young boy of color sitting at a desk with an open notebook on it

The Freedom Writers Diary

by Erin Gruwell

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The Freedom Writers Diary Summary

The Freedom Writers Diary is a nonfiction collection of essays written and compiled by English teacher Erin Gruwell and her students, who are collectively known as the Freedom Writers.

  • The school administration assigns first-year teacher Erin Gruwell to a class of “unteachable” students, most of whom are from culturally marginalized backgrounds.

  • Gruwell’s students begin keeping diaries, where they talk about their personal struggles, hopes, and feelings.

  • Gruwell introduces her students to the diary of Anne Frank and other books about freedom and survival. Inspired, the students raise money to bring Miep Gies, whose family helped shelter Anne Frank, to speak at their school.

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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.


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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 of Schindler’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 their 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 student with dyslexia 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 Streetthe 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 leads the class in a filmmaking project that brings 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 an internment camp; his words especially resonated with Gruwell’s Asian students. The Latino students were intrigued by panelist Danny Haro, who rose above his upbringing in the barrio and went to college. All of the students were touched by the words of Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor. The message that Renee imparts to the students is that they should never stereotype or judge a group of people collectively. This is prophetic for the students, who both judge and are judged by others based on their race or ethnicity.

The lessons learned by the students in Gruwell’s first class are those that would serve them well in life after school. They began to believe in themselves and in their potential to change. In a parallel process, Gruwell begins to come into her own as a teacher. When she reunites with her students in the fall of 1995, Gruwell plans to share four books about teens in crisis. Her class’s reading list includes Todd Strasser’s The Wave, Elie Wiese’s NightZlata’s Diary, and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Using these books, Gruwell organizes a Read-a-Thon for Tolerance. Initially, some of the students do not understand why they need to read about people with whom they have nothing in common. Nevertheless, they give the books a chance and soon realize that they actually have more in common with the protagonists than they originally thought.

Gruwell teaches Twelve Angry Men in the classroom as the O. J. Simpson trial plays out on the television. Her students, many of whom have family members in or experience with the penal system, have decidedly strong opinions on the case and on society’s reaction to it. In their journal entries, some of the students reflect on their experiences testifying in court against their peers or even against their own family members. It is clear that many of the students feel let down by the judicial system.

The spring of 1996, her students’ sophomore year, is marked by a letter writing campaign to Zlata Filipovic, the young woman who wrote about her experiences growing up in war-torn Bosnia. The class takes up a collection to try to raise money to pay for Zlata to fly to California and meet the students. In the process of trying to determine Zlata’s whereabouts, Gruwell encounters several Holocaust survivors through her connection to the Museum of Tolerance, and they agree to meet the class.

“To a fifteen-year old, the only heroes I ever read about ran around in tight, colorful underwear and threw buildings at each other for fun. But today, that all changed. A true hero leapt off the pages of a book to pay my class a special visit.” Gruwell works her magic once again and is able to arrange for Miep Gies to visit. Gies, the one-time assistant to Otto Frank, hid the Frank family and was responsible for finding Anne Frank’s diary. The wonders never cease that spring, and the class is visited by Zlata, her parents, and her best friend. The class is so inspired that they hold a basketball tournament, Basketball for Bosnia, to raise money for supplies to send to the war-torn nation.

As the students enter their junior year with Gruwell at the helm, she introduces them to more books, including The Catcher in the Rye and The Color PurpleThe issues raised by these novels include rape, incest, and suicide, all of which Gruwell’s students have encountered in their young lives. That spring, Gruwell finds a benefactor who donates thirty-five computers for her class so that they can compile their writing to date. The class’s inspiration is Zlata, who said that “writing was her salvation during the war.”

During the class’s observance of Black History Month, Gruwell leads her class in meaningful discussions about the risks that people took during the Civil Rights Movement. They study not only individuals like Rosa Parks but also groups of people like the Freedom Riders. Inspired, one of the students suggests that the class call themselves the “Freedom Writers” as a tribute to those who made a difference. And so the group was born.

The Freedom Writers decide to take their stories and experiences to the top. The class begins to save for a trip to Washington, DC, to meet the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, where they will present him with their written work. While in the nation’s capital, the class visits the Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Holocaust Museum. Inspired by their historic visit, the students are devastated to return to school only to learn that a fellow student has raped and murdered a seven-year-old girl in Las Vegas. What strikes the young activists most is the dichotomy between what they are trying to accomplish and what their peers are doing.

Gruwell and her students are ecstatic when she is granted permission to teach a senior English class in the fall of 1997 which allows her to stay with the class for their last year of school. Gruwell’s task that year is a daunting one; she wants them to begin thinking about their future. “When Secretary Riley told [Gruwell’s] students ‘everybody deserves a college education,’ [she] interpreted it as a personal challenge to make sure that all the Freedom Writers would go to college.” Later that fall, one Freedom Writer wrote, “historians say history repeats itself, but in my case I have managed to break the cycle because I’m going to graduate from high school and go to college.”

After returning from Christmas vacation that year, Gruwell receives a phone call notifying her that the Freedom Writers were chosen as the recipients of the Spirit of Anne Frank Award. The prestigious award is granted to “those who have followed the courage of their convictions to step forward and actively confront anti-Semitism, racism, prejudice, and bias-related violence in their community.” Gruwell has ten days to raise the money for the entire group to get to New York City to accept the award in person. A generous clothing company, GUESS?, agrees to sponsor the entire group so that they can accept the award. Later that spring, the group learns that their writing will be published by Doubleday, the same company that published Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The group’s success continues when they receive a host of accolades, including everything from prom queen to All-American to the Micah Award from the American Jewish Committee.

The Freedom Writers all attend college beginning in the fall of 1998. Their parting words in the novel are “we hope that this book will inspire you . . . by encouraging you to pick up a pen and be the catalyst for change.”

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