In Washington DC, in May 2015, Rep. John Lewis taught us, a group of Freedom Writer Teachers, to 'get in trouble', just as he had been doing for his whole life – participating and organizing the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Schools, the Freedom Riders and speaking from the Lincoln Memorial against the wrong of discrimination and segregation along with Dr. Martin Luther King that summer’s day in 1963. "Get in trouble!" is an anthology of stories about standing up for one’s students, told and written by Freedom Writer Teachers from all around the world – all of them using the Freedom Writers methods and exercises: Stories from teaching Maoris of New Zealand to Inuits of Greenland, from teaching average kids in the schools of your neighborhood to youngsters in juvenile halls, from the love of teaching to the fights against standardized curricula. There are lots of ways and places 'to get in trouble' for the noble case of educating the next generation!
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We get into trouble
Always in Trouble
Beauty in Inevitable!
Leaving a Legacy Behind: So many months wasted!
For my students
Close Your Door – Open Your Heart
Getting in trouble for me
A better life through education
Torbjørn Ydegaard, with Kathrin Schaller, Dennis Röben and Frederik Wärn Pedersen
Freedom Writers in the Arctic
In honor of Rep. John Lewis, who taught us to “get in trouble!”
And so we do!
WE get into trouble,
break down the walls of oppression, kicking aside the rubble.
Teaching what needs to be taught,
many hard battles, have, and will be fought.
The start to getting into positive trouble is to change your negative
So much passion in our movement, we are the iron that fire
The struggle for equality, and meaningful education cannot be
some police are brutal,
fighting social inequalities alone is futile.
But just like fingers, when made into a fist,
there is power in unity, light and righteousness must exist
Seeing our youth excel and reach their goals and dreams is our
Many want to see through glasses the color of rose,
but a few of us have been chose
to fight the good fight, courageously run this race,
Despite the setbacks
Spirit has no lack,
ignorance and prejudice we beat back.
A man: his last name Lewis, his first name was John,
Said getting in trouble was the true way to make progress,
being passive is a con
Love for humanity is indeed the magic wand.
– Quincy Murdock
After I trained as a Freedom Writer Teacher I have been able to share my experiences in local classrooms where I have used some of the Freedom Writer methods.
One classroom I had the opportunity to share my freedom writer experiences was at a local boy’s high school in a classroom of year 12 students. Year 12 or 6th Form in New Zealand generally means students are 16–17 years of age.
This particular classroom I had previously taught some health education too so I was known to the students and we had a positive rapport.
I decided that because we had a good rapport and knew a little about each other that I would lead the “line game” with the students and unpack some of the emotions and impacts this activity has on individuals and the whole classroom.
When I arrived into the classroom I noticed that the students were all sitting in their ethnic groups, which for Gisborne means mainly Maori and Pakeha (of European or British decent). There were a couple of students from Vanuatu in this classroom also.
So I started the day asking the boys if they were comfortable enough to go and sit next to someone they had never sat next to before. The boys were happy to oblige me and they all moved to sit next to someone of another ethnicity. I asked them how they felt and they all generally agreed they felt fine. So I began a general discussion around the choices they make and what makes them hold these views. Most of the students didn’t realize that they chose each day to sit with the same ethnic group and really did this unconsciously. Some students did notice the pattern and assumed it was the way the class functioned so followed suit.
The discussion lead to unpacking some of the decisions we make either consciously or unconsciously and why we make them, many of the students were genuinely interested in what made them choose and they unpacked some values held by themselves and their families.
We then went into the “line game” and I started with some basic social questions such as step to the line if you are the eldest child, middle child and youngest child, step to the line if you live with two parents, single parent either mum, dad, other etc. Step to the line if you had breakfast this morning.
Some of the questions were in line with some of the issues we are facing here in NZ around the number of single parented families and also the rise in the number of students that come to school hungry.
As we worked through the questions the students became quieter and a sense of solidarity was noticeable. I ventured further into some deeper social issues and asked “step to the line if you have a family member in Jail/Prison” a couple of students stepped forward, at this a couple of students’ facial expressions and quiet gasps showed they were shocked but it seemed to send the message “you don’t know what others are going through” and a sense of empathy filled the room.
My final questions were “step to the line if you have ever thought about suicide” sadly the majority of the class stepped forward. I then asked them to “step forward if you have ever spoken to someone when you were feeling down/low”. Only two boys stepped forward, both pakeha.
This unfortunately reaffirmed a huge issue we have here in NZ, where we have alarming suicide rates amongst young Maori men and one of the key problems for them is talking to someone about their feelings especially when they are feeling down. Culturally for many young Maori men sharing emotions is not something they do well as it implies they are weak also many of them don’t have a father figure to help support them through adolescence.
The teacher in the classroom was actually quite stunned at the honesty and openness of the students and told me he was a little embarrassed about how little he knew about them and their lives. We discussed the need to investigate the school’s role in supporting the students and a need to share some of the learning’s of the day with the guidance department.
Anytime you attempt to place academics over athletics, you will automatically get yourself in trouble. In my community sports means everything. We have one huge game that is classified as the biggest football game of the year, the Crosstown Showdown, where the two rival high schools in my city face off against each other. Every year as the game approaches, I cannot stop thinking about the hype of the game. I enjoy watching our students from both Port Huron High and Port Huron Northern High School battle it out on the field, however knowing many of the struggles of our athletes and their ability to get into college is heartbreaking. The numbers of area students who play sports and then go off to college after high school graduation and succeed are not as elevated as some might expect.
We continue to attempt to resolve the issues regarding why only 13% of our community have obtained Bachelor’s Degrees and why our students are not prepared to attend community college. I suggest that we wander down a path that is traditionally left unexamined because of its sensitive nature. In fact, as I write these words, I am already contemplating the need to change my name, phone number and e-mail address; delete my Facebook and town because of the overwhelming number of emails and phone calls I will receive telling me that I just do not understand how important this route really is to our children's development.
I am talking about sports and the amount of time and energy our students are dedicating to it while we are failing them academically. Just like my community, there are many others who struggle with similar issues. It often seems like it is a battle between athletics and academics when in reality they both should go hand and hand.
In many communities, we place blame on the teachers, parents and students when instead the problem with academically struggling athletes are the individuals in the community that don’t offer support. We are generally the problem. That is right, I said what many would not agree with; we are failing our students. Many of you may be wondering, “What exactly does he mean by WE? My child does not attend school here. That is a school district issue not mine. I do not work in the schools, how am I failing the students?”
When addressing the issue of failed academics among our athletes or any student in that case we are all to blame. It often blows my mind to see the amount of people who come out rivalry games and other athletic events because I know how hard it is to get parents to come to informational meetings, and business and community leaders to mentor or tutor a child. Yet when it's time for the Big Game, everyone jumps on board and supports our students. Large numbers of alumni attend the events in droves, and yet, they ignore the fact that the success of today’s students is even more vital than in the past. They are our future. It is their legacy we must be concerned with.
We have allowed sports to oversee academics in so many ways. Working in the area of youth development and education, I have seen firsthand the lack of time our students who play sports have left over to really focus on their academics. Many times students will miss opportunities for tutoring, college advising, SAT Prep and many other academic services because they are going straight to practice after school. Our football players miss out on summer academic camps such as STEM, Career Navigation, Leadership and so many more life changing opportunities.
While writing this article one story comes to mind. I call it the story of lost hope. A previous student in a program I worked in while an employee at SONS Outreach left a void in my heart because of the pressure they received from coaches to be at the "mandatory" practices. In my opinion, no athlete should have to choose sports over something that will help advance him or her academically. This particular student (who will remain nameless) played multiple sports for four years while at Port Huron High School. Many teachers allowed this athlete to sleep in class and barely coast by. Coaches encouraged him, applauding his athletic ability while academically he was failing. He would often times make the newspaper and the community would rally around his ability to do well on the playing field. His hopes and dreams of going attending college after high school was quickly sidelined.
During his senior year that hope began to fade. He had failed to do well in class. Because of his concentration in sports, he had little time to prepare to study for the ACT test so his score was low, yet coaches continued to whisper in his ear that he had the potential to be recruited by a college to play football or basketball. As senior year began to come to an end I discovered that over thirty schools were interested in picking this student up to play for them, however, by the time the staff in our program started working with him it was too late. Many of the schools who were interested could not even consider accepting him because of his low academic achievement. I was livid. How could the educators responsible for shaping his future allow this young man to slip through the cracks? This situation caused me to wonder how many more students we are failing.
As I began to research and engage with parents of athletes, I was in awestruck at the number of parents who have no idea what colleges are looking for in student athletes. In addition to that, many of the students in our area appear to not even be prepared to attend a community college. Yet every year we continue to rally around sports organizing huge tailgating events to raise money, all while our students fall by the wayside.
We teach our students to value what is important by the importance we attach to it. We often fail to stress the same importance for academics as we do for sports. Imagine if we held a huge citywide pep rally, held a tailgate party with bands playing and crowds cheering, celebrating the academic achievements of all of the students. Our enthusiasm and support would honor all those who excel academically and completely change the mindset of the students to shift from athlete to student athlete while we honor those students whose interests may not include sports but whose interest in academics would be recognized as equally important.
Imagine the numbers on jersey being the GPA and ACT/SAT score of the students. I wonder how embarrassed we all would feel when the harsh reality of how we are failing our students is openly displayed for the public to see. Would we cheer for those who represent the number 1.5 or would we applaud only those displaying the numbers 2.5 and above. When high school is over, what do these young athletes have? Memories of winning a game will not get our students admitted to college.
I am not one that just states the problems. I believe in solutions. We as a community are a part of that solution. Restaurant owners, you can encourage students to achieve academically by offering promotions like a discount on a meal for good report cards. Community leaders, you can tutor or mentor a student. Academic leaders, we must find time after school for those athletes to be able to get the educational services they need to excel.
Most importantly parents, you have to make yourself aware of what your child needs to succeed in the future. It is vital that you take time to visit with college and career advisers, meet with the high school counselors and get a solid understanding on what your student is struggling with. In order for us to create great student athletes, we have to remember that they are students first. When academics are the first priority, we build a great student athlete. I believe that by working together we can support our students by helping them achieve in every aspect in their life. That will require everyone to do their part.
They say you never forget your first, but I think that statement is slightly erroneous. It’s too vague. Your first what? First love? Probably. Heartbreak? That’s even more probable. First toy maybe? It’s highly unlikely, but not impossible. I could go on and on with this line of questioning, but the truth is that generic sentence should, in the very least, say you never forget your firsts, not first. Disagree? Then try it for yourself. Ask yourself about all the firsts in your life, and see where it takes you. I bet you start recalling a plethora of moments you embarked on a different path, met someone new, tried a new food, or just plain started something for the first time. The significance of those events, and whether or not those experiences have a positive or negative impact, is all about perception.
For most of us, there is so much excitement, mystery, and eagerness in initiating something for the first time, we get completely caught up in the moment, inadvertently neglecting the unspoken convention that every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. For some, that really isn’t a big deal, but for others, if not careful, the weight of change between an ending and a beginning becomes a Pandora’s box that once opened cannot be resealed. That seems to be the proverbial story of my life. A non-stop revolving door of starts and stops in my own personal inferno that even Dante himself refuses to walk through.
It’s like that awful carnival ride, the Tilt-a-Whirl, my mother made me ride with her as a child. It just spun around and around and around, and every time I thought it was the end of the ride, I’ll be damned if it didn’t start over again. It was nauseating, and I hated it. But every year, I rode it with her, no scratch that, for her, because I loved her so much the thought of letting her down was too much for my little heart to comprehend. Now here I am, thirty years later, wondering why I ever put myself through all of that. Why did I do something that made me anxious, sick, and ready to run away from my life? The only logical answer I come up with is love. I did it for love.
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