A few weeks ago I watched the true story Freedom Writers with my two teenage girls. In the movie, Erin Gruwell, a young, inexperienced high school teacher in Long Beach, California, in the early 1990s, inspires and unites her diverse class of “unteachable, at-risk” high school students. Outside the classroom, these students—who were about 13–14 years old—faced obstacles like gang fighting, shootings, drugs, family members who had died or were in prison, poverty, abuse, and homelessness. But, inside her classroom, they learned to reflect and communicate; they learned to understand, respect, and empathize with classmates of different backgrounds. They not only experienced academic growth for the first time, but transforming social and emotional growth, as well.
Gruwell’s students read the true story of Anne Frank, a girl about their age who faced the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the courage of Miep Gies who sheltered the Frank family for many months during the war. Gruwell’s freshmen students raised money themselves to fly Miep Gies from the Netherlands to speak to them. In a climactic scene, Mrs. Gies, speaking movingly of her experiences, summed up for them what it means to be a person of character:
“I am not a hero. I did what I had to do because it was the right thing to do. That is all. We are all ordinary people, but even ordinary people can, in their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”
Armed with this understanding that they could each be heroes of their own lives, students began to make bold decisions—even when (as with Miep Gies) this jeopardized their own safety. The most dramatic example was a young woman who found the courage to testify truthfully in court regarding her witness of a murder, even though she was beaten by her own extended family and forced to leave home because of it.
What did Erin Gruwell’s students learn about character that year? More importantly, what motivated them to change and build character of their own? Here are a few of her methods that stood out to me, and their effect on the students:
- The students learned to value and read books because they were given as personalized gifts.
- Through interactive activities, they began to notice the similarities they shared with classmates and to be more tolerant of those they felt in conflict with.
- They studied the effects of cultures that didn’t value or respect other groups and wrestled with how these themes applied to themselves.
- Their world became bigger as they took field trips to museums.
- They became more hopeful as they were exposed to relevant speakers who had demonstrated perseverance and courage.
- They became interested in the stories of other people who faced challenges, relating to their circumstances and feeling motivated by their struggles.
- They wrote their own stories each day, which helped them reflect on their choices and decisions.
What were some of the wide-reaching effects of this type of character education on these students?
- They knew, through the effort, money, and time lavished on them by their teacher that someone understood and cared about them.
- Bullying decreased as inclusiveness increased. They became a tight-knit group of friends who knew they had a safe place to go.
- Through the dedication of one person, their paradigm of life shifted from indifference to hope; from hate to trust and caring.
- They, themselves, became catalysts for change. Many were the first in their family to graduate from high school. Some achieved advanced degrees and work, even now, to teach others these methods.
Not all of our children face these extreme circumstances. Yet, they all need our guidance and attention to them as a whole person. In a few years, today’s children will be adults. What we teach them will influence the way they see and lead their lives. As much as children need scholastic training for careers, they need character training for life.
Though we can teach about character growth through the exploration of ideas, language, and behavioral skills, my overarching goal for children would be that they independently develop the desire to become people of strong character. By definition, character consists of what we choose to do when no one is looking or influencing us. Because it must involve free will to truly exist, character growth is unlike other academic subjects that can be performed on demand. Therefore, attempting to force character development by grading it is meaningless, if not harmful. A preferable approach, as Erin Gruwell demonstrated, would be to use methods that motivate children to make character-based decisions on their own, and as its own reward. Character strength thrives on intrinsic motivation, not manipulation.
Some of the best gifts we can give to our children are those that will encourage them to develop as a whole child. These include: believing in them; helping them know their own potential; and helping them feel empowered to make wise choices, even when it is difficult—to be their very best. With caring parents, teachers like Erin Gruwell, and role models such as Miep Gies, children will thrive as they choose to honor and nurture principles of character that will affect their whole lives.
How has a teacher or mentor influenced you in your childhood to develop character? What suggestions do you have for helping children develop strength of character?