Former ‘Freedom Writer’ Scott speaks to new Illinois teachers

“I want to warn you. Some of you already know this, but some of you may not,” the man in the gray suit and red tie addressed the room. “I talk about some things that might make you a little uncomfortable. I’m going to cover some things that might upset you a little bit. They might even offend you. But I want you to know that I’m sharing these things because, first, they’re true. But more importantly, I think these things will help you become more warm, more sensitive and more effective leaders of young people.”

Manuel Scott, whose story is told in the book and subsequent movie adaptation “Freedom Writers,” was the keynote speaker at the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative third annual “Y2: Moving Beyond Survival” conference that took place June 26-27 at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

The conference was designed and planned by new teachers, for new teachers and was expressly designed to give teachers the chance to learn, network and reflect on their first years in the classroom, according to a written message from Dr. Chris Higgins, director of the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative.

More than 125 teachers from throughout the state registered to participate in the conference. The two-day event featured an extensive syllabus that included “Hot Topics Breakout Sessions” relating to humanities, knowledge, innovation and excellence. The types of breakout sessions ranged from “Text it, Type it, Make it: Moving from Novelty to Practicality,” to “Comic Book Project: Getting Reel,” to “Classroom Management.”

The conference was sponsored in part by the Illinois State Board of Education, the College of Education at the University of Illinois and the State Farm Companies Foundation.

Scott spoke for a little over an hour on the second day of the conference. His speech covered harrowing details of his past while sprinkling in moments of comic relief.

He grew up in California without the presence of his father, who was in jail for much of Scott’s life. He dropped out of school at 14 and at one point was classified as an English as a Second Language student despite speaking no other languages. But in his junior year at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, Calif., he was taught by a 23-year-old English teacher named Erin Gruwell, who helped Scott and his classmates exceed academically when everyone else had given up on them.

Tamra Neal, a second grade teacher at Hope Academy in Decatur, Ill., said she found the conference, particularly Scott’s speech, beneficial.

“It was motivating,” said Neal, who also said the speech brought her to tears. “It makes me want to go back and help kids like his teacher helped him. When I get back home, I’m going to share it with my principle and maybe we can have (Scott) speak at our school.”

Neal referred to Hope Academy as an “inner-city school” and said she dealt with a situation in the same vein as some of the stories Scott shared. One of her students, she said, was taken from her mother because her mother had abused her.

“You never know when those kids leave you, what they’re going home to — or what they’re not going home to,” Neal said.

Scott made a point of saying that situations like the ones he was in, are not unique to certain areas or social classes.

“Don’t make the assumption that the things I’m talking about are unique to the inner city,” he said. “Don’t make the assumption that the things I’m going to cover are unique to a particular group of students. I am on the road about 150 days out of the year, and I’m in wealthy districts, poor districts, white districts, black, Mexican and everything in between.”

Choosing Scott as the keynote spekaer was fitting, considering that many first-year teachers often work in underprivileged communities.

Liz Charlton, who teaches at Metamora Grade School in Metamora, Ill., vividly recalls her first day as a teacher.

“I remember standing up in front of one my classes and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not a student anymore. I’m a teacher.’ It was kind of in your face and intense.”

While her first-day jitters are behind her, Charlton said opportunities like the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative are of value because she hasn’t completely developed as a teacher.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Charlton said. “I’m still learning.”