"When you feel the pang of hunger in your stomach, that's reality. When you are shot at on your way to school, that's reality. When you have been a pallbearer at your friend's funeral, that's reality." - Erin Gruwell (from the preface in Teaching Hope).
Here's someone to be thankful for!
Erin Gruwell has earned an award-winning reputation for her steadfast commitment to the future of education. Her impact as a change agent runs deep. In January 2007, Paramount Pictures released Freedom Writers, starring two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Erin. The film is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, the New York Times bestseller that chronicled Erin's extraordinary journey with 150 high school students who had been written off by the education system.
I first met Erin at a Women in Leadership Summit in Boston, and had an opportunity to interview Erin at her foundation's headquarters in Long Beach, California, in 2006, while the feature film was being shot. That interview remains one of the most popular on Total Picture Radio, having been downloaded thousands of times.
Questions for Erin Gruwell
- You've been out on a book tour, promoting Teaching Hope, and the 10th Anniversary Edition of Freedom Writers. What have you learned? What have people shared with you?
- What have you been asked most often?
- When I visited your Foundation in 2006, a number of your staff members were former students of yours. Is that still true?
- Do you continue to stay in touch with the students from room 203?
- It's hard to believe its been 10 years since the Freedom Writers Diary was first published. A 10th Anniversary Edition was just published? (Any new content?)
- As I mentioned in the open, all of your students at Wilson High not only graduated from high school, but went on to college. By any standard, that's remarkable. Is there any one thing you can point to as the catalyst for this success?
- How did the Teaching Hope come about?
- How were the 150 teachers profiled in Teaching Hope selected?
- Considering your success, the film the fact that the Freedom Writers has sold over 1 million copies, you would think these teachers would have a relatively easy time of it. However, as you point out in your preface to Teaching Hope, they did not.
- One of the assumptions I had picking up Teaching Hope for the first time proved wrong. I assumed there would be 150 new "Erins" young idealists right out of college ready to change the world. That's not who most of these teacher are.
- Teaching Hope is organized in sections: Anticipation, Challenges, Engagement, Disillusionment, Rejuvenation, and Empowerment. Did you anticipate this structure, or did it present itself?
- There are so many incredible stories in these pages, could you share one or two with the audience?
- What haven't I asked that you think is important to know?
Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers went on to establish the Freedom Writers Foundation to replicate the success of Room 203 and provide all students with hope and opportunities to realize their academic potential. Since then, the foundation has trained more than 150 teachers in the United States and Canada. Teaching Hope unites the voices of these Freedom Writer teachers, who share uplifting, devastating, and poignant stories from their classrooms, stories that provide insight into the struggles and triumphs of education in all of its forms.
Mirroring an academic year, these dispatches from the front lines of education take us from the anticipation of the first day to the disillusionment, challenges, and triumphs of the school year. These are the voices of teachers who persevere in the face of intolerance, rigid administration, and countless other challenges, and continue to reach out and teach those who are deemed unteachable. Their stories inspire everyone to make a difference in the world around them.
By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students' lives. She encouraged them to re-think rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider daily decisions, and ultimately re-chart their futures. With Erin's support, they chose to forego teenage pregnancy, drugs, and violence to become aspiring college students, published writers, and citizens for change. They dubbed themselves the ―Freedom Writers –in homage to civil rights activists The Freedom Riders—and published a book.
Inspired by Anne Frank, Erin and her students captured their collective journey in The Freedom Writers Diary. Through poignant student entries and Erin's narrative text, the book records their ―eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. In early 2007, Teach With Your Heart, Erin's powerful memoir and call to arms was published.
While Erin has been credited with giving her students a ―second chance, it was perhaps she who changed the most during her tenure at Wilson High School. She decided to channel her classroom experiences toward a broader cause, and today her impact as a teacher extends well beyond Room 203. Erin founded the Freedom Writers Foundation where she currently teaches teachers around the country how to implement her innovative lesson plans into their own classrooms. Recently, Erin's teaching methods from her time in Room 203 have been published in the Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide. Proceeds from the sale of all books directly fund the Freedom Writers Foundation.
Erin and her students have appeared on numerous television shows, including Oprah, Prime Time Live with Connie Chung, Barbara Walters' The View, and Good Morning America, to name a few. Their story has earned them dozens of awards, including the Spirit of Anne Frank Award.
Erin is a graduate of the University of California Irvine, where she received the Lauds and Laurels Distinguished Alumni Award. She earned her Master's Degree and teaching credentials from California State University Long Beach, where she was honored as Distinguished Alumna by the School of Education. Now depicted in a bestselling book and a feature film, the Freedom Writers phenomenon came about in 1994, when Erin Gruwell stepped into Room 203 and began her first teaching job out of college. Long Beach, California, was still reeling from the deadly violence that erupted during the Rodney King riots, and the kids in Erin's classroom reflected the anger, resentment, and hopelessness of their community. Undaunted, Erin fostered an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, tolerance, and communication, and in the process, she transformed her students' lives, as well as her own.
About Peter Clayton
Peter Clayton, Producer/Host, is an award-winning producer/director of radio, television, documentary, video, interactive and Web-based media who has created breakthrough media for a wide array of Fortune 100 clients.