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Stories from an Undeclared War: Documentary about Freedom Writers Has Strong Impact on MU Community

Thursday, September 29, 2011
Erin Gruwell, the Freedom Writers’ teacher, who guided 150 at-risk high school students to authoring the best-selling book, The Freedom Writers Diary, returned to Marymount recently to introduce an advance screening of the new documentary, Stories from an Undeclared War.

Dr. Doug Ball, Marymount associate professor of Education, facilitated the program. He is a Freedom Writer teacher, himself, trained by Erin Gruwell through the Freedom Writers Foundation, which is working “to change the educational system one classroom at a time by providing educators with transformative tools to engage, enlighten and empower at-risk students to reach their full potential.”

The feature-length film Stories from an Undeclared War chronicles Gruwell’s Long Beach, CA, students’ remarkable journey from the first day of freshman year in 1994 through high school graduation in ’98 and into the present, which included college graduation for many. It’s a story of courage, hope, and the will to do the impossible.

Once considered “unteachable,” these young people defied the odds with encouragement from Gruwell, their English teacher through all four years of high school. Using books like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo as inspiration, the Freedom Writers began telling their own stories. The students adopted the name “Freedom Writers” after watching a documentary about the Freedom Riders who fought for civil rights.

The Hollywood movie Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank, is based on their book. But now, they tell about their journey in their own voices in Stories from an Undeclared War. They talk about the heartache of their home lives and their determination to “break that cycle and be a giver.” Sue Ellen Alpizar, one of Gruwell’s students, said that writing down her stories “liberated her from the pain.”

The Freedom Writers stayed connected – traveling to Washington, DC, to meet with the Secretary of Education and, a year after graduation, to Europe to visit all the places they had read about in class. Maria Reyes, spoke up at a Town Hall meeting in Sarajevo, explaining how she used to hate everyone, but has let go of that hate because of her friendships with fellow Freedom Writers of different races. The love they share outweighs the harm that others have done to her and her family. They also encouraged one another through college.

Tears flowed as the near capacity audience of Marymount students, faculty, and community members watched the Freedom Writers’ stories unfold. In telling their own stories, the message of hope, perseverance, and love is so much more powerful than any movie made in Hollywood. Now the Freedom Writers are successful adults. Some are pursuing doctoral degrees; others – like Maria Reyes, who spoke at Marymount last year – are working with Gruwell’s Freedom Writers Foundation and reaching out to teachers and to young people.

During the Q&A session, one MU student said, “I, too, have a story, and you inspired me to tell it.” In reply, Erin Gruwell emphasized, “We all have a story; never minimize your story.” Another audience member, a teacher, inquired about the need for community-building in the classroom. Gruwell responded that “we need to teach to the kid, not to a test, and make the classroom a safe place.”

Anthony Garces-Foley, a Marymount Education instructor, then asked all the Education students to stand. With about half the audience on their feet, he told Gruwell, “Look how many teachers-to-be are here, and they’ve had you to inspire them before they even begin!”

The evening ended with a book signing, punctuated by lots of hugs. Marymount Education students are even more excited to have their own classrooms and begin making a difference in young people’s lives – encouraging them first to dream and then to realize those dreams, just as the Freedom Writers have done.

– Erin Gruwell

PHOTO 2 – Erin Gruwell, right, chats with Omar Rosario (left), a Marymount M.Ed. candidate, and Dr. Doug Ball, MU associate professor of Education.

- Madiha Siddiqui, a Marymount senior majoring in Multidisciplinary Studies with PK-6 teaching licensure, presented Erin Gruwell with a crystal Marymount plate in appreciation for sharing her expertise with MU Education students.

PHOTO 4 – Erin Gruwell hands a signed copy of The Freedom Writers Diary to Emily Ngau ’12 (left), who is studying to be an Elementary School teacher, as fellow future teachers Heather Bellrose ’12 (center) and Jessica Scripa ’12 look on.