Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Freedom Writers Diary

Title: The Freedom Writers Diary
Author: The Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir
Price: $13.95 (paperback)
ISBN: 9780385494229

"The Freedom Writers Diary: How 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them" is written on the title page and truly describes the book you are about to read. This "diary" tracks the lives and progress of the students of Erin Gruwell's high school English classes based out of Long Beach, California. The students in her class were all deemed impossible to deal with in one way or the other, either because of learning disabilities or behavioral issues. There are 142 diary entries from the students and eight from Erin Gruwell, starting from the student's freshman year of high school to their graduation four years later.

The best part about this book is having the privilege to watch these students grow. The initial entries revolve around the students' thoughts about their new teacher and whether or not they think she'll last. Most think not. Ms. Gruwell is a young, white and somewhat privileged (or at least perceived to be by her students) individual. Her students are young teens who are, in many cases, minorities coming from either bad homes or neighborhoods, where gangs run rampid and academic success is frowned upon or can even get you killed. Many of the students don't see how this woman can offer them anything useful. They soon learn how much she can offer them.

Through books, field trips, projects, and opportunities of a life time (like meeting Miep Gies, the woman who help hide Anne Frank and her family), Erin Gruwell shows her students how to be empathetic people and life long learners. As you read along, mentally joining in on the students' adventures, you become inspired. A student who was formally part of a gang or a drug addict, is finding their self-worth, realizing there is a world to join and problems they can solve. There is also beautiful poetry, much of it written by the students themselves which really pushes the writers into and beyond the stated goal to provide a true look at how teens think and feel.

The story in and of itself is amazing and could easily have been told by just Erin Gruwell or someone else who was in the know, but the fact that you are reading these kids words, just as they meant to put them down, is what completely sells the book. There is a realness and depth that is hard to write unless you truly know. Kids write casually about being shot at while coming home from school or, even in the same entry, talking about their excitement in meeting and the connection they made when seeing Zlata Filipovic for the first time.

Another fantastic feature in this book is what it teaches you about some of this country's most recent history. If you're of a younger set (like myself) you may not remember the riots after the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. The book begins in 1994, and though the riots occurred three years previously tensions are still high in this particular area of California. It was fascinating to read the perspectives of teens from multiple races (black, which, and Hispanic) and whether or not they felt the tensions were justified. Considering the recent election of our country's first African-American president and the fact that I've been fortunate enough to avoid discrimination, I learned a great deal about recent history I was never made aware of and what life can be like for those of other ethnicities. Through this book I have a little more understanding of what it's like to live in a dangerous time and to be judged by something as arbitrary as my skin color.

Comparable Reads: With all their references to the hard times they faced and to the book itself, the most comparable read that I can think of is the diary of Anne Frank. Between the realness in both the description of events and the teen voice, the two come off being very similar. I also feel one of my previous reads that I posted about, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a good comparison. His book also tackles the issues of race and poverty in America and what it's like to feel shunted aside for things you have no control over.

Who this book is for: I think teens need to read this book. They need to see that they have a voice, that there are some teachers in this world who care, and that they are capable of starting to make a difference now and don't have to wait until they're "all grown up." In fact, doing something now can have more impact on their lives than when they're adults, because they will learn lessons and fix problems that will carry them into adulthood far more effectively than if they had done nothing at all. Just one note of warning, however. There is some harsh language and very difficult topics to handle, such as molestation and rather grisly deaths of parents and children. While the information is valuable, it's important that parents and teachers are aware in case they don't think their child or student can handle the subject matter.

I also believe that teachers can learn a lot from the book. It was actually assigned to me for an education course and I absolutely see why. Erin Gruwell does more than sits her students down and says, "Read X amount of pages for next Wednesday. Now write me a persuasive essay." She knows her students and gets involved in their lives and actively tries to reach them by using different methods. While we all can't get world famous activists to come and speak privately to our students, teachers can offer a variety of opportunities to their students if they get creative.

Happy Reading!!


  1. Hey Kirsten! Though I don't have this book, I do have the teacher's guide version of TFWD. I've used it a bit this year and have had great success. I thought that maybe some of it would be a bit corny, but kids have really taken to it. Hope all is well and I'm excited to see you again!

    : )

  2. I'd love to take a look at the teacher's version. I thought about buying it after reading the regular version. I've actually thought of assigning the book somewhere down the road, if it feels appropriate, or at least sharing passages or watching the movie (if it's any good...). You're more than welcome to my copy of the regular version, assuming it's different than the teacher version.
    Hope you and your students are doing great and I'm totally pumped to see you again!