It's 1994 in Long Beach, California. Idealistic Erin Gruwell is just starting her first teaching job, that as freshman and sophomore English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, which, two years earlier, implemented a voluntary integration program. For many of the existing teachers, the integration has ruined the school, whose previously stellar academic standing has been replaced with many students who will be lucky to graduate or even be literate. Despite choosing the school on purpose because of its integration program, Erin is unprepared for the nature of her classroom, whose students live by generations of strict moral codes of protecting their own at all cost. Many are in gangs and almost all know somebody that has been killed by gang violence. The Latinos hate the Cambodians who hate the blacks and so on. The only person the students hate more is Ms. Gruwell. It isn't until Erin holds an unsanctioned discussion about a recent drive-by shooting death that she fully begins to ... Written by
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"Everyone who remembers his own educational experience remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the kingpin of the educational situation." Sidney Hook, Education for Modern Man
It would be easy to criticize Freedom Writers as just another cliché-infested classroom redemption story, more Blackboard Jungle than History Boys. But because it is based on a true story of at-risk students attending Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, a voluntarily integrated school, I have to avoid accusing it of being derivative and offer that it relates the essential truth about education: Most students have a voice if a teacher can find it; most students can thrive when a teacher creates a sense of family amid chaos, as Emily Gruwell did in the early '90's of Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The diaries her students wrote inspired students around the country to do the same.
Seeing the photo of the real Gruwell with her students as the end credits roll, I can understand cynics saying this is typical Hollywoodno teacher can look like Hillary Swank! But rising above the petty carping that includes skepticism about transformation of unruly kids into real students within a year, I have to admit it happened because of the transforming power of love and words. As in Charlotte's Web, both ingredients are potent reformers of the disaffected.
Gruwell sacrifices, as cases of true love sometimes require, her personal freedom and loses her marriage for the higher good of the young people she teaches. Admittedly, her slacker husband, Scott (Patrick Dempsey), doesn't deserve such a gifted wife, and her crusty dad, Steve (a monumentally weathered Scott Glenn), has some stereotypical responses to his daughter's choices. Most of all I object to those actors as students: They are way too old to be playing 14 and 15 year olds. Surely there are gifted teens who could do the job! Overall, however, the film rings true about the magic a dedicated teacher can do with rebellious but malleable teens.
For those of us who still toil in the fields of education, Freedom Writers reminds us why we love a profession that gives us a chance to save souls in the only way we can certify outside the uncertain faith of religion. This film is a superior entry in a long history of teaching brought to its ideal form in film.
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