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Freedom Writers Leadership Essay Contest

No arrests have been made in Mr. Jones’s death, said Rick Martinez, an Anaheim police spokesman.

Meanwhile, the tears over Mr. Jones have eased but not stopped.

Many of the actors in “Freedom Writers” were cast after a talent search at high schools in poor Los Angeles neighborhoods. The film’s casting director, Margery Simkin, started crying while discussing Mr. Jones by phone on Wednesday, the day before the movie’s premiere.

“There were 1,500 people at his funeral,” Ms. Simkin said.

When she and Richard LaGravenese, the writer and director of “Freedom Writers,” first watched the movie’s promotional trailer a few months after Mr. Jones’s death, they saw him in it and both started sobbing. Ms. Simkin said that Mr. LaGravenese recalled a scene from the film in which Ms. Gruwell asks her students to step on a line she has drawn down the middle of the classroom if any of them knew someone who had died in gang violence.

“Richard looked at me and said, ‘Now I can step on the line,’ ” Ms. Simkin said.

Mr. LaGravenese’s movie is based on a 1999 book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” a collection of journal entries written by students in Ms. Gruwell’s English classes. It was through sharing their diary entries with one another that they began overcoming the racial tensions that marked their lives.

Some of that inspiration has affected the actors who play the original Freedom Writers.

Two years before getting the part of Marcus Jefferson, Jason Finn, now 20, was shot by a stranger because, Mr. Finn speculated, he was wearing basketball shorts with a gang color not welcome in the neighborhood he was in. By 2005, Mr. Finn was homeless, after his mother moved to Memphis and he had a dispute with his father.

In high school, Mr. Finn said, he had never had a teacher like Ms. Gruwell, who helped her students focus on achieving high goals. The movie came along, and he found that focus.

“The whole time making this movie,” he said by phone on the morning of the premiere, “I’m telling myself: ‘Man, am I going to get into a fight, or come in with a black eye, or am I going to go to jail? Am I going to mess this up?’ Up until the movie, it was really hard for me to finish things.”

After his last scene was shot, he was so proud, he rushed to a corner of the set and wept, he said.

Mr. Jones’s death was tough for Mr. Finn. “I can’t tell you how I came to peace with it, but I came to peace with it,” he said. “I felt the anger building up inside me, and I just told myself it was meant to be.”

Ms. Gruwell, 37, said the shooting death of Mr. Jones, who was from Long Beach, made the film’s plot “more real.”

“It shows us that the story is not over,” she said, while preparing for the premiere. “There’s still gang violence, there’s still murder, there’s still intolerance.”

Sergio Montalvo, 17, who plays Alejandro Santiago, said he had not known Mr. Jones well, but that he had known “roughly 15 to 20 people” who have died in gang violence.

Mr. Montalvo said he gave his entire first paycheck and part of every check thereafter during the filming of “Freedom Writers” to his family, which has been homeless in the past.

Mr. Montalvo had awakened at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday to exercise. He gets up that early, he said, every other day to try to lose the weight he put on eating all the catered food on the film set.

There’s a lesson, he added, in going from sleeping on a church floor to acting in a Hollywood movie: “The sky isn’t the limit. There’s so much more out there.”

His family continues to live in the crime-ridden South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles. Mr. Montalvo’s wages as an actor on one film were not enough to change their lives completely.

“I really hope I get another film, a really big film,” he said. “I want to take my family out of the neighborhood. I don’t want them to go through any more pain.”

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As I read about transformational leadership in our book and lesson, I tried to connect the concepts with books and movies that I have read and watched. A movie that stood out for me was Freedom Writers. This movie was about a teacher that inspired her students to study, to be more empathetic and tolerant and to pursue their dreams.

Transformational leadership is about the leader interacting with followers in order to bring out their best self. It is about drawing upon their morals and motivations in order to get them to achieve more than they usually would (2017).  I think that teachers that really care about their students and their progress are transformational leaders. It might be the best part about being a teacher, and why people choose to teach young people. I say this as a former teacher myself. On the other hand, there are also good teachers who are not, or do not have the opportunity to be, transformational leaders. I could say that they could be transactional leaders. Most teachers teach the class and that is all. They do their job and the students follow instructions and complete the class. After the class finishes, the students and teachers likely won’t communicate anymore (2017).

Gruwell (the protagonist) had certain characteristics that enabled her to be a successful transformational leader. She is quite charismatic and is passionate about helping young people (2017). She realizes this and this gives her additional motivation. As the movie progresses, it is clear that Gruwell is making sacrifices in order to carry out her transformational leadership and help her students. Her husband divorces her and she encounters resistance when she asks to teach the same group of students for the next year. I think that the administrator that blocks Gruwell is a transactional leader. She seems to feel threatened by Gruwell’s success at her transformational leadership and does not want to be outshone.

I liked that the movie shows the steps that Gruwell follows in order to make a significant change in the student’s lives. She starts by image building (2017). Gruwell realizes that in order to gain the student’s respect, she needs to portray herself differently than she normally would. Showing toughness and confidence was necessary in order for the students to look beyond appearances and respect her. Just by looking at her appearance and style of dress, the students had assumed that she was privileged and probably would not make an effort to understand them. However, by changing her body language and tone of voice, Gruwell commanded respect. Gruwell also built trust with the students (2017). I think that this was crucial. The students came from difficult backgrounds and had issues trusting authority figures. In school, many teachers were judgmental of them and did not try to get down to their level in order to help them. Gruwell set herself apart by immediately having the students engage in a trust-building exercise. She had the students interact with each other and make a connection. Gruwell was trying to make them look beyond appearances and race divisions and have them unite as a group. She also had some Holocaust survivors come in and talk with them, in order for the students to gain some perspective on their lives. Finally, Gruwell built personalized relationships with students who needed help (2017). Eva was a student who displayed a difficult attitude in class and had issues since she belonged to a gang. By having Eva communicate with her (as well as the rest of the class) through a journal, Gruwell was able to understand her and Eva felt empowered to make the right choice at the end.

I think that in this particular setting, transformational leadership was very effective. At the same time, I think that Gruwell would probably be unable to carry out this type of leadership in the long term. It may be emotionally and personally toiling to help these types of students for many years. If she chose to continue to help different groups of students, it is possibly that she may fall back on charismatic leadership or another type of leadership.

 

Sources

Pennsylvania State University. Lesson 10: Transformational Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1848444/modules/items/22449220

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