Freedom Writers Foundation-'No You’re The Real Heroes.'

Ms. Gruwell and Room 203

‘For some of my students, my classroom is one of the only places where they feel safe. Room 203 is a place where they can seek refuge from all the mayhem. Outside my classroom walls, anything can happen.’

Ms. Gruwell- Freedom Writer’s Diary

Some of you may have heard of Ms. Gruwell and Room 203, as the story of this classroom was made into a blockbuster film starring Hilary Swank. It is not often that classrooms are made famous by Hollywood, but this classroom was different.

Ms. Gruwell was not an ordinary teacher and the area she was teaching in was not ordinary either. Her first job as a teacher was at Wilson High School in Long Beach, South Los Angeles. The area was volatile and dangerous due to gang violence, and the students that she was teaching were at risk of death every time they left their house.

‘At sixteen, I’ve probably witnessed more dead bodies than a mortician. Murder plays a big role in my project. Every time I step out the front door, I’m faced with the risk of being shot. Just recently, while I was sound asleep, I awoke to the sound of gunshots. It was 2.30 in the morning. After the gunshots stopped, a woman screamed, “Help me, please… why, why, why?” I looked out my window to see a man with a bullet wound in his head the size of a quarter and blood oozing out of his head like ketchup coming from a Heinz bottle.’

Written anonymously by a student from Room 203- The Freedom Writer’s Diary

The violence of the neighbourhood infiltrated itself into the classroom too, and when Ms. Gruwell was told that she would be teaching Room 203, she was told not to expect anything of the students. She was confronted with a divided classroom where learning was the last thing on their minds.

Expecting Something of Room 203

Slowly, Ms. Gruwell proved to her colleagues and to the students that something should be expected of Room 203 and that Room 203 could achieve at school. She did this in a mixture of ways.

Firstly, by finding common ground between the students. To find common ground she used the ‘Line Game’, where a line is drawn on the floor and students are asked to step onto the line if a statement applies to them.

Leading with a series of less personal statements, Ms. Gruwell built up to such statements as ‘Step forward if you have seen someone being shot’. When the students were able to visibly see how many of them had been through the same experiences, they were able to start building relationships with each other.

Ms. Gruwell also established an atmosphere of tolerance by providing the students with books written by other young people living in challenging circumstances:

‘Ms. Gruwell passed out books and bags from Barnes and Noble. When I saw the look on everyone’s faces, I felt like jumping up for joy. I wanted to start reading them at that very moment. I was so occupied with one of my new books that I missed the whole idea of what we were supposed to do with them.

The book had never been opened and the pages smelt like a new car. I started reading Night by Elie Wiesel, and I can’t wait to get started on The Wave by Todd Strasser, Anne Frank’s Diary, and last but not least Zlata’s Diary. At first I thought we were going to have to do a lot of book reports. Then she told us about the ‘Read-a-thon for tolerance.’ What the heck is Ms. Gruwell talking about? She said we’d have fun because the kids are in similar situations. We were all teenagers who were going through a difficult time in our lives. Some of us succeed, others don’t. That is just how it is, and all I wanted to do was be one of the people who make it.’

Written anonymously by a student from Room 203- The Freedom Writer’s Diary

Beyond Reading a Book

More than just read and learn from the books, Ms. Gruwell and Class 203 engaged with the authors and arranged for people who are relevant to the texts to visit the U.S. For example, they arranged for Miep Gies to visit the school, the lady who had helped to keep Anne Frank alive while she was hiding in her attic. Having inspirational people visit the classroom helped the students to believe in themselves and their power to change their lives - and even the world:

‘’But it wasn’t until Miep’s visit that it finally made sense. I remember talking about how much we admired her for risking everything to care for Anne and her family. She said that she had only done it because it was the ‘right thing to do’.

Someone stood up and said that Miep was their hero.

‘No you’re the real heroes.’ She answered. There she was, one of the most heroic women of all time, telling us that we were heroes.

‘Do not let Anne’s death be in vain,’ Miep said, using her words to bring it all together. Miep wanted us to keep Anne’s message alive, it was up to us to remember it. Miep and Ms. Gruwell had the same purpose all along. They wanted us to seize the moment. Ms. Gruwell wanted us to realise that we could change the way things were, and Miep wanted us to take Anne’s message and share it with the world.’

Written anonymously by a student from Room 203- The Freedom Writer’s Diary

Becoming Freedom Writers

And Ms. Gruwell’s students did find a way to change their worlds as they all went on to graduate and to become the ‘Freedom Writers’. Throughout their time in Ms. Gruwell’s class she had encouraged them to write a journal about their experiences. They then choose their favourite entries in their journal and compiled them into a book that was published as ‘The Freedom Writer’s Diary’. This book is what inspired the film and it has been celebrated around the world for its message of hope and its model of what can be achieved by one teacher and her class.

Not only have the book and film been used to share the work of The Freedom Writer’s, but Ms. Gruwell has also set up an organisation whose purpose it is to spread the message of the Freedom Writers and to create more classrooms like Room 203 around the world. This organisation is ‘The Freedom Writers Foundation’ and I was lucky enough to meet with them while I was Los Angeles.

The Freedom Writer's Foundation

The Freedom Writers Foundation is based in Long Beach (you can see their beautiful offices in the picture above), just around the corner from Wilson High School. The Foundation has four arms to its work. Ms Gruwell (Erin) and the Freedom Writers give outreach presentations to schools and other institutions about the Freedom Writers. They train teachers on the Freedom Writers’ methods of teaching based on Ms. Gruwell’s teaching of Class 203, they have created a curriculum that integrates their style of teaching into the standard high school curriculum and they provide scholarships to first-generation high-schoolers to attend college.

When I first started teaching, I watched the film ‘Freedom Writer’s Diary’ and I felt inspired by Ms. Gruwell’s work and the courage of her students to tell their stories. This film and those stories helped inspire me to work on The Story Project, so you can imagine my excitement when I was able to organise a visit to The Freedom Writer’s Foundation as part of my research journey.

Visiting Long Beach

Not only was I able to visit the Foundation, but I was able to meet with Sue-Ellen Alpizar, who was one of the original Freedom Writers and even appears on the cover of the Freedom Writer’s Diary (middle of the top-row in the picture). I was also able to meet Grace McGlade, who is the Development Director for the Foundation.

Sue-Ellen and Grace were able to give me more of an insight into why Class 203 was so successful and how that work is being continued.

As a student in Ms. Gruwell’s class, Sue-Ellen explained that she and her classmates were bringing a lot of baggage with them into the classroom. As a child who had grown up in a very difficult environment, she did not think of life beyond a two week span and was far behind in her academic work. Living in her community, she did not have access to therapists, and it wasn’t until she began writing that she was able to process her past and begin imagining a different life for herself.

She explained that when she first started writing in her journal, she was afraid to share her personal experiences, and she would often write about superficial topics – that is, until people started to share their journal entries and she was inspired by their bravery. Ms. Gruwell would share one of the student’s journal entries anonymously and this encouraged the whole class to take more risks in their writing.

It was inspirational for me to hear how Sue-Ellen was able to process her past through the blank page. She explained that this wasn’t always easy and many of the diary entries that were read out to the class could trigger very difficult emotions for all the students. Sue-Ellen, explains that when a story was read out to the class about molestation, a number of students had to leave the room. It was at this point that Ms. Gruwell recruited the support of a volunteer counsellor to ensure that her students were able to access professional mental health support on top of the benefits they were receiving from the writing.

Sue-Ellen’s life was changed through her experience of writing in Room 203 and she still continues to spread the word about the power of writing by giving talks about her experience and through her work with the Freedom Writer’s Foundation.

Teacher Training

The Foundation is spreading their story-writing teaching methods across the world and Grace was able to explain to me how the Foundation has provided training to teachers from a multitude of countries; most recently they have been working with teachers from Israel and Palestine. When they train their teachers, they also allow their trainees to experience the benefits of this type of teaching themselves; through the reading and writing activities in which they participate in the training, teachers are also able to learn more about themselves and make connections with other teachers.

Teachers pay to attend the formal Freedom Writers training, but quite often teachers are able to receive funding from their school district towards the payment. If a teacher can not afford to attend the training, then they can access the Freedom Writers methods in the form of their Teacher’s Handbook, which is on sale from their website or many booksellers.

Truly Heroic

However, before you read any guidance materials, I would recommend starting by reading 'The Freedom Writer's Diary’: Even in the most challenging of circumstances, a teacher who really believed in her students and students who took a risk in revealing part of themselves, have written a very inspirational book that changed all their lives. But beyond that, they have shared what they have learnt and created the materials/ the model to change the lives of many other teachers and students too. Like, Miep Gies said, I think this proves that the Freedom Writers are truly heroes.

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