Making a Difference

Posted on September 1st, 2009 by

Erin Gruwell retold the story of "Freedom Writers" at the 2009 Building Bridges Conference.

Erin Gruwell retold the story of "Freedom Writers" at the 2009 Building Bridges Conference.

By Hanna Schutte ’11

“I watched 150 kids find their voice, write their stories, and become the first in their family to graduate,” said Erin Gruwell, as she retold the story of the “Freedom Writers” at the 2009 Gustavus Building Bridges Conference. Student-run and sponsored by the Diversity Center, this year’s conference focused on “Liberation through Education.”

On Saturday, March 14, Christ Chapel was packed with people who had come to hear the story of a high school teacher who had changed so many lives, and whose story was highlighted in the movie The Freedom Writers.

“We watched the movie before we came and the presentation was a really inspirational message,” said Building Bridges attendee Debby Edlund. “To take 150 failing kids and have them graduate is amazing. She also had an important message for children about the need for diversity, and how people really are all the same.”

Before the keynote address, Gustavus’s “I Am… We Are” social justice theater troupe presented skits about education issues, such as high educational costs, affirmative action, and school safety. These skits set the tone for a day filled with opportunities to learn about education and diversity.

Gruwell and fellow keynote speaker Maria Reyes, an original Freedom Writer who left gang-life behind, had amazing stories to tell. As a beginning teacher, Gruwell was given 150 of the lowest-performing students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif. The school district had difficulties that extended far beyond the curriculum.

These kids had been told they were unteachable and that they weren’t supposed to make it to graduation,” Gruwell said. “But I realized they had a Ph.D. of the streets, and they knew things I didn’t know. Long Beach was an undeclared war zone of racial tension and gang violence. I learned of one student who by the age of 14 had already buried over two dozen friends.”

However, this story has a happy ending. Gruwell decided to take things into her own hands and make a change. Through the use of writing and books like The Diary of Anne Frank, the 150 students found their voice and an outlet for their frustration.

“I write to keep myself grounded. Through writing, the world made sense to me, and I could see myself as different from my parents, and that I didn’t have to be just like them,” said Reyes.

The Freedom Writers came from Gruwell’s class. Frustrated by what they saw around them, Gruwell’s students decided they wanted to make a change in the world for the better. They saw that first-hand accounts were very powerful, and they wanted to show other teens in the same situation that they were not alone. They wrote their true stories as diary entries, and all of them were published anonymously in the book The Freedom Writers Diary. Issues ranged from gang violence, abuse, molestation, poverty, teen pregnancy, to dyslexia.

Gruwell’s and Reyes’s messages had an impact on Building Bridges Conference attendees. “It was really moving and inspirational. It makes you want to make a change,” said attendee Michelle Palm. Those inspired to make a change learned more about how to do so in the afternoon workshops on education, ranging in topics from Teach for America to Invisible Children’s Schools for Schools. One of the breakout presentations, titled “Teaching Minnesota’s Own Freedom Writers,” was given by Marcia Nelson, one of the first teachers to learn and use Gruwell’s teaching method. “The way kids speak to each other, and to you, is the way they’ve been spoken to at home,” Nelson said, emphasizing the need for patience and understanding in the classroom.

Also, she pointed out that “a kid who’s hungry isn’t going to learn,” so teachers need to be aware of social issues that affect their students outside of the classroom.

After hearing a success story and learning how to make change, conference attendees, including Gustavus students, engaged in an action piece. Elementary students from the St. Peter area came to participate in a variety of one-on-one activities.

“I had fun. I liked playing with the scooters,” said one 6-year-old boy who came to the action session. Likewise, future educators benefited from this year’s conference. “As a future teacher, this Building Bridges helped me realize how important it is for all students to feel like they are loved and cared about,” said Amy Knutson.

But the conference was a beneficial learning opportunity for all. “It’s cool they did education as the topic,” said Gustavus student Sonoma Swanson. “You think education is universal, but there are people who don’t have opportunities, or resources like books and pencils. It is personal, and the whole community can get involved. It seems like a small thing, but it makes such a huge impact.”

Building Bridges 2009 was a day filled with learning about educational issues and solutions. Participants had the chance to listen to motivational speakers, learn how to make a difference in the world, and engage in action to bring change. As Maria Reyes said in her speech, “You have to be aware of the world around you. We can all make a difference. Make a choice to do something for someone else.”

Building Bridges 2009


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