Freedom Writers Summary

Erin Gruwell and Freedom Writers

Freedom Writers

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Freedom Writers Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and Freedom Writers.

The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them is a 1999 non-fiction book written by the Freedom Writers, a group of students from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, with framing chapters by American teacher and writer Erin Gruwell. It is primarily composed of journals that Gruwell instructed her students to write regarding the challenges they had faced in their life and the hopes they had for the future. Exploring themes of tolerance overcoming stereotypes, the culture clash between inner-city students and their white, middle-class teacher, and unconventional teaching techniques, The Freedom Writers Diary is a critically acclaimed true story that is frequently used in classrooms around the country.

The story of the Freedom Writers begins in the fall of 1994, when Erin Gruwell was an idealistic twenty-four-year-old teacher facing her first group of students. The administration had already tarred this group of students as an unteachable, at-risk group and wasn’t expecting Gruwell to reach them. Compared to Gruwell’s white, middle-class background, her class was a diverse mix of African-American, Latino, Asian, and Caucasian teenagers, many of whom grew up in poor, crime-filled neighborhoods in Long Beach. The students were hostile from the start, making clear they weren’t interested in listening to their new teacher and even taking bets on how long she would last before she quit.

The start of the Freedom Writers movement began when Erin intercepted a racist caricature of one of the black students being passed around the classroom. Rather than seeking to discover and punish the culprit, Erin Gruwell used it as a teaching moment, comparing the drawing to racial caricatures used by the Nazis to demonize Jews. She was shocked to hear that many of her students had never even heard of the Holocaust. The discussion that followed revealed that many of the students had been touched by violence in their own lives, many even bearing “battle scars” from gang violence. Although shocked by what these kids had been through, this was the most passion Erin Gruwell had seen out of her students so far and she sought to harness it.

Gruwell focused her lessons on a trio of books about teenagers who encounters horrific violence – Night by Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. Although the students were reluctant at first, they found themselves pulled in by the similarities between their own lives and the lives of the three teenagers. As part of their assignment, Gruwell had the students start keeping their own anonymous diaries, where they recorded their own struggles with drug use, gang violence, and abusive parents, as well as their thoughts on the unconventional direction their class had taken. Soon, they had given themselves the nickname “The Freedom Writers”, in honor of the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights movement, and were beginning to change into a tight-knit, motivated group that saw themselves as a family.

Touched by the stories they had read, the students raised funds and arranged for Miep Geis, the Dutch woman who risked her life to shelter the Frank family, to come to California and visit them. Not long after, Zlata Filipovic responded to the letters the Freedom Writers had sent them and visited them for five days, engaging in discussions about their shared experiences. These two visits from the figures in the books that spoke so powerfully to them strengthened the Freedom Writers’ beliefs that words and diaries have the power to affect people across the world.

The Freedom Writers have remained closely linked and have achieved amazing things since their initial time in Erin Gruwell’s class. All 150 members of the group graduated high school, and many attended college afterwards. Their mission to teach tolerance and share their story of success continues to this day. In 1997 they organized a fundraising concert that allowed them to visit Washington DC and tour the Holocaust museum. A year later they won the Spirit of Anne Frank award, and in 1999 they achieved one of their biggest goals, traveling to Europe and visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam as well as the concentration camps that Elie Wiesel survived and the home of Zlata Filipovic.

Erin Gruwell left Woodrow Wilson High School after four years to become a Distinguished Teacher in Residence at California State University, and founded the Freedom Writers Foundation to spread the Freedom Writers method to schools around the country. She is also the writer of Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers, her autobiography. In 2007, The Freedom Writers Diary was adapted into the movie “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell. It received positive reviews and brought additional attention to the Freedom Writers Foundation. Today the Freedom Writers curriculum is used in dozens of schools around the United States.