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How The Freedom Writers Diary Changed the Lives of 150 Students and Their Teacher

The Freedom Writers Diary is a remarkable book that tells the true story of how a group of “unteachable” students from diverse backgrounds overcame adversity and prejudice with the help of their dedicated teacher, Erin Gruwell. This book is a testament to the power of education, empathy, and courage. It will inspire you to believe in yourself and your potential to make a difference in the world.

If you want to learn more about the Freedom Writers and their amazing journey, read on and discover how they transformed themselves and their community through writing.


Communication Skills, Personal Development, Education, Society, Culture, Nonfiction, Memoir, Social Justice, Inspirational, Biography, History, Young Adult, Multicultural, Diary

How The Freedom Writers Diary Changed the Lives of 150 Students and Their Teacher

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of journal entries written by 150 students from Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, who called themselves the Freedom Writers. They were inspired by the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who fought against segregation in the 1960s.

The book covers four years of their high school experience, from 1994 to 1998, during which they faced many challenges and obstacles, such as gang violence, racism, poverty, abuse, drugs, and homelessness.

Their teacher, Erin Gruwell, was a young and idealistic English teacher who wanted to make a difference in her students’ lives. She realized that her students had little interest in the traditional curriculum and had low expectations for their future.

She decided to change her teaching methods and focus on themes of tolerance, diversity, and human rights. She introduced them to books such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary, which resonated with her students and motivated them to write their own diaries.

She also provided them with opportunities to meet influential people, such as Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank, and Zlata Filipovic, the author of Zlata’s Diary. She also organized field trips, fundraisers, and community service projects to broaden their horizons and expose them to new experiences.

Through writing and reading, the Freedom Writers learned to express themselves, understand each other, and overcome their stereotypes and prejudices. They also developed a strong bond with their teacher and each other, forming a family-like support system.

They gained confidence, self-esteem, and academic skills, and they all graduated from high school and went on to college, defying the odds and breaking the cycle of violence and despair.


The Freedom Writers Diary is a powerful and moving book that showcases the impact of education and writing on the lives of marginalized and oppressed students. The book is written in a raw and authentic voice, as each diary entry reflects the personal struggles, emotions, and opinions of the individual student.

The book also reveals the perspective and challenges of the teacher, Erin Gruwell, who had to fight against the bureaucracy and resistance of the school system and the society to provide her students with the best education possible.

The book is not only a chronicle of the students’ growth and transformation, but also a tribute to the teacher’s dedication and passion. The book is filled with poignant, humorous, and inspiring moments, as well as heartbreaking and shocking realities.

The book is an eye-opening and enlightening read that challenges the reader to question their own assumptions and prejudices, and to empathize with people who are different from them. The book is also a call to action, as it encourages the reader to follow the example of the Freedom Writers and their teacher, and to use their voice and their power to create positive change in the world.

The book is a must-read for anyone who cares about education, social justice, and human rights.

Introduction: Discover an inspiring story of triumph over extreme obstacles and fighting for social justice

The Freedom Writers Diary (1999) chronicles the journey of students at Wilson High School in California and their English teacher. From their freshman year in the fall of 1994 to graduation in the spring of 1998, the teens learned about and stood up to countless social issues, transforming from so-called “unteachable, at-risk students” into the self-dubbed “Freedom Writers.” Their book recounts their collective experiences, struggles, and triumphs.

In an era of deep social divides and disenfranchised youth, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the future leaders of our world. However, the story of Erin Gruwell and her high school students known as the Freedom Writers shows that with compassion and the right guidance, troubled teens can transform into powerful voices for change.

Before they were award-winning advocates, the students in Gruwell’s freshman English classes faced issues like gang violence, poverty, abuse and racial prejudice that left little room for aspiration. Yet by fostering self-expression and connection through literature, Gruwell inspired them to author their own stories of resilience. What emerged were strong, youthful voices that spgarked dialogue around injustice in communities across the United States.

Full of raw vulnerability, uplifting insight, and calls to action, The Freedom Writers Diary challenges stereotypes about disadvantaged youth while revealing education as a force for empowerment. As debates rage about the fate of public school funding, this summary offers perspective on why betting on our youth is always a strong choice for society.

Freshman year

Do you remember your first “grown-up” job? The nerves, the sense of responsibility? Did you have any idea of where you would end up today?

Erin Gruwell certainly had no idea of how much she and her students would accomplish in four short years. She had completed a year of student teaching at Wilson High School and saw great success with the class she had, but the fall of 1994 was her first year as an official teacher. Because the school ran on a system of seniority, she was given the “trouble” freshman classes that year. She was nervous yet optimistic, and wanted to make a difference in the lives of her students.

The students were quick to think little of Gruwell, judging her – and their fellow students – on the prejudices commonly accepted within their school and local society. They thought she would soon give up on them and treat them as the other teachers had. They viewed themselves along strict racial lines – the white students sat with white students; the Black students sat with Black students; the Asian students with Asian students. They saw their school as a smaller version of their neighborhoods and the gang rivalries that existed within them. Along with that was the belief that in life, when someone gets hit, the only response was to hit back.

Some of the students started to find an outlet in Gruwell’s class, as she encouraged them to talk about local issues. One of these was Proposition 187, which would allow the government to take away public programs like healthcare and schooling from illegal immigrants. Many of the students or their families would be affected by its passing.

Yet Gruwell struggled to engage the students. She tried choosing books that the students could relate to and had them complete projects like making a movie of the books they read. Many students hadn’t ever read a book in which they could relate to the main character. Their films of the books were creative and compelling, and Gruwell took them to see professional films as a reward. She assigned Romeo and Juliet and likened the warring families to the Latino and Asian gang rivalries some of her students were involved in. This helped them see the similarities and lack of reason for the fighting in both cases. She took her students to see documentaries about social injustice, exposed them to the stories of Holocaust survivors and US citizens of Japanese descent who had been interned in camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Slowly, the students began to question their own prejudicial views of those who appeared different from them. Gruwell’s encouragement helped immensely; many of her students had never had an adult tell them they believed in them, as Gruwell did.

Many students who’d started the year thinking school was pointless were even excited to take Gruwell’s class again the following year.

Sophomore year

In 1995, right before what would be her second year as a full teacher at Wilson, Gruwell almost switched schools. Some of the other teachers bullied and judged her for her unorthodox teaching methods, and the attention she and her class had got in the media, not to mention from famous names like Steven Spielberg. But when her principal asked her why she was leaving, she realized she needed to stay for her kids. Besides, she realized, not all the teachers thought badly of her, and she’d just spent a year teaching her kids about tolerance and the dangers of generalizing.

The sophomore year of her initial English class focused on books about teens in crisis, including The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank; and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. The students considered peer pressure and how the desire to fit in and be popular could lead themselves and others to do things they knew were wrong and wouldn’t have done on their own. For example, one teen was constantly hearing their friends brag about the “loot” they’d shoplifted. The teen decided to try it themself but was caught. They reflected on the pain and embarrassment they caused both themself and their parents because of peer pressure, and resolved not to give in to it again.

The teens related to the people they read about like Anne Frank and Zlata, because these teens too faced discrimination and hardship in their lives. The students drew inspiration from Anne and Zlata’s writings and their tenacity in the face of the wars they lived through. Many of Gruwell’s students had lived through the race riots over the acquittal of four white policemen in Los Angeles after they severely beat a Black man. The students connected to the fear and unrest Anne Frank and Zlata had lived through in Germany and Bosnia, respectively. They were astounded to realize they could relate to people who lived far away and didn’t look like them.

One of the assignments Gruwell had her students do their sophomore year was to write to Zlata, inviting her to come visit their class. At first, she thought of the assignment as just one more meant to get her kids thinking and connecting to the course material. But when they took her seriously and even started collecting money to make it happen, she had to truly consider whether they might be able to host Zlata.

While that was underway, Gruwell received news that Miep Gies, the woman who’d hidden Anne Frank’s family and was responsible for finding her diary, was headed to California for the diary’s fiftieth anniversary. Gruwell set about arranging for Gies to speak to her class and, remarkably, was able to make it happen. During her talk, Gies told the students they were heroes for doing the work of learning about tolerance and social issues, and the students began to see themselves as voices to spread the lessons they were learning.

The students were to get another visitor in March of 1996. As they had hoped, Zlata, her parents, and her best friend came to visit Gruwell’s class. They spent a week together, doing things like visiting the Museum of Tolerance, watching documentaries and movies, and hosting receptions for Holocaust survivors. Zlata spoke of her experience and the atrocities occurring in Bosnia. The students were both grateful for the chance to meet the famous Zlata and inspired to see that she was, in many ways, a regular teen like themselves.

Still, life wasn’t all about positive change for Gruwell’s students. Some of them struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. Even as they chased the highs, they felt guilty and conflicted when considering all the things they were learning from Gruwell’s class and its extracurricular activities. Gruwell’s class was a haven for the students – a place where they thought of each other as family and often experienced more love and acceptance than they received at home.

Junior year

As Gruwell headed into her original students’ junior year in the fall of 1996, she wasn’t sure how she would top all the wonderful things that had happened the previous year. But she was determined to make American literature just as engaging as the world literature they’d studied before.

Gruwell chose a theme for her class during the 1996–1997 school year. It was to be self-reliance. The students considered what it meant to be self-reliant, and how they could approach situations by taking control of themselves and their actions. They started to choose not to engage in fights that happened in front of them, and even started feeling guilty for not trying to stop the fight, even when doing so would have likely gotten them beaten up.

Another issue covered in class was misogyny. Reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker, the class grappled with their own experiences of misogyny and abuse. One student had been sexually abused by her uncle and saw herself in the main character, Celie. Because Celie remained courageous throughout her struggles, this student also knew she, too, could survive. Another student stood up to his abusive, alcoholic stepfather when the man hit the student’s mother.

During Spring of 1997, Gruwell and her class decided to compile their diary entries into a manuscript, inspired by their friend Zlata. Seeing as they wrote about sensitive topics like abuse and murder, they decided they would keep the entries anonymous. John Tu, a millionaire at the time who’d become friends with Gruwell and supported her students, donated computers to the cause in order to allow the students to type their entries and thus conceal their handwriting. The students focused on events that had changed their lives, pouring their griefs and triumphs onto the page. Some were reluctant, thinking writing about the hardships in their lives would bring up too much pain to deal with. But they found that editing others’ anonymous stories made them feel less alone. Their friends and classmates had experienced many similar hardships in their lives.

During their spring semester of junior year, the students learned about the Freedom Riders – seven white college students and six Black college students who rode a bus together in the 1960s to protest segregated travel. The students decided to name themselves after the Riders, cleverly substituting riders for writers, and take up their goals of changing the world around them.

The Freedom Writers assembled a bound manuscript of their stories and went to Washington to hand-deliver it to then Secretary of Education, Richard Riley. They visited the Lincoln Memorial and other landmarks and returned home determined to continue spreading their message of tolerance. To that end, they became active in extracurricular activities at school. One Freedom Writer even ran for, and was elected as, Senior Class President for the next year.

Senior year and graduation

Gruwell had another fight on her hands as senior year approached. As only a fourth-year teacher in a school that favored seniority in terms of which teachers got to teach which classes, it wasn’t guaranteed that Gruwell would be able to keep her original class of students for their senior year. Fortunately, this changed after receiving support from the district superintendent, Dr. Carl Cohn. She would now be able to teach her class throughout their final year.

Gruwell focused much of her efforts the school year of 1997–1998 on helping her graduating seniors plan for college and beyond. Many of the students would be the first high school graduates in their families and had never thought they’d attend college. Few of them had enough support at home to make it through the complicated process of applying. In response to this, Gruwell set up a nonprofit organization to raise funds for applications and tuition. In addition, she assigned graduate students she was teaching at National University to each mentor two Freedom Writers.

Together, the Freedom Writers struggled toward their dream of attending college. Some of them faced eviction notices during senior year, and although this wasn’t the first time for them, it was especially difficult to face when school had been going well and they had to navigate college applications. One Writer was acting as head of their household, taking care of their younger sister and working their mother’s job after their parents had left the country, all while trying to maintain good grades at school. When this student was at their lowest, feeling like they had no choice but to drop out of school and work full time, their fellow Freedom Writers and Gruwell gathered support for them and renewed their determination to graduate high school and attend college.

As they worked hard on their own goals, the Freedom Writers continued spreading their message and stories. They mentored children at Butler Elementary School, listening to the young students’ stories, empathizing with them, and encouraging them in their dreams for the future.

In Spring of 1998, the Freedom Writers won the Spirit of Anne Frank Award. It was the first time a group rather than an individual had been given the award. Forty-five of the Writers flew to New York to accept it. The Writers also won the Micah Award from the American Jewish Committee in honor of their fight against injustice, and a scholarship from Southwest Airlines.

In addition, of course, they published their collective diary as a book. Fittingly, it was Broadway Books, the same company that published Anne Frank’s diary roughly fifty years before, who published the student’s work. The final message in their book is a call to action: turn away from violence, take up the pen, and stand up to injustice.

Through all their triumphs and hardships that senior year, the Freedom Writers did graduate, and headed into the future armed with their stories, their determination, and their pens.


In this summary, you learned about the remarkable stories of one teacher and the students who would transform into the Freedom Writers. Starting in 1994, Erin Gruwell taught a group of underprivileged, “trouble” students at Wilson High School. Over their four years of high school, Gruwell engaged the students using books they could relate to and creative projects. The students learned to question their biases, found new self-worth, and began seeing themselves as advocates for tolerance.

Despite their hardships, the Freedom Writers graduated high school and continued pursuing their dreams, spreading their message through mentoring and writing.

They learned that people who can change the world are everyday people like them and like you who fight against injustice and do what they know to be right.

About the Author

The Freedom Writers & Erin Gruwell

Nina Norman is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. She has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Nina has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. She is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Nina lives in London, England with her husband and two children. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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