Freedom Writer teacher speaks to students at Worcester Tech High School

By John Monfredo, Worcester School Committee

Worcester Technical High School two weeks before the MCAS, as they have done the past two years, brought in a motivational speaker to talk to the students. The event was held at the Hanover Theater in Worcester and the entire school was bused to the event.

This year’s speaker was Erin Gruwell, a former teacher, who has the distinction of having a movie made about her making a difference in the lives of her students. The movie is entitled, The Freedom Writers. A week before Ms. Gruwell’s presentation the students had the opportunity to watch the movie and discuss it with their teachers.

Erin Gruwell, a most dynamic speaker with an outgoing personality, had the students’ attention within a minute. She spoke about her first day at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California for as a recent college graduate she landed her first job in Room 203, only to discover many of her students had been written off by the education system and deemed “unteachable.” Her students lived in a racially divided urban community; they were already hardened by first-hand exposure to gang violence, juvenile detention, and drugs.

By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students’ lives. She encouraged them to rethink rigid beliefs about themselves and others, to reconsider daily decisions, and to rechart their futures. With Erin’s steadfast support, her students shattered stereotypes to become critical thinkers, aspiring college students, and citizens for change. They even dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers” — in homage to civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders” — and published a book.

While Erin has been credited with giving her students a “second chance,” she stated that it was she who changed the most during her tenure at Wilson High School. She decided to channel her classroom experiences toward a broader cause, and – today – her impact as a “teacher” extends well beyond Room 203.

Erin engaged the audience in how she changed the lives of her students and spoke about how an “a toast for change” took place and how they ended up believing in themselves. She gave each of her students a plastic champagne glass filled with apple cider. During their toasts, they all agreed to give themselves the chance to start life over.

She had the students stand up if they knew anyone who was homeless, abused, or did drugs. She spoke about how reached out to find books that were relevant to the students. One book that was discussed was the Diary of Anne Frank and how it changed the lives of her students. Erin took her students to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The museum focuses largely on helping visitors understand the true impact of the Holocaust. The museum also features exhibits on civil rights and contemporary human rights violations that exist in the world today. Erin spoke about the trip to the Holocaust Museum, and how it proved to be a huge bonding experience for them.

Ms. Gruwell is the third outstanding speaker to address the students at WTHS and each of the speakers over the past three years has imparted lessons of determination, compassion, and perseverance that have resonated with audiences all over the country. The effect of these presentations has been to galvanize student motivation to succeeding in school and making the most out of their lives. I believe that Principal Harrity’s focus on motivation is the “x-factor” in the continuing success of Worcester Technical School. I look forward to attending next year’s event and know with certainty that the students of Worcester Technical School are prepared intellectually and psychologically to succeed at this year’s MCAS.