In 1992, several Los Angeles riots surrounding a Los Angeles Police Department officer beating an African American man, Rodney King, affected Southern California citizens, including many students. In 1994, when Erin Gruwell started as the new ninth grade English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, many of her racially diverse students were still dealing with the aftermath of these violent events (Gruwell, 2012). As an upstander, Gruwell hoped to make a difference in her students’ lives who had been written off as “unteachable” and “at risk.” An upstander is someone who stands up for what is right and takes action to help solve injustices. Gruwell stood up for her students’ rights to education, tolerance, and acceptance. She served as a call to action for everyone in society, including me. Gruwell encourages everyone to overcome prejudices and show tolerance and acceptance towards each other.
Gruwell stood up for these inner-city Los Angeles students’ rights to succeed in education when no one else believed in them, including themselves. In 1994, Gruwell went to Long Beach, California as a new teacher unknown of the challenges she would face ahead. She was assigned 150 students who had been labeled as the school’s rejects since these teens had given up on their education. Many of her new students witnessed violence growing up and believed Gruwell could not understand their situation. These ninth graders could not see how their new teacher could relate to the negative outcomes they experienced. They also could not see how the school curriculum could educate them with real-life learning experiences that could help them overcome prejudice, show tolerance, and make a positive impact to their daily lives (Gruwell, 2012). When Gruwell noticed one of her new students passing around an offensive caricature of another classmate, it reminded her of the cartoons the Nazis drew of the Jews that led to hate and eventually the unforgettable, horrible Holocaust. Unfortunately, none of her students knew about Adolf Hitler’s industrialized killing machine! (McGee). Gruwell made a conscious effort to support her students by assigning books about teens who grew up during violent times. Some of these teen-related novels were from inspirational authors who lived during the Holocaust, such as Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. Regrettably, when she asked the school to provide these influential and motivational books for her students, the administration refused her request claiming that her students “were ‘too stupid’ to read a book from cover to cover” (Gruwell, 2012). These ridiculous allegations motivated Gruwell to overcome the challenges in her path. In addition to being a full-time ninth grade teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, she started working two part-time jobs to earn the money she needed to purchase these books for her 150 students. She felt these novels would enrich her students’ learning experience at school and show them that she supported them and wanted them to succeed in life. After saving all the money from these two part-time jobs, Gruwell provided her students with educational books that related directly to their teen lives and past experiences. This inspired her students to read the books she bought them from cover to cover! For example, her students related very well to the page-turner, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, since they were around Anne’s age and grew up during violent times, just like her. By finding parallels between the characters’ lives to their own, Gruwell’s students were more motivated to learn since they could now relate to the materials taught by their teacher. Gruwell’s teaching style helped her ninth graders believe in themselves and rethink stereotypes that they believed were true. Inspired by Anne Frank, Gruwell had her students record their experiences in journals. Their collection of journal entries was published into a book, The Freedom Writers Diary (Gruwell, 1999). Gruwell described how she changed the lives of these 150 teens in a biography, “In the beginning I was pretty naïve and I did not know a lot about at risk teens. I knew I could see past color and culture, but I did not know how to get into the hearts of these young people. So I gave them a pen and told them to share their experiences through the art of writing. Through writing, my students discovered tolerance and respect for one another” (“Erin Gruwell: Biography”). Gruwell helped these at-risk students unite as a stronger group and taught them the power of writing. Most importantly, she showed them their teacher cared and respected them for who they are and that their education matters so they should stay in school. Upstanders like Gruwell do make a big difference in the world, and she is a role model we should all emulate.
This amazing upstander, Erin Gruwell, serves as a call of action for me by inspiring me to stand up for injustices I see, no matter how big or small. One important injustice I fought against was when I was in elementary school. It was the Monday morning after Winter Break when my teacher announced we had a new student in our class. A girl stood up and said, “Hi y’all!” and introduced herself. Her family moved here from Houston, Texas because her dad’s job was relocated here, to sunny California. The new girl spoke with a very strong Texan accent. A few kids in the back of the class snickered after she finished speaking. My teacher asked the class to quiet down as we needed to start the first lesson. At recess, I noticed some of the boys walking past the new girl and rudely imitating her, laughing as they walked away. The new girl ran off crying and hid in the bathroom for the remaining recess time. She returned to her desk when the bell rang, and I noticed her puffy red eyes. She must have been crying in the bathroom for a long time. At lunch, no one dared to sit near the new girl since they did not want to be teased by the boys too. She was all alone and isolated from the rest of the school. My heart went out to her and I thought about what it must be like to be in her shoes. That day after school, I could not help but think about the new girl and how horrible she must have felt after her first day at our school. She must have thought we were all bullies! I know if that was me, it would have been really nice to have a friendly face to welcome me into my new school and introduced me to some new friends. The next morning at school, I shared my idea with my friends. At recess, my friends and I walked up to the new girl with big smiles and invited her to come play with us. At first, she hesitated and maybe thought it was a trick. Once she finally warmed up to us, she shared with us how much she missed her friends back in Texas. She also explained to us the differences she found from her life back home in Texas and her new home in California. The new girl became really good friends with us and played in our group every day. Anytime the other kids teased her, my other friends and I stood up for our new friend and told them to stop. We asked the bullies how they would feel if someone else was making fun of them, and they left our friend alone. From this experience, I learned to always stand up for what is right, like Erin Gruwell. Gruwell stood up for her ninth graders who were bullied by the school. Today, she travels around the country to speak to different schools about what she learned from her experiences at Woodrow Wilson High School. One of the topics she talks about is becoming a “Catalyst for Change.” She claims that everyone should become a “Catalyst for Change” by being role models for tolerance, respect, and cooperation, similar to how I stood up for our new friend. (Erin Gruwell: Educator & Catalyst). In The Freedom Writers Diary, Erin Gruwell wrote, “Evil prevails when good people do nothing” (249). This quote demonstrates the need to become upstanders and lose the bystander mentality. Being a bystander will allow the corruption in the world to continue. We must stand up against this wickedness together. If we all become upstanders and conquer the evil of injustices, we can turn problems into solutions.
Erin Gruwell serves as a call to action for others in society by encouraging educators to help their students become more involved in the classroom. Gruwell has written several books to help educators and started the Freedom Writers Foundation which works to innovate the classroom. She teaches educators how to intrinsically motivate their own students to learn by including her strategies and lesson plans in their own classrooms. Gruwell’s methods and activities can be found in The Freedom Writers Diary: Teacher Guide and in her memoir, Teach with Your Heart. Armed with these tools, many teachers around the world have become “Freedom Writer Teachers” and adopted Gruwell’s teaching style, and many more apply to become part of this organization each year. With her help, these accredited teachers have changed their students’ lives and inspired them to become passionate about learning (Erin Gruwell: Educator and Founder). Gruwell “encouraged her students to re-think rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider daily decisions, and ultimately re-chart their futures. With Gruwell’s support, they chose to forgo teenage pregnancy, drugs, and violence to become aspiring college students, published writers and citizens for change” (Lewis). Gruwell dramatically impacted her students by giving them the confidence they needed to succeed. We should all aspire to make big differences in others’ lives too, like how Gruwell helped change her 150 ninth graders into moral citizens. If everyone does their part and become upstanders for others, like Gruwell, our world will become a better place!
Erin Gruwell is a great mentor and upstander for others. We should all become upstanders like her and make positive changes in others’ lives. She stood up for a large group of students who have grown up to do great things. Gruwell supported them when no one believed they would graduate from high school. Being an upstander does not require grand gestures. Sometimes just giving someone a big smile will make their day. Educators in today’s society can encourage students to develop a love for learning by using the valuable resources from the Freedom Writers Foundation. We need to stand up together against injustices in our society and take action against them. We should all emulate Gruwell, who encourages everyone to overcome prejudices and show tolerance and acceptance towards each other.