Freedom Writers in Education Movie Reviews with Don Berg

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

Freedom Writers is based on a true story and has an important message about how to make a difference in students lives by making promises that matter and then keeping them.

NOTE: YouTube automatically blocked the embed coding for this video because their algorithms detected copyright protected material. Since I used an excerpt from the film for a review this is a classic case of fair use. Until they review my appeal and see that they have no right to restrict this use I have to provide the YouTube link instead of my usual practice of embedding the video:

Freedom Writers Review on YouTube


The Freedom Writers Diary


on IMDb

on Rotten Tomatoes

at Netflix


Today's movie is Freedom Writers from 2007 starring Hillary Swank. It is the dramatization of the true story of how Erin Gruwell made a lasting difference in the lives of her socio-ecomonically challenged inner city high school students through making and keeping her promises. The movie shows that she gamed the system to make a difference.

But if you see MadTV's parody then you might think it was just wishful thinking based on white guilt, here's an abbreviated version:

Nice White Lady is just a trope for an outsider and the skits humor stems from making too much of trivial differences. Freedom Writers is one in a long line of movies that are written around an outsider who comes into a broken school and miraculously makes a difference for some disadvantaged kids in spite of “The System.” I trace it back to The Bells of St. Mary's from 1945 with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby.

  • Others include 1955s, Blackboard Jungle, nice white guy.
  • 1966, To Sir, With Love, nice black guy.
  • 1988, Stand and Deliver, true story of a nice latino guy.
  • 1989, Lean On Me, true story of a mean black guy.
  • 1995, Dangerous Minds, another true story of a nice white lady.
  • 2006, The Ron Clark Story, true dramatization about a nice white guy.
Seven decades, seven examples and there's more. And notice that since 1989 they're true stories. [RED FEATHER]

But let's talk about the real educational point in Freedom Writers; How did Erin Gruwell really make the difference for those kids? It was surprisingly simple, she made promises that mattered and then kept them. She built up trust and respect within her classroom, meaning they got to know each other more deeply. And once she had done that then she and her students recognized that their relationships to each other were what really mattered. Take a look:

The key point is that Ms. Gruwell worked the system to fulfill her promises. She played politics and gamed “the System” to get things done. She went around the school administrators who would not let her do her thing and when she could not find what she needed within the school system she brought in outside help. It is also worth noting that she did not stay in that school district. She moved on to the University, because she probably her burned bridges along the way.

Her nemesis, the nasty vice-principal, rightfully questions the sustainability of her approach. But that's because she knows that schools, like all organizations, have an immune response that will sooner of later reject those who rock the boat. And by openly declaring her opposition she effectively dooms the long term prospects of sustaining it. Of course no approach is sustainable in a school in which the administration actively opposes it. Ms. Gruwell might not be directly attacked and destroyed but she could be isolated until they can get a chance to remove her. Erin Gruwell knew what she was doing and left on her own terms before the immune response was fully activated.

These filmmakers got one of the key elements of education exactly right; education, properly done, is built on trust and deep relationships. Education is diminished when kids and teachers are given entirely new groups of people every year such that they must build new relationships over and over and over again.

If education was just a delivery process then it wouldn't make any difference which teacher pours the content into the student's heads. But education is much more than delivery of content. It is a rich process of cartography, cognitive map making, in which we have to create deep relationships to our world in order to mentally represent it. It DOES matter to whom we relate as we learn. When you don't trust someone then you pay constant attention to your relationship with them. But attention is a limited resource, so, when a mistrustful relationship takes the majority of your attention then you have less for learning other things, like academic content. If you trust the people around you, then more of your attention is available, for learning content.

So the takeaway from Freedom Writers is the question, How do we support members of a learning community to have the kind of trusting and committed relationships that are necessary for optimal learning? How do we organize schools to put trusting and committed relationships at the center of both teaching and school administration?

Maybe we should reconsider making everyone change classes every single year. Just a thought.

Thanks for watching.