After inspiring a class full of disadvantaged students, a Hollywood film starring Hilary Swank and Patrick Dempsey, and teachers in public school systems across the nation, Erin Gruwell hasn’t lost the vivacious attitude that helped her win the affections of students and admirers.
Gruwell, or “Ms. G,” as her students called her, came to speak and screen the recent documentary “Voices Unbound: The Story of the Freedom Writers” at a Claremont Graduate University (CGU) event last Saturday at Balch Auditorium on the Scripps College campus.
Gruwell and her students’ collection of stories entitled The Freedom Writers Diary was the basis for the popular 2007 movie Freedom Writers. Both tell the story of Gruwell’s class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, which consisted of some of the lowest-achieving students at the institution. Many of the students were involved in gangs and violence and had experienced the rough streets of Long Beach long enough to believe that pearls-and-polka-dot-clad Gruwell was nothing more than an indifferent babysitter.
Over the course of the students’ freshman year, however, Gruwell helped her 150 students write about their own lives in journals and read books such as Romeo and Juliet and The Diary of Anne Frank to learn about tolerance. Each one of the “Freedom Writers,” as they came to be called, graduated high school, and many then attended college. Their journal entries were compiled to create The Freedom Writers Diary.
Gruwell spoke to graduate students, aspiring teachers, and other admirers Saturday about her experience with the Freedom Writers, who at first resented her and positioned themselves in the classroom according to racial groups. Gruwell emphasized that her goal in teaching the Freedom Writers was to give them a place where they could express themselves safely and accept one another where racial and social divisions had previously kept them in a state of constant tension. Many of the students had not even heard of the Holocaust prior to Gruwell’s class.
“I wanted them to put down their fists, put down their guns, pick up a pen, and rewrite their future,” Gruwell said at the screening.
The emotional documentary captures the stories of a handful of the iconic Freedom Writers, detailing their journey before and during Gruwell’s class. Some had suffered abuse, molestation, violence, teenage pregnancy, and poverty, but their stories were eventually published and distributed worldwide in The Freedom Writers Diary, revealing their pain—and hope—to hundreds of thousands of students who now read the collection in their own schools.
Gruwell acknowledged public school teachers all over the U.S. who “roll up our sleeves, get out there in the trenches, and fight the good fight for these kids every day.” She called the documentary a “love letter of sorts to these teachers, the public school purists, and their students.”
In attendance at the CGU event was a class of students from Arroyo Valley High School’s Teaching Academy program. This “school within a school” in San Bernardino partners with a nearby elementary school so that high school students can apply the teaching skills they learn at the Academy.
Laura Smith, who teaches juniors and seniors in the program at Arroyo Valley High, came to the Teaching Academy after working with third grade classes. For her, it was quite a dramatic transition.
“I was scared to death of the high school kids,” Smith said. “On the first day, I found out I had one girl who was pregnant, one who was married, and one with a baby. I knew I was coming to a completely different world.”
However, Smith said her students have become increasingly motivated to improve teaching in public schools.
“They came here on a Saturday. They’re inspired,” Smith said. “They hate Christmas break, summer break, and spring break. They just want to be at school.”
One of Smith’s students, 16-year-old Jessica Barron, wants to become a teacher and is learning how to be one at the Teaching Academy. She has mastered the “seven-step lesson plan” and has been trained to lead elementary school classes.
“It really touched me to know other people go through that, not just myself,” Barron said of the students’ difficult stories in the documentary. “It made me inspired to be more of a teacher.”
That’s exactly the impression Erin Gruwell wants to make by sharing Voices Unbound with as many audiences as she can, and by working with education reform organizations like Waiting for Superman.
“For many teachers, Superman is already here, and he’s not wearing brightly colored underwear,” Gruwell said. “He’s not going to leap over a building in one bound.”
Gruwell’s message resonated with Smith and others in the room.
“People always say, ‘Education is broken,’” Smith said after the event. “Public education is working. We just need the right teachers there.”
She added of Gruwell, “She’s my hero.”