Scottsboro High School English Teacher Amanda Wilbanks was able to provide her students with the opportunity for a video chat with Erin Gruwell, teacher and one of the founders of the Freedom Writers Foundation. 

Due to an encounter with Gruwell at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) annual conference, Wilbanks was able to obtain this inspiring chat free of charge.

Wilbanks teaches Creative Writing and had all of her students view the movie based on The Freedom Writers Diary.  The opportunity was presented for the students to also read the 417 page book.  Reading the book was a requirement for participating in the video chat.  Due to this coming at the end of the semester, only 25 students from three different classes read the book. 

In order to be prepared for the video chat, Wilbanks had her students prepare some questions for Gruwell.  Gruwell was enthusiastic in her responses to the students.

When Wilbanks met Gruwell while asking her to sign some questions her daughter had written, Gruwell was impressed with the questions.  That led Wilbanks to add that all of her students had questions so Gruwell suggested the video chat.

The book is a series of actual diary accounts written by Gruwell’s students at Woodrow Wilson High School in California following the Los Angeles riots.  She was a young teacher and wanted to give the students a place where they could express themselves safely and accept one another despite racial and social divisions that had previously kept them in a state of constant tension.

Those 150 freshmen students were more concerned about living to be 16 than graduating from high school.  Gruwell earned their trust and they began by writing anonymous journal entries about the adversity they faced.  With much hard work from everyone involved, all 150 of these students graduated from high school. “I love my profession,” said Gruwell, “and hate hearing anything negative about teachers.”

“Teachers like your teacher make it worthwhile,” Gruwell added.  “You guys are really lucky.”

Gruwell encouraged the students to take a risk and get to know people.  “It’s hard to hate people you know.” 

She said that everyone needs to step out of their comfort zone.  She discovered the toughest students are the sweetest.  “I had to get to know my students for who they were.”

Scottsboro High School student Shelton Linville said, “Once we watched the movie in class, I wanted to read the book.  While reading the book I was shown how different life is for these kids.  Hearing about the hardships the teenagers faced on a daily basis made me feel as though I was living through someone else and through someone else’s perspective. The Freedom Writers overcoming adversity has inspired me to become a better version of myself and try to make the world around me better.”

“This book impacted me greatly,” stated Abbie McMillan, “and I’m extremely thankful for a teacher, class, and school that allow me to dive into things that inspire me as a student and as a person.”

Lauren Paradise added, “This book has taught us that we can all have a voice in our school, community, and the world around us.  It’s just up to us how we decide to use it.”

“The movie is very impactful in showing the privileges I was born with compared to some of the kids in the book/movie,” said Kathrynn Proctor.  Just knowing I have a roof over my head at night is more than some of those kids could say.”

Olivia Tucker responded, “Coming from a small town like Scottsboro, reading all the hatred, pain, and division the Freedom Writers went through changes the perspective I have for everyone around me.  It’s weird to imagine that I am the same age as some of the people in the book, but my experiences with life so far are drastically different.”

“I sit with the weight of what the Freedom Writers had to go through while I enjoy all of the privileges I get.  I have a mother to love me, a roof over my head, food to eat, and a safe environment.  The terrain of which they had to navigate daily seems like a war zone to me.  I could not image waking up and living in such a dystopia and having no hope for the future.”

Wilbanks said of her students, “These kids make me loving coming to work!” She was excited to bring this project to her students.

The mission of the Freedom Writers Foundation is to be an advocate for all students and teachers by providing tools that facilitate student-centered learning, improve overall academic performance, and increase teacher retention.  The Foundation is a non-profit organization created to inspire underprivileged students to pick up pens instead of guns.   Gruwell said, “It was important to make our office our home.  It is really special.”

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