Erin Gruwell and The Freedom Writers

Another one of my professional mentors as a future teacher working with at-risk students is Erin Gruwell, whom I was first introduced at age 13, when my Grade 8 class went to see Freedom Writers at my local movie theatre. This movie resonated with me more than almost any film I’ve ever seen, and this past year, I made it my mission to learn as much about Erin and her students as I possibly could. I read the original bestseller, The Freedom Writers Diary, Erin’s personal memoir, AND a book written by a group of Freedom Writers teachers that contains a great deal of reflection, advice, and suggestions for classroom activities. While I will be working with elementary school-aged children, Erin Gruwell is the type of teacher that I aspire to be, and I hope that I can meet her in person someday to thank her for this. I gave a presentation about Erin and her class in my At-Risk children course this past January, and wanted to share it on my blog, along with Erin’s TED talks about the power of education, writing, and role models in changing the lives of young people.

 

As a becoming teacher, helping children to find resiliency within themselves is something I am incredibly passionate about. In reflecting on my own personal experiences, I would say that I am a very resilient individual, and I attribute a great deal of this to my parents and my upbringing. Growing up with a moderate physical disability, I was relentlessly bullied throughout the majority of my schooling. However, my family (and in particular my mom) helped me to discover the resilient attitude and coping skills that I would need to overcome these circumstances, and I can honestly say that I am a stronger, more empathetic and compassionate person because of these experiences.

Resilience is not an overnight process– it is gradually built up in students over a long period of time. In my opinion, a classic example of this is the story of Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers. Erin was working as a high school English teacher in Long Beach, California with a group of students who could definitely be classified as “at-risk.” Many of her students were living in extreme poverty, and grappling with issues such as gang violence, addiction, abuse, and various other familial problems when she met them. Through her innovative, caring approaches to teaching however, Erin was eventually able to bring her students together to create a strong classroom community, and to help her class develop the resilience that they would need to succeed in the face of their challenging circumstances.

The story of Erin and her students was compiled into a bestselling book called The Freedom Writers Diary, which was later translated into a movie. Last year, I had the privilege of attending a video chat session with one of Erin’s former students, where he told us that one of the scenes in the movie was taken almost verbatim from one of his own journal entries in The Freedom Writers Diary. That scene is included below:

 

**Links to Erin’s TED Talks:

Richard Lavoie: Changing the Way we Look at Learning Disabilities

“It’s okay, I know how you feel.” To most of us, this statement seems innocently empathetic and well-meaning. However, to author and educator Richard Lavoie, uttering this phrase is one of the biggest mistakes that a Special Education teacher can make, and after realizing this, he was inspired to take action to change the way that teachers view and treat children with learning disabilities.

In “How difficult can this be?”, Lavoie hosts an intense, interactive workshop (called “The F.A.T. City Workshop–one of his most well-known seminars) in order to provide individuals with insight into the frustration, anxiety and tension that is encountered by students with learning disabilities each and every school day. Through a series of activities and group discussions, Richard Lavoie offers a wide variety of powerful messages regarding learning disabilities and the Special Education system, many of which are still relevant today.

The first time that I watched this video, I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree. My education course for that year had started a lecture series on students with special needs, and used this workshop as an introductory tool. I remember just how much Lavoie’s presentation resonated with me, and how shocked I was to realize that many of the problems he points out are still being experienced by many students with learning disabilities. I had the opportunity to watch “How difficult can this be?” recently during my alternative practicum, and I was still as much in awe as I was three years ago. I also took time to watch Lavoie’s follow-up video called “Beyond F.A.T. City,” and found myself incredibly inspired by what  he had to say.

The message in this video is simple, yet crucial for anyone who works with students with learning disabilities: 1) A learning disability isn’t a problem— it is simply a difference in the way one learns, and 2) Learning disabilities are something that children can have, not what they are. In other words, we need to remember that a learning disability is not the defining feature of any kid’s identity. It is merely one component in an incredibly unique and multifaceted child, who is capable of greatness and will thrive when provided with support from compassionate adults and effective instruction. I would recommend both of these videos to just about anyone, and I will certainly be taking Lavoie’s advice with me into my own classroom, in order to minimize anxiety and maximize self-efficacy in my students with special needs.

Here is the link to the original F.A.T. City Workshop, which is available on YouTube: