MORE POWER TO YOU
Teaching teens to enjoy writing and life
Speaking to award-winning North Carolina teachers in November, Erin Gruwell told how she changed students’ lives and they changed hers.
Bright Ideas 2006 During November 2006, Touchstone Energy cooperatives awarded more than $550,000 in Bright Ideas grants to North Carolina teachers. The Bright Ideas program strives to improve education by awarding grants for innovative, class-based projects in grades K–12. Since 1994, North Carolina’s electric cooperatives have awarded teachers more than 5,000 grants totaling more than $5 million, funding projects in mathematics, arts and the sciences. Ceremonies honoring the winning teachers are held annually. For more information, visit www.ncbrightideas.com
8 JANUARY 2007 Carolina Country
Erin Gruwell gives new meaning to the phrase “We Shall Overcome.” Gruwell, the keynote speaker at recent Bright Ideas awards banquets in Greenville and Raleigh, spoke passionately about teaching some “unteachable” teenagers who became citizens for change. Both ceremonies, sponsored by Touchstone Energy cooperatives, were held to honor North Carolina teachers and award them grant money for classroom projects. Gruwell moved animatedly across the stage as she recalled her first day at an urban high school in California. That day, dressed in pearls and polka dots, the perky English teacher faced sullen students hardened by gang violence and drugs. She learned they had been written off by their principal, teachers, parents and by themselves. Her students had histories with crack cocaine, juvenile detention, foster care. By contrast, she had a brand-new degree, a white convertible and liked sonnets. Darius particularly stood out. Not just because he was 6-foot-5, but because the gang member sailed a paper airplane straight at her, asking, “Why do we have to read books about dead guys in tights?” But Gruwell’s real “aha” moment came when she asked about her students’ lives. Each had lost someone to violence. All had been shot at. Darius had buried two dozen friends by age 14. Maria’s dad gave her boxing gloves as he was hauled off to jail. Her students lived with stereotypes and fear. Darius summed it up when he said “I feel like I come from an undeclared war zone.” “I realized they didn’t expect to make it,” Gruwell said. “I started thinking about other kids in wars.” They hadn’t heard of the Holocaust, so Gruwell asked the English department chair for books “to reach my kids.” Told her kids were “too stupid,” Gruwell used her own money to purchase 150 copies of “Night” by Elie Wiesel and “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.”
She brought in champagne glasses and her class raised them in a toast. Maria’s toast spoke volumes: “I don’t want to be behind bars when I’m 18. I want to change.” Their apathy melted as they read about the brave struggles of others. One day Maria stormed in, threw her book and cried, “Why didn’t you tell me Anne dies!” Not only had Maria finished the book, Maria cared. They began their own eloquent diaries, calling themselves “The Freedom Writers” after 1960s civil rights activists. Darius, captivated by brave Miep Gies’ holocaust story, led a class effort to raise money to fly the survivor, still living in Europe, to California. “Every day, Darius would count the coins in the jar,” Gruwell recalled. And later, Darius was wearing his Sunday best when he met tiny Miep in person and called her his hero. The teenagers and Gruwell were also inspired by Ziata Filipovic, who lived through war-torn Sarajevo. Eventually, they captured their eye-opening journey in a book, “The Freedom Writers Diary—How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.” They’ve appeared on television shows such as “Prime Time Live” and “Good Morning America.” A movie, titled “Freedom Writers,” is scheduled to be in theaters this month. Timed for the Martin Luther King holiday, it stars award-winning actress Hilary Swank as Gruwell. Gruwell’s “unteachable” students went on to attend college. Or as Gruwell puts it, “It’s never too late to change.” Erin Gruwell now serves as president of The Freedom Writers Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships for children in need. Learn more about the movie and the book at www.freedomwritersfoundation.org. Phone: (562) 433-5388. Address: P.O. Box 41505, Long Beach, CA 90853. — Karen Olson House
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