Featured Author: Jessica Fenton
“When diverse worlds come together, beauty is inevitable.” –Erin Gruwell
I admire Erin Gruwell for everything she has accomplished. Most people have heard of her from the Hollywood film Freedom Writers. Erin’s story fascinated me from the moment I heard about the Freedom Writers. Erin helped 150 students, who were not destined to graduate, receive their high school diploma. Many went off to university. She engaged, enlightened, and empowered her students who were nominally deemed as “unteachable”, “rejects”, or “too stupid” to believe in themselves and their ability to succeed. Erin’s students followed in the footsteps of the ‘Freedom Riders’ and are known as the Freedom Writers after they published the book The Freedom Writers Diary in 1999. They were writing for change and educating the world through their stories of how a group of “throw-outs” and rival gangs can come together, co-exists in harmony, and teach each other regardless of colour, race, religion, or socioeconomic status.
Erin established the Freedom Writers Foundation (FWF) to help support students in the U.S. overcome their adversities, graduate from high school, and go to college. Through the foundation, Erin offers workshops to teachers from all over the world. She provides educators the knowledge to teach using the Freedom Writers Method—a model which makes lessons relevant to kids and allows teachers to see that ‘every kid can make it’.
2009- I met Erin.
On the day of Erin’s speaking event in Moncton, New Brunswick, I was excited beyond words to hear Erin bring her expertise to New Brunswick teachers. After a year of being on the planning committee for the event, I was so looking forward to meeting her, our highlight speaker. Like a crazy stalker, I anxiously waited to meet her. After discussing education with Erin and answering questions about my personal teaching practices and “stories”, she offered me an opportunity to travel to Long Beach, California to work with her and the original Freedom Writers at the summer Freedom Writer Teacher Institute in 2010. At first, I was shocked and did not fully believe what she said to me. After fully coming to the realization that it was real, I became overwhelmed with the opportunity I had been blessed with. Erin told me that: “the opportunity would change my life.”
2010- I became a high school student again.
Working with Erin, the FWF staff, the Freedom Writers, and the teacher counselors during the Freedom Writers Institute was like seeing overflowing cups of water, but the cups were filled with happiness, passion, and heart. The institute changed my life. An experience which often leaves me speechless. Attending the workshop made me feel like a ninth grade student again as Erin took me through the journey her students went through.
The workshop was unlike any I ever attended; it was by no means the traditional workshop where you take notes while being taught by a facilitator. The workshop emulated a freshmen classroom where I, a teacher, became a 14-year-old student not wanting to attend school again. The institute was both provocative and silly as I went through a process of becoming Erin’s student and being guided through endless activities; I received less than 12 hours of sleep in 6 days. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. For the first time in my life, sleep was no longer important; it was crucial for me to learn as much as I could from Erin and the Freedom Writers. As I often say about my experience, energy drinks and love got me through the workshop. I will never forget the special conversations and experiences I had with the incredible people who are trying to change education.
The workshop was an emotional roller coaster ride. As my students can tell you, I am very passionate and emotional; they have seen me laugh and cry with them. I completed many of the activities the Freedom Writers completed and they were not always easy feats. I too, like my own students, was forced out of my comfort zone. I was put into new situations while learning how to teach my students based on Erin’s model. I am more empathetic now as a teacher. I know what it is like to be the “student” again. Erin is very unconventional in her teaching methods, but I can see that they can work. If they can work on a group 150 “unteachable” teens from the 90’s, and a group of 30 teachers of different backgrounds then they can surely work with my students.
Erin and the Freedom Writers are living examples of diverse people working together to fight “an undeclared war zone”; but rather than picking up a gun, they are picking up pens and writing for change. I was once told by a freedom writer that it is okay to cry, to wear my heart on my sleeve, and that my eyes are the window to my soul. When strong Freedom Writers can cry while telling me their story, while showing me that when we open our hearts amazing things can happen, I begin to understand that I can be a revolution to change too. I learned that true freedom comes when I am open and exposed to different people, perspectives, experiences, and to not always be independent, but to trust and open up to others . My only hope is that my students will do the same.
I attended the institute amongst a group of 30 teachers, from all backgrounds and ages who came together, from all over the world, to work together in a collaborative workshop learning how to involve students through internally motivating and student centered teachings, like Erin. Some of the cross-curricular themes included: racism, discrimination, stereotypes, bias-related violence, tolerance and acceptance, diversity, identity, among others. I was blessed to receive the opportunity. I remember vividly, arriving on the first day, and being told by another teacher, that she would die for her students and she expected that kind of commitment from her students to themselves. I realized in that moment – I am home. Being surrounded by other passionate teachers helped me become more passionate about my calling.
Being a part of the Freedom Writer family has helped me understand my purpose in life. The opportunity has changed me personally and made me a better teacher. For me, teaching is not a job; I was born to be a teacher. I feel comfortable when I am with my students like I am “at home.” The institute allowed me to see how important it is for students to be involved in their learning, to have a voice, and be shown “tough love”. It is not only teaching curriculum, but teaching people and relating to kids. During that experience, I could completely relate to what my students go through on a daily basis. Incorporating Erin’s model and lessons into my teachings has opened many doors for me and my students.
In July 2012, I had the opportunity to travel back to Long Beach, California to help Erin and the Freedom Writers facilitate the 2012 summer institute for a new group of teachers as a camp counselor. It was unbelievable to be a part of the experience again, but this time as a team leader. It was incredible to work with such an amazing group of teachers from Sacramento, California and Omaha, Nebraska and to be a support system for them during their experience. Although I went through the experience as a participant in 2009, it was rejuvenating to go through the emotions of it all from behind the scenes. Erin is such an inspiration and I have been blessed to have her be a part of my life.
Erin is someone I aspire to be like. I want to always teach with as much passion and enthusiasm that she exudes when teaching. You are either born to be an inspiring and great teacher or you learn how to become one. Every day, I try to become a better teacher and to learn from my students.
“Teachers – May you teach one to teach another.” -Erin Gruwell