When I first saw the commercials for the movie, Freedom Writers with Hilary Swank I thought to myself “Dangerous Minds for the next generation.” It wasn’t until over the weekend when I finally sat down to watch the movie, and it wasn’t until this afternoon when I went to my local library local to check out the book that inspired the movie, when I realized that this true-story is still relevant 10 years down the line.
The Freedom Writer’s Diary chronicles the four years of Erin Gruwell’s teaching experiences at Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA in the mid 1990s. As a first year teacher, Erin was given the hard to teach, the “at-risk” and “most likely to drop out kids”. Through a series of unorthodox methods, such as field trips to Holocaust museums and dinners at fancy restaurants, to inspire and reach out to these teens, Erin had them keep journals. They could communicate in any way they wanted with these journals. Some wrote poetry, some drew pictures, other’s wrote incredibly details entries about their lives. Gruwell took on two extra jobs in order to pay for school supplies and field trips that her school administrators would not fund. She faced opposition by her colleagues who did not value her enthusiasm and teaching efforts.
The diary entries are anonymous, but vividly detail the lives of teens from abusive households, living in fear and shame from their parents, their neighbors, and friends. We see these teens deal with sexual, physical and mental abuse. Each day is a struggle to keep going, and put up a strong effort to stay motivated. It is through these journals and through room 203, that many students find unexpected friendship and family, which never fails to provide support and care. We see these teens grow and change in the course of these four years due to works of writing such as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo, and Durango Street. Erin Gruwell went out of her way to learn about her students, and works of writing that these kids could relate to. Most of all, as cliche as it sounds, Erin Gruwell showed these kids that hope exists and so does their future as long as they strive for the best. We see these kids go from cutting class, to graduation day and going on to major universities. We see the change that Ms. G and the Freedom Writer’s had on the world around them, bringing Zlata and Miep Gies to their school through fundraisers events and emotionally driven, but still well written letters.
This book hit home for me, because many of my friends work as English teachers for the ESL group, the hard to teach group. They struggle to reach these students the way Erin Gruwell did in her primary years as a teacher. These same kids will eventually work their way through my library and I feel better prepared to know how to talk to them, and how to understand them, so that I can provide quality library programming and events that will spark their interest.
FINAL GRADE: A