Erin Gruwell: Darden Lecture in Education
April 6, 2011
Erin Gruwell, whose life story inspired the 2007 film “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank, will give the 2011 Darden Lecture in Education.
Nothing could have prepared Erin Gruwell for her first day of teaching at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. A recent college graduate, she landed her first job in Room 203, only to discover many of her students had been written off by the education system and deemed “unteachable.” As teenagers living in a racially divided urban community, they were already hardened by firsthand exposure to gang violence, juvenile detention and drugs.
Enter Gruwell. By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students’ lives. She encouraged them to rethink rigid beliefs about themselves and others, to reconsider daily decisions and to rechart their futures. With Gruwell’s steadfast support, her students shattered stereotypes to become critical thinkers, aspiring college students and citizens for change. They even dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers” — in homage to civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders” — and published a book.
Inspired by Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic (who lived through war-torn Sarajevo), Gruwell and her students captured their collective journey in “The Freedom Writers Diary – How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.” Through poignant student entries and Gruwell’s narrative text, the book chronicles their “eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.”
While Gruwell has been credited with giving her students a “second chance,” it was perhaps she who changed the most during her tenure at Wilson High School. She decided to channel her classroom experiences toward a broader cause, and today her impact as a “teacher” extends well beyond Room 203.
Currently, Gruwell serves as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation. She raises awareness by traveling nationwide to speak at large corporations, government institutions and community associations. But her capacity to convert apathy to action matters most at schools and juvenile halls, where any observer can watch the expressions of troubled teens shift from guarded cynicism to unabashed hopefulness.
Gruwell and her students have appeared on numerous television shows, including “Oprah,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” “Prime Time Live”,” “The View,” “Good Morning America” and C-SPAN’s “Book TV.” Her class has been featured on National Public Radio and in national newspapers and People magazine. Paramount Pictures released "Freedom Writers" in January 2007.
Gruwell is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, where she received the Lauds and Laurels Distinguished Alumni Award. She earned her master’s degree and teaching credentials from California State University, Long Beach, where she was honored as a Distinguished Alumna by the School of Education.
The free talk, sponsored by ODU’s Darden College of Education and Pearson Education, will be in the Big Blue Room at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Free parking is available in garages C and D, just off Hampton Boulevard on 43rd and 45th streets.