Their story is told in the book The Freedom Writers Diary and a in movie of the same name, in 2007, starring Hilary Swank, which portrayted the work of Ms. Gruwell with her students.
The Freedom Writers were a group of students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California back in 1994 who were in classes taught by Erin Gruwell, at that time, a first-year teacher, who would change their lives.
They were students without any hope for the future, with challenging situations at home, and as under-performing students, no chance to go to college. They self-segregated into racial groups into the classroom, and eventually most of them would have dropped out of school.
Ms. Gruwell confronted these challenges by first learning to understand her students’ multiple needs and later, by not accepting the school administration’s position that these were ‘lost’ students with little hope of academic success.
After earning their trust, she assigned them the task of writing their own stories that told of abuse, racism and violence, in a journal. This collection of personal writings become the now famouse, The Freedom Writers’ Diary. After successful transition from high school to college or other meaningful activities, Erin Gruwell and her students founded the Freedom Writers’ Foundation. They travel throughout the world to tell their stories and “train educators to teach every student through challenging, relevant, and project-driven activities”, spreading the culture of tolerance and inclusion.
On the 28th November, they landed in the lagoon, invited by Nancy Rose Steinbock, creative director and teacher of Inglese Dinamico, an independent educational project in Venice that uses methodology designed to specifically build English speech/language skills in very young students and encourages critical thinking skills in older school-age students and adults. The goals of the project closely align with the teaching practices of educators such as Ms. Gruwell.
This was a wonderful opportunity to allow a larger group of teachers and students to experience a new way of thinking about the classroom as an inclusive, challenging learning environment.
The magic happened at the Liceo Artistico, Dorsoduro, thanks to the participation of the preside of the school, dott.ssa Annavaleria Guazzieri and a small group of teachers from different high schools in Venice, who chose to actively participate with selected students from their classes.
Erin Gruwell charmed about a hundred teenagers, of a couple of high schools in Venice, thanks to her teaching qualities. Ms. Gruwell went through some of the activities she has used throughout her teaching career.
These activities are aimed at creating a sense of unity among students, helping them to see what they have in common and also, to see what keeps them separated. A few minutes, with her calm, radiant and empathic attitude, Erin managed to captivate her young listeners’ attention inducing them to openly express themselves. This was, indeed, the key of her success in 2006: she encouraged each of her students to understand that everyone has his own story to tell, everybody is important in the same way.
The High school students were impressed and touched by the direct evidence of some of Erin’s students about their lives and school experieces. The full success of this unforgettable day was shown by the students’ enthusiasm while going to introduce themselves to Erin Gruwell. Also, “The Freedom Writers Diary” touched deeply students’ sensitivity in such a way that they said they couldn’t wait to read it.
Experiences such this one are possible only because people such as Nancy Rose Steinbock give their best in contacting other people, and inviting them to participate in the possibility of a ‘sea change’ in how we think about and create in outselves and our students, a positive learning place where each person is valued and supported in the quest for knowledge..
We know we learned a lot and we know, as young teachers, that from now on, every time we enter a classroom to teach whatever subject, we will put the person first, and we will try to follow Erin's path.
Emily Bonifacio & Melania Chistè
Corso di Laurea Magistrale in Scienze del Linguaggio
Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia