Sunday, August 11, 2013

Project Coach Director Reflects on Attending The Freedom Writers' Institute

         As the Director of Project Coach, I was recently given an amazing opportunity to travel to California and attend the Freedom Writer's Institute led by Erin Gruwell and many of her original students from Long Beach. As part of a cohort from Springfield Public Schools, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn more about reaching at-risk teens and to connect with other Springfield educators. Immediately after arriving, the fast-paced, intensely focused five day training began. We were quickly whisked away on a tour of Long Beach, made a stop at Wilson High (where Ms. Gruwell taught the Freedom Writers), and then arrived at the Freedom Writers' Foundation. The next day, we began the classroom sessions of the training which combined actual lessons Ms. Gruwell did with reflection on how to incorporate them into our work. With a three phased approach to both the training and the curriculum (engage, enlighten, and empower), the institute helped us understand how to build relationships, get teens interested in writing and storytelling, and help them become activists and community organizers.  While I was taken with many of the activities, this final piece of empowering and motivating youth to become agents of change resonated with me and the goals of Project Coach. I immediately began brainstorming ways to further empower youth in PC, to help them write and tell their stories, and to truly create activists. Another major takeaway was how many excellent, motivated, and dedicated educators Springfield has and that more collaboration between schools, after-school programs, and colleges would allow the work of these educators to truly blossom. Lastly, after speaking with many of the Freedom Writers about their lives I was reminded that our task as educators is not just to get students through high school and into college, but to help guide them through college and into careers.

Educators from Springfield in front of Wilson High 

         In the foreword to The Freedom Writers Diary, Zlata Filipovic (a teen who wrote and published a diary from the Bosnian war and who the Freedom Writers brought to California) writes, "I have realized that we cannot completely erase all the evil from the world, but we can change the way we deal with it, we can rise above it and stay strong and true to ourselves...most important, we can inspire others". This quotation captures the theme of our final days of training which I most want to inject into our Project Coach programming. In our last two days, we heard two Holocaust survivors speak, toured the Museum of Tolerance, and discussed how to empower teens to make real and inspiring change. While the whole of Project Coach asks teens to make change in their neighborhood by running high quality after-school programming and sports practices for young children, I realized we could be asking even more of our amazing teens. We have in small ways engaged our teens in some political events in Springfield and some community service outside of Project Coach, but after returning from this training I am convinced that our teens should be much more involved and active in the city of Springfield. Furthermore, I believe our teens have a wonderful perspective on urban education and should be sharing their ideas and solutions with the country. I would also like for our teens to gain more of a global perspective and become international agents of change. I believe that they are ready and able to take on these challenges. 

Springfield Educators, Erin Gruwell, and Freedom Writers in Long Beach

       In addition to the ideas about empowering youth to contribute on a larger scale, the institute reminded and reinforced the ideas I have always had about young people needing to tell their stories. Last year, Project Coach collaborated with WGBY to have ten of our teens complete digital stories about something powerful in their life. Many of them chose to tell about Project Coach while some chose to capture how dance or music influenced their life. Watching these videos months back, I remember thinking how powerful it was for them to write their story without any molding, editing, or remodeling from adults. Attending the institute, meeting the original Freedom Writers, and rereading the Freedom Writers Diary, reminded me that our teens have the power to alter their course and their life through writing. Not only is it incredibly healing, it creates a sense of control and ownership that many at-risk teens lack in their often unstable and unpredictable lives. By controlling their story, they learn to control their experience, their actions, and their futures. 

       As the institute took up almost all of our waking hours, involved many personal and emotional activities, and included deliberate bonding experiences, I became very connected and close to many Springfield educators during the trip. I met teachers from every high school, a school committee member, administrators and after-school youth programmers like myself. As our Project Coach teens come from these high schools and spend hours in many of these teachers' classrooms, I felt this was a hugely valuable experience. I was able to explain the program, discuss our challenges and our experiences connecting with schools, and talk to teachers about teens who might be a great fit for our program. We also had in depth conversations about urban education, the issues facing Springfield, and the solutions we believe in. We talked about creating deeper connections between the schools and youth programs in Springfield and how this wrap-around service could truly help at-risk teens. When leaving the airport, I found myself sadly realizing I would not see everyone again until the end of September (we already have a follow-up experience planned). I also wondered why this experience to connect with educators from Springfield was a rarity and hoped that this training could improve that. 

Project Coach Director with Erin Gruwell

     The final theme that stood out to me was the idea that as educators our job is not finished when our teens graduate high school. The original Freedom Writers are now in their thirties and still receive support, encouragement, and guidance from Erin Gruwell and from each other. Many shared about how hard the transition to college was and that without the support of fellow Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, and the foundation they may never have made it through. As Project Coach recently learned by continuing to employ five of our veteran coaches as they began college, much of the support young adults need only begins when they enter college. As Paul Tough spoke about while visiting Springfield, the real evidence of a successful program, educator, or school is whether or not their teens make it through college. While high school is challenging, the financial, emotional, and mental stress teens experience in their first few years of college is unmatched. Many of our teens struggled to pay tuition, had family issues that almost pulled them away from college, or even dealt with debilitating health issues that threatened their success. Figuring out how to continually support and guide teens through this crucial part of adult life is the next evolution for any youth development program. 
      As Project Coach prepares to start another year, employ another 50 teens, and collaborate with both Springfield Public Schools and Smith College, we will work to incorporate all of these ideas about positive youth development. As the director, I truly look forward to our continued growth and improvement as a program and I am certain that attending this training will make us a stronger support system for Springfield youth. 

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