The movie Freedom Writers, directed by Richard LaGravenese, shows the power of teaching, and Freedom Writers is a perfect example of a teacher who changes the lives of her students. The teacher in the movie, Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), is the central character and is portrayed by the director as a confident Caucasian woman who is eager to teach for the first time. Gruwell changes the lives of her students in the movie Freedom Writers through her methods of teaching, her context of teaching, and her relationship with students through her teaching.
The portrayal of Gruwell in the movie stands as a strong example to those preparing to teach of what good teaching looks like with difficult circumstances. All time citations to Freedom Writers are cited as (hours:minutes:seconds). Teaching is more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers develop methods to be able to reach out to the needs of the students. Gruwell, at first, thought that it was going to be easy, teaching English to a bunch of freshmen. However, she was wrong and had to find ways to connect with these students.
Her students weren’t the typical high school freshman. That is, going to school to get an education to go to college and become successful. These students come from all different races and backgrounds; from Latinos to Blacks and Asians to Whites. After two weeks or so of not being successful in teaching her students, Gruwell tries something new. This scene (00:29:16 – 00:36:54) basically sets the tone of how Gruwell changes her teaching methods. Eva (April Hernandez), one of her Latino students, explains that where they live and how they live is all based on the color of their skin.
Another one of her students, Marcus (Jason Finn), this time being a black student, yells angrily at Gruwell for trying to understand their situations because she will never be able to understand their pain and suffering. In Race in the Schools: Perpetuation White Dominance? Judith R. Blau states, “ For Americans, realities of cultural difference seem distant, like something college students discover in study-abroad programs or in the Peace Corps,” (3). This scene with Marcus shows Judith’s point.
Erin Gruwell didn’t realize that her students were all coming from different cultures and were facing personal problems due to these cultural differences. She then realizes that she underestimated her class and has to change her methods of teaching. Teaching methods range from plainly talking to the student to taking them on a field trip. Learning methods are essential to be an effective teacher. Not all students learn in the same way. Education has a certain amount of psychology to it.
Something that psychologists call self-efficacy has a lot to do with how a student learns in school. Self-efficacy is defined as “how capable one feels to handle particular kinds of tasks,” (Snowman 278). Another clip (1:49:18 – 1:50:25) shows one student, Andre (Mario Barett), being confronted by Gruwell about the self-evaluation he did on his work in the class. Gruwell was very upset at the fact that he gave himself an ‘F’ because he thought that was the grade he deserved. This is a perfect example of self-efficacy at its finest.
Self-efficacy helps influence whether people think optimistically or pessimistically, act in ways that are beneficial or detrimental to achieving goals, approach or avoid tasks, engage tasks with a high or low level of motivation, persevere for a short or lengthy period of time when tasks are difficult, and are motivated or demoralized by various failures. (Snowman 282) Andre had low self-efficacy due to his current circumstances of dealing with drugs and trying to get by everyday but not putting his schoolwork as a priority (1:42:30 – 1:43:13).
The self-evaluation was a good way for Gruwell’s students to see that they were progressing and to see what needed to be worked on. Self-efficacy works hand in hand with a process called self-regulation. This is defined as “consistently using self-control skills in new situations,” (Snowman 278). Teachers use this method to have students keep discipline and keep track of their work. In an article from Psychology Today, Steven Stosny says, “Research consistently shows that self-regulation skill is necessary for reliable emotional well being.
Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. ” Gruwell adapted her methods to the needs of her students. She wasn’t going to let Andre fail and knowing that he can do a lot better than the ‘F’ grade he gave himself, she pushed him and only expected his best. This also correlates with the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy theory, which by definition is “ideas that become reality simply because someone believes them” (Aaronson).
Gruwell’s students encountered a lifestyle that a regular teenager should never have to go through. They experienced a life of gang violence in their homes. Gang Violence is something that is still relevant to society today. According to National School Safety and Security Services, “Factors motivating kids to join gangs vary individual to individual. A multitude of social and economic reasons can be involved. Power, status, security, friendship, family substitute, economic profit, substance abuse influences, and numerous other factors can influence kids to join gangs.” (“Gangs and School Safety”)
In Freedom Writers, gang violence is a major factor as to why Gruwell’s class isn’t interested in doing well in school or anything else in life for that matter. In the scene with Eva, mentioned earlier discussing the thought about everything being about color, Gruwell mentions earlier in the discussion that her students are pitiful compared to the Nazis. She tells them that they were the greatest gang that ever existed. Taking over neighborhoods was nothing compared to them because “they took over countries,” (00:30:58).
These students came from families of abuse, poverty, and violence. They are the perfect candidates to join gangs. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as of April 28, 2013, there are 24,500 gangs in the United States alone and 1,000,000 gang members as of 2009 (“Gang Statistics”). The numbers will probably increase as time continues. Gang violence is something Gruwell took into consideration when trying to connect with her students and their needs. Forty percent of gang members are under the age of 18 (“Gang Statistics”). This is almost half!
Fig. 1. shows the different age ranges of gang members by area type (National Gang Center). These students knew nothing else but the street life and the struggle of getting by on a day-to-day basis. Gruwell changed that with what she taught them. The contexts of her lessons were things that the students could relate to. She got at their level and it changed their perspective on what they can do with their lives. Context and materials are important when it comes to education. Not only does it matter how one teaches, but what they teach as well.
Gruwell taught her class about the Holocaust and specifically emphasizing the story of Anne Frank who was, Born on June 12, 1929, Anne Frank was a German-Jewish teenager who was forced to go into hiding during the Holocaust. She and her family, along with four others, spent over two years during World War II hiding in an annex of rooms above her father’s office in Amsterdam. (Anne Frank Center) Her story is one of the most famous Holocaust stories there is. Gruwell knew that her students would be able to relate to Anne’s story. It’s a story of poverty, sorrow, and hope.
In the movie, Marcus gets very attached to the story and it inspires him to turn his life around. He wants to be a better son and move back in with his mother (1:30:17 – 1:31:27). Another student, Eva, also gets interested in the story of Anne Frank and is curious how everything will turn out in the end (1:19:11 – 1:21:26). She is constantly asking Mrs. Gruwell what will happen and Gruwell simply tells her to continue reading to find out. Eva gets upset and comes back yelling at Mrs. Gruwell because of what happens in the story.
She finds out that Anne Frank gets caught and is killed. Marcus happens to be in the room when she has this episode with Gruwell and tells her that its real life and she needs to get over it. Eva thinks that there is no hope for her because of what happens to Anne Frank. What does this mean in reference to her life? She thought it was supposed to turn out well and give her some kind of hope that she too will be okay. Marcus makes her realize that she should take Anne Frank’s attitude and appreciate what she has been able to do. Eva needed to stay strong and courageous to move on.
Anne Frank herself says, “The weak die out and the strong will survive, and will live on forever” (“Anne Frank Quotes”). Gruwell was wise in choosing this book as a part of the curriculum for these types of students. Materials are something that Gruwell’s class lacked. The school didn’t believe they should spend money on new books and technology for the students to learn because they weren’t capable of learning. In an article about materials in California public schools it states: Many California students do not have the numbers or quality of textbooks, curriculum materials, and technology that they require to meet the content standards the state has set.
Compounding the problem, shortages and poor quality of textbooks and instructional materials often exist in concert with other problematic school conditions - staffing shortages, facilities in disrepair, and overcrowding. Schools serving English learners and low-income students are most affected by shortages. (Oakes) Mrs. Gruwell did whatever she needed to do for her students to have what they needed to have to learn. She got extra jobs and paid for books from her income.
Educators know that books are essential for learning and Gruwell was no exception to this group. Minority groups have always been a big issue in correlation with education. Whether Latino/a, black, Jewish, or Asian, many don’t expect much from them. However, in “Access to a Higher Education for Nontraditional Students and Minorities in a Technology-Focused Society,” it says differently: Overall, members of racial minority groups have experienced dramatic improvements, although disproportionate, in access to and opportunity for higher education in the last quarter of this century.
Nonetheless, growth among some minority segments has stagnated in recent years and might signal that these groups have some major hurdles to traverse if they expect to be poised for participation in a society with increasing requisites for knowledge. (Ntiri 130) Gruwell’s students thought there was no hope for them because of the fact that they were minorites and inferior. No accomplishments came from their family before, so they believed that their outcome would be similar to that.
However, minorities are doing big things in education! Some statistics include: Hispanic graduation rates jumped 16 points over a decade, hitting 68 percent for the class of 2010. Black graduation rates jumped 13 percentage points over a decade, hitting 62 percent in 2010. Whites saw a 6 percent graduation rate increase over the same period, to 80 percent; Asians, a 5 percent increase, to 81 percent. Native Americans saw a 3 percent rise in graduation rates, to 51 percent.