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2017 Erin Gruwell - Pilot

‘Freedom Writers’ teacher urges Back Bay High students to ‘never suffer in silence’

Priscella Vega, Contact Reporter, Daily Pilot, Twitter: @vegapriscella, December 8, 2017, 6:20 PM


Before Erin Gruwell could even begin sharing her life story Friday at Back Bay High School, students hugged her as they walked into the campus auditorium in Costa Mesa.


The UC Irvine alumna shared how she initially envisioned becoming a lawyer before she landed her first job as a teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach in 1994. She later turned the experience into a book, which was adapted into the movie “Freedom Writers” in 2007.
She also founded the Freedom Writers Foundation in 1997 to inspire students to use writing to communicate instead of violence.


Gruwell described several Wilson High students, who were written off by the education system, and their struggles to push past feeling like they had a “bull’s-eye on their chest.”


Gruwell said she learned how to modify curriculum to help inspire and motivate her students through pop culture, assigning journals and books that dealt with issues they could relate to.


“It sucks to have the weight on your shoulders, but I’m here to challenge you to walk away from the ledge — ask for help,” Gruwell said. “When things aren’t right, normal, then learn to ask for help. Never suffer in silence.”

 

The Freedom Writers remain in contact to this day and lean on one another for help, she said.

 

“I’m here to celebrate and validate you,” she said. “It’s about what you do now ... only you know what needs to be told. Everyone sees in you what I see in my kids.”


She asked about homelessness, bullying and drug abuse.


Again, more than half stood.


Who knew someone who was poor?


More than half the students stood.


Echoing a game she played with her Wilson High students, Gruwell asked the students at Back Bay, a continuation school, to stand if they or someone they knew had lived in more than five different places.

 

The Freedom Writers remain in contact to this day and lean on one another for help, she said.


her students overcame their divisions, shattered their stereotypes and aspired to attend college.


“I’m here to celebrate and validate you,” she said. “It’s about what you do now ... only you know what needs to be told. Everyone sees in you what I see in my kids.”


A handful of students stayed behind to take pictures with Gruwell and share their stories.


Senior Alan Cervantes, 17, said it was cool to hear how Gruwell connected with her students.


Senior Avery Ahuatzi, also 17, hugged Gruwell as tears streamed down her face. Avery said she watched the movie when she was at a low point in her life and uses writing as a way to express herself.


“I am really happy. I look up to her,” Avery said. “Her stories made me realize everyone is broken but to keep fighting and it will get better.”

Erin Gruwell

Erin Gruwell

Erin Gruwell Biography

Erin Gruwell has earned an award-winning reputation for her steadfast commitment to the future of education. Her impact as a change agent attracted Hollywood’s attention, and in 2007, Paramount Pictures released Freedom Writers, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Erin. The film is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, the New York Times bestseller that chronicled Erin’s extraordinary journey with her 150 high school students who dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to Civil Rights activists the Freedom Riders.

By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students’ lives.  She encouraged them to re-think rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider their own daily decisions, and ultimately, re-chart their future. With Erin’s support, they chose to forego teenage pregnancy, drugs, and violence in order to become aspiring college students, published writers, and citizens for change. 

Inspired by Anne Frank, Erin and her students captured their collective journey in The Freedom Writers Diary. Through poignant student entries and Erin’s narrative text, the book records their “eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.” Their inspiring story of success is also chronicled in the documentary, Freedom Writers: Stories from an Undeclared War, which features behind the scenes footage of Erin and the Freedom Writers from their freshman year to present day. 

While Erin has been credited with giving her students a “second chance,” it was perhaps she who changed the most during her tenure at Wilson High School. Erin decided to channel her classroom experiences toward a broader cause, and today her impact as a teacher extends well beyond Room 203. 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. 

Erin’s teaching methods from her time in Room 203 have been published in her powerful call to arms, Teach With Your Heart as well the Freedom Writers Diary Teacher’s Guide.  Erin and the teachers she’s trained known as Freedom Writer Teachers collaborated to write Teaching Hope, a book in which stories from “the front lines of education take [the reader] from the anticipation of the first day to the disillusionment, challenges, and triumphs of the school year.”

Erin and her students have appeared on numerous television shows, including Oprah, Prime Time Live with Connie Chung, Barbara Walters’ The View, and Good Morning America, to name a few. Their story has earned them dozens of awards, including the Spirit of Anne Frank Award. Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writer Teachers also collaborated with Scholastic to create On the Record, an innovative reading, and writing program. On the Record uses the Freedom Writer Methodologies to improve students' reading and writing skills, as well as their lives. 
Erin continues to fight for equality in education and inspires teachers and students all over the world with her work.

Please support the Freedom Writers Foundation.