Erin Gruwell’s first day of student teaching at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California didn’t go so well. The desks in her classroom were covered with gang insignias. Her mentor teacher went out for a cup of coffee and never came back. And then there were the students. “I give her five days,” said one. Another yelled, “I’m going to make this lady cry in front of the whole class.” But they didn’t know who they were dealing with.
The transformation of those students, mostly minority kids from gang-ridden, impoverished neighborhoods, was depicted in the 2006 film Freedom Writers. The school system had written them off, and many had low expectations of the future. How Gruwell was able to get and keep their attention, then inspire them to see greater potentials for their lives, is indeed the stuff of Hollywood legend. One key was getting them out of their limited environment and exposing them to the greater world through a series of field trips. What began with a simple visit to a Holocaust museum culminated in a journey to Washington D.C. to meet the Secretary of Education.
Ultimately, they toured Europe, including Sarajevo.
Today, Gruwell runs the non-profit Freedom Writers Foundation, where many of her former students are members of the staff. With their assistance, she trains other teachers, particularly those who will be working in urban schools. Her goal of empowering students to be active participants in their education has clearly worked; her pupils have thrived since high school, continuing on to college and even graduate school. Some have become teachers themselves, while others work with teens in different capacities. She shared her perspectives on teacher expectations, the tracking system and her famous field trips with SC Magazine.
SC: In your experience, how does the way teachers view students impact student performance, both academically and personally?
"I believed in my students. I believed that they were brilliant and I always say that they have a Ph.D of the streets"
EG: It becomes a very self-fulfilling prophecy. I tried to validate their active knowledge and their prior knowledge, and validate what they knew, who they were and where they were coming from. Everyone has different learning modalities. I had to figure out how to diversify my instructions to accommodate those learning modalities.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of teachers don’t take backgrounds or learning modalities into consideration. There’s a philosophy of ‘one size fits all,’ which I think really does a disservice, because not every kid learns the same or comes from the same background or has the same attributes. For me, it was really important to know all of those elements even before I began instruction.
SC: A lot of what you were doing seems to have been interrupting their thought patterns about themselves. How did you do it?
EG: I used a lot of subversive activities that dealt with substantive issues in a non-threatening way. So we did things with peanuts that really were issues of race, or we did things with crayons that were actually talking about their childhoods. There were always inanimate objects that became symbolic or metaphorical for subjects that were sometimes difficult for people to talk about.
On the flip side, when you’re a kid coming from that environment, hunger is literal. Racism for them was literal. I had to walk that fine line of taking things that were very literal and concrete and making them into metaphors that we could actually talk about, in a way that seemed like a game or seemed to be fun. All of a sudden, at the end of one of these games there would be this ‘aha’ moment, like “Wow. Now I understand where Ms. G was going with this.” I was able to take these really big concepts of exposing themselves and being vulnerable. They didn’t understand that they’d have to be vulnerable, because in their minds, they were playing a game.
SC: You certainly took risks yourself. You would go pretty far to grab their attention and keep it, by doing things like wearing costumes to class or playing games. That seems to have allowed them to feel safe and drop being cool, because in a way it wasn’t even on the table.
EG: They would always roll their eyes and say, “Oh Ms. G, she’s so campy, she’s so over the top,” but that was one of my secret weapons. The sillier I was, the more it allowed them to go back to that place. I give so much credit to elementary school teachers, because they can use all of those different types of techniques to get five-year-olds to try new methods.
I think the older kids get, the more complex it becomes, and they miss out on all that stuff – the show and tells, the costumes, the props and the music. I had a lot of kids who were severely A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. Just for the sake of their attention span.
"I realized that all of these little goofy things that I was doing were a way for me to hold on to their attention in a way that simply rote memorization or me standing up and lecturing would not have done"
SC: What impact did you see on the students’ sense of their own potential when you took them out of their environment on your field trips and exposed them to other aspects of the world?
EG: One of the things I really wanted to impress upon them was that learning can take place at all times and in all places. It’s not between seven in the morning and three-thirty in the afternoon, with bells and whistles and number two pencils. It also forced them to take that conversation home to their families, to continue the dialogue. They saw that the world was a field trip. A lot of my students had never been out of their environment, out of their city. Suddenly they were seeing new places and experiencing new people, and realizing that it wasn’t tied to a task, it wasn’t tied to a number two pencil. I think that became really liberating for them.
"So much of the learning process came from discussions on a bus or in a brand new environment. I loved how field trips forced them to step out of their comfort zone"
SC: What do you think it did for their sense of what was possible?
EG: What I hoped was that they would feel, no matter where we went, that they belonged. I always tried to stress upon them that to anyone who was hosting us, whether it was a museum or a restaurant, they were ambassadors. Often minority students are the kids who get sized up in a liquor store. They get racially profiled. People think they’re going to shoplift or they’re going to be disrespectful. I think if you treat people with respect and dignity, that’s exactly what you’ll get back. That was always something that I marveled at, how my students were able to rise to the occasion. They came from a very respectful place. They were given a chance. Somebody believed in them, and they wanted to prove that they were worthy of that.
SC: It seems like you were holding a vision for them and along the way, they started to buy into that vision. When you had setbacks, how did you respond, and how did they respond?
EG: The great thing was, we had a lot of setbacks. I believe in teachable moments, so every time there was a setback, they were involved in it. Everything was about, how can we learn from this, how can we grow? How can we use this obstacle as a way to make us stronger?
"I never tried to shield them from anything. I was really honest and inclusive with them. Because of that, we all learned"
To this day, when we’re training other teachers, most of my staff is Freedom Writers. To have that be a part of planning the field trips for these teachers we work with is very exciting. They always say, “Wow, Ms. G. How did you pull that off back then when it was just you?” They now have that same kind of, almost invincibility. One of my favorite lines from Tony [one of her students] was, “If Ms. G says we’re going to the moon, somebody better call NASA.”
SC: Because you included them, you empowered them and you also gave them a lot of responsibility for their own learning. That’s a different approach from what we often see in mainstream education.
EG: The first thing you have to do is engage your students. Go to the place where they’re coming from.
"Once you’ve engaged them, you can enlighten them and bring in all the academics. But the most important thing is to empower them"
That’s where they take ownership and accountability that it’s their education. That’s the most fabulous gift that came from all of this: how truly empowered my students were in their education. It was never in isolation. It was always, “How can I share my education with my family, with my friends, with my colleagues? I’m going to meet this amazing Holocaust survivor. It’s my responsibility to go home and share that with my mother, share it with my little brothers and sisters, share it with my friends.” Through the sharing, they became empowered and they became the teacher to other people. I think that was the constant evolution. Sometimes, very specifically, I was their teacher, but other times I was their student. They were teaching me.
SC: Based on your experience, what do you think of the tracking system?
EG: (groans) I hate it! Education is very politicized, and I’ve realized that I’m going to have to speak out against some of the policies in our country that truly don’t work. I will always root for the underdog. I will always root for inclusion, and I feel that
"We’ve created a caste system in our country that basically is educational apartheid"
We’ve created schools that have become so racially segregated from other schools that it’s horrible, and we do the same thing with kids from an early age. We start testing them, we track them, and then from five years old to eighteen, they’re subjected to this caste system in school, and they never feel like they can get out of it.
What I loved about the Freedom Writers was being able to liberate kids who were written off, who were at the bottom, who were told to their faces by administrators and teachers and counselors, “You’re not going to make it.” These kids are now getting graduate degrees.
"That’s revenge – to prove people wrong and say, “You can’t count me out. You put me in a box, and I’m outside of that box.”"
We unfortunately have a system that places kids in boxes and unjustly labels them at a very young age.
SC: There are also the race and class factors that come into play with the tracking system.
EG: That’s what’s very frustrating. The majority of the teachers I’m training work in urban school districts. A school could be 99% African American. With schools that are very affluent, the majority of the students are Caucasian. There really is, unfortunately, a correlation between our educational system and our socio-economic system in this country. There are rare exceptions for economic situations, but that just creates tokenism. I believe education is the greatest equalizer in an unfair playing field, and I wish that our educational system were more equal, and that playing field were more inclusive.
SC: What do you see as the greatest potential impact that a teacher can have in the life of a student?
EG: Anne Frank said, “Sometimes I feel like a bird in a cage and I wish I could fly away.” That imagery of kids feeling like a bird in a cage is so dominant all over our country. I think teachers’ roles are to open up that cage and to teach kids what to do with those wings. Once they do, they’re going to fly. Some are going to be homing pigeons and always return to where they’re from. Some are going to have that great freedom to fly anywhere. I think that really is what teachers do, is teach kids what to do with those wings.
What is the ultimate potential of having someone hold a grander vision for us than we are capable, in the moment, of holding for ourselves?