- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

Popular movies are often a good starting point for educational exploration. “Freedom Writers” is an inspiring true story of how writing can help students process the events of their lives and draw meaning from the challenges they face.

At a time when Los Angeles was racked by ethnic violence and hatred, one teacher was able to help her diverse students find answers by using the power of the pen.

After finding out that her freshman English students had no knowledge of the Holocaust, but that they had all lost someone to street violence, Los Angeles teacher Erin Gruwell gave each student a notebook and invited them to write about their lives.

Having a channel to share what they felt helped them to process their emotions, but also it stimulated their curiosity about others who had lived through times of conflict or injustice.

They read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and compared it to their own daily journals depicting the painful circumstances they were living through. They studied the Holocaust from the experience of losing their own loved ones to hatred, fanned by ethnic loyalties and vendettas.

Inspired by the example of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s who stood up against segregation by having mixed-race sit-ins in buses, at lunch counters and other public facilities, the 150 students banded together, using their writing as a stand for peace in their own community, calling themselves “Freedom Writers.”

They decided to invite the woman who shielded Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis, Miep Gies, to come and speak to their classes, and they undertook various projects to raise the necessary funds.

The resulting publicity exposed Ms. Gruwell to ridicule and the resentment of colleagues. In the film, Ms. Gruwell’s struggle with jealous or vindictive teachers paralleled the students’ struggle with gangs, self-destructive tendencies and personal integrity.

Your family may enjoy seeing the movie, and then reading about the true story and real people’s lives. One Web site (www.freedomwriters.com) explains some of the actual events and their impact on the young people’s lives. There are downloadable games and exercises used by the class that may be of interest to your learners.

In our family, we have developed the habit of writing daily reports, either in journals or in e-mails, to record what is happening and communicate our thoughts with each other. This is a great tool, both to reflect on the meaning of daily events and share information and feelings . The ability to write effectively is not only a vital tool for any career, but it is an important way for us to keep close to others.

The message of the “Freedom Writers” is that writing may act as a catalyst for personal development and, equally, for institutional change.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer living in Maryland.

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