Tag Archives: freedom writers

Get on the School Bus: Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers


Any public school teacher will attest to the difficulty of organizing a field trip. There’s paperwork to fill out, signatures to obtain, and money to raise. Not to mention the logistical headache of shepherding an unwieldy troop of hyperactive youth through public spaces. I, myself, have an uncomfortable memory of taking thirty 9th graders to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan during my first year as a teacher. As we were walking across Central Park, one of my students lit out across the grass and unleashed a premeditated and brutal airborne tackle upon an unsuspecting (and much smaller) friend. “He’s killed him,” I thought.

This isn’t to say that field trips aren’t amazing learning experiences, just that they can be a challenge for the already overwhelmed teacher. Which is one reason why Erin Gruwell’s story of taking 75 Los Angeles teenagers to Europe to learn about the Holocaust and the Bosnian Genocide affected me so powerfully.

If you don’t know already, Gruwell is the teacher made famous by the book, The Freedom Writers Diary, and even more famous by the subsequent film version starring Hillary Swank. To us mortal teachers, she is like some kind of rare and exotic bird—the celebrity teacher—looking down upon us from on high along with Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver, LouAnne Johnson of Dangerous Minds, and other colorfully plumed celebriteachers.

Five minutes of conversation with the down-to-earth Gruwell and you realize her good fortune has not sidetracked her from her life’s purpose: to create meaningful educational experiences for urban youth, specifically those kids who are too often expected to fail. The trip to Europe was one of these experiences, a kind of experiential capstone to a four-year odyssey of reading such books as The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary while committing their own stories to paper.

“We visited the Chelmno extermination camp,” Gruwell recalled, “and there were residences right next to the site. The people living there [during the Holocaust], they heard the screams, saw the ashes, and did nothing.”

Gruwell and her students received an important message from an elderly townsman. “Evil prevails when good people do nothing,” he warned them. To a group of students familiar with the sound of gunshots in their own neighborhoods and a prevailing snitches-get-stitches inner city culture, these words resonated deeply.

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Filed under Essays, Interviews

Book Excerpt: This ain’t Hollywood


Let’s set a couple of things straight.

Dangerous Minds is a movie, and not a very good one at that.

Wikipedia claims that it’s based on a true story, but even Ernest Goes to Jail had to be based on something, right? Everything viewed through the lens of Hollywood—from inner-city teaching to the misadventures of an ignoramus—is a distortion of reality. You will never be the tough talking disciplinarian with a heart of gold who reaches unreachable students, as depicted in Dangerous Minds. That is nothing more than a series of dumb clichés dressed up to look like an inspiring feel-good flick.

Resist the urge to imagine yourself as some altruistic superteacher come to save the lives of hardened inner-city kids. They don’t want to be saved by you, alright? Or at least not in the way that you’re imagining, or that Hollywood seems to insist upon.

And I encourage you to really take a hard look at yourself here. Do you write emails to your friends from college, the secret purpose of which is to impress upon them what a champion you are because you teach in the Bronx or Compton? Stop it! If for no other reason than that it’s insulting to your students. Anyone who would compare their teaching life to Dangerous Minds is confused in some deep-seated and tragic way. There’s enough posturing in the room already. Don’t contribute to it.

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Filed under Book Excerpts