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November 2022


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The Freedom Writers

During my journey from Australia to Germany in mid-April 2007 I was fortunate to watch a very interesting in-flight movie.  Not having an idea what it was all about, and bored with the other commercial stuff, I tuned into this show, expecting a typically brutal US American production, but was in for a surprise.For understanding my fascination you should know that I was teaching religious instruction for three years at local schools in Germany, facing some of the current social “under”-developments in our educational system similar to the background of this movie.

It portrays a young and enthusiastic teacher, a woman (Erin Gruwell), who had just finished her training.  Like me, her school authorities posted her as a relief teacher in one of the worst classes of a Californian public high school with kids from Long Beach suburbs Asian, Latin American, or African background, and just one “white” kid amongst them.  Many of them were active gang members, often involved in or affected by street gang fighting.  Of course, they wouldn’t accept her newbie teacher and stage trouble and fighting even in class.
The movie describes the true story how their teacher increasingly discovered, that for many of her fellow teachers this class was considered “hell”, the kids already given up by the school system with now chances for a future in professional life.  Only when she understood, that fighting and surviving was the key element for the lives of her students, she started to gain access to them first by physically comparing their injuries of each of them with each other in class and sharing their “street war” experiences.
On step on she invited them to read Anne Frank’s diary.  After an interview with a surviving relative of Anne’s host family in the Netherlands, whom she invited to visit her class, the students agreed to start writing their own life stories.  Since no one in her school supported her initiative, the teacher worked night shifts in hotels and stores to collect the money to be able to buy Anne Frank’s diary in stock, and by chance received public and private grants to sponsor the purchase of computers for the kids to write down their own stories and prepare them for publication.
Of course, after a year, this young teacher was supposed to be placed in another school, especially since many of her fellow teachers, her principal and even her partner disagreed with her commitment.  Only after a hearing by the regional school authorities was she allowed continuing to teach her class and prepare them for final exams and even studies at universities – for many of them they were the first in their families to reach that goal.
Having taught similar kids myself – even though not in such a rough social context – I was very impressed by this teaching concept starting from personal life experience and “going public”.  Our current Western school system, using methods of competition between students and “marking” them artificially by a numbering system, misses the very broad learning history of its students, thus loosing many of them right during teaching in class.
The “Freedom Writers”, as this class titled their publication in the mid-90s, later became a foundation that “promotes acceptance & innovative teaching methods in classrooms across the country” (

(Written in May 2007 for a TAFE ESL course)

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