The Freedom Writer Meets STA

By Brianna Naderpour and Elizabeth Carres
MAY 12, 2017

Actress Hilary Swank portrayed Ms. Gruwell in Freedom Writers.
Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson

Saint Thomas Aquinas’ (STA) students often get exciting opportunities to relate the things they learn in the classroom to the real world. On Wednesday, May 3, STA theology teacher Mr. John Lawson arranged for his ethics students to meet Ms. Erin Gruwell, the teacher who inspired the story for the award-winning movie Freedom Writers.

When Mr. Lawson decided to show his classes the movie Freedom Writers, he wanted to take the lesson a step further. He said, “I first saw the movie five or six years ago, and it’s a hard-hitting, powerful story. It makes you realize how difficult teaching is. It’s inspirational. I wanted to show my students the good things that can happen when you show respect to your teachers.”

Ms. Gruwell speaking with admirers
Photo: US Embassy Tel Aviv

The students had to work hard to raise five hundred dollars through various bake sales, fundraisers, and donations in order to be able to have the opportunity to host a conference with Ms. Gruwell. Mr. Lawson said, “I wanted my classes to show me that they mean business, and this was something they were really interested in doing. It was good. I think they enjoyed getting the chance to meet her.” The money the students raised was donated to the Freedom Writers Foundation, and it was put to good use. According to Ms. Gruwell, the money the students raised went to providing a scholarship for a student that, otherwise, wouldn’t be able to go to college.

Students filled the Star Lab to meet with Ms. Gruwell.
Photo: Anthony Montalto

The students in Mr. Lawson’s classes were thrilled to get the chance to speak to Ms. Gruwell via Skype. Aside from answering questions, Ms. Gruwell described her experiences when she visited struggling schools throughout the country.  “I think Ms. Gruwell shared very insightful reassurance that helped us realize how grateful we should be for getting a great education …” said, Nicolette Giordano, a student in Mr. Lawson’s ethics class. Many students asked questions pertaining to the book or movie, and Ms. Gruwell answered each with descriptive details. Junior Sebastian Vegas stated, “The experience with Ms. Gruwell was phenomenal as I was able to receive interactive feedback on a question I posed.”

Ms. Gruwell speaking passionately at a conference.
Photo: US Embassy Tel Aviv on Flickr

This is the second time in two years that Mr. Lawson has hosted a conference with Ms. Gruwell for his students. This time around, Ms. Gruwell made sure to complement the STA student body on the strong impression it has left on her since their last meeting. She said, “”I know you guys are a powerhouse, are passionate, and promote inclusion.” She spoke about how her motivations for teaching have always remained the same throughout her career, saying, “I want to model everything I did and everything I will do on the principle of doing what’s right.” She wants for all her students “to be able to taste freedom.” Her best advice for new teachers was, “ Wear your heart on your sleeve. We don’t know enough. Be present and take it all in. Be flexible when things don’t work out. Find seasoned teachers that are passionate and stand on their shoulders.” Ms. Gruwell continues to host teacher workshops and work with youths in juvenile halls. Although she no longer spends as much time in the classroom, she commented, “I’m still very much a teacher. It’s just a little bit different now.”

The conference was a success! Mr. Lawson’s juniors were able to learn valuable lessons about respect, tolerance, and the amazing influence one person can have on a large number of people through the power of determination and vision. Hopefully, Ms. Gruwell will continue to inspire students and teachers at STA and beyond.