Teaching tactic opens doors
In her fashionable black dress with the pleated hem and very-high-heeled pumps, Maria Reyes might be an advertising account saleswoman. A litigator. A motivational speaker.
What she doesn’t resemble is the gang member and insolent juvenile offender who showed up for her first day of high school English wearing an ankle monitor.
“This is probably worse than being in juvenile hall,” Reyes recalled thinking about her first encounter with teacher Erin Gruwell more than a dozen years ago at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif.
With all the naivete of an idealistic new teacher, Gruwell tried to cut through the rude resistance of her underachieving students by having them read about Anne Frank and other young people under siege, then write about their own damaged lives.
A distrustful Reyes was not initially impressed.
Gruwell seemed to think that “she was going to pass out these journals and we were going to suddenly get it … because this is how things happened in her world,” Reyes said. “She was the epitome of everything we hated about the education system.”
But Gruwell persisted – so much that her students started calling her Jason, the murderous corpse who keeps resurfacing in the Friday the 13th movies.
And then Anne Frank’s story of her family’s days hiding from the Nazis during World War II provided “this light in my dark world,” Reyes said. “For the first time, I allowed myself to care like I had never cared before.”
And she found “the strength and courage to confront my own truth, my own reality.”
Reyes became one of the “Freedom Writers,” Gruwell’s students whose journals became a book and a Hilary Swank movie depicting the journey of teenagers with hopeless futures who grew into self-confident, college-bound graduates.
Gruwell, who spoke to Fort Worth, Texas, teachers a year ago, returned to town recently for a tandem appearance with Reyes at the Girls Inc. of Tarrant County’s “No Limits” luncheon. Reyes barely reaches Gruwell’s chin – and that’s in heels – but she packs infectious energy.
“I believed at a very early age that my story was already told,” Reyes said.
Her grandmother wasn’t sent to school because she’d be punished for speaking Spanish. Her grandfather joined a gang because people who looked like him got beaten up. Her father dreamed of being a boxer, but his parents couldn’t afford training. Her mother got pregnant at 15.
But writing, Reyes discovered, “was really the tool, the key that opened up my world to see something different.”
Now 27 and a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, Reyes helps raise money for the Freedom Writers Foundation, which trains teachers to use gritty novels and journaling to help inner-city students connect with education, improve their writing skills and reach for higher academic goals.
It’s an intensive and innovative approach.
Of the 54 Freedom Writers, most of whom are black, 74 percent passed the reading TAKS, Amaa said. One girl who didn’t pass nevertheless raised her raw score 300 points. Amaa says that many of the students are again ready to pick up their pens and “little book that could,” and that administrators are trying to sustain the Freedom Writers techniques as a component of raising student achievement.
It’s in line with Reyes’ challenge to audiences: Adults must create opportunities for young people to find their potential.
“Education is the thing that liberates us to see what lies ahead of us,” she said.
“I represent every child that you somehow have not believed in.”