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Classrooms: A Space for Learning or a Space for Race Wars?

pbernal's picture

Paola Bernal

April 12, 2015

P. Cohen, Education 266

Film Analysis

Classrooms: A Space for Learning or a Space for Race Wars? 

In the 2007 film, Freedom Writers, the experiences and perspectives from both teacher and students are well represented and examined throughout the film in an urban school classroom setting in Long Beach, California. The film’s first scene provides the historical context and time frame in which the story unfolds in 1992. A prominent time in Los Angeles for their riots in which segregation by race in communities was most salient. It affected not only communities in Los Angeles, but also school environments, ultimately impacting everything from their way of life to what and how students were learning.

Freedom Writers incorporated an appropriate balance of different perspectives of the social and school reform issues from the students, teachers, and school administration. But what makes this film unlike many others focused in an urban school setting, is the fact that the film provided a visual representation of not only one student, but several. Freedom Writers opens the door to the lives of White, Hispanic, Asian, and African- American students. It doesn’t try and generalize that every student lived the exact same experience, but rather it sheds a bit of light into each individual’s story and experience. It tries to reach the youth of future of today and future generations, encouraging the message that anyone can overcome great obstacles, despite what society’s norms and stereotypes say about him or her.

The story of the film from the perspective of the students is one of the most important parts of the movie, for not only are different individuals from different races able to connect, but they’re also able to connect to the youth of today. This movie is set in 1992, however it’s 2015 and a lot of gang violence, racial tensions, and lack of classroom emotional and academic support is nonetheless still present just like in the film. Throughout the film, the students voice several of the issues we’ve been discussing throughout the semester in our readings like Kirp’s message in Improbable Scholars and Ladson-Billings’ message in City Kids, City Schools, chapter 18: Practicing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Both of these reading selections advocate for what the film illustrated, “our [educators] responsibility extends beyond the classroom and beyond the time students are assigned to us [teachers]” (Ladson-Billings, 176).

One of the most striking scenes in Freedom Writers depicting and advocating for this would have to be the Line Game Ms. Gruwell introduces to the class. The activity provides several positive objectives, one, it lets go of some of the tension in the classroom and allows students to freely express themselves without their race background inhibiting them from doing so. It also allows the students’ to realize on their own, without any teacher or authoritative figures, that they share similar backgrounds and interests despite the anger and tension they hold against each other. It’s one of the first scenes in which solidarity is embraced. Questions in the beginning of the activity start of a little silly like, “Do you own the new Snoop Dogg album” and then progressively become more serious like, “Have you ever been in jail?” As they stand on the line, students who consecutively segregated each other acknowledge that despite all their differences, they actually share similar stories and experiences. One of the first progressive steps the film demonstrates room 203 interconnecting.

From the teacher’s perspective, the film depicts the teaching and emotional conflicts Ms. Gruwell found herself struggling with as a first year teacher. Erin Gruwell decided to teach at Woodrow Wilson High School because she believed in the school administration movement of integration. As mentioned throughout Chapter 3 in Teach for America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization, “many educators don’t have a realistic picture of what taking the identity of urban teacher might entail” (Garrett, 24). Ms. Gruwell like many TFA teachers, don’t have the proper training or professional/ interest background to face the “challenges of working in impoverished, urban communities” (Garrett, 24). In the film, Ms. Gruwell is portrayed as an over enthusiastic teacher, privileged background, acknowledging that education is the medium which holds all the power to improve social issues as well as empowering these students as individuals in society.

The teacher perspective conveyed in Freedom Writers really related a lot to Katherine’s highlighted points in Chapter 3, where Erin Gruwell is much like Erica in which they share the desire to influence their student’s lives as well as contributing to the school reform system but feel trapped because of the lack of administration support. In the film, Ms. Gruwell has to take on three different jobs in order to financially support the curriculum she wants to implement in her English class because her department head refuses to support a new teaching approach for these students. She is given a lot of backlash for her unorthodox methods of teaching which not only do they stray away from her administrator’s requests but also stray away from preparing the class for the standardized test at the end of the year.

The film reinforced the importance of support from administration in advocating for school reform. If administrators and other educators can’t seem to support and believe in their own students, regardless of racial, cultural, or income background, than we can’t expect much of a progressive school reform. Just like the students in English room 203 came together and found solidarity within themselves to empower and encourage each other, educators must do the same. Teachers and other administrative educators can’t be describing school districts as “prison like” and its students as criminals. What message, other than hypocrisy, does that convey?

Freedom Writers is an important film relevant to urban education because it reveals the educational systematic oppression as well as the takes on different perspectives of the issues from students, teacher, and school administrators. The film reiterates the importance of classrooms being more than just a space for authoritative, strict lesson plan curriculum teaching to a test, but it actually being a space where students can feel safe, embraced, and free to engage in a space for learning.



Garrett, Katherine. "The Tension Between Urgency and Humanity: Confronting Factory-Style Education." Teach for America and the Struggle for Urban School Reform: Searching for Agency in an Era of Standardization. Print.

“Why I stopped Teaching Like a Champion:”

Ayers, William. "Chapter 18 Practicing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy." City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row. New York: New: 2008. Print.

Freedom Writers. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2007. Film.