Erin Gruwell, who famously helped inner-city kids form the group Freedom Writers, spoke Oct. 26 in the Grande Ballroom. Gruwell shared experiences she had while working with high school students in difficult circumstances in Long Beach, Calif.
When Gruwell was introduced to these students, she soon learned the difficult situations they were. All 150 students scored under the 25 percentile in comprehensive tests. Many of the students had been to more funerals of loved ones than to birthday parties.
As part of a writing exercise, she had students write their stories in a journal. One student wrote that he just wanted to stay alive and be the first in his family to finish high school.
Gruwell spoke about how many people were not willing to give them a chance.
“All my 150 students were told they were too stupid,” she said.
But that was something she refused to believe. She wanted to give the students hope. One day, she brought apple cider and champagne glasses to class and had everybody make a toast to change their lives and become somebody.
In order to help them accomplish this, Gruwell had to change some of her teaching strategies. She recalled one student early on in the school year that said, “Don’t teach to a task, teach to me.”
That was just one instance that taught Gruwell that there is a huge difference between theory and practice.
One such practice was comparing historical stories to the lives of the students. For example, she compared many of the students to Romeo and Juliet, noting the similarities of their involvement in gangs. This helped students understand Shakespeare by comparing it to their own lives. It also helped them comprehend themselves. Gruwell is, however, hesitant to accept praise for her efforts.
“All I did was stand up for a couple kids. I hope that all you will stand up for hope as well,” she added, challenging the audience to stand up for others and to not let others bully people around.
The Freedom Writers Diary, a book created from Gruwell’s experiences with these students, was published in 1999. 100 copies were available to students at the presentation and all 100 copies were sold. Many students were able to have their copies signed by Gruwell afterward.