Freedom Writer Teacher

Original Freedom Writer Shanate teaching in Moreno Valley (pre-COVID).

When COVID-19 caused Long Beach schools to close, Erin Gruwell experienced a familiar discomfort. She said she was gripped by the same feeling that overtook her in 1994, when she first became a teacher: a feeling of need, coupled with a desire to answer that need in an appropriate way.

Gruwell’s Wilson High School teaching journey was chronicled in the 1999 book "The Freedom Writers Diary" and the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers.” In Room 203, Gruwell helped 150 students, previously labeled “unteachable,” find a voice and a future for themselves.

No longer a classroom teacher, Gruwell now helps students through the Freedom Writers Foundation. For 20 years, this nonprofit organization has offered teacher training seminars, outreach events, curriculum and scholarships for first generation college students. However, when shelter-in-place orders went into effect, the Foundation had to halt its array of in-person activities.

“The beautiful thing about necessity,” Gruwell said, “is that it makes you pivot.”

Gruwell said her team immediately looked inward and came up with a plan to help students and teachers thrust unexpectedly into remote learning. The determined Foundation team developed an online platform and decided to offer its curriculum for free. In addition, the Foundation created weekly Facebook Live Freedom Forums which focused on themes like acceptance and kindness. Students from Gruwell’s original group of Freedom Writers joined the online programs. Educators in more than 60 different countries tuned into the forums and downloaded the Foundation’s curriculum.

“In difficult times, students’ social and emotional needs increase,” Gruwell said. “We knew we needed to create materials that were academically rigorous but would also acknowledge the fear and uncertainty of being at home.”

One result of that was a Freedom Writers Family Reunion Livestream on Wednesday, July 29. The event included actors from the "Freedom Writers" movie. It not only raised awareness about the foundation, it raised funds as well.

While the event is over, donations still are welcomed. Go to www.freedomwritersfoundation.org/donate/.

Gruwell said during her time at Wilson, she marveled at her students’ powerful personal transformations. She carried a camcorder and recorded many meaningful moments. She dreamed of one day compiling her footage into a film, but this long-term goal was continually delayed by day-to-day work. Recently, Gruwell’s segments were assembled and edited into a PBS documentary called “Freedom Writers: Stories from the Heart.” On Saturday, July 18, the documentary was awarded an Emmy in the category of Crime/Social Issues.

“The shutdown led to a beautiful reinvention of who we are,” Gruwell said. “But we are still fighting for students!”

To learn more about the Freedom Writers Foundation, go to http://www.freedomwritersfoundation.org/.

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