All teachers strive to help their students succeed in class; Erin Gruwell took responsibility for her students’ success in life. In 1994, at age 24, Gruwell began teaching English at Wilson High School in racially divided Long Beach, Calif.; she was assigned 150 minority students who were deemed “unteachable,” likely dropouts. Her ninth-graders were veterans of gang violence, juvenile detention and fractured families. Gruwell quickly came to believe that unless they learned tolerance and self-respect, they had little chance of learning anything else. She devised class exercises to break down stereotypes and instill trust, and she introduced them to books about other teenagers in crisis, including Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary, written by a girl from war-torn Sarajevo. Gruwell worked extra jobs to fund visits from Holocaust survivors and community leaders and initiated field trips to places like the Museum of Tolerance.
Her most powerful assignment asked the students to write diaries of their own. Their anonymous entries explored painful secrets and fears and aired the hope that education would change their lives. A book-length collection of the entries, The Freedom Writers Diary, was published in 1999; it became a bestseller and in 2007 was adapted into a movie starring Hilary Swank. A recent documentary about Gruwell and her studentsis now touring film festivals. Every one of “Ms. G’s” students later went to college; several pursued Masters degrees and doctorates. In 1998, Gruwell left Wilson High to instruct teachers at California State University Long Beach and to expand The Freedom Writers Foundation, a non-profit organization she founded while fundraising for class activities. Today, the foundation provides educational scholarships, outreach to educators and the public, and training for teachers in both the U.S. and Canada. Together with her former students, Gruwell speaks nationwide about improving the quality of education (and for more information about Liberty Mutual’s own education initiative, Learn Return, visit the Learn Return website).
What does responsibility mean to you as a teacher?
When I started teaching, I didn’t realize the all-encompassing responsibility I’d have for my students. So many different roles came into play: parent, counselor, cheerleader. It meant giving them a voice when they felt voiceless, but also requiring them to take ownership of their actions and be responsible for their decisions.
How did your method of teaching evolve?
Most of the 150 original Freedom Writers came from very dysfunctional families. So the first thing I tried to do was make our classroom feel like a home, a safe haven, where they could be fed if they were hungry and get supplies they needed, but also where they could bare their souls.
I needed to learn who they were and where they were coming from, to make education feel relevant to them. We looked at extreme examples of intolerance, like the Holocaust and the war in Bosnia; that helped to draw a correlation for kids who felt society was intolerant to them because of the color of their skin.
How did you teach responsibility and tolerance?
A lot of my students had been to multiple funerals. Many had seen drug deals; they had family and friends who were in gangs. There was a culture of don’t ask, don’t tell. Look the other way. Don’t take responsibility.
Among the speakers I brought in was Renee Firestone, a brilliant Auschwitz survivor who said to my students, “Evil prevails when good people do nothing.” It was a calling-out to them: “You can no longer stand idly by; if you think you’re a good person, you have to stand up for others. You no longer have the privilege of not telling when you see injustice.”
How do you teach your method to other teachers?
The Freedom Writers institute offers full scholarships to teachers from all over the U.S. to participate in a yearlong support program, which begins with a five-day boot camp in Long Beach. Twenty or thirty of my original students co-teach the five-day intensive with me. We focus on how to engage students who are disaffected, how to make the curriculum feel relevant and alive, and how to empower students so that when class ends they’re still talking about what they studied andwant to keep reading.
The beauty of having the Freedom Writers as co-teachers is that they were once the most disengaged students; they hated school, they hated reading, they hated writing and they hated me. They are the spokespeople for the issues I want to illuminate. And they prove the point: if this badass ex-gangster could become excited about school, you can get any kid to be engaged.
What qualities are you looking for in the teachers you accept into the program?
Every single one of our teachers is a risk-taker, and they are fearless when it comes to fighting for their kids. They all have an innate entrepreneurial spirit; they realize that education budgets are the first to be cut, so if you want to do things that are different, you have to hustle and raise the money yourself. I try to instill in both students and teachers the ability to ask for help, to find a network. I had a group we called “The Dream Team Moms” who helped me with every fundraiser and field trip. There are caring people in every community who believe in public schools. It’s a matter of finding those people and giving them a reason to be engaged.
In addition to lack of funding, what are the obstacles to creating a curriculum like yours?
The biggest obstacles are societal. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of racism and inequality. Even the school where I taught had a segregated environment that was palpable. It was rich and poor, black and white; it was kids from this zip code in the honors program, kids from that zip code are in a “less than” program.
You can create an incredibly safe, nurturing and inclusive environment in the classroom and the students will still have to leave it, get on that bus, go in that grocery store, go into that home. They’re still going to hear the “N” word. They’re still going to be told they’re stupid. I was trying to instill the feeling that they are bigger than those words and bigger than those names.
How would you define a great teacher?
A great teacher is one who believes in their kids – in all their kids – and is doing whatever it takes to bring education to life for them, which is a tall order when you have classrooms bursting at the seams and all the other problems. But I’ve seen the best of what education can do, especially for the kids nobody believed in. When the kids who weren’t supposed to make it actually do make it, and extraordinarily so, why can’t every kid have that opportunity?
Carolyn Jacobs is a television producer and writer. She has created narrative and documentary programming for AMC, PBS, vh1, Showtime, and other networks.