sixth graders love to hear cursing (so taboo!), so they giggled when I said that, but I explained why I like it. As a teacher, I said, it’s so hard when you see a kid falling apart and you are helpless to stop it. You try you talk to them, but you don’t always get through. I like this part, I said, because you can tell he hears her – you can tell she gets through.

(Is that moment Hollywoodized? Absolutely, and I didn’t address this with my kids – it wasn’t the time for it. But I still believe that if you have a relationship with a kid, even if his life is totally destroyed by forces outside your control, you can remind them that not everything is terrible and he can still overcome. And I have to believe that people can overcome disasters, because otherwise, many of my kids will not make it. They experience so much trauma in their lives that I have to believe in minor miracles because otherwise I’d just sit at home and cry all day every day.)

They nodded thoughtfully. Least favorite part, they asked? Easy. The way some of the other teachers talk about the kids – calling them thugs and criminals (I know some people think that part was overblown and heavy handed, and maybe it was for a movie, but I’ve heard some colleagues use those terms about my kids). I went on. When Ms. G. says to another teacher that he can’t teach them because he doesn’t even like them, and he responds by asking what that has to do with teaching…oh, that part breaks my heart, I said. Liking your students has everything to do with teaching. And then I took the opportunity to be vulnerable to them.

“I think you know I love you,” I said to them, and some nodded while some just listened. “I want what’s best for you. I want you to have every opportunity to be whatever you want to be, just like Ms. G. wanted for her kids. But teaching like she did…it’s not realistic. She taught for four years and she quit. I don’t want to quit after four years – I want to teach forever. So I can’t have three jobs. I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I was personally miserable, which I would be if I lived like her. She got divorced over it.”

I paused and looked at them. Socratic seminars offer a different perspective – sitting in the group, at their level, rather than standing at the front, and it felt so appropriate for this conversation. I continued, “Every teacher I know spends their own money on the classroom. You know that. But we can’t do it like she does, because we don’t want to only be there for one group of kids and then leave. We’re in it for the long haul. So I love this movie, but I don’t like that part of it either.”

After that day, five weeks or so before the end of the year, they were with me. Pretty much every moment of every class, they were with me with whatever we did, on my side, in our lessons, in it together.

I’ll talk about why I think that was tomorrow (real tomorrow! Not fake four-days-from-now tomorrow).

(Photo credit to 9 TM)


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
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