In Defense of the 'Freedom Writers'

The teacher who inspired the 2007 Hilary Swank film still believes memoir writing is the best way to reach struggling students.

hillary-swank.jpgHillary Swank, portraying Erin Gruwell, fist-bumps with a student in Freedom Writers. (Paramount Pictures)

In the early 1990s, a young schoolteacher named Erin Gruwell made a radical change in her curriculum. Frustrated by her efforts to inspire her low-achieving students, she handed out journals and asked the kids to write about their own lives. Their poignant personal essays were later published in The Freedom Writers Diary, a book that inspired the 2007 film Freedom Writers.

Today, Gruwell runs the Freedom Writers Foundation, which aims to help teachers "engage, enlighten, and empower at-risk students to reach their full potential." She spoke with Atlantic senior editor Jennie Rothenberg Gritz about the October magazine story "The Writing Revolution" and her conviction that personal writing still belongs in the classroom.

There's a scene in the movie Freedom Writers where Hillary Swank is standing helplessly in front of a blackboard, trying to teach essay writing while the students revolt. What happened in real life when you tried to teach those kinds of lessons?

When I first walked into that classroom, there were 150 kids who hated writing, hated me, hated everything. I had to learn how to make things relevant to them. Part of the challenge, for me, was to model great writing. In the beginning, when my syllabus kept coming back to me in the form of a paper airplane, the students kept asking, "Why do we have to read books by dead white guys in tights?"

What inspired you to focus on memoirs?

The question was, how do you engage a kid from who, from the get-go, doesn't want to read or write? So I thought, "I'm going to go out and find stories that matter to them -- stories by Alice Walker and Gary Soto and Amy Tan, people writing about things that are so relevant to these kids who can't see a future outside their own community." I love "a rose is a rose is a rose," but when you have your students sit down and deconstruct Tupac's "The Rose That Grew From Concrete," they think, "Wow, this teacher cares enough about us to find subject matters in our world."

Peg Tyre's Atlantic story is about New Dorp High School, a low-performing school that traded in journaling and creative writing for more a rigorous academic curriculum. How do you feel about that decision?

Students have to be able to think critically. But where I saw huge cause for alarm in that piece was the idea that we don't want to focus on memoirs. When I read that quote from David Coleman saying, "As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think" -- that's a very cavalier comment. It negates all of those kids who are marginalized.

At Freedom Writers, we do give a shit what those kids think and feel. We're training teachers who work with at-risk kids in some poorest schools in the country, kids who have been written off. So while I'm excited that New Dorp is trying a new direction, to throw the baby out with the bathwater is really unfortunate.

Were you able to teach your students the fundamentals of writing in the process of having them read and write memoirs?

Absolutely. When you're too robotic and scripted, the students tune you out. So I always tried to use different learning modalities -- kinesthetic, auditory, visual, whatever might bring learning to life. At one point, I brought in two sandwiches. One of them was a really simple sandwich: a piece of white bread, a piece of baloney, and another piece of white bread. The other one was a really fancy sandwich that had French bread, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and heaps of turkey.

Presented by

Erin Gruwell is the founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation and the editor of The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, a book of high school essays that inspired a major motion picture.

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