A Final Note on Teach With Your Heart

Hey, It’s Raph here with my final words on Gruwell’s Teach With Your Heart. I don’t want this to be long because I think that, for the most part, everything that can be said has been said and I don’t want to put her down too much more (although it is extremely easy to do so with how terrible and self-serving the end of the book is), but I just want to point out one of the major problems I have with her approach to teaching. This all goes back to when she bought her students Catcher in the Rye. I can understand buying books for students if they don’t have access, but the way she went about it was wrong, and the way she talked about it in the book was wrong.

Last week, I went to the bar with my friend Anthony and bought us both a shot of Wild Turkey. He hates Wild Turkey, but since I bought him the shot, he felt obligated to take it and he did. We talked about this afterwards and it occurred to me that it was a similar situation with Gruwell’s students. They felt obligated to read it because she bought the books for them. I think this is terrible. Students should be reading because they are genuinely interested in finding out what’s going on in the book (much like I finished Gruwell’s book to see if she had any sort of soul). They shouldn’t be reading out of obligation.

That is all. The end was very disappointing and I am happy to be done with it. But that part has been bothering me for a few weeks so I just needed to address it to see what everyone else thought about it. Let me know.




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6 responses to “A Final Note on Teach With Your Heart

  1. sunyprof

    Hi Raph, I’m not sure why you thought it was wrong for Erin to buy books for kids–or why it was wrong for her to choose one she knew (clearly) and thought they would find interesting.

    It may not have been a great choice–we don’t really learn that in the book do we?–but nonetheless it was a start.

    Teachers (including yours truly) have been buying books for kids for decades (no doubt centuries). Atwell does the same thing and describes it in the reading for tomorrow.

    Kids need to read a lot to develop “taste” and what it is they like. One develops a gustatory palate by trying different foods/drinks.

    So I’m not sure why this piece is bothering you–I’m glad the kids felt obligated to read the book (since they’d read next to nothing else in their young lifetimes it seems) because their teacher cared enough to buy it for them. KES

  2. canadawr5

    I agree Raf,
    Although, I agree with Dr. Stearns that kids should be reading, that doesn’t mean that a teacher should ever force their personal tastes on their students in hopes of getting them to read. If you really want to reach a student, you should try and find out what he or she wants to read. I have never been a teacher but I am a student, and as a student, I would appreciate it very much if a teacher would try and find out what I wanted to read instead of giving me a book that they think I should be reading. “If I were them, I would be reading this!”
    I think that is another way of indirectly creating a dictatorship in the classroom.

    Ray Canada

  3. traverse02

    I am all for buying books for the kids if they don’t have them available. I know I would do the same if it came down to it. But the way she presents it to them, the way they find out about her buying the books (although it may have been unintentional) and the way she talks about it just makes the act itself seem suspect.

    To some extent I agree with what she says about reciprocation–she buys the books, they read them–but that just seems wrong. The way I figure, it would be more meaningful if she had an open discussion about the book with the kids and showed them, with her heart, why she feels so passionately about it and why they should read it. Appeal to their interest. Maybe they will reciprocate her interest by becoming genuinely interested. I agree with Ray that there should be a certain amount of choice in the matter to get them interested in reading. Have them read ‘this’ and then allow them to choose ‘that’ next. Maybe the students could suggest something we would have never thought of.

    Although it is a class and there are obligations the students must fulfill to pass, it shouldn’t seem like a chore to read.

  4. jmdegan

    The biggest problem with Gruwell (aside from her assumption of an authoritative experience when that experience is limited to one class that she took through four years, and her shameless self-promotion, and…well, let’s get back to the original idea) is her lack of detail about the specifics of her classroom practice. What do we know about what she teaches, except that she takes them on trips to Europe? They create personal narratives, which is great. They have powerful interactions with a couple of texts, which is great. But isn’t this a limited version of the project we want to accomplish? And, though they connect these texts with a major experience in their life, what other experiences are being acknowledged?

    I’m still not convinced that Gruwell offers us a positive, authentic example of powerful literacy education.

    J. Degan

  5. allison

    I agree with Professor Stearns. I’m also glad they felt obligated to read the books. Students should give new things a try. I would not be the reader that I am today without teachers inflicting their tastes on me. I would not be as educated as I am today if I was not pressured to read things that did not interest me. And I’m sure none of you would be either.

    If the “trying new things” angle doesn’t do it for you, look at it this way. If the school had provided the books (instead of Gruwell buying them) we would still expect them to do the reading, right? Or are we completely abandoning the whole “reading for class” thing.

  6. sunyprof

    Lots to talk about here…

    First, we ELA teachers force feed books to kids as a matter of course all the time. Your comments seem to suggest that Gruwell’s act is reprehensible when it’s the “what is” (Sizer) in schools not the Erin Gruwell exception. What are we doing if not forcing our “personal tastes” on kids when we set up the dozen or so titles that are read routinely in Eng. classes all over the country every year? This list is so predictable any one of us can tick off the titles on it effortlessly.

    Ray says he would appreciate it if a teacher would show an interest in what he wants to read–that’s my (and Atwell’s) whole thesis and has been my practice for many years. But having said that, Gruwell had to start somewhere and she decided to start with a favorite book of hers she thought kids would like. I admit I have always loved reading CATCHER with kids myself–so I’m not her best critic on that score. Do I think they should have limited their reading to Salinger–absolutely not. And clearly that was not the case as the rest of the book and FREEDOM WRITERS attests to.

    As for the fact we learn less about her day to day pedagogy in her memoir than we would like–well–read FREEDOM WRITERS–and flesh out your understanding of what the kids were “doing” in that classroom day after day. It’s a compelling read.

    A single book cannot cover everything it is we want to know about a teacher’s practice. I have a variety of teacher memoirs to share this semester for those of you who are interested in continuing to read that genre. You might do some comparisons with this memoir.

    I never made the claim that this memoir offers a “positive, authentic example of powerful literacy education.” But I will say, perhaps for the last time this semester! that the work Gruwell did with kids was clearly extraordinary.

    Anyone who has worked w/kids whose lives are threatened w/daily violence in their homes and their neighborhoods and who face countless other challenges (in inadequate school systems–read Kozol) to their being able to get a good education and see their ways to a bright future knows Gruwell’s work w/these Long Beach kids was life-saving for many of them. Even my limited experience in an urban school in Syracuse teaches me that. On a MUCH smaller scale I did or tried to do many of the same things Gruwell does and I can only tell you that I failed much more than I succeeded.

    I don’t know how much more authentic and positive and powerful an experience these kids could have had than they had with “Miss Gruwell.”

    I agree with all of our criticism of what many of you see as her self-promotion in the memoir. But it seems less like that to me than it does an inability to do sufficient reflection on the implications of her experiences in Long Beach and to accomplish a more sophisticated analysis of her own development as a teacher in those few years she was in that district’s classrooms. I wish she had had a better editor who would have raised these issues with her. But this woman is a force of nature–we have the proof of that in FREEDOM WRITERS–so I don’t know how much any editor would have wanted to tamper w/that formula for success.

    But when Gruwell’s students’ counterparts all over the country are dropping out of HIGH schools (not colleges) at the rate of more than 50% and make up a disproportionate set of statistics on the nightly news–stabbed, shot, incarcerated, victims of gang and police violence, etc. etc.–it’s hard for me not to admire her extraordinary commitment to her students’ futures. Who else was stepping up? I don’t know. It seems that if more people were the life chances of so many of these kids would not be so dismal.

    One of my heroes, Malcolm X, is often remembered by what many at the time shied away from as a militant stance when he exclaimed “by any means necessary” in response to the question of how his people would/should fight for their rights. The assumption was that Malcolm was advocating violent insurrection — but that’s a story for another time.

    I think Gruwell took a page out of Malcolm’s plan book. For all of what we see as the flaws in her telling of her story, she surely can claim that she was determined to teach these kids “by any means” necessary to insure their survival against some pretty heavy odds.

    And not only to insure their survival–but also to empower them to share their stories publically so that their voices could be heard outside their circumscribed worlds.

    I wonder what our reactions to the memoir say about us as readers–as much as what they say about the author. I found myself interrogating my own response (Jerry’s suggestion) to this book all the way through it. I have some thoughts about what I found inside (rather than in Gruwell) another time if anyone is interested.

    What do you see in your own response to Gruwell’s story? What does your reaction tell you about yourself rather than Gruwell?

    And why might that reflection on our own responses be an important undertaking for those of us who want to understand teaching and teachers, schooling and schools, and, of course, the kids who will some day sit in our classrooms. KES

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