Category Archives: Interviews

Get on the School Bus: Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers


Any public school teacher will attest to the difficulty of organizing a field trip. There’s paperwork to fill out, signatures to obtain, and money to raise. Not to mention the logistical headache of shepherding an unwieldy troop of hyperactive youth through public spaces. I, myself, have an uncomfortable memory of taking thirty 9th graders to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan during my first year as a teacher. As we were walking across Central Park, one of my students lit out across the grass and unleashed a premeditated and brutal airborne tackle upon an unsuspecting (and much smaller) friend. “He’s killed him,” I thought.

This isn’t to say that field trips aren’t amazing learning experiences, just that they can be a challenge for the already overwhelmed teacher. Which is one reason why Erin Gruwell’s story of taking 75 Los Angeles teenagers to Europe to learn about the Holocaust and the Bosnian Genocide affected me so powerfully.

If you don’t know already, Gruwell is the teacher made famous by the book, The Freedom Writers Diary, and even more famous by the subsequent film version starring Hillary Swank. To us mortal teachers, she is like some kind of rare and exotic bird—the celebrity teacher—looking down upon us from on high along with Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver, LouAnne Johnson of Dangerous Minds, and other colorfully plumed celebriteachers.

Five minutes of conversation with the down-to-earth Gruwell and you realize her good fortune has not sidetracked her from her life’s purpose: to create meaningful educational experiences for urban youth, specifically those kids who are too often expected to fail. The trip to Europe was one of these experiences, a kind of experiential capstone to a four-year odyssey of reading such books as The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary while committing their own stories to paper.

“We visited the Chelmno extermination camp,” Gruwell recalled, “and there were residences right next to the site. The people living there [during the Holocaust], they heard the screams, saw the ashes, and did nothing.”

Gruwell and her students received an important message from an elderly townsman. “Evil prevails when good people do nothing,” he warned them. To a group of students familiar with the sound of gunshots in their own neighborhoods and a prevailing snitches-get-stitches inner city culture, these words resonated deeply.

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Grow Your Own Teachers: An Interview


About a month ago, I wrote about a program in Illinois called Grow Your Own Teachers (GYO), a state funded initiative to channel community members through the credentialing process and into local schools. As a follow-up to that post, I interviewed 38-year-old Maria Ramirez, a GYO teacher who just finished her student teaching and is currently looking for her first job.

Where do you live?

I live in the Southwest area of Chicago. I still do not teach in my own classroom; I am looking for a job, but I did my student teaching at Whittier on Pilsen.

What did you teach?

I started with fifth grade teaching Math and Language Arts for eight weeks and third grade for the last eight weeks teaching all content areas.

Please give a brief description of your life before you got involved in GYO.

I came to Chicago in February, 1995, without knowing English. Two or three months later, I registered to study English for adults at Daley College. There were seven levels. I did six because I got pregnant and I did not feel very well. So I quit and I did not get a certificate.

How did GYO recruit you?

When my son was three years old, my friend Norma told me about this program that LSNA and Chicago State University were working on. She was a secretary for the Bilingual department at CSU and she told me, “You need a GED and you will have to travel to the North to take the classes.” I was just starting to drive and I remember that my husband took me to the first meeting before classes started.

What was the biggest factor in deciding you wanted to be a teacher?

To help my son at home with his homework when he will be in school. Then, in my third year I had the opportunity to work as tutor in a school from the area where I live. I was working in the kindergarten, first grade and third grade. One day, in the kindergarten, the teacher told the students to do a graph with different colors and she gave each student a full hand of candies. She did not model how to do it; she just said do the graph. The students were just looking at her; they did not know what to do. So she got really mad, saying things like, “What did your parents teach you? I can’t believe that you do not know what is a graph and how to do it!” In that moment, I thought, “I can do a better job than this ‘teacher’,” and every time I have an obstacle, I remember that and I say to myself, “I need to finish and work with those students who need me.”

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Interview with Sara Bennett on Homework


This is reprinted with permission from A Better Education,

I recently interviewed education activist and advocate, Sara Bennett. Sara co-authored The Case Against Homework and has a blog on the subject at The book shows how homework not only does not boost academic achievement, it also causes a whole host of problems for children and families. It is peppered with both homework horror stories and success stories of parents who have successfully handled the homework issue. Specific examples are given of how to advocate on your child’s behalf and significantly lighten (or eliminate) the load, including how to talk to teachers or administrators with diplomacy and how to form committees to change school policy. The results are surprisingly positive and even when the outcome is not what was hoped for, she suggests a homework triage system and guides the reader on recognizing homework assignments that add value and those that do not. It proposes a much more careful approach to homework to make it meaningful rather than burdensome busy work.

Sara, as a lawyer for battered women, you are no stranger to advocating for those who don’t have much of a voice. How did you get into doing this work?

I was shocked when my oldest child went to first grade and brought home homework. I thought it was a bad idea from the very beginning, and back then it was only a reading log. We would fill it out without telling him, but at the Parent Teacher Conferences, his teacher said that he needed to write it. But he couldn’t write yet and that didn’t seem to be the way to practice writing, by entering in book titles. We also didn’t want to artificially limit his reading time to 10 minutes, making him think it odd to want to read more. We wanted him to continue to love being read to and eventually to love to read to himself.

At the time I was already forty and very self confident, so I wasn’t at all intimidated by his teacher who was young enough to be my daughter. After that, every year my husband would have a yearly chat with the head of the school about the philosophy of homework. Even when the head, whoever it happened to be, admitted that we had some valid points, we were told that we were the only family who considered homework to be a problem. As the years progressed, I got a reputation for being vocal about homework and parents started to come up to me and ask me whether I could raise the issue with the teacher or at a school meeting. By 2004, when my oldest child was in 8th grade, I went to a meeting where people were talking about all the practices that were in place so that kids could get their homework done, even when they had stayed at home because they were sick. It just seemed ridiculous, and I stood up and said that I wanted to form a committee to look at homework and was anyone else interested in joining me. Several parents did and I discovered that I wasn’t the only voice in the school complaining about the homework load. By the end of that year, we changed several things in the homework policy. 

My son always had a really easy time in school and he could do his homework quickly and efficiently. That made us very good advocates, because no teacher or principal could ever even hint that homework was a problem because he might have a learning issue. He could do it; we just didn’t want him spending his time that way, especially since the homework seemed to be busy work.

What kind of homework is more meaningful and what kind of homework is not useful? 

Most homework is not meaningful. Elementary school homework is waste of time. There is no correlation between homework and academic achievement. Projects tend to be the worst because kids most often can’t do it alone and there is not much learning that happens, it’s just compulsory. Reading is always important, but it’s not important what a child reads, so I would encourage pleasure reading. Math homework is especially problematic in that it is difficult to find homework exercises that add value. Typical homework in history or English is to read and answer questions at the end, which is completely useless. It trains the kids not to read for interest or comprehension, but to look for the answers embedded in the text. I know my point of view is radical, but there are plenty of teachers who don’t assign homework. They utilize their class time, making homework unnecessary. In college you take 3-4 classes and for every class you expect about 3-4 hours of homework. This makes sense because your classroom hours are minimal and you need to have independent study time in preparation for the classes. In grade school the students are in school the majority of the day, so this model doesn’t make sense.

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