Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"The Freedom Writers Diary" by The Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell

Summary: Erin Gruwell, a new teacher in a high school in dangerous Long Beach, California, is shocked when her students aren't familiar with the Holocaust.  In response, she begins an ambitious curriculum based around the theme of tolerance where students are encouraged to make connections between--and write about--history, literature, and the violence and injustice of their own lives.  Freedom Writers is a collection of the students' writings and details the students' realizations and transformations through their time with Gruwell.

Musings: I can't help but approach this book as an educator (and, sadly, a natural cynic), so I think I had some difficulty finding this book as inspirational as others have (I imagine vets would feel the same way about All Creatures Great and Small, which I quite enjoyed).  But, first, the good.  Students are rarely given voices, and clearly Gruwell was successful in helping "at-risk" kids, who have been failed by the school system, gain agency, self-confidence, and strength.  She also gave students a caring and supportive environment, something all teenagers desperately need.  Through her efforts, the students felt important, recognized, and empowered to make positive change in their own lives and their community.  The book also acknowledges the awareness young people in bad environments have of what's wrong in their world, and instead of condemning them for it, the book (and the Freedom Writers program) gives them a positive outlet.

Each "diary" entry is not attributed to a specific student.  Gruwell says early on this is to protect the students and acknowledge the role all the students played in editing, revising, and supporting.  Yet the style of the entries simply rang false to me.  I've read a lot of 9th grade writing--both in a wealthy suburb and in the inner city--and very few students write with such strong narrative style.  The entries were structured similarly and sounded similar, making them seem inauthentic.  While I don't doubt the truth of the students' stories, the book felt overly edited and standardized.

Nearly all the entries concern tragedy in a student's life: child abuse, domestic abuse, rape, beatings, drug and alcohol abuse, teenager pregnancy, illness, homelessness.  Most entries end with general statements about the student's new-found desire to overcome the challenges or prejudices and save the world.  It's great for the students to feel inspired to change, but it's much more difficult to actually make those changes, and that aspect of the students' lives was missing.  In the end, I felt like the book defined the students by tragedy.  That's the only lens the reader sees them through, rather than hearing about what they actually did to change.  In reducing the students to heart breaking stories, the students become more stories and less people.

Gruwell also discusses some of the problems she had with her department.  I can totally understand; I'm sure I'd hate her too.  She does amazing things for her students personally and gets computers donated, meets celebrities, and brings the students on various trips around the country.  I couldn't help but imagine the other high school students not in her class had to feel abandoned and left out, and other teachers--even excellent ones--had to feel inadequate.  That's not to say Gruwell shouldn't have done what she did, but rather it's sad that only one group got so much attention and support.

I was much more interested in how Gruwell achieved such community and involvement in her classroom, but the book does not address her teaching methods.  She has written other books about curriculum that probably would have been more appealing to me.

Freedom Writers illustrates the struggle of students in rough districts and is able to show the positive effects of creating a safe community for young people to share and move beyond tragedy.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Win! Win!" category).

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