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Freedom Writer Teacher Precious Symonette’s name is called, and immediately the whole room erupts into applause. Ms. Symonette doesn’t even hear that she’s the winner of the Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year!
As a beloved teacher at Norland High School in Florida, Symonette has been able to touch the lives of many inner-city students through her passion for writing. Like the Freedom Writers, many of Symonette’s students are disadvantaged, but far from unteachable. She has been able to mold these young minds into strong, educated powerhouses that are transforming their lives through writing.
“I often tell them that HURT PEOPLE, HURT PEOPLE!” said Symonette. “I don't want my students to grow up being hurt, angry, or enraged, so, I help them to ‘write it all out’ and discuss it in a free space.”
A quick video search on YouTube will give you access to Ms. Symonette’s classroom. “I try to make it feel like a home away from home” said Symonette. “I constantly burn candles, play music, and bring in snacks.”
Every day, the students passionately recite a student pledge. “The student pledge is something that I wrote as a way to help my students to change their perceptions toward themselves and the community,” said Symonette. “It helps to motivate, inspire, and empower them, especially on their tough days.”
It is evident in their delivery that she has coached her students to have a lot of confidence, passion, and excellent speaking skills. Students are able to take a topic and creatively voice their opinions about today’s tough issues such as racism, violence and poverty. “I actively create lessons that reinforce the idea that there is strength in diversity,” Symonette adds. “I force my students to learn about themselves so that they can learn to love themselves. If they truly learn to love themselves, then they are capable of truly loving others, regardless of race.”
Symonette’s classroom has become a close-knit community where each student supports each other and pushes one another to become a better writer. As a result, many of her students have improved academically and have been able to get on track to graduation. Like Erin Gruwell, Symonette has been able to teach some of her students for their entire high school career, and her senior Freedom Writers will be able to attend college.
Symonette has always been a winner. With an impressive resume and extensive classroom experience, it is no wonder she has been teacher of the year at Norland High School twice before. But now she’s creating buzz on a larger scale by winning her county’s biggest honor, the Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year.
Symonette has taught Freedom Writers ideals since 2010 when she learned one of her students was cutting themselves. In an effort to find ways to support her students more, she found “The Freedom Writers Diary.” The Freedom Writers Teacher Institute was clearly the next step. With her school unable to provide the funds, she went out and raised money on her own through speaking engagements with three different organizations.
“One of the many things that I value the most about the Freedom Writers Foundation is having the opportunity to collaborate with fellow educators around the world and having the opportunity of learning from master teachers, like Erin,” said Symonette.
Everyone at the Freedom Writers Foundation is proud to have amazing Freedom Writer Teachers, like Precious Symonette, showing the world that every student can learn and become passionate about their education despite the many obstacles students may face. It’s always humbling to know even a seasoned teacher like Symonette found the Freedom Writers Teacher Institute to be of great value.
I recently returned from the Middle East, and I feel compelled to share. My trip to Israel and the West Bank was inspiring and eye-opening. I did over 20 events in Israel on behalf of the U.S. Embassy and 7 events for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank on behalf of the U.S. Consulate General. All told, I worked in over a dozen cities, addressed audiences of thousands and hugged hundreds. I will never forget the faces, nor the stories they shared.
I was fortunate to present workshops at major universities in the region, engage in difficult discussions with thought leaders, motivate high school students, ask and answers complex questions with NGO's and banter with both Israelis and Palestinians--many of whom are talented teachers, intellectually curious students and passionate people who are hungry for peace. It is possible.
Although it is a complicated and complex region, I remain realistic, resolute and oh, so optimistic.
After working with the diplomats, consulates, cultural attachés, and educators of every ilk, I am committed to modeling what the Freedom Writers were able to accomplish through education. I was able to show our documentary "Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War" to every audience (translated into both Arabic and Hebrew)--and then have the privilege to listen to their narratives, learn about disparate stories, and validate their truth. Then, and only then, would they let me in, allow me to bear witness, to cry, to feel, to hug, and to hope! The seeds of peace were planted in classrooms and university auditoriums--and now, may empathy, compassion and acceptance begin to grow.
My trip made me nostalgic, for I found similarities in the region, with my first foray into Long Beach after the Rodney King Riots. Both communities had been plagued with misunderstandings and gross stereotypes. In both scenarios, people were anxious for the world to take notice of their plight and humanize their existence. My trip abroad gave me a glimpse of a bigger story nestled deep in these faraway lands, and how it is imperative that people play a part in their own narrative about their own home in order to fight against biases and bigotry.
To foster an open dialogue with diverse audiences throughout Israel, we played the "Line Game" and even did our signature "Toast For Change!"
To be able to do workshops in the West Bank (in contentious cities like Nablus, Ramallah, Abu Dis--along with a digital video conference with educators in Gaza) I had to have a security debrief--with code words, potential meeting sites and catastrophe drills. Truth be told, I was scared. To travel the Palestinian region, I had a four car motorcade, a Palestinian Police escort and two roaming Collateral-Assault-Teams (CAT) performing armed coverage. I was assigned 13 armed security officers, rode through check-points in a bullet proof SUV, and at one point, my leg was actually touching a machine gun as we navigated the winding roads. Initially, it was a deja vu moment, similar to the scenario of walking into Room 203 for the first time and meeting the Freedom Writers. And yet...the people I did workshops with were beautiful and brilliant.
I had the privilege of speaking to college professors and educators in Gaza via a video conference at the American House in Ramallah. (Gaza was deemed too much of a security risk at the moment for me to travel to with the U.S. Consulate.) Like many of the educators I interacted with in Israel, these particular Palestinians repeated the sentiment that they would like to be seen for who they are, and not who they pray to. One professor begged me that when I reflect upon our time together that I do not speak of him "as a Palestinian from Gaza," but instead, "please refer to me as a human being." And I will honor his request--because I saw humanity--everywhere I went, and with every person I met, on both sides of the wall that separated them. In the same spirit my students learned from Anne Frank, that "in spite of everything, I truly believe that people are good at heart," that sentiment is what I want to remember--the musing of Anne--that there was and is so much goodness.
At one event at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a young Palestinian student stood up to comment. She reminded me of the feisty Freedom Writer, Maria. This young college student desperately wanted me to know that the Freedom Writers story inspired her and that she had great aspirations for herself and her community. She admitted she had seen the film, “Freedom Writers,” over twenty times, and could recite every line of dialogue. She said the Freedom Writers inspired her, and now she has aspirations of being the first female president of Palestine someday. In addition, she requested that the audiences abroad not jump to conclusions about her and her community. Regardless of where she is from or what she believes, she knows that education can change the world.
My extensive trip was organized by Michael Bandler from the U.S. State Department in Washington DC. While Bandler and I have worked together for nearly a decade orchestrating workshops with Embassies and Consulates abroad in England, France, Scotland, The Netherlands, Taiwan, and even a video conference in Russia, this comprehensive tour to the Middle East allowed the Freedom Writer message to penetrate deep and wide. I may have ventured there as a teacher, but humbly, I returned as a student. The lessons I learned from this complex region were not political, but rather a celebration of diversity and the dispelling of stereotypes. In fact, it was so impactful that I have been asked to come back--by both the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Consulate General in Jerusalem. At my urging, Ambassador Dan Shapiro and I did a pinky swear to seal the deal, which Freedom Writers consider a binding contract. So even though my trip has ended, perhaps now, the real work will begin. Sometime, in the near future, the Freedom Writers Foundation would like to bring seemingly different educators from this region to Long Beach, California to learn the lessons from Room 203 and the original Freedom Writers at our Teacher Training Institutes. This inclusive Institute, like all others, could act as a neutral, safe space for open discussion, understanding, and idealy, acceptance. Together, we can plant more seeds and shatter more stereotypes.
For more press and footage of Erin’s trip to Israel, click on the following links:
Some colorful photos from my trip from the U.S. Embassy: https://flic.kr/s/aHskqv31pT
Below is a link for a news shows for "National Teacher Appreciation Day" in Israel. https://youtu.be/3WnJGZym1W4
The smell of marijuana greets me at the door, followed closely by a disheveled woman. She asks what I want, and I tell her that I have come for the girls. She calls to them: “The lady is here.” The girls dart to the door, excited and expectant, each asking what the plans are for the evening and what they will eat.
In this neighborhood grown men run around playing with toy guns only weeks after a neighborhood teen was shot to death on his front porch. In this neighborhood eight- and nine-year old girls discuss rape in the way other girls might discuss the latest episode of Hannah Montana. I know of an alcoholic grandmother who has custody of her thirteen-year-old granddaughter. Here, drugs are rampant. The apartment complex grounds are littered with “Little Hugs” bottles and cigarette butts.
How does hope emerge from such a place? It comes with a field trip to a local college. It comes from meeting a woman who is vice-mayor. It comes from witnessing a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. It comes when the girls do community service, perform for elderly residents at a nursing home, or march proudly in a college homecoming parade.
I am often asked why I meet with the girls one day a week after working full-time with middle school students. I was a little girl once, I reply. There were women who gave my life meaning and who inspired me: my grandmother and mother, who believed in the power of books and reading though neither had a formal education; the teachers in my segregated public schools who valued me as a learner and believed, even in those tough times, that “education is the great equalizer”; the Sunday school teachers and ladies of the community who reinforced behaviors taught at home and at school.
The wonder that these girls express at things that I take for granted constantly amazes me. I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and am convinced that these girls will go places that they never imagined for themselves. I am thrilled to encourage and inspire them to go to the “places they will go.”
When Ferial Pearson first attended the Freedom Writers Institute (FWI) in the summer of 2010, it was immediately clear what an incredible teacher she was. Her passion for education and her students came out every time she spoke about her job. Some say that teaching is not a career, but a calling. We believe that this amazing woman has definitely found her calling in the classroom.
The same year Pearson attended the FWI, she was awarded with the National Education Association Award while at Omaha South High School in Nebraska. Since then, Pearson has continued to make a difference in the lives of her students. She worked prominently in her school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), giving students who felt marginalized a chance to be heard. As a result, of her work with LGBT+ students, Pearson was named the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year. In her acceptance speech, she discussed how a young man came to her school because of the GSA and found acceptance after years of suffering greatly from depression.
Pearson’s accomplishments are continuing to mount this year. Earlier this year, she had the honor of attending an event with the Secretary of the United States Department of Education, Arne Duncan. Pearson spoke to influential members of educational society about how to create safe spaces in classrooms. You can read about how she taught her students the importance of small acts of kindness in her blog post that appeared on the front page of the US Department of Education’s website.
If that wasn’t enough, Pearson is also one of 2016’s recipients of The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. She was nominated by a young woman who has helped her receive a previous accolade as well.
We are honored to acknowledge such an impactful Freedom Writer Teacher. She is someone who witnessed strength in the women around her: her grandmother and mother, teachers, and friends. She has emulated their intelligence and talents to become the motivating force in her students’ and children’s lives.
Last December, Erin Gruwell visited the Worsely School at the Fresno Juvenile Campus for the holidays. The event was orchestrated by Bill Feaver, who was in the very first group of Freedom Writer Teachers in 2006. Bill’s facility includes kids from 13-18 years of age who are typically held for six months or less.
During Erin’s visit, she spoke to three classes of boys and girls. A whole class was designated for students with substance abuse problems. She spoke to the kids as individuals and listened to them discuss their lives and the struggles they faced. On their way out, Gruwell gave each student a hug, a kind gesture rarely observed at juvenile facilities.
Bill has used the Freedom Writers Methodology and curriculum in his classes at the juvenile hall for nearly ten years and realizes the significance of bringing literacy to life. He has conducted many video chats with original Freedom Writers that have inspired his students who come from varied backgrounds. The visit from Erin was extremely powerful, according to Bill. “Erin is a teacher of hope,” he explained. “Hope is important for these students. They need it just to survive.”
Katie Johnson was a teenager who ended up in the juvenile hall that Erin will be visiting in San Diego on Christmas Eve. Katie is an example of how positive reinforcement and second chances can change students' trajectories and how they see themselves. Below is her story of success.
Katie Johnson was arrested in 2010 after she took 13 Xanax at 10:30 in the morning and attempted to drive. She was only 15 years old. This was not the first time Katie’s family was exposed to her addiction, but this time it landed her in San Diego Juvenile Hall.
Being in juvenile hall was the first time Katie was clean of narcotics since she was nine years old. At a very young age, Katie felt pressure from her family because she was the oldest sibling and expected to help with more responsibilities than the average elementary school student. So when she found her mother’s oxytocin at nine, she used the pills to help cope with her situation. By eleven, Katie had moved onto her aunt’s methamphetamines and found herself with a serious addiction that her family didn’t discover for years. They tried to put her in an in-patient rehab facility, but she continued using.
The driving-while-under-the-influence day was the last time Katie used. She was forced to get sober in juvenile hall and has stayed clean ever since. The public defender for Katie’s case was Freedom Writer Teacher Daniel Ybarra. Daniel does not have a classroom like most Freedom Writer Teachers. He has chosen instead to make his courtroom the classroom and goes there everyday to change students' lives.
Daniel used to be a bodyguard for Cesar Chavez who encouraged him to study law at Harvard. Upon graduation, he decided to become a defense attorney. He was assigned to the juvenile deliquency department where he encountered kids who he realized had more potential than what was in their files. He created a program that encouraged kids to stay on a positive path with the goal of getting to travel the world.
After her release, Katie was invited by Daniel to go to Europe in 2012 and China in 2013 with other teenagers who had been in juvenile halls. Katie got to meet students from other countries and share her story. Katie believes that these incentives do more to help kids like her than the just the punishment of being incarcerated and the cycle that usually follows.
Katie now lives on her own, has a steady job, where she was promoted within six months, and continues to share her story of success. Erin Gruwell is eager to meet more incredible teenagers like Katie when she visits the San Diego Juvenile Hall this holiday season with Daniel Ybarra. Together, they want to remind the teens that there is hope for them and that, like Katie and the Freedom Writers, they too, can end the cycle.
Click on the video below to watch an exclusive clip from our documentary Freedom Writers: Stories From an Undeclared War. The scene shows two original Freedom Writers who give moving presentations to incarcerated youth at the San Diego Juvenile Hall where Erin will visit on Christmas Eve this year.
There is a name for educators, and it has nothing to do with books or classrooms. It’s sunshine.
As soon as my students arrive, I greet them: “Good morning. Are you ready for a great day?” There’s the bubbly student body president, who immediately mirrors my grin. Our boy genius can only nod above his teetering, larger-than-a-small-country science project. My favorite, the girl who’s not fully awake, shoots me a look that says, “Seriously. You’re this cheery at this hour?” I know she’ll thank me later. The smiles, the potent shots of optimism, and their hugs are my favorite ways to start the students’ days and my own.
But this morning was different. We did not pull in to see the school bus or cheerful children. The day turned gloomy. Hate robbed our hope, scrawled all over the building. “Mama, what does that say?” my first grader said, showing off his reading skills as he sounded out “w-h-i-t-e p-o-w-e-r.”
“Nothing, sweetie. Someone is just trying to be mean.”
I pushed the clouds aside and forced the sun to shine. I saw Mona, who always manages to bring a smile to my face. “Get out my way, little kid,” she grumbled as she made her way through the elementary building. “What are you wearing?” she disapprovingly asked one of the teachers. No matter what she said, though, I could never be upset with her. I knew that behind the rough exterior was a gentleness she showed only when she thought no one was looking. She would soon be reading to the same kid she had just brusquely told to move. Months later, as I sat in the lobby, I thought back to that day—to the hate, to Mona, and to the sunshine that prevailed. Seconds later, my world shook.
BOOM! With my two young children next to me, the sound from outside sent a shudder down my spine. The Nazi images and hate words spray-painted on our building and trees were all too fresh in my mind. Now there is another crisis. I know we are not a random target. I do not know what to do in these vital moments. Secure the kids or run outside to make sure no one is injured? The swastikas on the trees had begun to fade, but the pain they caused still burns deep. I frantically make my way to the basketball courts. As I rush by the playground, I remember seeing the students swinging up toward the clouds just a few hours earlier and hearing their laughter, the kid heard only on playgrounds where students play innocently.
The pure-acid explosion did not cause any serious physical injuries when it came crashing down toward the girls who were wrapping up basketball practice; but the emotional damage was far more detrimental. Mona was there, and now she was not so tough. She trembled as we watched the basketball roll off the court.
As a Muslim administrator, I must go beyond slapping on a Band-Aid to discovering the injury beneath. I know, more times than not, it is related to the scarf my student wears around her face or the decision by another to greet each dawn with a prayer. Just a few moments earlier Mona had scored a three-pointer and was screaming in victor. She now sits beneath a tree, crying. I rush over and remind her of the strength she has within. “We are who we are, Mona, and nothing shakes us.” I comfort her, all the while fighting back my own tears. “You are so strong, and I know you are going to do great things one day. Do not let this faze you.”
Against all odds, Mona proudly wears her scarf, treats her parents with the respect most children do not learn until they have had kids of their own, and strives to make a difference in the world and for all of its creatures.
My role is to teach my students that we must do our best no matter what challenges we face, be they grueling math tests and AP essays, or swastikas and acid blasts. We may grow weary of showing the world that we are not terrorists—not the ones throwing makeshift bombs at a basketball court full of girls—and we must persevere until we have undone each and every stereotype. That is our personal struggle, our personal jihad. We are all human beings who want what is best for our kids and our communities. That happens only when we become our best
I tell the world what I tell my students: Bring it on. My sunshine never disappears. As an educator, as a principal, and as a mother, my personal jihad is the same: I will do whatever I can to light your path.