Gruwell, Erin. (1999). The Freedom Writers Diary How a - PDF

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Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education | Vol. 5, Issue 1: Teaching for Social Justice | Fall 2007 | Review
The Freedom Writers Diary


Gruwell, Erin. (1999). The Freedom Writers Diary: How a
Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves
and the World Around Them. New York, NY: The Tolerance
Education Association and Broadway Books.

Jason Fritz

The Freedom Writers Diary is more than a story of inspirational pedagogy in the lives
of “at-risk” Wilson High School students from Long Beach, California. It is a book
designed as a series of diary entries that interweaves the personal and professional
challenges of Erin Gruwell, a young, exuberant teacher, along with those of her
students. The end result is a narrative that highlights how academic success can be
nurtured within the vicissitudes of daily life in an urban school and community. The
book made a strong argument for the notion that “at risk” urban youth can achieve
academic success when provided with adequate opportunities. Freedom Writers
suggests that the use of an inquiry-based curriculum and a strong personal
dedication to teaching can lead to academic success and engagement in life-long
learning for urban youth.

Divided into freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year sections, The Freedom
Writers Diary covers the span of years (1994-1998) that Gruwell spent at Wilson
High School with a group of students labeled “unteachable, at-risk.” Furthermore,
each year is sub-divided into a fall and spring term, mimicking the school calendar
and accentuating the urgent sense of time and timing in the classroom environment.
The editing of the chronology of events and thematic-juxtaposition of the diary
entries underscores Gruwell’s growing aspirations for her students.

From the onset of her first week in the classroom, Gruwell’s search is for what will
“work” in the classroom. In light of one of her first classroom management issues,
she reacts through her lesson planning, “I immediately decided to throw out my
meticulously planned lessons and make tolerance the core of my curriculum” (p. 3).
In order to address the intolerance in her classroom, Gruwell redirects her curricular
focus to authentic, interactive pedagogical experiences such as field trips and guest
speakers. To top it off, Gruwell brings new texts into the classroom in the hopes
that they will prove more relevant to promoting an environment of positive academic
and social change.

However, such zeal and curricular redirection does not escape collegial criticism. On
transitioning between her first year of student teaching and on into her second year
as a teacher, Gruwell details her struggle to overcome the words of other teachers,
“According to them, I was too enthusiastic, too preppy, and my teaching style was
too unorthodox” (p. 47). Her resolve becomes that of struggling to model her
messages to her students and avoid the pitfalls of hypocrisy by “running away” from
such resistance and negativity; instead, Gruwell’s stance with the Wilson High School
community becomes grounded in living out the message of tolerance in her
curriculum. After this epiphany, Gruwell’s personal challenges remain starkly
secondary and non-threatening to her greater objective.

Her subsequent entries are more celebratory and focused on the graduation and
career aims of the students who adopted the title “Freedom Writers” after the


Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education | http://www.urbanedjournal.org
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Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education | Vol. 5, Issue 1: Teaching for Social Justice | Fall 2007 | Review
The Freedom Writers Diary


historic accounts of bravery enacted by The Freedom Riders in the face of racial
intolerance.

Another excellent example of Gruwell’s pedagogy is her use of inter-textuality in the
weaving of Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young
Girl into her curriculum. These two texts are mentioned often in the diary entries of
Gruwell’s students, and show how the text resonates with urban life. One student
remarks, “Just like her [Anne Frank], I knew the feeling of discrimination and to be
looked down upon based on the way you look” (p. 71). Another student identifies
with Zlata, “Zlata and I seem to have a lot in common because while Zlata was living
through a war in Sarajevo, I was living through a different kind of war—the L.A.
riots” (p. 73). As the students draw parallels between their lives and Zlata and
Anne’s, they also grasp onto the hope and persistent optimism of these young
authors.

Furthermore, Gruwell and her students literally and collaboratively bring both texts
to life through the financed appearances of Miep Gies (responsible for sheltering
Anne Frank’s family) and Zlata Filipovic. As with these guest speakers, many of the
projects that Gruwell and the Freedom Writers undertake in this narrative would not
be possible without a zeal for fund-raising, brainstorming options, and forming
connections with such influential figures as John Tu (a multi-millionaire who came
from nothing) and Dr. Carl Cohn (Superintendent of the Long Beach school district).
The sense of interconnectedness extends beyond the diaries of Frank and Filipovic
and into the very community surrounding Wilson High School.

The Freedom Writers Diary takes its readers on a journey through intolerance and
political red tape and into the successes and aims of this group of former “at-risk”
youth. The reader follows them across the stage of graduation glimpses into their
futures. As a reader, I was left with a strong sense of connection between success
and personal sacrifice and will power. Gruwell’s narrative is a personal story of
curricular enhancement and student transformation that will undoubtedly inspire
many educators, especially those who work in urban schools.

For more information about Erin Gruwell and The Freedom Writers, go to
http://www.gruwellproject.org. For more information on “Freedom Writers,” the
movie based on the book, go to http://www.freedomwriters.com.




Jason Fritz

Jason Fritz is a 2005 graduate of the Teacher Education Program at the University of
Pennsylvania. He is a board member of A Better Chance, Inc. in Lower Merion, a
non-profit that enriches the lives of underprivileged youth. Jason also serves as a
“Big Brother” with Big Brother Big Sister of Southeastern Pennsylvania and works as
a creative writing instructor in the Summer Residential Component of T.R.I.O.
Upward Bound at the University of Pennsylvania His current interests are directed
at addressing the achievement gap in public education. He may be reached
jfritz@alumni.upenn.edu.


Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education | http://www.urbanedjournal.org