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Freedom Writers

by Paolo Martin

At a very popular Indian restaurant near my house, a tall, friendly waiter with a full beard and a turban approaches my table.  He gently presses his hands together and gives a slight bow.  "Hello, my friend....  What can I get for you today?" he asks in a slight Hindi accent.  "I don't know what I want for a main course yet, but let's start with a veggie samosa," I say.  "A mimosa?" he chides.  As it is brunch, I take him seriously, so I respond, "No. A samosa!"  He continues to kid with me:  "O.K.  Two mimosas coming up."  He winks before he turns toward the kitchen. 

Ravinder, or "Ravi" as his friends called him, and his brother, Paramjit, were living the immigrant's dream in America (something I can appreciate, being an immigrant myself).  Penniless, they immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1997.  Once they had saved up enough money doing construction work, they successfully bought and sold real estate and eventually opened up Sahib Indian restaurant.  Tragically, their story was also an immigrant's nightmare.  Two days after Christmas, as they were closing up their restaurant, they were shot to death by two gunmen.  The community was shocked and the police baffled, as no robbery had occurred and the two brothers were well liked by their community.  The FBI has recently been called in to investigate the killings as a hate a crime.

A hate crime? In my neighborhood?  In the San Francisco Bay Area?  Just when I have been basking in the comfortable sensation that my neighbors (both far and near) of various ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds all get along with each other, I'm thrown into the cold reality that hate towards people who are different still thrives near our homes.  This is especially salient because yesterday, the nation remembered and celebrated the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream of a more tolerant and peaceful nation.  In a small town in Indiana, a local high school teacher named Connie Heeman engages students in reading and writing activities as well as encouraging them to explore race issues by implementing the Freedom Writers' program.  The Freedom Writers' program is based on a program which successfully turned around the lives of over 150 inner city high school students in Long Beach, CA by getting them to examine personal race and urban issues through journaling and comparing their observations with experiences of other figures like Anne Frank, who wrote about the Holocaust.  Yet, according to an article in the Indianapolis Star, Connie Heeman could potentially lose her job, as she has been accused of teaching a book which had not been approved by the district.  Heeman contends that she adequately sought permission from her principal and from the parents of her high school students.

I don't want to get too heavily into the topic of text content and the authority to censor classroom materials.  However, I do wish for us to think for just a moment about how we weigh the nuances (i.e., language use) of content of classroom materials over the potential benefits that kids could experience.  When students do engage in a piece of literature, as in Ms. Heeman's classroom, and when districts pull these books out of the students' hands, as in the case of Ms. Heeman's classroom, what kind of alternative is given to engage those students who refuse to hand over their books?  As I see it, when kids truly want to learn something - especially from curricula that encourage them to deal with real life issues like race and violence, while helping them develop strong enough literacy skills to make it to college - we do them more of a disservice by not allowing them to explore those materials.  Kudos to the 150 original Freedom Writer students who were allowed to explore and write about salient issues important to youth and make a commitment to create communities "where people feel safe, accepted, and understood."  Check out their website, http://www.freedomwritersfoundation.org/, for more about their hopes for other young teens.  Problems like illiteracy and hate crime unfortunately still exist - and children encounter them daily.  It behooves us to help them deal with such obstacles and provide everyone with a better world where they can grow up free and strong. 

Tags: reading curriculum, reading materials, censorship

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