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)

The Great Debaters: The Power of Words

Written by Riccardo Armeni


Cover of the movie The Great Debaters[2]

The Great Debaters is a 2007 American movie, based upon a 1997 article for the magazine American Legacy, which focuses on African-American history and culture. The film was written by Robert Eisele and directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars in the picture as debate coach Melvin B. Tolson. The cast is complemented by a wide array of notable performers, including actors of the caliber of John Heard, Nate Parker, Denzel Whitaker and Forest Whitaker[1].


Based on a true story, the movie tells the story of Melvin B. Tolson, a debate coach at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and his attempt to place the debate team on an equal playing field with other schools. Marshall was defined by James Farmer Jr. (one of the debate team members) as “the last city to surrender after the Civil War”[3], and Wiley College has always been a historically ‘black’ college[4], being part of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Southern U.S., and the laws in place at the time were enforcing racial segregation, including putting African-American citizens at risk of lynching. The plot of the movie revolves around the Wiley College debate team’s run towards the national championship, and the struggles they had to face during the journey.

Plot of the movie

The events of the movie take place at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in the 1930s. Professor Melvin B. Tolson is accurately screening a preliminary pool of 360 students in order to eventually select 4 individuals: Samantha Booke, Hamilton Burgess, James Farmer Jr. and Henry Lowe. Booke (first woman to ever participate in the endeavor) and Farmer Jr. (son of the famous James Farmer) were the back-ups, whereas Lowe and Burgess were the starters for the team. Both Lowe and Farmer Jr. develop feelings for Booke, who only reciprocates the sentiment for the former, leaving the barely 14-year-old Farmer Jr. in dismay. Besides these romantic dynamics, socio-cultural themes are also widely explored throughout the movie, including the ensuing Great Depression as well as the abuses suffered by the African-American community on a daily basis[5].

The team starts practicing: professor Tolson has the occasion to showcase his knowledge when involved in one of the debates with his students, citing among others Willy Lynch, a military officer and slave-owner during the Civil War whose name is said to have been the origin for the term lynching. The first challenge for the debate team is against Paul Quinn College, another historically ‘black’ university located in Dallas, Texas. By quoting the famous saying by Tacito ‘ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant[6] (they create desolation and call it peace), Lowe takes home the first win for the team.

The team continues with its positive streak, until they face University of Oklahoma; at this point, Burgess decides to leave the team in fear of retaliation and Booke substitutes him in her first official debate ever. She references Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, as well as sergeant Crocker (the last soldier to be murdered in the Civil War), with all them being heroes in the African-American community and gets the win for Wiley College.

Samantha Booke, portrayed by Jurnee Smollett, during the Oklahoma debate[7]

Eventually, the team gets to face the reigning champions, Harvard University, and manages to win thanks to the argument by the youngest member of the group, Farmer Jr. His closing statement is a paraphrase of St. Augustine “un unjust law is no law at all”; this is a recurring exchange between the Farmer characters (both father and son)[8].


As the events depicted in the movie take place over 70 years before its release (and almost 90 years from today), there has been much change and evolution on the matter. As a consequence, little information is known about its protagonists. James Farmer Jr. went on to become a civil rights leader and one of the most prominent figures in the African-American community and established the Congress of Racial Equality, serving as its first director for a brief period precedent to World War II[9].

“‘Un unjust law is no law at all’, which means I have a right, even a duty, to resist – with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I chose the latter”

James Farmer Jr. quoting Saint Augustine during the championship debate[10]

 On the other hand, some of the names in the movie are not historically accurate: for example, the character of Samantha Booke was loosely based on Henrietta Bell Wells; similarly, the reigning champions, identified as students of Harvard university, were actually members of the University of Southern California. On that note, the debate team from Wiley College was never actually declared champion as African-American individuals were not able to be full members of the debate society until after the Second World War[11].

Moreover, the movie itself generated a big cultural impact: the release of the motion picture coincided with a national effort to establish debate programs in troubled schools that struggled with financing or those located within inner-cities. In addition, the director of the movie, Denzel Washington, donated 1,000,000 dollars to Wiley College in order to reinstate their debate team[12].

FUN FACT: the movie was directed by Denzel Washington, and the actor that plays James Farmer Jr. was named Denzel in his honor. Also, the actor that plays Farmer Sr. (Forest Whitaker) shares the same last name as the actor that plays his son (Denzel Whitaker); however, they are not related.

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

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Wikipedia, The Great Debaters (2007),

[5] Ibid

[6] Bonandini, A. (2021), Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. Quando il latino diventa slogan,

[7] Find the picture here

[8] Wikipedia, The Great Debaters (2007),

[9] Ibid


[11] Wikipedia, The Great Debaters (2007),

[12] For more information about the movie, see here.

The Profound Influence of Teachers on Humanity

Written by Caren Thomas

Teachers embody elements of creativity, sacrifice and selfless service. This allows them to influence individuals into those who create a positive change for society. The education imparted by teachers goes beyond the textbook knowledge. Through education being imparted in the rightful manner, we will be able to reduce conflict, prejudice and poverty. Recognising the role of teachers as educators, mentors, and role models requires us to prioritise their well-being and professional development. Teachers play a pivotal role in having a society characterised by innovation, creativity and progress.  

This year, for World Teachers’ Day, the theme UNESCO will focus on is “The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage”. Advocating for the teaching profession to be treated with dignity, promoting inspiring practices by other teachers which can be inculcated with the rest of society, analysing the challenges faced by teachers in varied settings, ensuring that efficient steps are taken to retain and motivate teachers are requirements that necessitate prompt attention.

Recent data from UNESCO tells us that 44 million is the number of teachers required to meet the goal of providing primary and secondary education for all students by 2030. The primary source of the problem is the need for more funding for these teachers. This is coupled with the need for more value, training and support given to the profession. It creates a dismal atmosphere for the teachers who remain in the profession and does not motivate other talented candidates to pursue it. COVID-19 was a massive setback for the teachers as they were unprepared and underequipped to face such a challenge. We must reflect on the support necessary to function to their best potential. Their talent and vocation can only be further developed if we are to rethink how to enrich this profession globally.

The ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers (1966) and the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (1997) are two important Recommendations that highlight teachers’ indispensable role in humanity. Countries are urged to consider these recommendations and implement them to uplift the position of teachers and other educators.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Teachers are the beacons for transforming education. The UNESCO-Hamdan Prize for Teacher Development awards three laureates every two years with prize money for innovative practices that focus on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning worldwide. The Varkey Foundation also awards the prestigious Global Teacher Prize in collaboration with UNESCO and in partnership with Dubai Cares, a UAE-based global philanthropic organisation. It is awarded to a teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the teaching profession. Past winners of this award, namely Keishia Thorpe (2021) and Ranjitsinh Disale (2020), hold inspirational qualities and provide a mould for overcoming challenges within the teaching environment. Their noteworthy contributions highlight the sacrifice, solicitude and sincerity teachers make for humanity’s betterment.

Teachers play a crucial role in establishing a positive influence in the lives of many individuals from the ground up. The efforts put in by the teachers go much beyond the four walls of the classroom. Teachers lay the foundation for the growth and development of young minds. A thirst for knowledge is inculcated among the students because of them. They have been instrumental in helping build peace among young people across conflict zones and reducing child marriages in many parts of the world. These are some significant triumphs teachers have been able to achieve. Teachers play a fundamental role in breaking barriers, making ethical choices and growing into responsible global citizens upholding values of empathy, equality and tolerance.

Featured image by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

The Remarkable Impact of Educators on Celebrities’ Lives

Written by Inja van Soest

In the world of fame and glamour, there’s often an untold story of deep gratitude for teachers. One such heartwarming moment unfolded during Adele’s concert special, “An Audience with Adele,” in 2021, in which the audience witnessed the profound impact of a year eight teacher on an internationally known singer and songwriter.

Amidst the performance, Emma Thompson, an actress herself, posed a simple yet profound question to Adele. She asked whether Adele had anyone who had been truly inspiring and supportive in her youth. Adele’s response was spontaneous and filled with genuine warmth. With a hint of nostalgia in her voice, Adele shared her high school English teacher, Miss McDonald, with the audience. “It was just one year, but she got me really into literature. Like, I’ve always been obsessed with English, and obviously now I write lyrics,” Adele revealed. She also confessed that whilst Miss McDonald taught street dance, Adele was too shy to join her course. What stood out in Adele’s recollection was Miss McDonald’s unique charm. “She was so bloody cool. So engaging. She really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us.” What seemed to have left an impression was how she used to dress, with gold bracelets and sequins, with her appreciation for her teacher being tangible in her voice and her very British way of speaking about her teacher, with warmth but the typical directness and an amount of hard truth being tangible.

As Emma Thompson continued the conversation, the audience erupted in cheers. Adele, tears of joy streaming down her face, broke into a radiant smile as she realised her beloved teacher, Miss McDonald, was present. In a touching moment, teacher and student embraced, and Adele publicly acknowledged how Miss McDonald had “changed her life.”

Adele’s story of teacher appreciation is not the only one that has been shared. In 2017, John Legend wrote an article for the Huffington Post, expressing hope for future generations due to the incredible educators who influenced his life. He paid tribute to his English teacher, Mrs Bodey, saying, “Until her class, I hadn’t believed in my ability as a writer. She recognised my potential and showed me that I could write with creativity, clarity, and passion.” Legend credited teachers like Mrs. Bodey for instilling the confidence to chase his dreams.

kyle tsui from Washington, DC, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Maya Angelou, the literary icon, once spoke reverently about her neighbour and teacher, Bertha Flowers. Angelou attested that Flowers remained a guiding light throughout her life, symbolising the kindness and grace that humanity could embody.

The influence of teachers extends far beyond music and literature. Numerous actors, musicians, writers, artists, and world leaders have testified to the profound impact of their educators.

Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a globally respected democratic politician known for her direct and evidence-based political approach. In 2020, she received a heartfelt message from a teacher on Twitter, prompting her to express gratitude for her unwavering support and belief in her during her formative years.

Teachers play a pivotal role in the lives of young people, shaping how they view themselves, learn, and engage with the world. Teachers possess the extraordinary ability to make students feel seen and valued, nurturing a sense of purpose and direction.

As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the teachers who have left a lasting mark on our lives and the countless others who have ignited greatness in the world’s most celebrated individuals. Teachers are the unsung heroes shaping the future, one student at a time, leaving behind a lasting legacy of knowledge, compassion, and empowerment.

Today, we honour and thank the educators who have illuminated our paths toward wisdom and a better, fairer and more inclusive future.

October 5: World Teachers’ Day

The theme for World Teachers’ Day 2023:

The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage.”

Every year, World Teachers’ Day on October 5 reminds us how vital the role of teachers is for quality education for all.

It commemorates the 1966 signing of the International Labour Organization (ILO)-United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Recommendation Concerning the Status of Teachers setting international standards for treating teachers, including recruitment, training, continuing education, and labour conditions.

Nowadays, the circumstances are challenging for teachers all over the world. For this reason, UNESCO and Education International have declared the theme for this year: “The Teachers We Need for the Education We Want: The Global Imperative to Reverse the Teacher Shortage.” 


  • 55% of teachers now expect to leave the profession earlier than they had planned,
  • 35% expect to quit in the next two years,
  • 78% of educators say that low pay is a serious issue,
  • 84% of teachers spend their own money on basic classroom supplies 
  • 45% of teachers say they do not feel respected by the public 
  • 42% of teachers said their teaching suffered due to the state of their mental health. 
  • Only 10% of teachers would strongly recommend the profession to a young adult.  

However, the role of teacher is still essential, as:

  • The average teacher affects over 3,000 students during their career.
  • 54% of students say a teacher has helped them in a difficult situation.
  • 75% of students say teachers are mentors and role models.
  • 83% of students say a teacher has boosted their self-esteem and confidence.
  • 79% of students say a teacher has encouraged them to follow their dreams. 

Now is the time to recognize the contribution of teachers, as they play a significant role in the future generation of society.

Now is the time to reimagine education and achieve our goals for equal access to all.

As Broken Chalk, we believe teachers should work with their students on this important day. Teachers have dedicated themselves to their work and continue to educate people, contributing to society and humanity wherever they live. Unfortunately, some are no longer with us due to poor government practices, armed groups, and mass shootings. We advocate the rights of teachers through the national and international judiciary and wish to draw the attention of governments, stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, and human rights defenders in the fight against the human rights violations educators face.

We wish all the teachers in the world a happy World Teachers’ Day!

Broken Chalk announces it to the public with due respect.

Signed by

Broken Chalk

Educators of Excellence

Adopt a Classroom

Education Week

Education Week

MDR Education