What REALitieS Are in the Classroom? How a Diary, a Teacher, and 150 Students Changed the World

Curator's Note

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:


A great post Aron.  I hate to see that this kind of political wrangling continues to plague schools and that educational institutions remain so volatile when it comes to controversey. 

It can be really tempting to believe that censorship is something that only happened in this country's past, that it's a problem we've outgrown as we've matured as a nation.  But as your story points out, it seems like American culture has pushed all of its censorship impulses onto children.  It's a move that allows politicians and activists to preach freedom of expression, but only to a point, in that the right is repeatedly denied to our classrooms and to our youth.  Your comments do a lot to show how much that denial harms students, particularly those most at risk.  What I'm wondering then, is where and if you see the possibilities of a solution--not just for this particular book and these particular kids, but for an educational environment that doesn't repress expression in general.  Could it be a wider embrace of new media, where ideas/language/images seem harder to contain or prohibit?  Or do we need a wholesale reimagining of what is at stake in youth and what constitutes "appropriate"?

Shawna, I agree with you that is such a tragedy to student's that our schools are so concerned with legal battles and controversies that they make it increasingly difficult for teachers to effectively teach; instead, we often end up treading between the fear of pushing the limits and our desire to enact change along with our ultimate goal of actually teaching critical skills. Your post reminded me of recent articles I have read related to the syllabus as a legally binding contract - something that is now being reiterated to graduate students learning pedagogy and long-time college educators. This increased warning and the fear connected to it can immediately cause trepidation for teachers and professors; censorship of ideas, new methods and innovations in teaching are sometimes not that far behind.

As well, your point that "we" as a country stand for a principle of freedom of expression, yet it is often denied to certain cultural groups - youth definitely being one of those - is important to consider. Our cultural value of freedom of expression is being blocked increasingly with our cultural practice of censorship or the idea of appropriateness. You asked about the possibilities of a solution, and I think it honestly begins with educators pushing the limits and embracing critical pedagogy. We need to question the institutions we are a part of and the realities we create in the classroom. Increasingly, educators are pushed to "teach to a standard" or teach to the test; these methods of pedagogy are based upon archaic educational practices. I would offer that I do realize that there are appropriate educational contexts when these practices may be needed; however, we continually keep hearing about the millennial student. Why? They are different. The real for them is a paradox of increasing multiplicity while continually feeling disconnected to something "real" (especially in the classroom) in the most interconnected world we have ever witnessed.

Your point to embracing new media could definitely be an educational environment that fosters more open discourse of ideas; however, just as Dr. Jennings post earlier this week discusses, the concept of the 21st century "burning" of digital information is under way. While it seems quite logical to me, how about before a group of school board or committee members decide what is "appropriate" for a group of students, they actually know who the students are and what they are facing out in the world beyond the "appropriate" ideologies of classrooms. In the classroom, this can continue by creating at least a somewhat student active learning environment. After all, I think that as an educator we should always realize that while students may have a lot to learn from us, we could learn just as much if not more from them. I would agree fully that the reimagining of appropriateness is necessary for not only our students’ sake, but for our own.

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