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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Pop Quiz: Erin Gruwell

Insights from the teacher who helped a classroom full of "unteachables" become Freedom Writers.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team
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Tensions from the 1992 Rodney King riots were still high when Woodrow Wilson High School, in Long Beach, California, hired Erin Gruwell to teach English. But it seemed there would be no teaching: Gruwell found a classroom rife with racial animosities and full of students -- "the unteachables" -- bitterly resistant to her. What happened next has been well documented, in The Freedom Writers Diary, a collection of her students' writings, and most recently in the film Freedom Writers.

Gruwell now serves as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation and teaches at California State University, Long Beach -- where several of her former students are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. Her second book, Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers, was published in January.

Credit: Erin Gruwell

What is your idea of a perfect teacher?

A teacher that's humble enough to be a student, and one who believes unequivocally, without exception, that every single student can make it.

What was the low point of your school career?

I ran for student body president my senior year and lost to an anarchist with a mohawk. In retrospect, it was hilarious. I saw the film Election and went, "Oh, my God, I was Tracy Flick." That aggressive, type-A personality was probably so obnoxious, looking back.

Did you go to public school, or private school?

I am a public school child, born and raised, right through graduate school. There's such a hierarchy in our country, and public education should be the greatest equalizer. Vouchers are putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound. We're using education to systemically segregate, even if not intentionally.

What was your favorite subject?

English and history. I love the cliché that says if you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it. I got a master's degree in American literature. I love stories about the triumph of the human spirit, and gritty stories about overcoming adversity. There's so much great literature out there about underdogs finding their place in the world.

Where did you fit in your schools' social hierarchies?

It's embarrassing. I was class president, I was a cheerleader, I was an honors student, I was captain of the field hockey team. I like to think I was inclusive and multidimensional. Not like those Mean Girls types, anyway.

If you could change one thing about education in America, what would it be?

Teach to a student and not to a test. As simplistic as that sounds, it's profound. There's not a one-size-fits-all way to teach kids.

What is impossible to learn in school?

Nothing. It's all in the way it's presented. For me, the best part of educating students is engaging them, enlightening them, and then truly empowering them. In my class, I really embraced the human-spirit element. It was a very emotional environment. When you're looking at subjects such as genocide, it's hard to educate students to critically think and problem solve and not have emotion. You have to bring those subjects to life.

What should they teach that they don't?

There's a profound idea we learned from places like Auschwitz: Evil prevails when good people do nothing -- so maybe that idea that every person is good, and cannot stand idly by when injustice happens. In education, sometimes we fixate on academics.

What did you learn today?

I learned that the power of telling one story can be liberating and cathartic. I've spent the better part of thirteen years always telling my students' story. And now that I've written a second book, I have to tell my own story. And it was intimidating. It was easy to talk about the Freedom Writers. Today was the first day I had to do an interview about my book.

What did you teach today?

I taught that learning isn't limited to a classroom, or a No. 2 pencil, or a Scantron.

What is in your dream lunch box?

Metaphorically, food for thought.

If you wrote a textbook, what would it be called?

Well, I just did. It's called Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers.

If the prom were tomorrow, whom would you take?

I would take Anderson Cooper. He's got this insatiable quest to spread information and to educate people every night, in their living rooms. I think it'd be fun to chat with him about all the places he's been in this world that one day I aspire to visit -- because I'm a better talker than a dancer.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Annie K.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just finished watching the Movie, "Freedom Writers" and was not only enpowered by Erin's spirit and teaching style but also inspired. I think this movie is very relateable to not only teachers but also students who havent quite found their place in the world. Im currently a Secondary Education/English major and am observing in an inner-city school in Topeka, Ks and would love to use and adapt this material for my students! THanks so Much!!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoy the movie and I even brought the book, it has inspired me to be a better read and writer, I would like to know the name of one of your student when you was at Woodrow Wilson High School, this person inspired even more because he was not notice until you did the toast of change and he read from his diary about him and is mother being Eviction Notice I know some of the students by watching the movies his name came out, not even in roll called. Please give his name, because he one of my strong character and I have to write a paper on this. I choose the book because it relate to because have a learning disability and hope you can understand what I am trying to said.

Thank You

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

encourageing words freedom wriers keep writing

Carol Payne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach Creative Writing to tenth through twelfth graders. This movie is always our end of the semester treat! It always motivates and moves my students; it actually brings many to tears when they experience empathy for several of the characters' personal lives, etc. Thanks God for trus educators such as Erin Gruwell! I'd love to personally meet Erin and have my students be able to hear/see her, if she's ever in Michigan.

Make a sequel about their lives in 11th and 12th grades, etc. (from my students')

richard astran jr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can only say WOW this movie has touched so many people.It has brought so many things to life,like my classmates seemed to be looking at themselves saying that was them.Wondering how we as people can make a change in life,and other areas as well.I know a teacher with all the same qualities she is remarkable.She cares about all of her students,an does not let her students fail.I have not been in a school setting for about twenty three years but after watching this film.It gave me a feeling inside that burns so bright I can not put it out.A hunger to help those who are willing to make a serious change.Maybe even showing this film to my kids,to see what they think.once again this movie is shaker tends to make people think about self.

Anonymous (not verified)

i love this movie, all i want to say is that i dont judge people by the way they are or by there skin colors,im just proud for wat we are,not for what race we are or wat skin color we are.

marco letemplier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have watched the movie "Freedom writers" and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed it. It really affected me. I liked how Erin helped the teens!

Carolyn Neese's picture

My students will not even shut up or pay attention long enough to watch "Freedom Writers", the movie. How much less would they read the book? I teach right smack dab in the middle of the projects in an Alabama town. They do not care...about anything but their social world. I've presented the movie, tried reading the book with them, had the library order the books, and even played the line game. They continue to comb their hair, put on lipstick, text on their cellphones. Meanwhile, I'm up in front of the class with beautiful powerpoints and visuals attempting to make history "come alive". Nothing is working.

Carolyn Neese's picture

I was also inspired by the movie. I am a teacher in an inner city school in Alabama. All of our students are from the projects. Nothing is breaking through to these kids. They will not pay attention to any book I put before them, including Freedom Writers, nor will they watch the movie. During the movie, they talked, played cards, put on make-up, fixed each others' hair. When I stopped the movie, and told every one to turn around and pay attention, they did. Then I turned the movie back on and they all fell asleep. These kids don't care about their education and I am burning out fast.

lialy's picture

All i can say is wow!!!!!!!!! i can't believe all you did for your students !!!!! My class just finished reading "the freeedom writers diary" and i was just shocked of how your students lived and how they overcame their obstacles....i can even relate to some of them like one of your students ...the one that wrote diary entry #114......its so cool how people you dont have a similar lifestyle as you.... before i read this book i just thought about my problems ...i was only worried about what happened in my life not realizing that the people that live around me and even people that dont, have similar problems. To me you are a hero just like miep (which we read about in class as well in the diary of Anne frank) and zlata (which unfortunately i couldn't read about).I really look forward to a return comment from you ...your the best ..dont ever forget that!!

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