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Erin Gruwell inspires students with stories of overcoming challenges

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Erin Gruwell inspires students with stories of overcoming challenges

Erin Gruwell is a former teacher and educational activist who participated in a narrative-style lecture and book signing.

Erin Gruwell is a former teacher and educational activist who participated in a narrative-style lecture and book signing.

Photo courtesy of Photo Bureau

Erin Gruwell is a former teacher and educational activist who participated in a narrative-style lecture and book signing.

Photo courtesy of Photo Bureau

Photo courtesy of Photo Bureau

Erin Gruwell is a former teacher and educational activist who participated in a narrative-style lecture and book signing.

Kyle Brusco, Staff Writer

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Author, former teacher, and educational activist Erin Gruwell gave a lecture titled “Achieving the Impossible: Becoming a Catalyst for Change” followed by a Q&A and a book signing on Feb. 20 in Valders 206.

Gruwell started her career of educational activism in 1994 teaching low-performing students at the Woodrow Wilson High School, who struggled through everyday violence, in Long Beach, California. Gruwell was able to help these students improve academically by changing her curriculum, including units about the Holocaust and having them read books that they would relate to like “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Diary of a Young Girl.”

She also had students write daily journal entries about anything they wanted, which included stories about things that they faced regularly, including experiences with gang violence. These journal were eventually collected into a book which was then adapted into the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers.” Gruwell is no longer teaching at the high school; instead, she started a group called the Freedom Writers Foundation.

This foundation instructs teachers in schools like Woodrow Wilson High School on how to form better connections with their students and support them. All proceeds from “Freedom Writers Diary” book sales go to the Freedom Writers Foundation.

Gruwell’s lecture was a personal narrative, unlike typical speakers on campus. Isaac Logeman (‘20) was intrigued by the format.

“I feel that there’s a typical pattern to lectures here at college, with an intro, an opening story, and a point,” Logeman said. “I was really fascinated by this lecture because she cared less about sharing information and more about simply sharing stories, and, as a future educator, it showed me the focus that we need to have on the students’ stories.”

One story was about 18-year-old Armand Jones, an actor in the movie. While the movie was being filmed, he was taking care of his entire family because his father and grandfather had been killed. According to Gruwell, every time he got paid, he used the money to pay his bills. When he received his last paycheck, he went and bought himself some nice things and took his friends to Denny’s. When he went to the bathroom at Denny’s, he was robbed and killed by someone who wanted his shoes and jewelry. The movie is dedicated to him.

“I feel that there’s a typical pattern to lectures here at college, with an intro, an opening story, and a point. I was really fascinated by this lecture because she cared less about sharing information and more about simply sharing stories, and, as a future educator, it showed me the focus that we need to have on the students’ stories.”

-Isaac Logeman (20)

Elaina Bayse (‘21) thought that this story, and others, made the lecture impactful.

“Hearing the students’ stories was super profound, and that helped me learn about the passion for education even moreso than watching the movie,” Bayse said. “I loved it. She was an extremely engaging speaker and what she had to say was extremely important.”

During the lecture, there was laughter, cheering, and tears, including from Gruwell herself.

After the lecture, according to Director of Campus Programming Paul Atkins, she stayed for an hour and a half to do a meet-and-greet and book signing. Atkins agreed that the stories were very powerful.

“There are just so many stories that you can’t help being moved by,” Atkins said. “What these students have gone on to achieve, and even the book itself. It was therapy for them, it was an exercise, it was homework, and it’s been around for 20 years. They all continue to aspire and to educate.”

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