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Silvi Shameti

Schools in American Cities

Film Analysis - Freedom Writers


Richard LaGravenese’s Freedom Writers tells the story of a group of urban high school students and the journey they take together to pursue higher education. In doing so, the movie sets up an image of what urban education looked like in Long Beach, California in 1994; in the film, the school has just undergone a “voluntary integration” program which has changed not only the racial make-up of the student body but also the academic standing of the school. The film addresses the way the changing of the student body actually led to more segregation, the way the school administration perceived “urban” students, and the difficulty that new teachers may have when they lack a cultural understanding of their students.

The integration piece is certainly a crux of the film and portrays the issue in an interesting way. In one of the opening scenes, Hilary Swank’s character, Ms. Gruwell, is listening to a school administrator describe the school’s situation to her: “It’s too bad you weren’t here even two years ago; we used to have one of the highest scholastic records in the district, but since voluntary integration was suggested, we’ve lost over 75% of our strongest students.” The phenomenon that the administrator is describing is one we’ve talked about in detail in class; in fact, in Chemerinsky’s “The Segregation and Resegregation of American Public Education: The Courts’ Role,” he writes, “Gary Orfield’s powerful recent study, Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation, carefully documents that, during the 1990s, America’s public schools have become substantially more segregated....For example, the percentage of African-American students attending majority white schools has steadily decreased since 1986....By 1991, the percentage of African-American students attending majority white schools in the South had decreased to 39.2% and over the course of the 1990s this number dropped” (Chemerinsky, 1598). Because the film takes place in 1994, the number of segregated schools would have been very high at this point. The scene described above alludes to the issue of “white flight,” which Chemerinsky goes on to describe as such: “White flight came about, in part, to avoid school desegregation and, in part, as a result of a larger demographic phenomenon, namely endangered successful desegregation. White families moved to suburban areas to avoid being part of desegregation orders affecting cities.” Many schools have witnessed this phenomenon after attempting to desegregate, and the issue is still present and visible in schools today. Despite the blind lottery in my placement, there is not an overwhelming amount of racial diversity, which is most likely a reflection of the racial make-up of the city of Philadelphia; a large number of the people living in the city are racial minorities. Although my placement has not been specifically or directly affected by segregation, it does serve as an example of what years of continuing segregation has created in the Philadelphia educational system.

Another thing the film touched on is the cultural relevancy of school and the importance of a teacher being culturally knowledgeable of her students - but especially while maintaining authenticity to themselves. In one scene of the film, Ms. Gruwell is attempting to teach the students about internal rhyme, so she chooses a Tupac song, writes some of the lyrics on the board, and then prints them out to hand out to the class. When the students come in, she begins to play the song and hand out the pieces of paper with the printed lyrics. After stating her intentions for the lesson - they are going to be studying poetry - and mispronouncing Tupac’s name, students start reciting the lyrics themselves from memory. One student says, “Think we don’t know Tupac?” and another chimes in with, “White girl gonna teach us about rap,” as the class laughs. This moment is interesting because Ms. Gruwell’s intentions were to try to relate the lesson to something she believes her students will find enjoyable or meaningful or engaging, but because she lacks the cultural knowledge behind the material, the students reject her attempt as an inauthentic one. Instead of feeling interested, they feel as though they are being patronized or condescended to, and rather than feeling as though their interests are being validated, they are feeling as though their interests are actually being hijacked by the dominant white culture and fed back to them. In another scene, students are challenging Ms. Gruwell’s lack of knowledge of their backgrounds and living situations, and one student says, “You got no respect for how we live. You got us in here teaching us this grammar shit, and then we gotta go out there in the ghetto. What are you telling me about that, huh? What are you doing in here that makes a goddamn difference in my life?” Another student mentions, “When I look out in the world, I don’t see nobody that looks like me with their pockets full unless they’re rapping a lyric or dribbling a ball.” The students are expressing their frustration at having to be in school with no concept of how school can have a meaningful effect on their lives; because they are not shown positive affirmations of their own culture in the classroom, or told why their assignments should matter, they reject the idea that Ms. Gruwell deserves their respect and attention.

However, although Ms. Gruwell fails at this attempt at culturally relevant teaching, the attempt that does work is the connection she makes to the gangs that her students all seem to belong to and the "gang" identity she ascribes to the Nazis during the Holocaust. Ms. Gruwell's ability to turn items that are typically presented in the classroom as part of the larger canon - like the Diary of Anne Frank and Twelve Angry Men - is portrayed as an innovative practice that her students respond to really well. This is interesting because when one considers culturally relevant teaching, one will often think of introducing material outside of the canon in order to fill in the spaces left by the canon - but Ms. Gruwell actually just uses materials that are already well-known, but presents them in a way that makes them meaningful to the lives of her students (like linking the Nazis to gangs or linking Twelve Angry Men to the court case that her student's brother was about to face). This approach seems to be useful in an environment where a teacher might not have enough agency to create a completely new curriculum, which was also true of Ms. Gruwell's position.


When watching this film, I often thought back to my own placement at an urban high school in Philadelphia, especially because I am in a ninth-grade classroom and the students portrayed in the film are, as well. One of my biggest concerns with how Freedom Writers portrays the “city kids” is the way that all of their backstories were steeped in some form of violence or abuse that then offered an explanation for their lack of interest in school or education. In one scene, the teacher, Ms. Gruwell, is reading the notebooks that her students are supposed to write in every day, and many of the entries involve stories of hardship; one student describes an abusive parent, another an experience with a gun and juvenile hall early on in life, and yet another talks about living in a refugee camp. After reading these stories, Ms. Gruwell decides to show her father and says, “I don’t know what to do with these; I’m not a social worker, I’m barely a teacher,” to which her father replies, “You’re not responsible for their lives outside the classroom. Just do your job the best you can.” It is a known fact that urban students are often painted as victims of their circumstances - poverty, crime, violence, etc. - and therefore have significant stressors and other issues to deal with that often trump schoolwork. While I don’t disagree that this is often the case, and that teachers should maintain an awareness of the lives their students may lead outside of the classroom, there is still a light-heartedness about being a high school student that I think is important to maintain when imagining or approaching students in urban schools. Because my placement uses a blind lottery as an admissions policy, students come from all over Philadelphia and from all walks of life - there are students who hold a “criminal record,” students who have been under house arrest, etc. - and it feels as though getting told this information creates a lot of presumptions about what they will be like. But these students are still young fourteen-year-olds who are learning about the world and about themselves in much the same ways that many adolescents do; they are silly, they have a sense of humor, they are friendly and caring towards each other, and many have a genuine interest in learning and education. (In fact, one of the criticisms students have about the innovative teaching practices used at my placement is that they feel like they aren’t learning enough.) It seems as though urban students are either portrayed as people in need of assistance from others, people perpetuating their own circumstances, or people that are resilient enough to overcome their circumstances. I know that my placement is not free of violence, and because I am there for such a short amount of time I am not privy to everything that goes on, but being there and getting to know the students on an individual level made me realize that I am often guilty of placing an extra seriousness on them because of perceptions that movies like Freedom Writers perpetuate. I think there exists a tension when teaching in urban environments between acknowledging the hardships that students face and deal with while still giving them the space to live out their youth and childhood and preserve the idea that they are multifaceted in that aspect.

This film, although highly dramatized and problematic in the way it depicts Ms. Gruwell as a kind of “teacher-as-savior” and reduces the students in her classroom to common stereotypes, does touch on issues that are present in urban education. The film allows the viewer to identify both with the student perspective and the teacher perspective, and does offer an interesting depiction of innovative teaching practices, the importance of bonding with students and the overwhelming amount of accomplishments that can come out of turning a classroom into a family.