A Perry Meridian High School teacher’s attempt to follow the lessons in the popular movie “Freedom Writers” has ended with her saying she was censored and the district trying to fire her for insubordination.
Connie Heermann, a 27-year teacher, attended training last summer with Erin Gruwell, the California teacher who inspired the movie.
Gruwell has earned fame for sparking excitement in her apathetic students through writing. Heermann hoped to have the same impact at Perry Meridian.
So when Heermann returned from the training, she started talking with Perry Township administrators about using the lessons in her 11th-grade English class and talked of plans to use a book of diary entries from Gruwell’s students in her own classroom.
The book, which has been taught in other schools around the country, contains passages with racial slurs and some sexual content. At least one other district — in Howell, Mich. — has seen controversy over using the book . . .
The “Freedom Writers” approach encourages students to write about their own experiences, to reach out to other students of different backgrounds and to work toward a future that includes attending college and taking an active role in their communities . . .
The discussion of the book echoes a debate last year when a School Board member and local ministers protested Perry Meridian’s production of the play “Ragtime” because it contained racial slurs.
Heermann, who has been placed on administrative leave, expects a hearing before the School Board . . .
In early November, Heermann collected permission slips for students to read donated copies of “The Freedom Writers Diary,” the collection of essays by students in Gruwell’s original class.
Heermann said Principal Joan Ellis gave her the nod to go forward, and she passed the books out to students. The district says permission never was granted.“I sought their approval,” she said.
“They never told me I couldn’t until half my students had the book in their hands.”
At that point, Heermann said, a district administrator e-mailed her and said that she should not teach the book. The e-mail, she said, broke her heart as she saw students reading with rapt attention for the first time.
She continued with the lessons for a few days and then told students to turn their books in following an order from the principal. In the first class, 19 of 22 in the room refused.
Heerman's supervisors may have a point on whether she displayed insubordination in how she reacted to their order to stop teaching the material, but at the same time her frustration with her bosses' reluctance to promote and encourage teachers to step outside the box is completely understandable. You can read more about the Freedom Writers Foundation here, which promotes innovative teaching methods.