As this summer began I was excited to start up with my summer reading. It seems during the school year there is never enough time or energy to read an entire book. As I hit Border’s during the second week of June, I quickly decided on the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and her students from Long Beach, California.
The Freedom Writers Diary is not an easy read and doesn’t help you escape from the real world like many books can. However, it’s a book you just can’t put down. Even when you do lay it aside for an afternoon or over a busy weekend, the images and experiences shared by the students, the “Freedom Writers,” are hard to dismiss. Reading the anonymous journal entries of 150 students can be compared to the bad accident that you simply can’t turn away from, even though you know it’s gruesome and painful. Living in a gang-ridden neighborhood where drugs, violence, and crime are more prevalent than a snow day in February seems unimaginable and heartbreaking. Ignoring the similarities of the lives of the Freedom Writers and the students we teach is unforgivable.
There is so much more to the book than the tragedies these students have faced. This book focuses on intolerance, personal rights, and the need for change. This book reminds us that the times are not getting any easier for anyone and that students need to have a safe place to share their experiences and, not only escape the reality of their day to day lives, but move beyond the destiny they believe awaits them. With the right kind of attitude and a philosophy like Erin Gruwell’s, we can all touch students in ways that will help them see they are not alone in their pain, and despite the way their lives have gone up until this moment, there are no limitations to what they can do.
Yes, many of us are fortunate to teach in upper to middle-class schools in areas that are financially stable and typically safe. Many of us work in schools that have “Excellent” ratings, high graduation rates, constantly improving test scores, fairly supportive parents, and veteran teaching staffs that stick around because the reward usually exceeds the effort.
I challenge anyone to read just five of the 150 diary entries in The Freedom Writers Diary and not think of one child who has experienced similar pain and suffering during his or her childhood. Be it the loss of a parent, unplanned pregnancy, eviction and homelessness, fear for one’s safety, dropping out, suicide, addiction, harassment, or even murder – we all know a student, or two, who has dealt with at least one of these problems. After reading the innermost, uncensored thoughts of 150 students, you will realize that you actually work with many more of these students than you believed. In fact, read the whole book, and you might be able to identify 30 students, which is almost an entire classroom. Think of the changes a summer read, like The Freedom Writers Diary, would bring not only to your classroom and your school this fall, but also to you.
By Melanie Krause, Dover Education Association