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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

Freedom writers are pure inspiration for teachers and teens

by Janet Nicol

The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell, Broadway Books, New York, 1999

"For many, it’s the start of a new day, but for me, it’s the continuation of a nightmare. Every day before I leave my mom me percina with the sign of the cross, praying that I come home safely."

So wrote a freedom writer—one of Erin Gruwell’s "unteachable" Grade 9 English students in 1994. The Freedom Writers Diary, a collection of journal entries written by Gruwell’s students over a four-year period, reveals why some mothers were moved to pray for their child. These powerful testimonials describe students’ daily struggle to simply survive, let alone graduate secondary school in racially divided and poverty-plagued America. The book has recently enjoyed a well-deserved reprisal following the release of the movie Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank as Ms. Gruwell and a dynamic cast of young actors portraying the diverse and spirited students who find hope in Room 203. Both the book and movie are pure inspiration for teachers and teens.

In 1994, rioting in Los Angeles followed the verdict of the Rodney King trial. This set an ominous tone for Gruwell’s first year teaching at Wilson Smith High, a recently desegregated public school in Long Beach. The tensions students endured at home also occurred at school—and in Gruwell’s classroom. But after many setbacks, Gruwell changed teaching tactics. She began to listen to the students’ stories and to teach from their perspective. Students poured a litany of obstacles they faced into their diaries: racism, poverty, sexual abuse, gun violence, drug and alcohol addictions, and cruel peer pressure (including the abusive ritual of initiation with hazings). Gruwell respected the privacy of the journals (sharing was optional) and she did not grade students for this ongoing assignment. It all paid off—her simple strategy opened a door to a whole new classroom relationship between teacher and students.

Next, Gruwell selected reading books she believed her students could identify with, including Holocaust literature such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Students discovered parallels with their own lives. She also guided them to study freedom movements, and so the students dubbed themselves freedom writers. Gruwell brought in guest speakers and conducted field trips connected to themes of racial tolerance, compassion, and freedom. As the media got hold of the changes going on in Room 203, the publicity allowed Gruwell to tap into the community’s economic abundance. She fundraised for projects including a class trip to New York and sponsored prominent speakers, such as Zlata Filipovic, who wrote a diary from war-torn Sarajevo when she was a child. All these achievements—and more—are chronicled by the students in The Freedom Writers Diary.

Gruwell fought with the school district to keep the same 150 students in her four English classes, from Grade 9 to graduation. This unconventional request was difficult for school board officials to argue against, given the turn-around of the students and burgeoning media publicity. Gruwell reflected in the epilogue: "Although I’m not an expert on the subject, I’ve always felt that all kids yearn to rebel. Understanding this rebellion nature, I encouraged the freedom writers to use a pen as a means of revolution."

The students of Room 203 moved on, and so did Ms. Gruwell, who is teaching her methods at the university level. She leaves the public school system as a brilliant shooting star and not a seasoned veteran who nevertheless made an important difference in many students’ lives and illuminated the power of the teaching profession.

Janet Nicol teaches at Killarney Secondary School, Vancouver.

For more information about the freedom writers, visit www.freedomwritersfoundation.org.

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