Interview: Erin Gruwell, author of 'The Freedom Writers Diary'

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  January 3, 2007 @ 5:21am

Filed under: Interviews

Let's face it, for a lot of teenagers, school is the last place they want to be. I know that for the first 3 or so years of my high school career, I couldn't wait to get the heck out of there as soon as the bell rang. I just wasn't interested in math or science. That all changed in Grade 11 when the school hired a teacher by the name of Jeff Spence. Mr. Spence helped me pursue an interest in computers and before long, not only was I coming in early and staying late, but I found myself in charge of the entire school computer network.

That sole man changed high school for me and while I can't even begin to identify with the struggles faced by a group of inner city youth in a post-riot Los Angeles, the fact that they continued to go to school and learn in the face of such tough odds is a feat that should be celebrated. Their Jeff Spence was Erin Gruwell, a fresh-out-of-college teacher who beat the odds to teach such subjects as history and the Holocaust to a group that normally would be far from interested. Her kids' stories formed the book The Freedom Writers Diaries, which is now a major motion picture. I had the chance to catch up with Erin Gruwell by phone from Phoenix to talk about education, her hopes for the film, and her recent visit to Vancouver.

Erin Gruwell: Hello... Hi this is Erin Gruwell.

Mark McLeod: Hello, this is Mark McLeod from up in Vancouver.

EG: We were just there a few days ago, it was fantastic. We were up in Vancouver and in the last few years since our book came out, I've been able to go to Vancouver about a dozen times and Toronto and Alberta and Calgary. I've had the amazing opportunity to visit several of your provinces.

MM: How did you know that you first wanted to become a teacher?

EG: I had an amazing father. My dad was a civil rights activist in the U.S. and as a kid we talked a lot about equality and fighting for the underdog. Ironically, one of my father's later careers, he was affiliated with the Anaheim Angels which became part of the farm system for the California Angels, and I actually went to Vancouver when they were the Triple A team for the California Angels. My dad talked a lot about some of his icons like Hank Aaron, who integrated baseball and allowed people to look outside of race and geography. My dad always said you should judge a batter by his swing and not by the color of his skin. So a lot of my sensibility came from my dad and after we had the Los Angeles Riots in the early nineties, that really riveted me. Up until then I was planning on being a laywer and going to law school. And that moment watching the riots on television, I thought I could do so much more that was proactive in a classroom than reactionary in a courtroom.

MM: Movies like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers often try to dramatize the events a lot to make a more compelling on-screen story. How close is the on-screen version to the real events?

EG: I spent a lot of time with the screenwriter who eventually became the director. The first thing we did when we sat down was decided this is not a Dangerous Minds-type story or a Hallmark after-school special or something that really debases teenagers. It has to be gritty, honest, and true enough so kids both in America and internationally can go to the film and see their own stories. The whole thing is from the kids' book The Freedom Writers Diary which is a dialogue directly to the kids from their written word, which is now up on screen, and it's a tribute to them. Since we were consultants and we got to go to the set and some of the Freedom Writers were extras, we feel it's incredibly accurate and true to life.

MM: So you were closely involved throughout the production process?

EG: Absolutely. Hilary Swank was actually my first choice to portray the teacher. It really was that there was this incredibly passionate Academy Award-winner who brought so much of her own story to life through this film. She dropped out of high school and then went back and got her GED and grew up in poverty in a trailer park not far from Vancouver in Bellingham, Washington, and really wanted people to know she was going to be an advocate long after the film was over. It's really great that we have these partners now, both in the studio and the actors and everyone who was involved, and that they could be an advocate for kids. And just because you do something bad, doesn't make you a bad person.

MM: In the film, it shows some of your unique teaching approaches, first with showing you utilizing rap music which was something that was used to an extent in my own school background. How did you come up with these ideas?

EG: It didn't happen specifically. I think in America, there's a system where you're teaching to a task. We're very status-driven and politically-driven that an education should be coming from educators. For me, when I first started teaching, I was inundated with stereotypes about how my kids were not supposed to make it and how they were unteachable and how they couldn't read a book. So what I tried to do is find these universal storylines that would resonate with them, and one of them was intolerance. When students are in gangs and there's murders, then pain is pain and regardless of if it was written two thousand years ago by someone wearing a toga or someone who wore tights, instead of teaching that I wanted to present them in a way that was universal. If I wanted my kids to understand iambic pentameter and that a rose is a rose is a rose, then I needed to understand Tupac when he said a rose is concrete, or if I wanted to teach Shakespere, then I better understand Snoop Doggy Dogg. If I wanted my kids to pick up a pen instead of a gun then I better show them real stories of real people in the world like Anne Frank. For me, it wasn't about watering down the curriculum but at the same time not treating the kids like it was a one size fits all. To teach the Holocaust I had to bring in survivors, I had to take them to the museum and show them photographs -- this is what happens when you don't learn from history and if you don't learn, you're doomed to repeat it. And that's what's happening in urban communities across the country, a genocide of sorts, perpetuated on teenagers because of their skin color or gang affiliations, and I think when my students were able to meet an Auschwitz survivor who rolled up their sleeves and showed them her tattoos talking about how she came to America emancipated, weighing 80 pounds and living alone and saying how she was afraid and saying, "What is your excuse?". It was just a riveting moment and I realized that I have to take a step backward and I have to be the student, because this survivor is now the teacher, and then later on it was the woman who saved Anne Frank. I think those activities just came from necessity and realizing that it was almost like Guerilla teaching that I have to do, anything and everything I can to reach these kids, and that right now this is more important than the lesson plan we were teaching. For me, a lot of it was on-the-fly and intuition.

MM: Right now up in Vancouver and up here in Canada, and I'm sure it's probably a universal situation, class sizes are getting larger and teachers are having to deal with more and more students. And the one-on-one time and the connection between teachers and students is kind of distancing itself. How important do you feel working closely with the students is to furthering a kid's education?

EG: What was so wonderful about our recent trip to Vancouver, was that we got to spend time at Queen Alexandra Elementary on the east side and we met all the teachers, administrators, and the kids. What we did that was so exciting was that we brought in a group of the most successful business people in Vancouver who had a group called the Young Presidents organization, and essentially they are all CEOS and business leaders, and see these kids -- who are the most economically-challenged in Vancouver -- and just say to these educators, here are people that can become your partners. If you need money for a field trip or to buy books, reach out to these leaders and build bridges. I think what's overwhelming for a teacher is that we don't have the resources and our classrooms are busting at the seems, and we don't get paid for all that we put into the profession and I think that what's really beautiful is that these kids are hopeful and that adults believe in them. But also, for these leaders who can now think, we have an open invitation to give back and buy books for kids, that we never realized how important that was. So they ended up buying an entire school set of musical equipment and these fourth graders actually performed for us that night and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was a beautiful moment that everyone thought, regardless of test scores and class sizes and how overwhelmed we all feel in our lives and careers, it was such a fusion of all of us coming together. I'm hoping that this film will allow these moments to happen and allow that dialogue to continue and for people to say, "How do I give back to a community and how do I do something like Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers did? How do I do it right here in Vancouver, or in Calgary, or Winnipeg?"

MM: I was lucky in that I had a teacher who went the extra mile for me and helped me by giving me extra credit assignments in managing the school computer network, and while I grew up in a more affluent area of the city, it really did give me something extra to look forward to at school.

EG: What's really great about the film, is that kids who come out after seeing the film have one of two reactions. There's the kids who had a teacher like you did and all of them remember that teacher, and the kids that didn't have it crave it so much. "Why didn't I have that one person who believed in me?" And I think the kids from that Queen Alexandra class, most of them didn't have that one person, which is really a travesty when their parents are deadbeats or MIA and then when you go to school and you actually spend more time at school then you do at home and you don't have a teacher. It can really make kids feel like they're nothing. So I think what this film is eliciting is that those who had it are really thankful and those who didn't, really really want it.

MM: In the on-screen post-script captions, it gives the audience a little bit of what's happened since the main events in the movie, and of course you have the Foundation now.

EG: I do, it's called The Freedom Writers Foundation, and what we're doing is teaching teachers how to do something more effective in the classroom and invite them to believe in every single kid, and that every kid can make it and when we were at Queen Alexandra, the YCO and the CEO decided we're going to bring the fourth grade teacher to Long Beach and take a little bit of Long Beach back to Vancouver.

MM: How involved are you with the original kids from that first class?

EG: There were 150 original Freedom Writers and they are part of the foundation. We have a Freedom Writers Institute and they are teachers there and we see each other constantly. Several of them speak about our story and some of them train the teachers. We're still together, we're still this large family. We like to say we're the most functional dysfunctional family around and we really are this family that has been together for over a decade. I've really been able to see a lot of them receive scholarships to help get themselves through college. It's the most amazing tribute to them that they've paid for their own education through their own hard work and through their book.

MM: Now you mentioned the book, and the film takes place in the 90s before the internet. Do you think anything different may have happened if this happened now with the ability to post on blogs, etc.?

EG: Yes and no. I think we have the hindsight of 20/20 and there's something about the written word that was absolutely powerful or me. To have a book, and most of these students hadn't read a book cover-to-cover, and to feel that I'm the first person to read this book is an amazing feeling. But with this international community, we've actually trained teachers from Toronto, and whether all these teachers be it in New York or Texas or California, they are all sharing their stories with one another. We're just able to disseminate a lot more information because of the things I didn't have as a teacher. I didn't have the internet as a tool and I didn't even have a cell phone as a teacher. It's great to see these teachers and students and communicate so easily. I had to use snail mail and send our letter to Miss Geeps the old fashioned way, but there was something in that suspense that they were sending a message in a bottle over to Amsterdam and we hope that she gets it. Now with e-mail and text messaging, we probably could have reached her in the same day, but there's something very special about picking up a pen and actually writing it down.

MM: Thanks for your time this afternoon.

EG: Ahh, thank you.

For more information on Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers Foundation, visit Freedom Writers, from Paramount Pictures, opens in theatres everywhere Friday, January 5th.

Tags: Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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