Freedom Writers: The Teacher of the “Unteachables”

Written by María Núñez Fontán

Cover of the movie Freedom Writers[2]


Freedom Writers is an American film which was released on 2007 based on the book from 1999 titled The Freedom Writers Diary. The movie was written and directed by Richard LaGravanese and the character of Gruwell was portrayed by the actress Hilary Swank, who starred alongside other names such as Scott Glenn, Imelda Stauntan, Patrick Dempsey and Mario Dewar Barrett.[1]


Based on real life events, it depicts the story of Erin Gruwell, an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, California. Gruwell had already been in the spotlight for her labor as a teacher in the ABC News program Primetime Live, where her story was told by Tracey Durning in a documentary.[3] The plot of the movie is inspired by the real stories that the students of Gruwell´s English class compiled themselves. The name also makes a reference to the multiracial civil rights activists known as ‘Freedom Riders’, who are known for testing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, ordering the desegregation of interstate buses.[4]


The events of the movie take place at Woodrow Wilson High School, in Long Beach California, in the 90s. The school used to be a prestigious institution until the enforcement of the voluntary integration of at-risk students and students of color, amidst the increase of racial tension.[5] The topics of gang violence, race and intolerance are displayed throughout the whole movie.

Eva, of Latin American background, goes to a convenience store while Paco, her boyfriend, waits outside. Grant Rice, a fellow student of African American ethnicity who was involved in a brawl with Paco days before, is leaving the same store, and when doing so, Paco retaliates against him. Unfortunately, he hits instead one of Sindy Ngor´s friends, another fellow student of Cambodian ethnicity who was at the same location. Grant is arrested later and Eva is called as a witness to the case, being torn between protecting her boyfriend or telling the truth.

After this incident, Erin decides to openly address racism and teaches her students about the Holocaust, which came as a surprise for most of the students except for Ben Samuels, a White student. Then, Gruwell asks her students to play what she calls “the line game”, which consists of taking steps forward if the students have experienced any of the events mentioned by the teacher. Upon seeing that everybody has gone through something of their own, the students grow closer together. Gruwell provides the students with diaries so they can use them as a vehicle to tell their stories.

Erin Gruwell. U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Upon more efforts from Gruwell to educate her students on tolerance and race, Eva Benítez goes against her father´s wishes to always protect their own and tells the truth about Paco and the killing.

Ultimately, Gruwell compiles all of the students´ diary entries into ‘The Freedom Writers Diary’. Despite facing personal problems and challenges to be able to teach again, she manages to do so – being responsible for preparing many students, most of them the firsts in their families, to graduate and attend college.


These events took place in the 90s, so their protagonists have had time to reflect upon the experiences they lived and carry them on moving forward.

One of the students from Woodrow Wilson High School, Sue Ellen Alpizar, recalls her problematic family background growing up, and how in school she was considered “not college material”. She recalls feeling afraid when turning in her first paper, but Gruwell instead helped her becoming aware of her learning disorder. Her learning abilities improved and she went on to obtain degrees from two different colleges and currently works at the Freedom Writers Foundation.

“Erin was the first person to tell me I could go to college, the first person who believed in me”[6]

Sue Ellen Alpizar

Another student, Latilla Cain, revealed that she grew up in a gang environment. She recalls that Gruwell´s efforts to get to know her as an individual made a difference with her. Currently, she is a program specialist with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County & Inland Empire and is also a program coordinator with the Freedom Writers Foundation.

According to Gruwell´s testimony, all of the Freedom Writers graduated from high school, which is a major achievement. Most of them went to college, graduated with a degree and some even have more advanced degrees.

“It´s a remarkable story of how a teacher can have a tremendous impact on students”[7]

Carl Cohn

Over the years, Gruwell´s impact on her students has materialized and it has become more and more notable. Nevertheless, she also likes to draw attention to the impact that the students have had on her.

“I learn from them every day, and, in this way, I have also become their student”[8]

Erin Gruwell

[1] For more information about the movie, see, for example, here

[2] Ibid

[3] Brian Addison, ‘Erin Gruwell, the Freedom Writers, and Their Undeclared War’, The Hi-Lo (2912), <>

[4] Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960). See here and here

[5] The movie takes place in 1994, in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. For more information, see, for example, here

[6] Quote from Sue Ellen Alpizar, former student of Woodrow Wilson High School, found in Rich Archbold, ‘Long Beach´s Freedom Writers 20 years later – where are they?’, Press-Telegram (2017), <>

[7] Quote from Carl Cohn, Executive Director for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, who at the time was the Superintendent. Ibid n(10)

[8] Quote from Erin Gruwell. Ibid n(10)

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *