THE FREEDOM WRITERS DIARY How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them By The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell
The Freedom Writers Diary is the amazing true story of strength, courage, and achievement in the face of adversity. In the fall of 1994, in Room 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, an idealistic twenty-four-year-old teacher named Erin Gruwell faced her first group of students, dubbed by the administration as "unteachable, at-risk" teenagers. This group was unlike any she had ever interacted with.
The kids took bets on how long their new teacher would last in their classroom. Then a pivotal event changed their lives forever: when a racial caricature of one of the African American students circulated the classroom, Erin angrily intercepted the drawing and compared it to a Nazi exaggeration of Jews during the Holocaust. To her amazement, the students responded with puzzled looks. Erin was appalled to discover that not one child in her class knew of the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors. When asked how many had been shot at, however, all raised their hands, and a battle-scar show-and-tell began that shocked Erin even more.
Erin Gruwell had touched a nerve, and she ran with it. Knowing that her students were all too familiar with violence, she introduced them to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. Reluctant at first to read the strange texts, the students of Room 203 soon paralleled their lives to those of Anne and Zlata- teenagers also surrounded by violence- and could not believe their intense connections to the stories. Each student began to keep his or her own anonymous diary, recording tormenting stories of drug use, struggles with physical and mental abuse, reaction to Erin and her unconventional teaching methods. The results were the foundation of a life-changing, spiritually enriching journey that began with a symbolic "toast for change," and has not stopped since.
From the moment they named themselves the "Freedom Writers," the students of Room 203 changed from a group of apathetic delinquents to a closely knit, motivated family with Erin Gruwell as their guide. The Freedom Writers worked extremely hard to bring their first influences off the page and into their lives, with funds raised from a "Read-a-thon for Tolerance" set up by Erin, as well as endless moonlighting jobs that Erin worked, they arranged for Miep Gies, the courageous Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family, to visit them in California. Soon after, Zlata Filipovic responded to the Freedom Writers' many letters inviting her to Long Beach, and she spent five days with them, allowing the Freedom Writers to compare notes with her. This reinforced to the Freedom Writers that voices are heard, change is possible, and a difference can be made in people through the power of words.
The Freedom Writers have since continued to spread their story and message throughout the world. In 1997 they held an "Echoes of the Soul" fund-raising concert to help pay for a trip to Washington, D.C., where they toured the Holocaust Museum and presented their diary to Secretary of Education Richard Riley. This trip also allowed them to emulate their heroes, the Freedom Riders, by holding a peace march and prayer vigil for victims of intolerance at the Washington Monument. In 1998 they won the Spirit of Anne Frank Award- the Freedom Writers traveled to New York to accept the award. Most recently, in the summer of 1999, one of their most far-reaching goals was achieved. The Freedom Writers and Erin visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam; the concentration camps Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Chelmno in Poland; and visited Zlata in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Most important all 150 Freedom Writers have graduated from High School and are attending college.