Power of Story

Does it matter what we read?  Does it matter that we read?  Is there any power in someone writing?  Will the life of one person, written down, affect someone else?

I found a fascinating example in the words of an English teacher trying to teach in a school with gang warfare: Erin Gruwell.  It’s been made into a film “Freedom Writers” – but the story as I encountered it today was in Erin’s own words and presentation at TedX.

Power of Story

Erin tells the background of her students, living in a racially hostile, deprived area, where gang violence was constant and teenage deaths a common occurrence.  In particular, one young girl who hated her because she was a teacher, having been humiliated in the education system.  Erin challenged the class to read a book, a small book, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and also to write their own journal.

This small, true life story of a tragic teenager, who lived in a time of constant danger from violence and death, in a segregated society, spoke to them.  There were questions, debate and engaging with mortality and how when a writer’s words reach an audience, their life continues to speak.

Erin encourages her students to imagine a different story to their lives from the no hope scenario in which they were living.  And to believe that expressing lives in words did matter.

During this talk, we hear from a key student in this whole story, Maria

As her first writing assignment, this student wrote: “I hate Erin Gruwell I hate Erin Gruwell, and if I wasn’t on probation I’d probably shank her.”  Given the opportunity to tell her own story verbally to the class, it became clear how constrained her expectations of life were, and how painful life had been to this point.

What Teacher did next

You can find out more about Erin’s class from the programme Foundation she set up, to encourage other teachers to work with their ‘unreachable’ students.  Click here.

Here is an extract from the Foundation website, telling more about the class:

Many of the students who entered Erin Gruwell’s freshman English class weren’t thinking about how to make it to graduation, but how they could make it to sixteen years old. Racial and gang tension had peaked and a record 126 murders had occurred in Long Beach that year. Gruwell’s students had been written off as unteachable and below average.

Gruwell sought to engage her jaded students. She chose, instead, to listen to what they had to say and saw beyond the stigma of their low test scores. She brought in literature written by teenagers who looked and talked like them, who faced struggles just like theirs. The students soon realized that if they could relate to the complete strangers in their books, they could certainly relate to one another.

They started to form a diverse family, accepting of all, that they named the “Freedom Writers” after the 1960s Civil Rights activists, the Freedom Riders. In this newly formed safe space, the Freedom Writers began writing anonymous journal entries about the adversity they faced. They felt free to write about gang violence, abuse, drugs, love, and everything else real teenagers dealt with on a daily basis. The rawness and honesty of their journals was published in a book called, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which became an instant “New York Times” Best Seller.

All 150 Freedom Writers graduated in 1998. Many have gone on to pursue higher education and lucrative careers. The Freedom Writers Foundation was created shortly after to help other educators mirror Erin and the Freedom Writers’ accomplishments and ensure a quality education for all students.

Creative Takeaway

For those of us who are creative – who write, draw, film, photograph, make, shape, sculpt, form….. do we appreciate the incredible privilege of this life?

And are there people who need to be invited to express creativity? to have a voice?  Can we help that?


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