Local teachers pitch in stories for new book

Project by 'Freedom Writers' author tells educators' tales

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After 33 years as a middle-grade teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Charlotte Fong has a few stories to tell.

Thanks to Erin Gruwell, the teacher who won acclaim for her breakthrough work with underprivileged California students known as the "Freedom Writers," Ms. Fong has a special forum for telling one of them.

Ms. Fong, 55, is one of 150 educators selected to contribute stories to "Teaching Hope," Ms. Gruwell's latest book project.

"Teaching Hope," relates the joys and frustrations of teachers as they try to connect with students battling poverty, violence, drugs and family dysfunction. The writers -- from urban, suburban and rural districts in the United States and Canada -- also open up about their own problems.

The book debuts tomorrow, and Ms. Fong will appear at an author's event and book signing from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble at the Waterworks on Freeport Road.

Petite and soft-spoken, Ms. Fong had to steel herself three decades ago when she took a position at Reizenstein Middle School, considered one of the tougher Pittsburgh Public Schools.

"There were days I didn't make it, but I had to learn from those days," said Ms. Fong, who stayed at Reizenstein until it closed in June 2006 and now teaches at Pittsburgh Arlington PreK-8.

Today, Ms. Gruwell said in an interview, Ms. Fong is a "rock star" teacher who approaches each school year with a smile and "bring it on" attitude.

Another "Teaching Hope" contributor is former North Allegheny School District teacher Eric Graf, 38, who left the district in 2004 after about 10 years.

"I just sort of felt like I had done what I set out to do there," said Mr. Graf, who's operating a sound production studio in Lawrenceville and trying to open the Pennsylvania Digital Arts Charter School.

In 1994, Ms. Gruwell began teaching English at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif. She found that her students -- facing the myriad problems of an urban environment -- had been written off by society.

Ms. Gruwell coaxed them out of shells of anger and resentment with lively discussions, activities and journal-writing. Some of their journal entries became the basis of a best-seller, "The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them." Their story also was told in a movie starring Hilary Swank as Ms. Gruwell.

Now, Ms. Gruwell heads a foundation and teachers institute aimed at extending the Freedom Writers' breakthrough to other communities.

Beginning in fall 2005, she began gathering together 150 teachers -- the same number as Freedom Writers -- to teach them her strategies. That led to the group's collaboration on "Teaching Hope," which adds a teacher's perspective to the Freedom Writers' story.

"I wish I'd had this book before I began my journey as a teacher," Ms. Gruwell said in the preface. "I would have had more realistic expectations about the power a teacher has, and also about the barriers that spring up all around to challenge that power."

Ms. Fong said she was touched by the Freedom Writers' story and applied to the institute to learn how to better relate to her students. Like Ms. Gruwell, she has found that students open up if she's patient enough to let them come around.

She said she tells students on the first day of school, "I am mean. I am wicked," but that's a front. The mother of two also says she wants her students "to do as well as, if not better than, my kids."

While contributors to "Teaching Hope" are listed as a group, no names accompany the stories that make up the book. The selections are anonymous to protect the identities of those involved.

Mr. Graf said he wrote about his exit from the profession, and Ms. Fong said she contributed a story to the chapter titled "Disillusionment."

In that chapter, teachers describe the drudgery and unfair expectations of standardized testing, lament the zoo-like quality of some classrooms and rue unsupportive administrators and the problems that keep students from focusing on class work. Yet resilience and humor percolate.

"I knew Keola was in a gang," one teacher wrote, "so one day when he ran into the classroom and started yelling, 'Everybody get down,' I feared the worst. We all ducked under our desks and I shouted, 'What's going on?' Keola crawled toward me and whispered, 'Be quiet, they're coming."

Two harried security officers arrived at the door and led Keola away. "This," the teacher wrote, "was a typical day in the life of Keola in my classroom."

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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