In 1994, Erin Gruwell began student-teaching at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA. Her class consisted of the lowest-performing students in the school, many of whom were labeled “unteachable.” These teenagers had grown up in an urban community facing extreme racial division and violence. By the time the students stepped into Gruwell’s classroom, many had witnessed murder, rape, gang violence, and drug abuse. Gruwell began her teaching career at Wilson High without knowing the immense challenge she was undertaking. Her first weeks of class were filled with racial slurs, accusations, acts of hate, and inescapable tension between students. Instead of sticking with her original lesson plan for the year, she changed it to allow her students to rethink rigid beliefs about themselves and others, to reconsider daily decisions, and to reconstruct their futures. With Gruwell’s encouragement and steadfast support, her students were able to shatter stereotypes and become critical thinkers, aspiring college students, and citizens advocating for change. Inspired by Anne Frank and other real-life heroes from the novels they read, Gruwell’s students dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers,” and went on to capture their high school journey in the novel The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. All 150 students, who were told they had a slim chance of completing high school, went on to graduate, and many continued on to higher education. Gruwell and students have appeared on numerous television shows, including Oprah, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Prime Time Live, The View, Good Morning America, and CSPAN’s Book TV. The original class has been featured in National Public Radio, People magazine, was the subject of a 2007 Paramount Pictures’ movie, and more. Gruwell has received numerous awards. Currently, she serves as president of Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 to decrease high school drop-out rates through the Freedom Writers Method.
Maria Reyes was born in East Los Angeles and moved to Long Beach after the Rodney King riots. Reyes came from a family with a strong gang heritage—both her father and grandfather were gang members. At age 11, she was jumped into a gang, making her a third generation gang member. Reyes was in and out of juvenile detention centers for the better part of her teenage years. Given the choice to stay in a detention center or go to school, Reyes chose high school. Her probation officer enrolled her at Woodrow Wilson, where she was placed in Gruwell’s class and thus, as a freshman, became an original Freedom Writer. Since then, Reyes earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University Long Beach and has traveled the country speaking about the power of education and the need for educators to give students a second chance. As a spokesperson for the Freedom Writers, Maria has appeared on TV shows and her story was highlighted in the movie Freedom Writers.