A young teacher inspires her class of at-risk students to learn tolerance, apply themselves and pursue education beyond high school
It’s 1994 in Long Beach, California. Idealistic Erin Gruwell is just starting her first teaching job, that as freshman and sophomore English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, which, two years earlier, implemented a voluntary integration program. For many of the existing teachers, the integration has ruined the school, whose previously stellar academic standing has been replaced with many students who will be lucky to graduate or even be literate.
Despite choosing the school on purpose because of its integration program, Erin is unprepared for the nature of her classroom, whose students live by generations of strict moral codes of protecting their own at all cost. Many are in gangs and almost all know somebody that has been killed by gang violence. The Latinos hate the Cambodians who hate the blacks and so on. The only person the students hate more is Ms. Gruwell. It isn’t until Erin holds an unsanctioned discussion about a recent drive-by shooting death that she fully begins to understand what she’s up against. And it isn’t until she provides an assignment of writing a daily journal – which will be not graded, and will remain unread by her unless they so choose – that the students begin to open up to her.
As Erin tries harder and harder to have resources provided to teach properly (which often results in her needing to pay for them herself through working second and third jobs), she seems to face greater resistance, especially from her colleagues, such as Margaret Campbell, her section head, who lives by regulations and sees such resources as a waste, and Brian Gelford, who will protect his “privileged” position of teaching the senior honors classes at all cost. Erin also finds that her teaching job is placing a strain on her marriage to Scott Casey, a man who seems to have lost his own idealistic way in life.
Teaching the Unteachable
Following the L.A. Riots, the mood in our city was unsettling, and on our first day of high school, we had only three things in common: we hated school, we hated our teacher, and we hated each other.
Many of the students who entered Erin Gruwell’s freshman English class weren’t thinking about how to make it to graduation, but how they could make it to sixteen years old. Racial and gang tension had peaked and a record 126 murders had occurred in Long Beach that year. With the external stresses of a divided city, the students of Room 203 were not concerned with the education system that had already failed them on multiple occasions. Gruwell’s students had been written off as unteachable and below average.
Regardless of what her peers tried to tell her, Gruwell sought to engage her jaded students. She chose, instead, to listen to what they had to say and saw beyond the stigma of their low test scores. She brought in literature written by teenagers who looked and talked like them, who faced struggles just like theirs. The students soon realized that if they could relate to the complete strangers in their books, they could certainly relate to one another.
They started to form a diverse family, accepting of all, that they named the “Freedom Writers” after the 1960s Civil Rights activists, the Freedom Riders. In this newly formed safe space, the Freedom Writers began writing anonymous journal entries about the adversity they faced. They felt free to write about gang violence, abuse, drugs, love, and everything else real teenagers dealt with on a daily basis. The rawness and honesty of their journals was published in a book called, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which became an instant “New York Times” Best Seller.
All 150 Freedom Writers graduated in 1998. Many have gone on to pursue higher education and lucrative careers. The Freedom Writers Foundation was created shortly after to help other educators mirror Erin and the Freedom Writers’ accomplishments and ensure a quality education for all students.
Visit or get involved at the: Freedom Writers Foundation