WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY:
Freedom Writers: Erin Gruwell
Recently, at the Hilton Hotel, the AACTE (American Association for Colleges of Teachers Education) kicked off the opening night of their annual meeting of administrators, principals, and teachers, and its “Challenge for Change” with the inspiring and heartfelt words of Erin Gruwell.
Jeff Gorrel, chair of the Committee on Membership Development and Capacity building of AACTE, introduced the keynote speaker as a “teacher who valued and promoted the diversity of her students who had been hardened by exposure to gang-violence and drugs, triggering unfathomable change. She inspired her students to see themselves and to act as creative and responsible citizens who could build community and thrive as members of that community.”
A teacher at Wilson High School, a Visiting Professor of Education at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Teach With Your Heart; Lessons I learned from the Freedom Writers, Erin is known to most people today as the teacher whose life inspired the recent film Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank. To her students, however, she is known simply as Mrs. G.
As she takes the stage in front of hundreds of educators, Erin emanates the same warmth and extraordinary openness she clearly brought to the students in her classroom. Erin does not strike one as the tough hard-nosed teacher one would imagine “fighting the good fight” in the trenches of the inner city. One might easily mistake her for naïve and could conceive of how in 1993, when she was 23 years old, a group of students in Room 203 could easily underestimate her. Perhaps it is this quality, and her willingness to be vulnerable, that accounts for Erin’s success in transforming the lives of high school students whose lives were defined by gang violence, drugs, and poverty. “Before I was a teacher I was a student, and the most incredible teacher I had was my father,” she avers.
Amidst the backdrop of turbulence during the riots following the Rodney King trial, the aspiring lawyer passionately recalls how a glimpse of a child looking up into his father’s eyes with admiration as the child’s father hurled a Molotov cocktail into Circuit City and then looted the store, became the catalyst for her personal transformation. “At that moment,” she says, “I realized that if I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and ‘fight the good fight’ I should go into the classroom.
Erin’s teaching philosophy is that of a partnership between student and teacher. She believes firmly that “education is the great equalizer” and credits her ability to listen as the crucial tool which helped her to break down barriers and earn the trust of her students. Her faith in her students, and seeing beyond their low expectations of themselves, was the crucial catalyst for their change.
For Erin, the instrument of change is a pen. Faced with divisive classroom politics, prejudice, and violence, students guarded themselves within the armor brought on by gang violence. Through journal writing, Erin encourages students to “write their wrongs in ink.” With this tool Erin gives her students the permission and the possibility of a second chance: at honesty, integrity and change.
Erin’s curriculum is innovative, but her journey to create it was no easy one. Faced with a reluctant superintendent, and a school system that reinforced the belief that her students could never learn, she took their destiny into her own hands. She took part-time jobs at a hotel and a department store to subsidize new books that spoke to the reality of her students’ lives and constructed a new learning paradigm, emphasizing self-actualization, tolerance, and students’ active participation in their own education.
She inspired students with field trips to the Museum of Tolerance, Juvenile Detention centers, and brought speakers such as Elie Wiesel. Her method worked so well that the students began raising funds to bring these speakers to the classroom.
Central to the success of Erin’s students in room 203 was the Freedom Writers Diary: a compilation of a student journal of their experiences, recently published by Doubleday Books. Proceeds from the Freedom Writers Diary—How a Teacher and 150 Students Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them—currently on the New York Times Best Sellers List— are being used to subsidize the students’ college education.
The students dubbed themselves” Freedom Writers” in homage to the “Freedom Riders,” the civil rights activists of the 1950s. This name aptly has come to symbolize the freedom that Erin Gruwell gave them to overcome their failures, to start again, taking responsibility for own lives and learning.
Even with all the accolades and Erin’s hectic life flying across the globe, promoting the work of the Freedom Writers Foundation—whose mission is to spread the lessons of Room 203 throughout the country and the world, Erin remains profoundly committed to what she sees as her “family” of freedom writers.
Erin describes the state of education in America as one of “education apartheid,” one in which there is too much emphasis based on economic lines. “It’s just assumed that suburban schools are good and urban schools are worse. We put too much emphasis on this, allocating funds to wars and spending a fraction on education for kids.” She is outspoken in her criticism of school vouchers and the No Child Left Behind Act. She hopes that teachers will learn to teach to a class of students and not to a list. Her advice to aspiring teachers is to find an advocate. “I was very lucky to find Karl Cohen (the superintendent of Long Beach) and John Cu, (a benefactor for the students). It was really important to find the validation for what I was doing.”
In a field trip to Washington to the Department of Education, Maria, a student and former gang member confidently declared her intention to become the Secretary of Education.” To her and to Erin I echo the words spoken by the secretary and original Freedom Rider. “YOU GO GIRL!”#
The Freedom Writers Foundation runs an institute each summer to train teachers in the methods and practices of the freedom writers’ curriculum. The institute is seeking application from a diverse pool of school districts, states, gender diversity and age. Those selected will participate in 5 training seminars throughout the summer. Teachers interested in applying to the institute can receive more information by contacting the website: www.freedomwritersfoundation.org