77 pages 2 hours read

The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


The Freedom Writers Diary is a nonfiction book that collects the stories of English teacher Erin Gruwell and her students at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, as they move from their freshman to senior years from 1994-1998. The book is divided into eight major sections, one for the fall and spring of each year, as well as a forward and epilogue. Each major section begins with an introductory entry from Ms. Gruwell, followed by anonymous, numbered diary entries from her students. 

At the beginning of the book, Ms. Gruwell is just about to start her first official year as an English teacher. As a student teacher the previous year, Ms. Gruwell found a racial caricature one of her students had drawn of Sharaud, her most difficult student. When she compared this drawing to the propaganda the Nazis used during the Holocaust, she realized her students didn’t know what the Holocaust was and decided to focus the remainder of the year on tolerance. Her efforts attracted positive attention from the media, but she also received death threats and endured disparaging racial comments from neighbors. Her school department head, leery of her unconventional teaching methods and worried about negative publicity, assigned Ms. Gruwell to teach “at risk” freshman for the rest of that year, rather than continuing teaching the class Sharaud was in.

The students in Ms. Gruwell’s freshman class are almost all African American, Latino, or Asian, and at first, they are suspicious of their white, suit-wearing teacher. They bet she will quit within the first week or month, but she quickly wins them over with unique teaching methods and reading material the students find relatable. The fall of their freshman year, they read Durango Street, a book about an African American teenager living in the projects after being released from a juvenile work camp for stealing cars, and then they make a movie about it. In the spring, when they read Romeo and Juliet and, Ms. Gruwell compares the Capulets to a local Latino gang and the Montagues to a rival Asian gang and gains the respect of more students. Still, the students deal with many difficulties that distract them from school, including race-based gang violence, domestic violence, illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness.

During the students’ sophomore year, Ms. Gruwell organizes a “toast for change” and a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance.” Among the books that the students read are Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo. After reading these books, the students have the idea to invite Zlata, a teenager their age who wrote her diary from 1992 to 1993, during the Bosnian War, to visit their classroom. They write her letters, and she agrees to come for a visit. This same year, the students are also visited by a Holocaust survivor and Miep Gies, the woman responsible for hiding Anne Frank’s family and later, retrieving the dead girl’s diary.

For the students’ junior year, Ms. Gruwell asks them to turn their diary entries into a book. The students decide to call themselves Freedom Writers after learning about the Civil Rights-era Freedom Riders, who took bus trips through the south in the 1960s to protest segregation. Once the book is completed, they raise money for a trip to Washington, D.C. to present the book to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

Their senior year, as the students begin to think about their future, they are the subject of a Los Angeles Times feature that draws increased media and public attention to their project. Over winter break, Ms. Gruwell learns that they have won The Spirit of Anne Frank Award and must accept it in person in New York. The company GUESS? sponsors travel for 45 students to New York to accept the award, and, shortly thereafter, the students learn that Doubleday wants to formally publish their book of diary entries. As the year concludes, the students learn of where they have been accepted to college, and they plan a Freedom Writer reunion trip to Europe the next summer.