When Erin Gruwell first entered Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California in 1994 to teach English, people thought she was crazy for thinking that she could get her students to be motivated about school. After all, she was teaching in a racially divided school in an area plagued by gang violence, and many deemed her students to be incapable of learning.
In the film, Gruwell is depicted by Hilary Swank and early on in the school year, the students made it clear what they thought of Gruwell. “You don’t know nothing,” said Eva Benitez. Benitez continued “You don’t know the pain we feel. You don’t know what we gotta do. You got no respect for how we living.” To the students, Gruwell was just another white teacher who couldn’t relate to their experiences.
However, a major turning point in the film came when Gruwell had the students play a game called the line game. The way the game worked is that Gruwell would ask a question out loud and if the question applied to any of the students, they would step up to the line. The game started off humorous with Gruwell asking “How many of you have the new Snoop Dog album?” But the questions would get progressively more serious as the game went on. For instance, she asked, “How many of you have been in Juvenile hall or jail for any length of time?”. Then at the end of the game she said, “Step up to the line if you’ve lost a friend to gang violence” and tragically, everyone stepped up to the line. Then she said, “Stand on the line if you’ve lost more than one friend.” Only a few students left the line. She followed that up with “Three.” Only a few more left. She then said “Four or more.” A few more students stepped back. However, a sizable chunk remained and Gruwell told the students to take a moment to pay respect to those friends.
The game was significant in that it made Gruwell connect more with the students and at the end of the game, she handed out journals for the students to write in every day. The journals would not be graded and most importantly, if the students wanted Gruwell to read what they had written that day, they could place their journal in a cabinet in the classroom. Later that evening after none of the students’ parents had shown up for Open School Night, Gruwell checked the cabinet. To her delight, it was filled with journals.
In the journals the students wrote about some of the more tragic things they’d seen in their lives. For example, one of the students named Brandy told a story of how she watched her mom get half beaten to death. The students would continue to write in these journals throughout the year.
In addition to the journals, Gruwell took other measures to get the students interested in learning. She took them on field trips and got them books to read that she felt would interest them. Much to the disappointment of her husband, she took part-time jobs on the side to pay for these expenditures.
As a result of these measures, Gruwell managed to get the students to be motivated about school. Perhaps even more miraculously she was able to cultivate a family-like atmosphere in the classroom with her students.
The movie concludes on a positive note with Gruwell informing her students that she’ll be able to teach them as 11th and 12th graders and not just as 9th and 10th graders as she was originally intended to do.
I first saw this movie when I was in 6th grade and I have watched it several times since. It never fails to warm my heart. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, watch it ASAP! You will not be disappointed.