Published by Broadway in 1999, The Freedom Writers Diary chronicles the true story of English teacher Erin Gruwell and her first teaching assignment in Long Beach, California, working with students other teachers deemed "unteachable." Gruwell quickly learned that her students had more to worry about than homework; her students went home to gunfire, gangs, drugs, and a host of other difficult situations. The students were convinced that they had nothing to learn from a white woman who had never experienced firsthand the violence, discrimination, and hatred that was part of their everyday lives.
One day, Gruwell intercepted a note being passed between students; the paper revealed a racist caricature full of hate. Gruwell told her class that it was this sort of hate and misunderstanding that led to the Holocaust. Gruwell was shocked to learn that her students had never heard of the Holocaust.
Gruwell introduced her class to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and to Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. She also provided every student with a journal in order for them to have a place to discuss their feelings, their fears, and their experiences. For the first time, the students took an interest in academics.
To bring this history to life, the students organized a "Read-a-Thon for Tolerance" to raise money to bring Miep Gies, the woman whose family hid Anne Frank, to their school. They were also visited by Zlata Filipovic. The group went on to receive tremendous recognition from the media and from the government, hoping that others would find inspiration in their story of success. Perhaps the pinnacle of their success was winning the Spirit of Anne Frank Award in 1998. The group traveled to New York to receive their award. In 1999, the group traveled to Europe together where they visited the Anne Frank House and various concentration camps.
It is nothing less than a miracle that all 150 of the Freedom Writers graduated from high school and went on to college. It is likely that none of their achievements would have been possible without Gruwell's fierce determination and perseverance.
In 2007, Paramount Pictures released The Freedom Writers starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell.
In the fall of 1994, first-year teacher Erin Gruwell began her career at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The school had a diverse student body; "rich kids from the shore sit next to poor kids from the projects."
Gruwell's call to arms was issued during her year of student-teaching when one of her students drew a stereotypical, racist cartoon of one of her students which was passed around the class. She tabled her lesson plans for the day and seized the teachable moment. When she took her class to see Schindler's List at a theater in an upper-class, white neighborhood, she was disheartened to see women, fear on their faces, grabbing their purses. When a local newspaper caught wind of the reaction Gruwell and her students received, they published a front-page article that ultimately resulted in death threats against Gruwell. When her professors at UC-Irvine saw the article, they invited Gruwell and her students to a seminar presented by Thomas Keneally, author ofSchindler's List. Keneally was so impressed by Gruwell's class that several days later, the motley crew was invited to Universal Studios for a meeting with Steven Spielberg, who had produced the film. After these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, Gruwell was summoned to the English department chair's office where she was told that she was making the rest of the teachers look bad. Her request to loop with her students and follow them into their senior year was denied and she was given the "at risk" freshman class. The story of Gruwell and her students continues from this point and is told from a variety of perspectives through Gruwell's and students' diary entries.
Gruwell's new class takes one look at her and is convinced that they will eat her alive, just as they have done with every other teacher they have ever had. The first entry says, "'These kids are going to make this lady quit the first week,' my friends were saying. Someone else said, 'She'll only last a day.' I give her a month."
In subsequent anonymous journal entries, the students talk unflinchingly about their experiences with probation officers, gang affiliations, substance use, violence, and racism. A student reflects on going to the funeral of one of his friends: "everyone was talking about 'the young boy' who had been taken away by the paramedics, but there was a lot they didn't know. They didn't know that he was my friend and that he had his whole life ahead of him." Another student reflects on his or her neighborhood: "during the day racial tensions rule the streets, at night gunshots are heard from drive-by shootings, and twenty-four hours a day, the gangs and drug dealers control the block." A dyslexic student recounts his struggles with school and how Gruwell gave him the courage to approach his academics with confidence and to pursue his true passion, sports.
Gruwell reached her students in many ways, but perhaps most effective was introducing them to literature that was relevant and relatable. She begins with Durango Street, the story of a juvenile delinquent who lives in the projects while he searches for his biological father. Then, in an effort to appeal to her students' creativity, Gruwell led the class in a filmmaking project that brought the story to life. She even takes a group of students to see Hoop Dreams. She hopes that by winning their trust and relating to them on their terms that she will be able to convince them that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet had "a little 'something something' for everyone."
The book is broken up into semesters, allowing readers to see Gruwell's and the students' growth. In the spring of 1995, Gruwell reflects on the inadequacies and frustrations of the education system. She vents about being tested by her students every step of the way and facing opposition from the administration as well.
Gruwell shepherds her class through important events in America's history, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. One student noted, "writing about it made me realize how susceptible we are to violence...There are many Timothy McVeigh's around us every day."
Gruwell takes her class to Los Angeles's Museum of Tolerance for a private viewing of the film Higher Learning, which had just been released. After seeing the film, the class attended a panel discussion that included Mas Okui, author of Farewell to Manzanar. The group listened intently to Okui's description of life in...
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Section 1 Summary
Freshman Year: Fall 1994
Today is the first day of the first year of Erin Gruwell’s teaching career. Her classroom is in Wilson High School in Long Beach City, and it is nothing like the gated community where she was raised. She did her student teaching here last year, and the racial tensions did not take long to surface. When students circulated a cruel caricature of a black student’s lips, Ms. Gruwell (Ms. G, to her students) was appalled and told them this was the kind of propaganda the Nazis used during the Holocaust. After a few moments of silence, someone finally asked what the Holocaust was. Taken aback, the teacher asked how many students in the class have been shot at, and nearly every hand was raised. That was the moment when she changed her entire curriculum to the study of tolerance. She used new books, went on field trips, and invited guest speakers—all of which required money the school district did not have. To fund her ideas, Ms. Gruwell had to get two night jobs.
The first class field trip to see Schindler’s List in a predominantly white neighborhood was a disaster; the outrageously prejudiced reaction was written about in the newspaper and Ms. G received death threats. A University of California-Irvine professor saw the article and invited the class to a seminar with the author of Schindler’s List; in turn, he was so impressed that he arranged a meeting for them with Steven Spielberg. The head of the English department chides her, however, for making her colleagues look bad since her underachieving students were beginning to achieve. When she becomes a full-time teacher, she is demoted to having four sections of “at-risk” students.
Most of her students think the new teacher is “odd” because she does not believe what everyone else seems to know about these classes; they can read and they can write, and Ms. G expects them to do both. Everyone else seems to think they are stupid and beyond hope. They think this new teacher is “too young and too white to be working here,” and most of the kids in class predict she will leave after a day; one student gives her a month. The class is out of control, and there are more students than desks. The entire school is divided into groups ranging from “Beverly Hills” and “Da Ghetto” to “China Town” and "Run to the Border.” The Distinguished Scholars are in class across the hall, and the only white student in this class believes he should be across the hall.
School is like the city and the city is like...
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Section 2 Summary
Freshman Year: Spring 1995
Ms. Gruwell is frustrated with students who do not want to read, write, or do homework. She is even more frustrated with a system that labels students "remedial," "stupid," or "basic." She is then surprised that students believe the label. Even their parents seem to have given up on them. In fact, they may not be “smart” in the conventional sense, but they are quite savvy. Ms. G is preparing to teach Shakespeare to her class of particularly difficult freshmen. To do that, she will have to get “down and dirty,” proving to them she is not a stereotypical Beverly Hills girl. She has to make them see that Shakespeare has modern applications, so she plans to compare the...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
Section 3 Summary
Sophomore Year: Fall 1995
Even as a student teacher, Ms. Gruwell was the target of jealous, envious teachers in her building; things do not improve now that she is a full-time staff member at Wilson High. Some call her a “hotshot” and do and say cruel things to her. It gets bad enough that she accepts a teaching position at another school, and she tells her principal she is leaving because “all” her colleagues are “out to get” her. But he reminds her that she does have some support in the building. One important thing Erin Gruwell has tried to teach her students is not to let the actions of a few determine how one feels about an entire group, and now she is doing just that. Ms. Gruwell...
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Section 4 Summary
Sophomore Year: Spring 1996
The students’ letters to Zlata point out to her the similarities of their two worlds (dodging gunfire, friends getting killed), despite the fact that in America there is no war, at least no declared war. Ms. Gruwell is so impressed with her students’ voracious reading and their compelling letters that she types them and binds them in a book. It is a tragedy that these young people feel as if they are living in a war zone. Though she does not know if it is even possible for Zlata to come, Ms. Gruwell does know Zlata must read her students’ letters and she begins to do her part. The letters are sent, and Ms. Gruwell calls in all her concierge favors (from her night job at...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
Section 5 Summary
Junior Year: Fall 1996
School starts tomorrow and Ms. Gruwell is just now leaving France for America; she will no doubt be exhausted tomorrow. She taught several summer classes at National University so she could afford this trip to visit Miep and Zlata, among other things. She brought them gifts from her students, and is bringing back many keepsakes and materials from her trip to show her students. These tokens are part of her plan to bring world literature to life, but this year she must do the same with American literature. Erin Gruwell knows last year will be a difficult year to beat.
One new student in Ms. G’s class is particularly thankful to be here. She used to be a kind of...
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Section 6 Summary
Junior Year: Spring 1997
Ms. Gruwell tells Zlata that she is her class’s inspiration and they will be compiling their journal entries into a collaborative book, a diary. Just as writing was Zlata’s salvation during the war, Ms. G’s students will benefit from putting their thoughts on paper. It will help them “escape their horrific environments and personal demons.” For many students, Room 203 is the only place where they feel safe in the midst of the mayhem around them. Some stay as late as seven or eight o’clock, working on homework, because they are afraid to go home. At that time of night, Ms. G feels obligated to take them home, and she has been both scared for her students and guilty...
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Section 7 Summary
Senior Year: Fall 1997
She had to fight for her class again this year, but Erin Gruwell has found some allies in the administration and she will teach her class as they become seniors. When Secretary Riley told her students that “everyone deserves a college education,” Ms. G takes it as a personal challenge to give each of her students a chance to do so. The idea of college is foreign to most of her students, and she knows she will have to help them through the myriad difficulties which will arise. She will use her graduate college students as mentors for her Freedom Writers, and she has created a nonprofit organization called Tolerance Education Foundation to help them overcome the biggest...
(The entire section is 678 words.)
Section 8 Summary
Senior Year: Spring 1998
The Freedom Writers have won the Spirit of Anne Frank Award for their commitment to confront and end discrimination and violence in their community. Unfortunately, they have to go to New York in ten days to accept it. Ms. Gruwell goes to New York and meets with the organization; while she is there, the newspaper reruns the Freedom Writers' story. Upon her return, she finds many messages of support for the group, including offers for television appearances, and plans to see if they will help her students to New York.
A corporate sponsor, GUESS?, is going to send forty-five Freedom Writers to New York. One student finds it odd that a company that does not know her is...
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While they were in Washington, D.C., the Freedom Fighters—all 150 of them—held hands and recited lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. They walked where he walked, and the experience moved them. After that, one of Ms. Gruwell’s students suggested that since they walked where the Freedom Riders walked, their next stop should be Anne Frank’s attic, the place where their journey began. While many cheered the idea, Ms. G was still trying to ensure that the D.C. trip was a smooth one. So much planning was involved and so many things could go wrong that planning another trip, especially at that moment, seemed like a daunting task. Her strategy was to...
(The entire section is 581 words.)