THE ACADEMICALLY STRUGGLING STUDENT
One of the most common teacher stereotypes dramatized in
Hollywood films is that of the “good teacher” as the savior of students
either inside or outside of the classroom. While considering the iconic
good teacher, presented in movies as a heroic figure who rescues
students from some unfavorable fate, it would be remiss to ignore the
consistent yet often overlooked counterpart in this relationship: the
student or students who struggle academically. In an examination of
films ranging all the way from Blackboard Jungle (1955) to Freedom Writers
(2007), the good teacher model evolves in the sense that when an
individual or group of students struggling academically is presented
onscreen, the good teacher functions not just as a “good” educator but
transcends the role to adapt to each situation as needed, whether that
requires being a savior/hero, a martyr, and/or a role model.
In Freedom Writers in particular, high school English teacher Erin
Gruwell’s teacher-student relationships serve as an exemplar of how
academically struggling students are most often seen in teacher films
when those students have a relationship with a heroic teacher figure
who advocates for them. At the outset of Freedom Writers, the bright-
eyed, eager, and idealistic Ms. Gruwell (Hilary Swank) finds herself
faced with the immense challenge of not just teaching the standardized
curriculum to the low achieving students of Woodrow Wilson High
School but of earning trust and respect from her students first in order
to reach them effectively. Over the course of two years, she slowly
breaks down some of the barriers between her middle-upper class
background and the tumultuous lives of her at-risk students, who live
in the violence-ridden area of Long Beach, California. Despite backlash
from faculty members, Gruwell is able to make a difference in the lives
of many of her students by uniting classmates after establishing
common ground between members of different gangs, the introduction
of journaling as an emotional outlet, and the use of role models in class,
such as Miep Gies, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank from
German troops during the Holocaust. By the end of the film, with
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