Erin Gruwell said she’s an ordinary person.
That may be so, but this “ordinary person” brought the crowd to tears as the final speaker of NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday.
Gruwell gave urban board members attending the meeting a glimpse into her classroom and the work she was able to accomplish with 150 California poor and disadvantaged high school students who had been written off by basically everyone.
Gruwell told the story of her classroom and those students in her book, The Freedom Writers Diary, which was made into a movie released in 2007 called “Freedom Writers.”
When the students proved to be difficult for the new teacher to reach, she began to reconsider how college prepared her for her profession. “I was taught to teach to a test. Every kid walked in to my class and said, ‘don’t teach to a test, teach to me.’ Every kid has a different story.”
She was further discouraged by her principal, who told her that she was teaching the lowest performing students in the district. When he told her he hoped they dropped out before they took the year’s standardized tests, she thought, “Where are these kids going to go? They are not invisible and they can’t just disappear.”
Gruwell looked over her English syllabus and chose a few books that she thought would resonate with these students, including the Odyssey and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.
Her students began writing their own stories, triggering the events chronicled in the book and the movie. “Each kid said they were tired of being poor, tired of being called dumb,” Gruwell said. “Each kid knew what it felt like to be hungry. To try to turn on lights and the electricity has been shut off. To dread Christmas or a birthday. Each kid regardless of where they lived knew what it felt like was to be poor.”
Gruwell showed a scene from the movie where a young man reads from his diary about being homeless and finding a home in Gruwell’s class – a scene that brought many in the audience to tears.
“Home is what a lot of your kids don’t have,” said Gruwell. “I hope that when you go back to your communities, those classrooms and schools will become their homes. We have to be families. We might not be the biological parents, but we must fight for them. We have to give them hope, to take risks, fall, and get back up again.”