Erin Gruwell took a job student teaching at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California in 1994. Over the next four years, she found she changed not only her own life but also those of the 150 students that passed through her classroom. A recently completed documentary digs into her story, which was the basis for the 2007 film, “Freedom Writers” starring Hilary Swank as Gruwell.
The documentary explores Gruwell’s experience working in a school that remained markedly segregated even decades after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional. When Gruwell discovered students passing around a racist caricature of one of their classmates, she explained how this kind of imagery was comparable to the propaganda spread by the Nazis. When only one of the students had heard of the Holocaust, Gruwell decided to shift the focus of the class entirely.
Her unconventional teaching style moved away from the standard curriculum found in most high school English classes – Shakespeare, the classics – and helped students to understand how narrative storytelling could be more personal. She had her students keep journals, which allowed them to explore their own personal experiences while also becoming empathetic to the experiences of others. Gruwell assigned readings from “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Zlata’s Diary.” She invited speakers to class, including Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis.
The new syllabus transformed the students. Not only did they embrace their own work, taking pride in telling their own stories, they also began to engage with students different from them. Where Gruwell first found intractable divisions between students from different backgrounds, she suddenly began to see a growing understanding and even friendship.
The students’ work was compiled in “The Freedom Writers Diary”, first published in 1999. The name paid homage to 1960s civil rights group, The Freedom Riders. The book was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in over a dozen languages. Proceeds from sales of the book funded college scholarships for many of the original Freedom Writers.
The documentary release coincides with the book’s 20th anniversary. Gruwell is currently working with students to compile a whole new set of stories for a new generation of young writers.
Q: How did this documentary develop?
Erin Gruwell: Andy Russell [President of Public Media Group of Southern California] came to one of our local screenings and was so enamored with not only the film but the event that night. We packed this auditorium at UC Irvine with every cross-section of L.A. from undocumented kids and high school students to college students, business leaders and Holocaust survivors — a dramatically diverse group, where we cried, and got down and dirty with these very intense subject matters about racism and inequality.
So Andy and his team, expressed that they really wanted to make a documentary with us. We are now doing seven different screenings across the six counties that PBS reaches, recreating the magic that Andy experienced that night.
Going back to 1994 when you first began teaching, what brought you to Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, California?
Gruwell: Brown versus Board of Education was a landmark decision declaring separate is not equal. It is one of the most important Supreme Court decisions and demonstrates how public education is a democratic issue. Unfortunately, schools today are as segregated if not more so than they were back in the 1950s. And I know that with great authority because I’ve traveled over the last 20 years to all 50 states with our book.
I had just graduated from graduate school, and I chose Wilson High because on paper it was a beautiful microcosm of every race and every economic level — to me it was everyone you would want America to be. So here’s this diverse city, it’s rich, it’s poor, all these kids are coming together, and it’s going to be kumbaya.
That’s not what happened. School systems create programs within programs, schools within schools, bus routes within bus routes. And so you see this blatant segregation and separation.
I think I was really naive about that. What I found, because I was brand new and I didn’t live in the city, was that there was a lot of intrinsic separation and masked racism. It happened to the kids I ended up teaching because I had all the kids who were busted, kids who had learning disabilities and kids had trouble with the law. I was basically this new teacher given the students that nobody else wanted.
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to have students pick up journal writing and how you folded that into your teaching method?
Gruwell: When my syllabus came back at me in the form of a paper airplane with the comment, “Why do we have to read books written by dead white guys in tights?” I wanted to teach my students the universality of storytelling. If a story has great universal themes, it’s going to transcend race; it’s going to transcend geographies and transcend time. So I wanted to encourage my students to tell their story. They’ve seen things that no child should see and have experienced things the no child should experience.
So I had to figure out ways to get them to understand the power of writing outside of the formal academic setting. The journals were a stream of consciousness for writing their first drafts and eventually, we would go back and rewrite these.
And so these were compiled into “The Freedom Writers Diary.” How did you get the students to agree to share their personal stories? What was their response in having their work published — was it empowering?
Gruwell: They not only read but met these incredible storytellers. We read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then we brought in Miep Gies, the woman that saved her. We read “Zlata’s Diary,” she had been hailed as a modern-day Anne Frank from Bosnia, and we had her speak to the class. We took field trips to museums and invited guest speakers, and suddenly it didn’t just feel like an old white man from another era.
So my pitch to my students was, “Could you imagine someday that there’s going to be a kid who was homeless just like you? There’s going to be a kid who lost her dad just like you. And you will become the authority of your authentic story.” We were going to take their journals, bind them in a book and present them to the U.S. Secretary of Education. We were going to go to D.C. as the original Freedom Riders did in the ’60s to change segregation. We initially thought we could give this book to the Secretary to raise awareness of the segregation we were seeing in schools.
But then they asked, “Why do we have to stop there? Let’s send it out to the world, like a message in a bottle.” So it became this beautiful tribute. We sent it to every publishing house and every single one of them rejected us except for the house that published Anne Frank’s diary.
So it was this serendipitous moment, and we decided to make it an homage to Room 203.
The amazing thing is, twenty years later, we’re still together. We’re now in the process of writing new stories for the 20th anniversary edition, and it’s equally painful. The stories that we’re asking of them are just as painful now but told from a vantage point of wisdom.
There are stories about being undocumented, stories about #MeToo and stories about addiction. A little girl who wrote Diary 62 on being molested by her Uncle Joe is no longer a kid. She is now a woman with a child the same age she was when she was molested. She’s ready to say, “I’m ready to put my name and my face to that story.” It’s empowering.
How did your work with those original writers blossom into the Freedom Writers Foundation?
Gruwell: Originally it was very much about these 150 students seeing the world, because my students didn’t have parents who bought books, took them on field trips, took them to museums or who traveled the world. When this book came out, it became the scholarship for them to go to college.
My students were on their own. If they were going to go to college, we could help pay for the books for the semester. The book was eventually translated in over a dozen languages, and it became number one on the New York Times Best Seller List. So we started training teachers and giving scholarships to educators. Now we have 700 Freedom Writer teachers. They’re in every single state in America, eight provinces in Canada and 20 countries.
It’s incredible because these Freedom Writer teachers are doing the exact same thing that I did with my students. They’re doing it better because they’re not alone. I was alone, and I was making stuff up as I went. We deal with everything that a teacher would face with kids including mental health, suicide, addiction, violence and learning disabilities.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see public schools facing today?
Gruwell: We recently started a podcast and we had Father Greg Boyle who started Homeboy Industries and Dr. Pedro Noguera from UCLA whose research is about the school-to-prison pipeline. What I have found, and what Father Boyle and Patrick have also found, is the implicit bias and the segregation that is still happening in our schools and how that leads to the school-to-prison pipeline. I spend the vast majority of my time visiting juvenile halls, and it is disproportionately young men of color. Whatever we’re doing in our schools isn’t enough to engage our young voices.
For me, education is very politicized. We send our kids away to discipline them and we haven’t learned to teach Socratically to make them a part of the process. It’s very liberating when you give somebody a voice. And so I think that our book was the voice. I think that our feature film was the voice. I think this documentary is the most exquisite of all three because you see and hear them in their natural habitat. In the books, they were anonymous and they were numbered. The feature film was a caricature. The documentary is down and dirty.