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Life lessons told in student diaries, film

Erin Gruwell's keynote address at the Second General Session on Saturday, Nov. 18, was dramatic. Her story is, after all, literally being retold in a Hollywood theatrical movie.

Gruwell's adventure began as an unlikely hero: a brand-new teacher from a wealthy, suburban upbringing whose first job in 1994 was facing 150 freshmen in a Long Beach, Calif., school, where the brutality of street gangs, urban poverty, broken homes and racial conflict was part of their everyday lives.

In the 12 years that have followed, Gruwell and her students have developed legendary status among urban schools to show how attitudes and behaviors can be changed.

Their efforts resulted in the publication of a book, The Freedom Writers' Diary, the formation of a foundation, the Erin Gruwell Education Project, and production of the film, Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank, which will be released on Jan. 15, 2007.

Gruwell's presentation followed the chronology of this freshman class, although it focused primarily on the lives of two students, Darius and Maria.

The pivotal change in the classroom occurred when a racial caricature of Darius, a young black man, circulated the classroom. Gruwell recalled intercepting the drawing and comparing it to the Nazi caricatures of Jews during the Holocaust.  Not surprisingly, few if any of her students had heard of the Holocaust, let alone cared about it.

What began as a storytelling exercise that allowed the students to react and encouraged each of them to share versions of their own painful lives, led to two reading assignments: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo.

The writing project evolved from these stories, which led to additional research, field trips, national and international speakers, and a cultural transformation among her students. Gruwell proudly points out that all 150 students graduated from high school, and proceeds from the sale of their book is funding many to pursue their own college education.

"To be honest, we were often criticized for not paying enough attention to the basics," Gruwell said. "But what we were doing was giving a second chance to many kids who until then felt utterly hopeless."

Gruwell said the story is intended for school leaders as well. "I want to remind you of the importance of your role. None of my success and crazy shenanigans would have been possible without the support of my school administrators or board of education," she said.

Her presentation Saturday included a clip from an ABC TV broadcast and from the upcoming film. But the star of the keynote address may have been Maria, one of her original students.

Her story included watching police shoot her cousin five times on her front porch, visiting her father who was an inmate at San Quentin prison, and living at home with a mother who held three jobs.

But she also explained how she was inspired by the Anne Frank diary. "When I read that sentence, 'Sometime I feel like a bird in a cage and wish that I could fly away,' I knew she was writing about me," Maria told the audience. "I hope that's what our book is doing for others."

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