How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them

The title of this post is the subtitle of The Freedom Writers' Diary, which I'm reading right now (among many other things). Here's the premise, in case you've been living under a rock:

As an idealistic twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Wilson High School in Long beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of “unteachable, at-risk” students. One day she intercepted a note with an ugly racial caricature, and angrily declared that this was precisely the sort of thing that led to the Holocaust—only to be met by uncomprehending looks. So she and her students, using the treasured books Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing, eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. They learned to see the parallels in these books to their own lives, recording their thoughts and feelings in diaries and dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”

The story of these students is so overtly about the power of writing and language that I'm frankly appalled that we're not talking about it in composition studies. I keep waiting to see a thread about it on WPA-L or posts on blogs, but I've seen nothing (and if these discussions are happening and I'm missing them, do let me know). What are the implications of this story? What composing practices are taking place? What rhetorical interventions are being made? What connections can be made between expressivism (scroll down) and the writing these students are doing? What, according to these students, does it mean to write about their experiences? What are the consequences?

I am going to write a review of this book when I finish it. Maybe I'll send it to a journal. I'll either do that or post it here.


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Basic Writing

I remember a lot of people in basic writing talking about the book when it first came out, mainly because it fit what a lot of us were already doing, especially in our outreach and service learning programs. The film, however, has turned a lot of people off because of the "teacher as hero" mentality. Didn't Chuck Tyron blog about this? Someone did, but I can't remember.

Movie, schmovie

Yeah, I imagine the film is probably pretty excruciatingly sentimental and heavy-handed. I'm not proposing that rhetcompers see the movie; I'm just suggesting that we read the book -- the writing that these students did -- and have a conversation about it. I was hoping you'd comment, actually, Nels, because I figured if anyone in composition studies had paid attention to the Freedom Writers, it would be you. So thanks! :-)

I guess I need to tune in to what BW folks are saying about the book. Pity that the discussion has been limited to BW so far, though; I think composition studies in general can learn from The Freedom Writers' Diary.

It's The Book

2 Board Alley

I haven't looked at the book because I have a knee-jerk avoidance reaction to "teacher as hero"movies, but maybe I'll buy it for my summer reading list if it's about the students and their work.

Oh, it is.

Yeah, Joanna, the book has some entries by Gruwell, but the vast majority of them are by students. You can skip Gruwell's if you like.

So... the worst thing to happen to a book as powerful as this for it to be made into a movie? I know this is not the discussion you wanted to have, Clancy, but it is fascinating how many people are turned off by this book because of the movie that followed and its use of the teacher-as-hero trope. At least, that's what I've encountered in various places.

I saw the movie first then

I saw the movie first then was sent the book by my future mother-in-law. Then my fiance found this Anna Quindlan essay on the Freedom Writers:

I see this text as a great opportunity to talk about writing as empowerment but also as healing. In the research I am doing now I see the healing aspect more interesting, especially when that writing is done online for the public to see, but I agree that Elbow is applicable, particulary what he has to say about risk taking in public writing.

it's not the book -as -movie, per se

2 Board Alley

It's not the book's being made into a movie that turned me off--I hadn't heard of the book, so when the movie came out, I dismissed it as a another schlocky teacher movie. It sounds like the book is much different from the movie, though.

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