The amazing story of Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers.
We recently watched the movie, Freedom Writers. The movie is based on a true story, involving, Erin Gruwell, a new 21-year-old high school English teacher, who seeks to be a change agent for a group of Black, Latino, and Asian gang members at Woodrow Wilson High School in Los Angeles, CA, in the early 1990s. The movie is the story of how she did it.
Erin connected with this tough group of kids by listening to them and connecting with them through pop culture and history. Erin went well beyond the call of duty. In fact, because the school system refused to provide adequate resources for this group of students, Erin took on a second and third job in order to provide resources for her students.
Erin didn’t avoid the students’ incredible problems and challenges. She didn’t teach in a vacuum. Rather she connected her teaching to where the kids were. And it worked! She changed the culture for the kids she taught. The turning point in the story occurs when Erin discovers a drawing that’s being passed around the class, a drawing of one of the black students, which Erin uses as a teaching moment …
I saw a picture just like this once, in a museum. Only it wasn’t a black man, it was a jewish man. And instead of the big lips he had a really big nose, like a rat’s nose. But he wasn’t just one particular jewish man. This was a drawing of all jews. And these drawings were put in the newspapers by the most famous gang in history. You think you know all about gangs? You’re amateurs. This gang will put you all to shame. And they started out poor and angry and everybody looked down on them. Until one man decided to give them some pride, an identity… and somebody to blame. You take over neighborhoods? That’s nothing compared to them. They took over countries. You want to know how? They just wiped out everybody else. Yeah, they wiped out everybody they didn’t like and everybody they blamed for their life being hard. And one of the ways they did it was by doing this: see, they print pictures like this in the newspapers, jewish people with big, long noses… blacks with big, fat lips. They’d also published scientific evidence that proved that jews and blacks were the lowest form of human species. Jews and blacks were more like animals. And because they were just like animals it didn’t matter if they lived or died. In fact, life would be a whole lot better if they were all dead. That’s how a holocaust happens.
In the follow-up discussion, Erin discovers no one in the class has ever heard of the Holocaust. Afterward, Erin takes the class on a field trip (over the weekend so as not to interfere with the school’s exam schedule) to the Museum of Tolerance, which turns out to be a life-changing experience.
At the beginning of their second (sophomore) year together, Erin begins with a special activity …
Okay, guys, gals, listen up! This is what I want you to do. I want each of you to step forward and take one of the Borders bags, which contain the four books we’re gonna read this semester. (All right!) They very special books, and they each remind me, in some way, of each of you. But, before you take the books, I want you to take one of these glasses of sparkling cider, and I want each of you to make a toast. We’re each gonna make a toast for change. And what that means is, from this moment on every voice that told you “You can’t” is silenced. Every reason that tells you things will never change, disappears. And the person you were before this moment, that person’s turn is over. Now it’s your turn. Okay? Okay, you ready to get this party going on?
On the director commentary (with the director, Richard LaGravenese, and actor Hillary Swank, who played the role of Erin Gruwell), the director commented …
She made moments, events. She wouldn’t just give out the four books for the sophomore year. She would put them in bags that were special tote bags. She would have cider; she would have this banner; she would make them come up and give a toast, so that they made it a moment that meant something. And she’s a pro at that. She’s a pro at making things special and have some kind of meaning and substance so that they’d last and have an effect. And that’s what Toast for Change was about.
It’s a great lesson for leaders who want to shape the culture! Erin was always coming up with creative games/ways of connecting with the students.
Erin had her students read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (as well as other similar books). Afterward, Erin asked her students to write letters to Meip Gies, the woman who housed/protected Anne Frank during the Holocaust. The students came up with the idea of bringing Gies to Long Beach, CA to speak to the class (a much bigger undertaking than Erin had intended). One of the students, Marcus, wrote about the experience, “Ms. G sent our letters all the way to Amsterdam to Meip Gies, herself. When Ms. G made up her mind about something, there was no stopping her, man, for real.”
During the class’ time with Meip Gies, Gies responded to Marcus’ statement about her being a hero, saying …
I am not a hero, no. I did what I had to do, because it was the right thing to do. That is all. You know, we are all ordinary people. But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room. Ja?“
Well, there’s a lot of other great content in the movie. If you want to shape the culture of the community you lead, or if you simply want to be inspired by a great story, you should watch the movie. It’s a must see!
There are also some books that you may be interested in: The Freedom Writers Diary (1999) and Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers (2007).