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Deepwood Hall located on the Bay Path College Campus
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Freedom Fighters:
Professor Ellen Rustico returns from the Freedom Writers Empowerment Symposium in California

As Erin Gruwell wrapped up her last visit to Bay Path College in 2012, the educator and author of The Freedom Writers Diary extended a very special invitation to Professor Ellen Rustico. Gruwell had been invited to the campus to meet with President Leary, the School of Education faculty, Mayor Dominic Sarno of Springfield, and that city’s superintendent of schools. The conversation that day involved building bridges between the College and Springfield’s public school system using her pioneering program. 

As the meeting ended, Gruwell reached out to Rustico and her colleague, Professor Meredith Coates, to join her workshop group. The noteworthy guest had been organizing these “Freedom Writer workshops” for five years, in which educators are trained in an academic model based on her experiences teaching inner city youths in Los Angeles. 

The teaching style that Gruwell pioneered focuses on three key components, Rustico explained. “You engage the learner, you enlighten, and then you empower,” she added. 

Enngaging with a student means developing a relationship with them. “You work together to create a sense of community within the classroom,” she said. “Once you’ve done that, they’re more into being a part of your class. By enlightening them this way, students are more apt to participate and engage outside of school.”

The empowerment piece is about getting these messages into the community. “It’s about who can you connect with,” she explained, adding, “and who you can do special projects with, how can you help people in need, or make the world a better place.” 

Rustico uses Gruwell’s book as one of the core texts in her WELL 100 classes, and recently, she returned from the first annual lecture series built around the Freedom Writer method. The group’s Empowerment Symposium was a three-day event held in Long Beach, California, and Rustico said it was an excellent opportunity for her and her colleagues around the country to come together and share what they do. 

“Erin structured the conference so that we could hear from some big-name speakers,” Rustico said. On the first day, the National School Board Association President, David Pickler, spoke on the responsibilities of school boards across the country. A vice president at Scholastic Publishing, Patrick Daley, spoke about developing initiatives for people who struggle with reading. Paul Rusesabagina, subject of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” was interviewed by his son about the harrowing decisions he faced during the genocide in his country, and the lessons that humanity can learn from such a tragic era. 

“Probably the most meaningful presentation for me was Darrell Scott,” Rustico said. “He is the father of the first student shot and killed at Columbine High. He’s developed a foundation called Rachel’s Challenge, which is about kindness, antibullying, and how to weave that into your curriculum, and how we all can make a difference.”

For Rustico, the conference was an empowering experience. “It reaffirmed my work as an educator,” she said. 

“As I sat there the entire weekend, and listened to different perspectives and presenters, whether it be about academics or social issues, I said to myself this is why I’m here,” she added. “This is why I teach at Bay Path. This is what motivates me to bring all of this knowledge to my students.”