Megan Ecker's Winning Essay

A Woman of Inspiration: Erin Gruwell

Like many new teachers, Erin Gruwell rushed excitedly into Room 203 of Wilson High School in Long Beach, California full of lesson plans and anxious to venture into the thrilling world of learning. Little did she know, her summer-long preparations would be insignificant to a group of students hardened by the daily realities of prejudice and gang violence.

Gruwell was introduced to suspicious students unwilling to complete assignments but armed with the willpower to humiliate a first-year teacher. Determined to break the barriers with these so called, “unteachable” students, Ms. Gruwell promptly altered her lessons to highlight the atrocities they faced regularly in their neighborhoods. Teaching the standard high school curriculum was not going to keep these adolescents in the classroom, nor gain them a diploma. After giving each student a diary in which to write, without the pressures of grammar and punctuation, Gruwell quickly became aware of the horrors in which these teens existed. Therefore, she chose to read, “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” and “Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo” with her students, to parallel how their diaries were recording the disgust of discrimination in their generation. By transitioning her curriculum to a student-centered approach Gruwell witnessed the healing powers of writing amongst her “at-risk” students.

Ms. Gruwell thus motivated her students to complete school in order to educate society of the misfortunes occurring in their neighborhoods. Student entries described: prejudices and discrimination, misunderstandings, intolerance, gang-violence, disease, and poverty. Because Gruwell had the courage to confront the realities of her students, she changed countless lives, increased tolerance, and witnessed students once labeled as “worthless”, cross the stage to receive their diplomas and continue on to college.

Excerpts from each student’s journal were compiled to create a published book entitled, “The Freedom Writers Diary” which was presented to the U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, when they traveled to Washington D.C. Their book became a bestseller almost instantaneously and was later developed into a movie called, “Freedom Writers”.

Ms. Gruwell went on to take leadership roles in a university setting in order to prepare hundreds of teachers to flock to a nation in dire need of courageous teachers ready to tackle the intolerances of society with their students. She also created “The Freedom Writers Foundation” which gives scholarships to “at-risk” students who overcome the stigma and want to further their education.

Ms. Gruwell’s story has inspired me to not only become a teacher, but under her example, I aspire to run to the students written off by society. I will give them assignments that connect to real world issues in order to express themselves. I will be there when the adversities of violence overcome them. I will appreciate, understand, and value the lessons they offer. I will never give up on a student. Teachers have the remarkable ability to change the world through believing in their students. I will be a teacher and I will change the world.