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An Interview with Erin Gruwell

February 23, 2008

The story of Erin Gruwell is amazing. Influenced by the Rodney King trial in 1992 and the racial tensions and stereotyping that surrounded it, she decided to change her career path from a law career to teaching. "Maybe the best way to equalize the playing field wasn't in a courtroom but in a classroom," she said in her memoir, Teach With Your Heart. "If a kid could be taught to pick up a Molotov cocktail, could he be taught to pick up a pen?"

Most first-year teachers begin their careers learning to adjust to the normal challenges of a classroom filled with students who vary in both ability and motivation. What Erin Gruwell faced, was a room full of troubled teenagers, who were apathetic and had no desire to learn. To complicate the matter, strong racial and cultural differences in her class provoked disrespect, hate, and fear.

One of the defining moments in her first year of teaching was a field trip she arranged to The Museum of Tolerance in L.A. She hoped she could motivate her students by teaching them about prejudice, intolerance, and the evil of hate. She succeeded. As she began to connect with her students, and they to each other, events unfolded that helped solidify everything they were beginning to feel. What followed was a field trip to see Schindler's List , a visit with the author of Schindler's List , Thomas Keneally, and finally a meeting with the director of the film, Steven Spielberg.

During the four years that followed, she continued her commitment to teach those thought to be unteachable. She inspired her students to write by having them read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. The culmination of their efforts was the publication of their essays in the Freedom Writers Diary in 1999. In the introduction by Zlata Filipovic, she says, "Writing about the things that happen to us allows us to look objectively at what's going on around us and turn a negative experience into something positive and useful." She adds, "If we all do what the Freedom Writers have done, and choose to deal with inhumane situations in a humane way, we can turn the world around and create positive lessons for ourselves and for others."

The story of Erin Gruwell and her students is told in the 2007 film, The Freedom Writers , and in her book published last year, Teach With Your Heart. She also authored The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide, in which she describes her recipe for success.

"It's not enough to be tolerant...now we're finally moving towards the idea of acceptance."---- Erin Gruwell

 

SB

The 1990s was a challenging and rewarding journey for you. You chose to teach in a school with a poor reputation, one filled with troubled teenagers who didn't want to learn. Why did you want to teach at Wilson High?


EG

Wilson is this microcosm of all of these different ethnicities and I thought it was a perfect epicenter of everything that was representational of white flight and the riots, these two kind of worlds colliding. Within Long Beach there's a very large African American population, Latino population, Cambodia refugee population from the Cambodian genocide, and Caucasians. It's this kind of clash of cultures and economics. There was just so much despair, but also hope. When diverse worlds come together, beauty is inevitable. So I knew there was this possibility for beauty, but there was also all this other chaos.

 

SB

A diamond in the rough.

 

EG

A diamond in the rough. Absolutely.

 

SB

Every journey has its ups and downs. What was your lowest point and what was your emotional peak?

 

EG

I think probably the lowest point was ironically after graduation. It was a very bittersweet moment because Room 203 was this epicenter where all my kids felt safe and for four years so much had been fostered in that room. After they graduated, which was this high point, we had to pack up all of our stuff and leave 203.

 

It was this moment wondering where are we going to go and what kind of communal feeling are we going to be able to transport? It was a low point because it was almost this dismantling of a family and the location was so symbolic. Although it was a low point, it just made me feel more inspired that I can't give up on them yet, our journey's not done. It's only halfway done.

 

SB

And you followed some of them to college.

 

EG

Yes. I created a cohort at the university and over the years I probably had about 35 to 40 “freedom writers” as my college students. It's been amazing. Many of those students who received scholarships from our program now work for me at the Foundation. So, our journey is still not done.

 

SB

One of the books you asked your students to read was Catcher in the Rye. Why did you choose this book and how did you think the experiences of Holden Caulfield would inspire your students?

 

EG

What I loved about Holden Caulfield is it was such a gritty book and I liked his feelings of being a non-conformist and going against the system and the language. A few of those themes really resonated, like the idea of being a phony. And his brother was called a prostitute, because he sold a screenplay to Hollywood.

 

I thought there were these great themes that my students could identify with. I knew we were going to have our story leave Room 203 and I wanted my students to know that we can't prostitute ourselves. We're going to be surrounded by phonies and in that there's this beauty of Holden, trying to save Phoebe from the F word and rubbing it off the wall. It was so symbolic of my students realizing that they too were going to catch people as they were falling.

 

I think the story was really about the survival of innocence. Many of my kids had lost their innocence. When you lose your innocence, I think you really fight to help others protect it because you know what it's like to have that robbed from you.

 

SB

Last year you wrote " The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide ." You describe a three-stage process. Can you explain this and tell me why it is important?

 

EG

The journey that my students took was three fold. What I boiled down for teachers was engaging them, enlightening them, and then empowering them. The idea in the engage section is to really know where your students come from. And for me I had to find out what their environment was like, what they face at home, and find activities that would make them really understand who they were and where they were coming from.

 

SB

Like the red tape.

 

EG

The red tape, the line game, and other very unorthodox strategies. Once I was able to engage them I needed to really enlighten them with activities that would make them want to pick up a book like The Diary of Anne Frank or Night, by Elie Wiesel. After they were enlightened and reading and writing profound essays and journals, the empowerment section became important. That's where we actually started leaving Room 203 and bringing these lessons to life. Eventually, my students went to Auschwitz and Anne Frank's attic.

 

So in this teacher's guide our idea was how to take our model over this multi-year journey and boil it down for a teacher if they wanted to replicate it in a year. Or, if they were in a juvenile hall and they had six weeks with a student, how could they take some of those lesson plans and do what we did but do it more effectively because they'll actually have a plan to follow.

 

SB

In the film, the school administrator asks you, "Can you repeat this process every year?"

 

EG

I think that's what we are trying to do. We call it bottling the secret sauce. So we tried to get out the secret sauce.

 

SB

You describe the Freedom Writers method as being about inclusion and stripping away stereotypes. What do you mean?

 

EG

We really became a family. In public education, it's very divided. It's very visceral. We call it educational aparthide. There's the haves and have-nots. And so what we tried to do is create this very inclusive, very integrated familial structure in a classroom that was fighting against a world that was very segregated and full of stereotypes. We had to be very proactive and very hands on and through all these unorthodox activities that we really chronicle in the teacher's guide, we really tap into those core issues of racism and division and how to strip them away.

 

SB

In the film Freedom Writers, the school administrator, Margaret, said, "You can't make someone want an education." Do you agree?

 

EG

In a way you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. My students came from a world that was antithetical to education. They didn't have wonderful fathers who supported their education because most of my kids didn't even have a father in the home. For me, it was really important to show them a world that they didn't know and what education would provide for them and that education is an equalizer in an unfair world.

 

For me it was all about making education come to life in very non-traditional ways, being kinesthetic and bringing in holocaust survivors, bringing in movie clips, and really going to all the different modalities that kids learn whether they're linguistic learners or audio learners or visual learners. I was really kind of tapping into each and every one of my students' learning styles and really taking it from there and making them want to learn and really infusing it with motivation.

 

SB

Some of the teachers and administrators at Wilson High seemed to be hoping you would fail as a teacher. Why?

 

EG

I think there's a mediocre mindset for many teachers that they've given up. And when they weren't able to reach their kids, it was easier to stereotype and blame other people in the way the Nazis would blame some of their shortcomings on the Jews. It's a horrible thing when people stereotype and blame and point the finger rather than being accountable for their own actions.

 

It was incredibly important to not buy into those stereotypes and to realize that these teachers had their own issues. They shouldn't have been in the classroom. If you don't believe in your kids, you shouldn't be an educator. For me it was realizing that I had to help my students find their voice outside of all that negativity and outside of that teacher's lounge. I myself just avoided going to the teacher's lounge because it was such a cesspool of negativity.

 

SB

I thought that was a powerful line in the movie when you said to the other teachers, "You don't even like your kids."

 

EG

Many teachers don't. It's a profession that sometimes fosters people who have control issues and they're very manipulative and that's really sad. Educators should not have that demeanor.

 

SB

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act has been a topic of much debate. Can you share your views? And should politicians decide what goes on in the classroom?

 

EG

It's a very controversial bill. It was legislation that really wasn't run through the education system. They didn't get in the grassroots and really talk to teachers about what might be the effects of this bill. And it's created this one size fits all that is not the case for kids. The kids who are really being the most affected by this bill are the kids on the fringe in those dilapidated schools that are destined to fail. And when you give the school a letter grade, a D and an F, it just adds to that problem of a cycle of failure. So, I think the Freedom Writer teachers I'm working with now and my Freedom Writer students really want to challenge this unfunded mandate that came from politicians who are much more concerned about filling their coffers and political propaganda than really sitting down and listening to teachers and encouraging teachers to teach to kids rather than a task. And what is happening now is that teachers are so fixated on test scores because they have to be, that much of that passion that was in our profession has been stripped away.

 

SB

I understand your father was a civil rights activist. How did he influence your work?

 

EG

My dad was this consummate teacher. We had these great debates every night at the dinner table. We were always talking and always asked to be critical thinkers. We were in that environment where you're always questioning, debating, and wanting more. I think that was a great gift that he gave to me that I could give to my students; giving them the ability to debate and be problem solvers and question authority and question themselves.

 

SB

There are many take home messages from watching Freedom Writers. One is that a dedicated and resourceful teacher can make a tremendous difference in the lives of students. How can one motivate teachers in a society where teachers are underpaid, overworked, and undervalued?

 

EG

Well that's why we've started the Freedom Writers Institute. Our whole emphasis is really getting the passion back into the profession and motivating teachers and giving them the tools and resources they may not get when they get their credentials. We want to demystify all of those elements of at risk kids and give them a voice and explain why they do the things they do and why they make the choices that they make.

 

And so I hope I can just continue being an advocate for teachers. It is so amazing to meet so many educators that say, "You've made me smile again. You've given me hope. I believe in my kids and I'm going to try harder.” There is this feeling of, “I'm not alone. I'm not crazy. There are other people who believe like I believe." It's a great feeling of solidarity.

 

SB

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark decision which eliminated segregation and was supposed to provide equal educational opportunities for everybody. What went wrong? How can it be fixed?

 

EG

It was a noble attempt at equalizing through getting rid of this idea that separate is equal because we know it's not equal. This happened in Topeka. I think people were hoping it was going to be this ripple effect that with this Supreme Court case suddenly people would realize that integration was a great thing. Unfortunately, what happened was people just got more creative and went to parochial schools or private schools and we saw that divide continue through economics. And unfortunately in our country so much of the poverty is through racial lines.

 

And so in the last nine years the students and I have traveled to 45 states and done 1,000 presentations and we've seen that schools are still separated and they're still segregated. It's really a travesty. I think there are great beacons of hope at certain schools where they do foster integration and they do believe in integration. But, it's very difficult. You have to be committed to that and you're fighting against societal norms with integration. I think when it works and you can get teachers to buy in and schools to buy in, there's nothing better. When it doesn't work, there's nothing more divisive.

 

SB

In schools there's still a lot of self segregation.

 

EG

Absolutely. It's along gender lines and racial lines, economic lines, and popularity lines. That's one of the things we really have tried to focus on now that we have this foundation. How do you breed a culture where you foster integration and inclusion and acceptance? And it's not just enough to be tolerant. We had a very profound holocaust survivor, Renee Firestone, who was in the film, who said, "It's not enough to just tolerate me. I want to be accepted." And so I think the buzz word of the 90s was really about tolerance, now we're finally moving towards the idea of acceptance.

 

SB

A toast for change.

 

EG

A toast for change.