20 Years of Student Activism and the Future of Education
By Erin Gruwell
Erin Gruwell is a teacher, an author, and the founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation.
By fostering an educational philosophy that values and promotes diversity, Erin transformed her students’ lives. She encouraged them to re-think rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider daily decisions, and ultimately re-chart their futures. Erin and her students captured their collective journey in The Freedom Writers Diary.
Erin founded the Freedom Writers Foundation where she currently teaches educators around the world how to implement her innovative lesson plans into their own classrooms. She created the Freedom Writers Methodology, a progressive teaching philosophy and curricula designed to achieve excellence from all students. Erin continues to fight for equality in education and inspires teachers and students all over the world with her work.
For information on how to support the Freedom Writers Foundation, please visit www.freedomwritersfoundation.org.
From Jess Burnquist:
Erin Gruwell was my true teaching mentor for almost twelve years before I had the privilege of meeting her in person. Prior to meeting "Ms.G." as she is iconically called by her Freedom Writers Diary students, I felt like I knew her through her books, interviews, and articles. In many ways, I felt like she knew me too--this is largely because of her ability to share her experiences in immediate and relevant ways.
In the summer of 2017, I had the privilege of attending the Freedom Writers Teaching Institute and to effectively become one of Ms. G.’s students. I have never learned more from another teacher than I did in the four days spent at her institute. What I will perhaps remember most clearly from seeing her in action is the way she readily identifies the heart of any issue in the classroom. Such vision is tied directly to her ability to see into the hearts of her students and to tend to those hearts with intelligence and care. The heart of any human rights issue is the human being. Ms. G. sees human beings for who they are and who they might be at their very best--and the way she teaches to such ideals is a gift that you will read firsthand in her following guest-post on Kindred Spirits. We are honored and excited to share such a beautiful voice and vision with you and are even more excited to learn that her voice will become available in The Freedom Writers Podcast this month.
Photo credit: Freedom Writers Foundation
When I started teaching the incredible class known as the Freedom Writers more than two decades ago, I had no intention of launching a movement to engage, enlighten and empower vulnerable teenagers with student-focused, empathetic teaching. I certainly had not given much thought to incorporating human rights education into the curriculum. I assumed teaching English would consist of the usual—practicing vocabulary, reading Shakespeare, etc. But my class would never settle for that. Looking at the circumstances they lived in, how could they?
On April 29, 1992, three officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted of all charges of using excessive force in the arrest of an African-American driver, Rodney King, even though King’s brutal beating had been videotaped and extensively covered in the media. No African-American citizen was included in the jury for the officers’ trial. Rage at a lack of accountability joined with the long-gestating resentment and fear that the American legal system would not defend the rights of its minority citizens because of the color of their skin. Massive riots broke out across the city and county for six days, resulting in widespread destruction of property, thousands of arrests and injuries, and the deaths of 63 people.
Even after the violence ended, the wounds remained fresh: The circumstances of poverty, violence and racial discrimination that had encouraged the riots had not changed and, if anything, had only grown worse. Caucasian, African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-Americans alike had all found new justifications to hate and exclude each other among the fires that had swept the city.
Memories of the riots were still fresh in everyone’s minds the day I was assigned to student teach an English class at Wilson High School in Long Beach. Three things quickly became clear to me: These students hated school, hated me and hated each other. Most of the class did not engage in the material, had little-to-no expectation of graduating from high school, and held even fewer aspirations of receiving a college education. They looked at me—a young white woman, fresh out of college, dressed in a pearl necklace and polka-dot dress—with scorn, amusement, maybe even pity, but certainly not with respect. And they sat apart from each other, self-segregating according to race, gang affiliation, or whatever label marked a fellow student as an “other.” Fights between these groups were common; at one point in the school year, a full riot erupted in the school quad.
I was woefully ill-prepared to teach these struggling students, but not because I had never taught a class before or even because they were an especially difficult class to teach. Rather, the standard English curriculum had nothing to offer them that was relevant to their own experience. These were teenagers who experienced violence or the threat of violence daily, whether from gangs, law enforcement or their own families. Many of them faced the pains of hunger and homelessness. Others struggled with addiction or mental illness. These kids had been given no reason to care about receiving a piece of paper that said they had successfully graduated from high school. I figured that out quickly enough, but this brought me no closer to engaging my students, let alone empowering them to overcome the challenges they had to face.
One day, I intercepted a note that had been making its way around the class, leaving a trail of raucous laughter in its wake. My heart broke to see it was a racist caricature of another student, Sharaud. More painful was the broken look on Sharaud’s normally cocky and confident face. Something inside me snapped. The image reminded me of the inhuman illustrations of Jews that I had seen printed in Nazi propaganda in history books and in museums. Enraged, I held up the note and declared, “This note reminds me of the Holocaust.”
Silence. Blank stares. Then one student, Carlos, raised his hand and asked on behalf of the entire class, “What is that word? What is the Holocaust?” And, from there, I had somewhere to start.
When I began to explain the Holocaust and define terms like “genocide,” my class immediately understood what it was like to live under threat of constant violence and be robbed of their innocence, in a city that had lost more than 100 lives following the recent riots. Many of them lifted their shirts right there in the classroom to show me the scars they had received from knives and bullets. They wanted to know more about the Holocaust, how it happened, and how the survivors responded to what they had seen and what they had lost. That first real lesson did not quite fall within the standards for an English class, but I knew it was one they needed to learn.
Photo Credit: By Cbl62 (Own work) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
I organized a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance and observed my students’ total investment in the information presented by its exhibits and in the testimony of our tour guide, Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone. I stepped away from that trip recognizing two key tenets that would define my methodology and philosophy of teaching for the rest of my career.
First, I learned that merely lecturing content at my students was not going to work. To make lessons relevant for them, I would have to engage multiple modalities by diversifying my presentations and activities and making them more interactive and personal like those used in the museum. My classroom would have to become a safe space, a place where my students could leave their challenges at the door and escape into learning about subjects that engaged their individual interests and learning styles.
Second, I determined that all of my future lessons must, in some way, make a connection to the cause of human rights. My students were invested in learning about the Holocaust in a way they had not been previously because they felt an empathetic connection to its victims. They had a stake in learning how they could prevent this evil from happening again. Beyond keeping their attention, studying history in this way had a positive effect on their character. The self-imposed divisions in the seating chart between races soon began to disappear. Carlos, the student who first raised his hand and asked what the Holocaust was, told me years later that learning about the evils of Nazi anti-Semitism helped him to confront his own prejudices, to recognize that “we all bleed red.” Indeed, later in the school year, Carlos intervened in a brawl between his gang and a group of Asian students to protect a Cambodian classmate, crossing racial borders to protect his friend. Though this approach did improve the students’ grades, this behavior change was a much more important outcome than any grade on a report card.
The following year, when I began formally teaching a freshman English class at Wilson High School in Room 203, stories about human rights comprised the bulk of the year’s curriculum. My new students, like so many millions of other readers, were particularly drawn to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, but not just because of the young woman’s poignant prose and relatable reflections on human nature. Anne’s entire life being uprooted by forces beyond her control resonated with the experience of many of my displaced students, particularly with a young girl named Maria. Maria had been placed under house arrest, and she felt as if Anne understood what it was like to be trapped “like a bird in a cage.” I still remember the look on her face when she stormed into class and threw the book across the room; she had not known prior to reading the diary that Anne had not survived the Holocaust. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she asked, “If Anne doesn’t make it, what are you saying about my chances?”
Another student, Darrius, answered for me: “She did make it, Maria, because she wrote about it. And she will go on living even after her death.”
Photo Credit: Aaron Burden [Public Domain] via Negative Space
Inspired by how Anne’s decision to pick up a pen and write her story empowered her and inspired generations, we continued to study testimonies from survivors of war, genocide and other human rights crises. After reading the diary of Zlata Filipovic, a young girl from Sarajevo whose diary about her experiences in wartime Bosnia had earned her a reputation as “the modern Anne Frank,” my students began to recognize that they, too, had stories that ought to be shared. Darrius had once said he felt like he was living in an “undeclared war” in Long Beach, and most of the class fully agreed with him. Tired of feeling invisible to the rest of the world, they decided to start journaling their experiences.
The stories they wrote were deeply personal and revealed the full scope of the difficulties and trauma they faced outside the classroom. We began to realize that a class assignment meant to help them become better writers had created a meaningful piece of literature that could empower its authors and readers alike, just as Anne’s and Zlata’s diaries had. Not long after a lesson about the 1960s civil rights movement, my class adopted the moniker “Freedom Writers.” Just as the Freedom Riders had cast light on the problems of racial discrimination by riding buses through the South, the students of Room 203 were going to use the power of their own stories to focus public attention on the negligence shown to youth.
The new Freedom Writers quickly proved to have the same activist spirit as the Freedom Riders. Their campaigns to bring Zlata and Frank family protector Miep Gies to visit them in Long Beach did more than just inspire and energize them—it gave them experience in organizing to bring about positive change. The Freedom Writers hosted a “Basketball for Bosnia” fundraiser, with proceeds going to help the children of Zlata’s country. They then traveled as a delegation to Washington, D.C., to present a manuscript of their journals to the secretary of education and to demand lawmakers invest in education for impoverished communities. Finally, just as they prepared to successfully graduate from high school, Doubleday Books agreed to publish The Freedom Writers Diary. Their book became number one on the New York Times best-seller list, and was later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie starring two-time Academy Award winner, Hilary Swank.
Merely telling their story was not enough. My students wanted to use their newfound name recognition to continue to change the world. After graduation, they toured Europe, including Zlata’s home in Sarajevo, which still bore scars from the conflict. At one point, we sat in at a community town hall meeting between different ethnic groups that had fought during the war. To my amazement, Maria at one point stood up on her chair and, drawing from her classroom lessons and her experiences with her own diverse classmates, spoke powerfully to the need for all people to overcome prejudice, reach across differences and division, and see the good in all people.
Photo Credit: Freedom Writers Foundation
These experiences encouraged the Freedom Writers to start a nonprofit foundation that could support students like themselves. By giving scholarships to first-generation students, hosting teacher training that emphasized empathetic and human-rights-centered curricula, and meeting in-person and online with classrooms around the world, the Freedom Writers Foundation has inspired thousands of teachers and students with the stories from Room 203.
Now, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of their graduation, the foundation is launching a new initiative: the Freedom Writers Podcast, a program that spotlights the stories of teachers, students, activists, and everyday people who have witnessed and done extraordinary things. Featured guests include Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, mental health advocate Patrick Kennedy, Freedom Riders John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, and many other figures fighting for human rights. It is our hope that continuing to tell these stories in a platform easily accessible to youth and educators will continue to carry forward the momentum of two decades of activism.
Recent months have made very clear that young people still have a vested interest in learning about and fighting for the human rights to life, liberty and happiness. The survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., organized the March for Our Lives for the same reasons my students published a book and started a foundation. The problems they see and campaign to solve have real and traumatic impact on lives like their own. For that reason, education must always serve to empower students to understand and respond to human rights crises in their communities and beyond. If teachers will not do this, young people will move past us regardless and stumble in the dark searching for the answers they seek. Our ultimate purpose, with the podcast and with everything that we do, is to light their path and empower them to make the change we need to see in the world.
Look for the Freedom Writers Podcast to debut on iTunes and Stitcher starting April 9, 2018! Listen here: https://player.fm/series/freedom-writers-podcast/episode-1-lest-we-forget.
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is the Director of Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me was published in 2017 Dancing Girl Press.