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Freedom Writer teacher passes message to local educators

L.A.’s Erin Gruwell speaks about getting through to hardened students
Inspiration for the movie Freedom Writers, teacher Erin Gruwell signs books in Whistler. Photo by Vivian Moreau

By Vivian Moreau

The packages of Kleenex on tables in Whistler Secondary’s cafeteria weren’t just for decoration. After a Los Angeles teacher finished her 40-minute talk about changing the lives of 150 inner-city kids there was hardly a dry eye in the room.

Teachers from around the province gathered to hear Erin Gruwell speak last week about how as a first-year high school teacher in Long Beach in 1994 she took up the challenge to motivate a group of hardened kids by encouraging them to write what they knew: about living in a knife-edged poorest of the poor L.A. neighbourhood where funerals were more common than birthday parties.

Gruwell is the real-life inspiration for the movie Freedom Writers , currently in theatres and starring Hilary Swank. Charged with teaching class after class of supposedly unteachable students — third generation gang members who wore ankle irons, their colours, and sometimes black eyes to class — Gruwell brought them around by convincing them to read books which they initially balked at but ended up relating to.

“Why do we have to read books by dead white guys?” one student asked her about Romeo and Juliet,

After hearing their stories of friends and family gunned down and seeing not only emotional but physical scars Gruwell, a self-confessed “cheerleader from Hell,” who wore a polka dot dress and pearl necklace on her first day of teaching, asked her students: “Tell me about your odyssey.” She coaxed them to start keeping journals in a communal and anonymous web-log. The stories were gathered together into a bestselling book and many of her students went on to be the first in their families to graduate, not only from high school, but from college.

Gruwell’s original teaching techniques to get through to her students included buying plastic glasses for everyone and having them toast with apple juice to a fresh start in life. In addition she spent her own money to purchase 150 copies of the Diary of Anne Frank, so her students who had never heard of the Holocaust, could learn.

“If you don’t teach them about history, they’re doomed to repeat it,” Gruwell told her audience at the key note address to the one-day of professional development workshops organized by the Howe Sound Teachers Association.

Gruwell’s message of inspiring hope in students got through to first-year teacher Nicole Rieder, who took a day off from her duties at Burnaby’s Glenwood Elementary to hear Gruwell speak.

“Although she’s been doing it for over 10 years she was where I am right now and so I feel re-energized now,” Rieder said, adding that there are kids in her class that also need a fresh start.

Teaching veteran Charlene Verbeek from Squamish’s Mamquam Elementary said there are more stories like Gruwell’s out there.

“A lot of teachers (with) over 30 years of teaching will never get a movie made,” Verbeek said, “...and we need teaching to be out there for the world to see what an impact kids and teachers can have on each other’s lives.”