This clip from The Freedom Writers exhibits the harsh realities for students populating our classrooms. Discourses of oppression function daily in constructing the real outside the "four walls" of our institutions. We often find ourselves forgetting that each student has a story. Even worse, we are aware of their situations and strive to connect but are constricted by academic policies. Erin Gruwell and 150 students accomplished something remarkable in Room 203 of Woodrow Wilson High; they literally changed the world. Gruwell learned of the deplorable conditions of her students’ lives after assigning them to write in journals. The words inscribed within those journals have now echoed the world over; Gruwell and the Freedom Writers published The Freedom Writers Diary in 1999. Since then, Gruwell’s methods have become a profound example of critical pedagogy through the film, the Freedom Writers Foundation, and the use of the diary in classrooms around the world.
However, not everyone was welcoming to the realities of The Freedom Writers Diary as well as enacting the classroom as a forum for critical emancipation. Connie Heermann, a teacher who attended the Freedom Writers Institute, used the book in her 11th grade English class at Perry Meridian High in Indianapolis, IN. Soon after, she lost her job, becoming the only Freedom Writer Teacher ever to do so. Although she gained parental consent, the school board objected to racial slurs and sexual portions of the book.
The question becomes how connected are we to our students, and do we let the real into the reality in the classroom? A book that illustrated the power of written language to transform a group of "unteachable, at-risk" pupils into politically engaged and enlightened students who escaped their limited realties and regained their power through discovering new possibilities in discourses of critical reflection was banned because of content which threatened not student advancement—as this content is anything but alien to them—but the fear of political and economic instability of a school system. Where do we press the imaginary lines drawn for us in pedagogy whether in lecture halls or classrooms like Room 203? Are the realities of the classroom real? The ideas that have been censored are where we often find a better truth or even a more real reality.
For more information on the Freedom Writers Foundation and Erin Gruwell:
For more information on the story of Connie Heermann: