While Wilson High School assigns Ms. Gruwell a group of students that have already been labeled “unteachable” by the rest of the school staff, the new teacher soon discovers that her students are far from a hopeless cause. Instead, these adolescents are merely the reflection of the low expectations that adults have imposed on them all their life. To make her students feel more engaged in academic life, Ms. Gruwell adopts a teaching method in which the students can directly relate what they are learning to their own lives. Her goal is to make education more than a mere transfer of information, using education as a tool for her young students to grow as responsible, humane individuals. Her teaching methods reach their greatest achievement in the diary-writing exercise, where her students are able to develop a voice of their own. Through writing and sharing diary entries, the Freedom Writers discover the true meaning of education: to trust in one’s potential and become compassionate, honest human beings, ready to tackle the greatest problems in human life—and, crucially, pass on all the knowledge they have acquired.
As a young teacher, Ms. Gruwell is given the group of kids that no one else wants. Her students are called “at-risk,” “rejects,” and “basic” by most of the high school staff—including the students themselves. Through her humane approach toward the young men and women she teaches, Ms. Gruwell aims to show that these labels are both misleading and unfair. For Ms. Gruwell, much of what leads these students to lack ambition and academic drive is what they hear from other adults, who constantly put them down. “Although they’re a pain, they’re just kids. But adults created the system. The system separates them and then they’re stereotyped as ‘basic,’ but in reality, they’re anything but basic. […] It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you tell kids they’re stupid—directly or indirectly—sooner or later they start to believe it.”
Ms. Gruwell soon realizes that she is right in trusting in her students’ abilities. She discovers that her students’ intelligence is far greater than what standard tests of academic performance generally measure. “Even though their reading scores don’t indicate that they’re ‘smart’ in the conventional sense, it’s amazing how savvy they are. They’re a walking encyclopedia when it comes to pop culture, quoting the lines from their favorite movies verbatim or reciting every lyric from the latest rap CD.” She recognizes that the students’ capacities have been largely underestimated, as no one has truly tried to understand them on their own terms.
What students need, Ms. Gruwell concludes, is unwavering support. When, during a self-evaluation activity in class, a student writes down that he believes he deserves an “F,” Ms. Gruwell’s reaction is pure anger: she tells him that he is rejecting himself, as well as everyone who cares about him. Shaken by Ms. Gruwell’s speech, the student concludes: “What she showed me today is that a truly self-reliant person takes action, leaving nothing to chance and everything to themselves. She showed me that excuses will not bring about success and that adversity is not something you walk with, but something you leap over. The only obstacles are the ones you allow.” Ms. Gruwell aims her students with the trust she has in them, so that they might be moved by feelings of self-worth and learn to fight the low expectations that society has for them. As one student recounts: “Ms. Gruwell told me something that would change my life forever. She told me she believed in me. I have never heard those words from anyone . . . especially a teacher.”
In order to make her students feel personally involved in academic learning, Ms. Gruwell always relates schoolwork to real-life situations. Her vision of education involves not only aiming for good grades, but also establishing a connection between oneself and the outside world, so as to lead a healthy, compassionate life. For Ms. Gruwell, becoming a good person and a good student starts with believing in oneself. A turning point in the students’ classroom experience takes place during the “Toast for Change.” In this activity, the students are all given a “clean slate.” They are told that, in this moment, they can forget about who they have been in the past past and, instead, decide for themselves who they want to be. After this activity, many students vow to change for the better and show distinct progress. When Ms. Gruwell discovers that one of her most recalcitrant students has already finished reading all the assigned books, she realizes that giving young people the opportunity to change can have a profound effect on their mind.
To make her students feel engaged with class work, Ms. Gruwell adjusts her lesson plans to the students’ reality. Instead of reading textbooks about World War II, they personally meet with two Holocaust survivors, Miep Gies and Renee Firestone, so that they might understand the human dimension of this war. Another time, Ms. Gruwell makes the students read Durango Street, a book about an African-American teenager involved in gang violence. She asks the students to make a movie about the book, impersonating its various characters, so that they might relate to its story on a personal level. Throughout her years with the Freedom Writers, hands-on activities and field trips are meant to give the students an emotional tie to what they are learning. This allows them to use school-acquired knowledge in their own life, using them as powerful the tools to fight their own challenges.
Ms. Gruwell’s teaching techniques find their deepest expression in the students’ diary writing, which allows them to relate what they have learned in the classroom to the most intimate details of their own lives. While some students initially object to the idea of having to write about their personal lives, claiming that the pain they feel is too intimate and too strong, the exercise ultimately proves liberating, capable of bringing solace to those who most need it.
When students are asked to edit each other’s diary entries, with the objective of publishing a selection of them as a book, the true impact of what they have achieved comes to light. On various occasions, students are able to empathize with each other because they have lived through similar situations themselves. When a young boy reads about a girl’s abortion, he feels more connected to his girlfriend, who also had to undergo an abortion. When a young girl reads about a fellow student’s experience of sexual abuse in her family, her own memories of a similar episode come to light. By discovering each other in an anonymous and respectful way, the students learn about each other’s greatest challenges. This allows them to put their own experiences in perspective and find comfort in sharing their most intimate stories. Writing and reading other people’s stories becomes a healing moment of its own, making the Freedom Writers stronger individually and collectively, as they becomes more connected to their own selves and to the other members of the group.
The impact of these students’ stories extends well beyond the group of the Freedom Writers itself. As the class begins to receive attention from the media for the courageous activities they have engaged in, their stories leak beyond the classroom. Later, when they share some diary entries with Secretary of Education Richard Riley, they feel that they have made the rest of the world aware of their hardships and achievements. Throughout the course of the years, the Freedom Writers realize that sharing their personal stories can benefit not only themselves, but also others who are experiencing similar ordeals and who are grateful to know that they are not alone in their situation. After the Freedom Writers Diaries become published and read by people all around the world, they reaffirm their commitment to educating people about the realities they face. Their desire to make the world a better place extends beyond their high school life, as adult Freedom Writers remain active in fostering a community of learning, support, and self-worth through the Freedom Writers Foundation.
Education and Healing ThemeTracker
Education and Healing Quotes in The Freedom Writers Diary
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.
Celie was violated, tormented, humiliated, degraded; yet through it all, she remained innocent! Out of all this horror, Celie was given courage. Courage to ask for more, to laugh, to love, and finally—to live. Now I’m certain who Celie is. Celie is and always has been me . . . and with this in mind, I will survive.
My P.O. hasn’t realized yet that schools are just like the city and the city is just like prison. All of them are divided into separate sections, depending on race. On the streets, you kick it in different ’hoods, depending on your race, or where you’re from. And at school, we separate ourselves from people who are different from us. That’s just the way it is, and we all respect that. So when the Asians started trying to claim parts of the ’hood, we had to set them straight.
I don’t know if I’m more frustrated with the students or the system. Although they’re a pain, they’re just kids. But adults created the system. The system separates them and then they’re stereotyped as “basic,” but in reality, they’re anything but basic. In many ways they’re extraordinary. […] It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you tell kids they’re stupid—directly or indirectly—sooner or later they start to believe it.
[I]t’s obvious that if you’re from a Latino gang you don’t get along with the Asian gang, and if you’re from the Asian gang, you don’t get along with the Latino gang. All this rivalry is more of a tradition. Who cares about the history behind it? Who cares about any kind of history? It’s just two sides who tripped on each other way back when and to this day make other people suffer because of their problems. Then I realized she was right, it’s exactly like that stupid play. So our reasons might be stupid, but it's still going on, and who am I to try to change things?
“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 had the same purpose all along. They wanted us to seize the moment. Ms. Gruwell wanted us to realize that we could change the way things were, and Miep wanted to take Anne’s message and share it with the world.
When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people. It was like that until I transferred to Ms. Gruwell’s class. Up until that point it had always been: “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”
What she showed me today is that a truly self-reliant person takes action, leaving nothing to chance and everything to themselves. She showed me that excuses will not bring about success and that adversity is not something you walk with, but something you leap over. The only obstacles are the ones you allow.
I think it’s about time men start respecting women, instead of degrading women to the point where it’s unbearable. I don’t know why women allow men to brainwash them and use their bodies as objects instead of cherishing them as if they were treasures. But it’s never going to change until women start respecting themselves more.
Zlata said writing was her salvation during the war and it kept her sane. She suggested that writing might be one of the best vehicles for some of my students to escape their horrific environments and personal demons. Even though they’re not held captive in an attic or dodging bombs in a basement, the violence permeating the streets is just as frightening—and just as real.
Besides gang violence, domestic violence or spousal abuse is common. So common, in fact, that people ignore it, turn the other cheek, or go back to bed. I have watched men pistol-whip their girlfriends or smash their heads through car windows. Damn! I have seen a lot of crazy stuff. Stuff that makes me thankful it’s not me. It’s easier for me to pretend I don’t live where I live or see what I see. […] Writing about my pain will only make it worse.
Without the comfort of Room 203, they had to adjust to new environments and their newfound freedom. Initially the transition was difficult. Room 203 wasn't just a classroom, it was home, a safe haven. I realized that in order for them to grow, they had to branch out and explore new ground.
Although I’m not an expert on the subject, I’ve always felt that all kids yearn to rebel. Understanding this rebellious nature, I encouraged the Freedom Writers to use a pen as a means of revolution. Through their writing, they discovered they shared a common identity, which united them into a community that connected them, not separated them from the world. Unfortunately, the young men in Columbine didn’t share a community like the Freedom Writers. Instead, they were alone and on the fringe. Their cries for help fell on deaf ears. And rather than picking up a pen and finding a solution, they turned to guns and bombs instead.
I have faith in the system. I will continue to fight for change alongside students, teachers, and immigrants. And I will continue to write letters, attend political rallies, volunteer for campaigns, and collect voter registration forms, because that’s how the Freedom Riders enacted change—not just by challenging the system, but by working with it.
In that mirror, I see a well-balanced person, someone who is accountable for his actions, has goals, and stands for something. I am someone my foster father is proud of, someone the Freedom Writers family is proud of, someone my spouse is proud of, someone my mother would be proud of, and, most important, someone I am proud of.
So today when the bell rings, I’ll think about the Freedom Writers and I’ll tell my students, “I know class is tough and so is life, but I’m a tough teacher who molds tough students.” Tough times don’t last; tough people do.