Not sure how many of you have heard of a FANTASTIC, MUST READ book called “The Freedom Writers Diary .. How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them”, but you may have seen a trailer for the movie, “Freedom Writers” based on the book and out in theaters now. The movie stars Hilary Swank, and for you Grey’s Anatomy fans, Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey. I don’t know how closely the movie will follow the book, but I am hoping it stays true to it.
So let me back up and explain just why this book strikes such a chord with me. The first reason is a no-brainer: it’s about my passion, teaching! And not just about teaching, but about REACHING your students. One would think that all teachers do that, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. The main thing drilled into us during the credential courses I’ve been taking is that you MUST meet your students where they are. In other words, not every student is going to come to you with the same amount of knowledge, the same socioeconomic situation, the same family make up, and so on. And in this day and age ALL of that comes into play with how you will best serve your students with teaching strategies to help them not only achieve the stated-adopted standards (and hopefully EXCEED THEM!), but more importantly for helping them grow as social beings. Erin Gruwell saw the diverse and special needs of her students, was creative with her strategies, and more than succeeded in her endeavors. I am truly in awe of this woman.
The second reason I have a special place in my heart for this book, this project, this teacher, and these students, is that I had the good fortune to meet Erin and a couple of her students from the book. I was attending the California K-16 Partnerships & Student Success conference at California State University, Long Beach, in June 2002, and Erin Gruwell was the closing Keynote Speaker. I had heard bits and pieces of her story, but hadn’t seen the coverage of it on many national television shows. Boy, was I caught up on everything that night! You could have heard a pin drop when Erin was speaking, and at various points you also heard more than a few folks sniffling and saw lots of dabbing away of tears, especially when they showed parts of the Prime Time Live segment done on the Freedom Writers. What was especially touching was when some of the students were in the audience and she had them stand…talk about getting a HUGE round of applause!
After the closing speech there was a reception in CSULB’s exquisite Japanese Gardens. What an incredible location for getting to meet some incredible people, including Erin and several of her students. Getting to chat with these students and seeing the incredible strides they had made gave me goosebumps. One of the best surprises of the evening was talking with the mothers of some of the students, and boy did the moms have some great stories to tell me of their chaperoning duties on trips with the students! Of course the most inspiring being their trip to Europe where they visited Anne Frank’s home, and also the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. You really need to read the book to fully understand how incredible this was. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE read the book. I’m sure your local library has a copy of it if you don’t want to spend the money, although you can get it on Amazon.com for less than $12. I would just love for you to have the joy of the book in your heart like I have, especially before seeing the movie adaptation since the movie may or may not be a good thing.
The entire experience that night, from hearing Erin speak, to getting to meet her and having her sign my book (along with one of her students :)), from meeting other future educators and feeling energized about teaching, to hearing the mothers’ perspectives of the effect the Freedom Writers have had on one another, and to ultimately being reminded that all of this is precisely why I’ve chosen the path of an educator: to change lives. It was all truly one of the most incredible and memorable experiences of my life. Hmmm, think it’s time to take the book out and give it another read. And Erin, I’ll make sure to pass the baton as you have. 🙂