Being a teacher is about more than just being an educator, it is about influencing and encouraging our future leaders to reach for the stars. Last Tuesday morning, nearly 2,000 employees from the Kyrene School District received a bit of inspiration themselves when Erin Gruwell, author of the book Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, dropped in on the district's beginning of the year kick-off celebration. A wide range of employees, from principals and teachers to bus drivers and custodians, gathered at Desert Vista High School to hear Gruwell's story. "She spoke for an hour about her journey as a brand new teacher, assigned 150 students who society had basically almost given up on," said Kelly Alexander, spokesman for Kyrene School District. "She inspired these students, some who had been members of gangs or had families who spoke no English, to graduate from high school and move on to college." Gruwell's story began in the mid-'90s in Long Beach, Calif. The fresh-out-of-college teacher began her first job at Wilson High School faced with a challenge. Assigned a group of students deemed "unteachable," "below average" and "delinquents" by the educational system, Gruwell found ways around financial obstacles and society's criticisms to create what many called a miracle. The struggling teacher scrounged for ways to raise money to purchase improved educational technology. Gruwell even used her own Christmas money to help purchase computers for her classroom, which in turn created the opportunity for her students to unite and author a compilation of reflective writing. These writings were later published into a book, and inspired the movie Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank. After seeing Gruwell speak a few years ago, Sheryl Green, principal at Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary School, contacted the Freedom Writers Foundation and requested an appearance at the party. "I've known of her story and am familiar with her books," Green said. "I thought she was so inspiring that we had to bring her in." "What was inspiring was her approach on doing the very best work with each student, regardless of how they walk in the door," Alexander said of Gruwell. "We have a responsibility to meet each child where they are, and give them the opportunity to succeed." For one Kyrene teacher, inspiration did not end after the kick-off party. "Before her speech, Erin informed me she had an opening for a teacher to attend the Freedom Writers Institute," Green said. The institute is a five-day learning program in Long Beach where teachers explore Gruwell's Freedom Writer Method in order to improve academic performance at their schools. Mike Sissel, a fourth-grade teacher at Esperanza, attended the institute Friday to Tuesday. "He will be implementing the methods here at Experanza and is also contributing to Erin's third book, a teacher's version of Freedom Writers," Green said. Corinne Frayer can be reached at (480) 898-7917 or cfrayer@aztrib.com.

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