The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them

The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them

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by Erin Gruwell

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Straight from the front line of urban America, the inspiring story of one fiercely determined teacher and her remarkable students.

As an idealistic twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Wilson High School in Long beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of

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Straight from the front line of urban America, the inspiring story of one fiercely determined teacher and her remarkable students.

As an idealistic twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Wilson High School in Long beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of “unteachable, at-risk” students. One day she intercepted a note with an ugly racial caricature, and angrily declared that this was precisely the sort of thing that led to the Holocaust—only to be met by uncomprehending looks. So she and her students, using the treasured books Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing, eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. They learned to see the parallels in these books to their own lives, recording their thoughts and feelings in diaries and dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”

With funds raised by a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance,” they arranged for Miep Gies, the courageous Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family, to visit them in California, where she declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes.” Their efforts have paid off spectacularly, both in terms of recognition—appearances on “Prime Time Live” and “All Things Considered,” coverage in People magazine, a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley—and educationally. All 150 Freedom Writers have graduated from high school and are now attending college.

With powerful entries from the students’ own diaries and a narrative text by Erin Gruwell, The Freedom Writers Diary is an uplifting, unforgettable example of how hard work, courage, and the spirit of determination changed the lives of a teacher and her students.

The authors’ proceeds from this book will be donated to The Tolerance Education Foundation, an organization set up to pay for the Freedom Writers’ college tuition. Erin Gruwell is now a visiting professor at California State University, Long Beach, where some of her students are Freedom Writers.

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Freshman Year

Fall 1994

Entry 1 — Ms. Gruwell

Dear Diary, Tomorrow morning, my journey as an English teacher officially begins. Since first impressions are so important, I wonder what my students will think about me. Will they think I'm out of touch or too preppy? Or worse yet, that I'm too young to be taken seriously? Maybe I'll have them write a journal entry describing what their expectations are of me and the class.

Even though I spent last year as a student teacher at Wilson High School, I'm still learning my way around the city. Long Beach is so different than the gated community I grew up in. Thanks to MTV dubbing Long Beach as the "gangsta-rap capital" with its depiction of guns and graffiti, my friends have a warped perception of the city, or L B C as the rappers refer to it. They think I should wear a bulletproof vest rather than pearls. Where I live in Newport Beach is a utopia compared to some of neighborhoods seen in a Snoop Doggy Dogg video. Still, TV tends to blow things out of proportion.

The school is actually located in a safe neighborhood, just a few miles from the ocean. Its location and reputation make it desirable. So much so that a lot of the students that live in what they call the "'hood" take two or three buses just to get to school every day. Students come in from every corner of the city: Rich kids from the shore sit next to poor kids from the projects . . . there's every race, religion, and culture within the confines of the quad. But since the Rodney King riots, racial tension has spilled over into the school.

Due to busing and an outbreak in gang activity, Wilson's traditional white, upper-class demographics have changed radically. African Americans, Latinos, and Asians now make up the majority of the student body.

As a student teacher last year, I was pretty naive. I wanted to see past color and culture, but I was immediately confronted by it when the first bell rang and a student named Sharaud sauntered in bouncing a basketball. He was a junior, a disciplinary transfer from Wilson's crosstown rival, and his reputation preceded him. Word was that he had threatened his previous English teacher with a gun (which I later found out was only a plastic water gun, but it had all the makings of a dramatic showdown). In those first few minutes, he made it brutally clear that he hated Wilson, he hated English, and he hated me. His sole purpose was to make his "preppy" student teacher cry. Little did he know that within a month, he'd be the one crying.

Sharaud became the butt of a bad joke. A classmate got tired of Sharaud's antics and drew a racial caricature of him with huge, exaggerated lips. As the drawing made its way around the class, the other students laughed hysterically. When Sharaud saw it, he looked as if he was going to cry. For the first time, his tough facade began to crack.

When I got a hold of the picture, I went ballistic. "This is the type of propaganda that the Nazis used during the Holocaust," I yelled. When a student timidly asked me, "What's the Holocaust?" I was shocked.

I asked, "How many of you have heard of the Holocaust?" Not a single person raised his hand. Then I asked, "How many of you have been shot at?" Nearly every hand went up.

I immediately decided to throw out my meticulously planned lessons and make tolerance the core of my curriculum.

From that moment on, I would try to bring history to life by using new books, inviting guest speakers, and going on field trips. Since I was just a student teacher, I had no budget for my schemes. So, I moonlighted as a concierge at the Marriott Hotel and sold lingerie at Nordstrom. My dad even asked me, "Why can't you just be a normal teacher?"

Actually, normalcy didn't seem so bad after my first snafu. I took my students to see Schindler's List in Newport Beach, at a predominately white, upper-class theater. I was shocked to see women grab their pearls and clutch their purses in fear. A local paper ran a front-page article about the incident, describing how poorly my students were treated, after which I received death threats. One of my disgruntled neighbors had the audacity to say, "If you love black people so much, why don't you just marry a monkey?"

All this drama and I didn't even have my teaching credentials yet. Luckily, some of my professors from University of California-Irvine read the article and invited my class to a seminar by the author of Schindler's List, Thomas Keneally. Keneally was so impressed by my students that a few days later we got an invitation to meet Steven Spielberg at Universal Studios. I couldn't believe it! The famous director wanted to meet the class that I had dubbed "as colorful as a box of Crayola crayons" and their "rookie teacher who was causing waves." He marveled at how far these "unteachable" students had come as a junior class and what a close group they had become. He even asked Sharaud what "we" were planning to do next year as an encore. After all, if a film does well, you make a sequel—if a class surpasses everyone's expectations, you . . .

. . . dismantle it! Yep, that's exactly what happened. Upon my return from Universal, the head of the English department told me, "You're making us look bad." Talk about bursting my bubble! How was I making them look bad? After all, these were the same kids that "wouldn't last a month" or "were too stupid" to read advanced placement books.

She went on to say, "Things are based on seniority around here." So, in other words, I was lucky to have a job, and keeping Sharaud and his posse another year would be pushing the envelope. Instead, I'd be teaching freshmen—"at risk" freshmen. Hmm . . . not exactly the assignment I was hoping for.

So, starting tomorrow, it's back to the drawing board. But I'm convinced that if Sharaud could change, then anyone can. So basically, I should prepare myself for a roomful of Sharauds. If it took a month to win Sharaud over . . . I wonder how long it's gonna take a bunch of feisty fourteen-year-olds to come around?

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Freedom Writers Diary 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 103 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was based on a true story an how a teacher inspire 150 students to overcome troubled teens to succeed in their life. I think that this book was great. Which I think any high schools students can relate to this book because it's life-changing,uplifting, an eye-opening, spirit-rising method against intolerance and misunderstood challenges.Also I would recommend this book to anyone who had a tough time growing up to become a successful adult.
AlainaBrown More than 1 year ago
I'd recommend this book to everyone! It's so emotional and raw. It gives you great insight to 140+ Freedom Writers as well as famous people in history. Their journey is truly heart wrenching and worth the time. I learned a lot from this book; too much to put into words.
A_H-ughes More than 1 year ago
The Freedoms Writers not only inspires the reader, but takes them into the struggling lives on 150 students and takes them along their journeys. Erin Gruwell came into her teaching job being nothing more to her students than a white woman who doesn't care about them. That quickly changed when she realized what she had to do to help her students improve their lives before it was to late. Each diary entry becomes so realistic and truly inspires the reader. Her students come from every walk of life, and in the real world, wouldn't interact. By the end, her students become more than just classmate, they become family. I think every high school should read this book. It teaches lessons in forgiveness, understanding, and tolerance. Those are things that cant be taught with a piece of chalk on a blackboard. 
Ariesgrl More than 1 year ago
Being a first-year teacher is difficult, but working with at-risk kids is even harder. Erin Gruwell had enough and decided to find a way to make her lessons reach the hearts of her students. Using classic literary diarists, Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic, as examples she challenges her students to look within and find the parallels in their own lives. This one simple thought, turned into a life-changing project, while those students became known as The Freedom Writers. Even though this book is set-up to resemble a diary, with dated entries and numbers representing the different students’ entries, the consistency and the coherency make for a touching tale. The book progresses through each year in the students’ learning all the way to the celebratory graduation day. Readers will be able to grasp each student’s progress and their hearts will swell with pride. A few pictures are included to help “see” the students and their teacher, while the foreword by Zlata Filipovic, proves the amazing reach that this one teacher created. This is a heart-lifting read. Notes: This review was originally written for My Sister’s Books. This review was originally posted on my site, Ariesgrl Book Reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book to read. Contains all things that the Freedom Writers have done with their teacher, Erin Gruwell. If you are reading this, get the book, sit down and start reading!! Really good book to read!!! :-)
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
This is the true story of a young teacher, Erin Gruwell, and diary entries from her "unteachable" students  in Wilson High School in Long Beach, California.  When she found a cartoon of a big lipped boy being passed around her classroom, in her rage she told her class that this stereotyping is how the Holocaust got started.  When she realized that none of her students had heard of the Holocaust, she assigned the kids The Diary Of Ann Frank, and thus began her program of writing for tolerance and change, rather than violence and ignorance.  This book includes the anonymous entries, for the safety of her students, of the diary writings of her students telling of their personal issues and problems around violence, racism, gang "ethics", drugs, alcoholism, spouse abuse, child sexual abuse, and one parent families, etc. Various activities, visits to famous places, corporate help, and determined hard work changed these kids from failures and hoodlums, into productive kids pursuing college educations and "legal" careers.  Great read for educators, parents, and children who may see the connection of their problem lives to these children.  The focus is for hard work, determination, courage, hope, and understanding of the humanity of all kinds of people through sharing ideas in writing rather than violence.  Excellent book---good for thought for everyone!!
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Mariah4ever More than 1 year ago
They say you must not judge a book by its cover because you dont even know what the book is about.However before i read the book i looked on the back of the book and read what was in the book and what it was about.This book im reading it is a good book and i love it it is all about me.... thats why i love it and you should too.
janetgonzalez More than 1 year ago
They say don't judge a book by its cover. However before I read this book that was exactly what I did. The cover simply was one of the main attractions a book would need to grab my attention. With the book Freedom Writers it was not the cover that caught my eyes it was the title and the front headline. I studied the book trying to comprehend the meaning or what message this book was going to try to deliver, or how writing could impact the lives of one hundred and fifty teenagers. So I had no choice but to read the book and answer my own questions. Upon coming to the last page of the book I had no choice but to shed a tear or two. This book inspired me in so many ways but the true message that I received was that people do change, that there is hope out there that even the below average rejects could make it to senior graduation, graduating with honors. The same kids who were at one point gang member's, drug addicts, alcoholics and did not even think they would make it out of high school alive. This book changed the way I viewed gangs, violence, history, ignorance, tolerance and even life itself. I strongly believe every teenager should read this book. It will open their eyes to see how lucky they are and to learn that at this age drugs, alcohol, and gangs is all nonsense. They will learn from other teens regretful mistakes that life is too precious to endanger yourself into a dark, cold and very much depressing future. This book also brought up so many nationwide issues, including immigration. In several diary entries the helpless students wrote their hearts out on how upon coming to the United States, one of the main obstacle stopping them from attending collage was the disadvantage of not being a citizen. While reading these entries I received a very meaningful message most present-day teenagers don't realize. If given the advantage of being a citizen go to college and make a future for yourself instead of accepting whatever life gives you. Currently many immigrants wish they had the advantage of being able to attend college while others don't even consider college an option. This message is one of the many powerful messages its readers will learn. In the end if u read this book you will be blessed with a life changing epiphany, don't and that will be your loss.
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This book is very good and i think every teen should read this book. I liked how there were gangs and racism. This book shows the world that you don't racism and everyone from all races can get along and like each other. The kids could of kept being in separated groups, hate one another and kill and hurt one another, but they didn't. They took a stand for themselves and it ended up being the best thing they could of done. Just this one teacher changed these kids lives and if teachers read this then it can give them the opportunity to inspire teenagers.
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EG90 More than 1 year ago
The Freedom writers and Erin Gruwell, have created a collection of diaries, that not only inspires, but also begins to show the reader how life is for these kids. These kids come from every walk of life, and they work as hard an necessary, to get where they are. From the first word you read, you become engulfed in their life, although their diaries are from 150 different children and there are all anonymous, they band together, to form one voice, one book, one theme, one inspiration. No matter what you have going on in your life, this book can inspire you. By the end of the novel these students as well as yourself are so intertwined within each other, you can not tell yourself from them. You learn lessons of tolerance, and forgiveness with them. It is a lengthy read but once you pick up I dare you to set it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this was an amazing book. the writing was amazing. Ellen Gruwell really inspired these students to do better in school and in their lives.