Here’s a twist on an old proverb: “You can put a student in a classroom, but you can’t make them learn.” In the early 1990s, this was more or less how most educators felt about a particular class in Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The fault in their logic was it presupposed they were unteachable. Erin Gruwell, a 23-year-old first-year teacher, proved them wrong.
Unwilling to accept the class’s reputation as a “lost cause,” Gruwell spent months trying to engage her students. Her breakthrough moment came when she intercepted a note that contained a racist drawing. She compared the drawing to Nazi propaganda, which led to the distressing discovery that most of her students had never heard of the Holocaust. Her response was to have her students read The Diary of Anne Frank, the first of many readings and assignments that, ultimately, changed their lives.
In addition to their classwork, Gruwell gave her student’s journals to write about the troubles in their past, present, and future. She eventually compiled the journal entries to create The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World around Them, which became the basis of the 2007 film Freedom Writers. Both the book and film should be considered prerequisites for Gruwell’s talk at the University of Rochester on November 17.
As the second speaker in the 2022–2023 season of the Neilly Author Series, Gruwell will discuss how to become a catalyst for change and her newest book, Dear Freedom Writer: Stories of Hardship and Hope from the Next Generation.
This season of the Neilly Series is dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the University of Rochester's Department of Psychiatry. Gruwell’s book and the others highlighted in this season’s talks support key concepts in the biopsychosocial model—developed by University professors George Engel and John Romano—which serves as the cornerstone of psychiatric education and training.
Effectively a sequel, Dear Freedom Writer is almost entirely composed of letters from students of today to original Freedom Writers. The letters from the new generation of Freedom Writers share stories on abuse, racism, discrimination, poverty, mental health, imposed borders, LGBTQIA+ identity, and police violence. In return, they receive empathetic, but not patronizing, responses that offer the kind of advice that only someone who’s “been there” could give.
In addition to being a teacher and author, Gruwell is the founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation, whose mission is to provide educators with tools to empower all students to succeed. Through the foundation, she currently teaches educators around the world how to implement her innovative lesson plans in their classrooms. ∎
All Neilly Author Series talks are free and open to the public, made possible by the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Endowed Fund. For more information on Erin Gruwell’s talk, contact Kim Osur, development manager at the River Campus Libraries, at email@example.com.