INTC Conference – Day Two
Yesterday was a good day at the INTC Beginning Teachers’ Conference. Today was even better.
The last day of the conference started with a phenomenal keynote address delivered by Manuel V. Scott, who, among many other things, was one of the original members of Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writers. Yes, that Erin Gruwell. Yes, those Freedom Writers. Manuel’s story was even featured in the film. The character portraying him was Marcus, played by Jason Finn. (Manuel has informed me that Marcus is a composite character loosely based on himself and another student.) Marcus, in the film, is my favourite, entirely because of this scene:
(Sorry, the clip actually starts after the scene really starts. Marcus is the one who walked Miep Gies into the library before she starts talking to the students.)
Anyway, Manuel shared some great points with us about the impact that a teacher can have one a student. One of his key messages, though, was that we usually don’t know about the impact. Students are influenced for good by their teachers, but so very rarely do they go back and let their teachers know about this. Manuel was a high school drop-out who returned to school after a complete stranger spoke with him one night and said to him, “Son, just because you live in the ‘hood, the doesn’t mean the ‘hood has to live in you.” He decided to return to school and went from flunking all of his classes (he got a D in physical education, even) to passing all of them with A’s and B’s. After graduating high school, he went to college, earned two degrees, went to grad school, and is now finishing up his PhD. A young man who had dropped out of school after his freshman year, Manuel V. Scott is now a doctoral student, married for ten years with three wonderful children.
And he credits it all to the fact that his high school English teacher pushed him to rise above and beyond the expectations the world had for him. He told us about Erin Gruwell and what she did with her class. He said that there were days that she was worn out. Day after day she tried to teach, but nothing seemed to work. But what she never did was give up. She kept coming back and she kept trying. He let us in on a little secret: Erin Gruwell hates rap music. But she knew that her students loved it. So what did she do? She learned rap music so that she could use it to teach. This made me realise that, as much as I personally dislike SpongeBob SquarePants, I need to be willing to watch it because, you know, my kids all seem to love that show!
I have been reflecting on how I want to use writing in my classroom this coming year, and I re-read The Freedom Writers Diary in an effort to get some ideas. I’m glad that Manuel was there today to share with us why Erin Gruwell had her students write. She told them that they needed to put down their weapons, whatever they were, and pick up their pens; they needed to learn to make their voices heard through their writing and that they could change the world if they did so. The young men and women in Manuel’s classes chose to go forward because, quite honestly, they couldn’t go back–there was no “back” to go to! As a teacher, I need to give my students a place to go as they move forward.
One final comment about Manuel’s keynote. He shared with us this funny-but-true exchange he had one day: He had been talking about the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Just as he shared that, a man stood up, wearing a cowboy hat and boots and said, “Sir, excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I just need to tell you this: it is true that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, but you sure as [blank] can slap some salt in his mouth and make him thirsty!”
How profoundly true! Are my students thirsty when they enter my classroom? If not, it is my job to slap some salt in their mouths and make them thirsty! Give them the desire to learn! Meet them on their level and show them how the work we are doing is relevant to them!
The rest of the conference was spent in breakout sessions and workshops, but I really wanted to focus on Manuel’s comments. I have a copy of his book, Take Matters into Your own Hands: Dream Now! and was happy to get a chance to get it signed. (I wish I had had enough foresight to bring my signed copy of The Freedom Writers Diary so I could have had him sign that, too!) We chatted briefly, and now we are following one another on Twitter.
(And Manuel, if you happen to read this and see any glaring errors, please let me know!)