These are my notes from Erin Gruwell‘s closing keynote at NECC 2009. MY THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS ARE IN ALL CAPS. This was the program description:

Wednesday’s keynote wraps up your conference experience with an inspirational look into the 10+ years’ worth of technology-supported projects initiated by Freedom Writers founder Erin Gruwell. Born and raised in California, Gruwell has been inspiring students and teachers alike since beginning her teaching career in 1994.

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.

In January 2007, Paramount Pictures released “Freedom Writers,” a film based on this remarkable story, featuring Hilary Swank as Erin.

2009 marks the 10th anniversary of the original Freedom Writers project, and at NECC, Erin will connect the ways in which her ongoing work with the Freedom Writers Foundation has promoted digital citizenship through storytelling and has influenced teachers and students worldwide.

Freedom Writers Foundation
The Freedom Writers Diary
Film: Freedom Writers

Story of Maria Reyes inducted into a gang at age 11
– little girls like her could care less about a number 2 pencil and a scantron
– with more money, she could visit her daddy more often in prison
– repeated visits to juvenile hall
– she saw her life path options as VERY limited

Wanting her to understand we do not live in an “undeclared war”
– we don’t have to reach for weapons
– instead we can reach for pens
– I thought about Anne Frank
– I decided we would have a “toast for change” with sparkling Apple cider

Like so many teachers in our country, I had been brainwashed to teach to a test

Maria was teaching me a valuable lesson: teach to me, not to a test
– she said she wanted to change, not be pregnant by 15 like her mom, not go to prison like her dad

I’d like to bring you into my classroom in room 203
– share how a little girl was able to find her voice

Movie of Maria telling story of how she read “The Diary of Anne Frank”
– she didn’t think she had anything to relate to in that book
– every day she brought in new questions
– started to relate to Anne when things started to go bad
– I was able to link to that feeling of knowing the outside world was out there, but I just had this small connection to it
– from then on I wanted Anne to make it

One day Maria came in ad threw the book across the classroom, asked “Why didn’t you tell me?”
– I asked what? She said “you didn’t tell me she didn’t make it.”

Maria: I felt that same feeling of disappointment that I had felt with so many other disappointments in my life

Darius stood up and said: she did make it, because she wrote about it she is going to go on living even after she is dead
– that was real turning point
– that realization that writing makes you immortal, that was huge

Darius came up with an idea of getting lots of books in the library
– for so many kids who are transient, they may have missed out on show and tell

He learned that a woman who had helped save Anne is still alive, and thought they could write letters to her and she would come fly to the U.S. to come talk to 150 gangster students

Darius asked classmates to pony up cash to bring her from Amsterdam
– raising coins each day
– we sent 150 letters

She DID come from Amsterdam
– started talking about where she would stay, what we would feed her
– students repainted the graffiti covered walls of the school

Darius asked if he could be the MC of the event

Saw Maria holding her torn book (Diary of Anne Frank)
– she asked if we could get the book in Spanish because her mom wanted to read the book that changed her life

Darius who was so street tough, was deeply touched by this little, old lady telling this story about Anne

Most important thing she put into that attic was hope
– she looked at Darius and got very upset
– she said “No, I am not a hero. I simply did what I had to do because it was the right thing. Please make sure Anne’s death was not in vain.”

This made us realize perhaps we have a story, and someone would listen to us
– kids started talking about the stories they wanted to tell
– I made this desperate plea, my kids have no money, there are no computers in their homes, the librarian is afraid of my kids, they are afraid they will write on the keyboard and screen

If you tell a kid over and over again they are dumb and stupid, they will believe it
– so many people had stereotyped my kids they actually believed it
– that was a true until this one lady told my kids they were brilliant

If you don’t ask, you’ll never receive
– I was ready for a couple computers
– Two days later 36 computers arrived at my school
– it was like that new car smell
– My kids were wondering, “Are these for us?”

My kids wanted to have voice, they wanted to tell their story
– all of my kids could tell their story

As everyone began to write, I recognized those stories couldn’t be contained in room 203, in Long Beach

We decided to call ourselves the “Freedom Writers Diary”

Darius saw a video with the US secretary of Education
– asked if they could send their stories to them

Erin had just showed a video of civil rights leaders in 1950s and 1960s
– Darius wanted to take this message to Washington
– The sec of education would have to pay attention: this wasn’t about teaching to a test, this was about teaching to kids

I never envisioned that book would transcend our classroom, and become the #1 book
– all books sold, money was put into a fund to send all 150 of those students to colleg
– the first of their families to go to college

Right before we walked into the capitol we went into a juvenile hall
– they are treated like max security offenders
– people viewed those people and viewed them as bad because they had done bad things

Education is the only way to equalize an unfair playing field

you have a story

write your story down, give it to me, and I’ll take it there

Next thing we know, w

Being a dreamer, having that dream
– having kids who were written off, who were not supposed to make it

that blank screen gave them the power to become immortal

we walked into the halls of Congress
– Maria said, “Oh my God, there are so many old white men in here!” (with no script)

Maria was giving a face to millions of kids
– she recognized a man who had been a freedom writer
– he was a Congressman from Atlanta, Georgia
– he realized they had taken Freedom Writers as their name

If you teach 1, they will teach another

Yet again, just like the woman who had saved Anne Frank, the baton had been passed

So I wanted to create an organization that would teach teachers what they need to know, to reach and help each and every student that enters their classroom

150 teachers, from all over the nation, came to Long Beach and went through our boot camp
– Maria, Darius and others said come walk into our world
– doing bad things doesn’t make you a bad person
– if you tell a person they are dumb and stupid long enough they will believe it, imagine what will happen when you tell someone they are brilliant

THE POWER OF WORDS

last video in a virtual classroom with
– gave 150 teachers laptops from HP, software from Microsoft
– challenged them to tell their story
– we are underpaid, we are not validated
– help people realize our profession is a calling
– it could be a revolution, it is the only way to change society

These teachers realize education is not about a test, number 2 pencils, NCLB
– it is about reaching each child and believing each one can make it

Movie about the workshop for teachers, laptops provided by HP and Microsoft

THIS IS A TESTIMONY TO MANY THINGS. THE POWER OF WORDS. THE POWER OF HOPE. THE IMPORTANCE OF PASSIONATE TEACHING, LEADING AND LOVING. THE POWER OF STORIES. THE NEED TO ACT FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. THE VITAL IMPORTANCE OF TELLING OUR STORIES. THE POWER OF VOICE. THE POWER OF 1:1 COMPUTING IN THE HANDS OF PASSIONATE CHANGE AGENTS. WOW.

NOW I’VE GOTTA GO BUY THE BOOK AND READ IT, AND SEE THE MOVIE. ERIN’S STORY REMINDS ME SO MUCH OF MARCO TORRES. LIKE MARCO, SHE’S A PASSIONATE EDUCATOR WHO IS CHANGING THE WORLD BY LOVING, NURTURING, MENTORING, CHALLENGING, AND SUPPORTING KIDS.

I AM INSPIRED. LET THE STORYCHASING BEGIN.

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On this day..

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  • Barbara Moose

    Thanks for sharing . . . I had an early flight and could not attend. . . I’m looking for speakers for NCTIES (NC Technology in Education Society) March 2010 Conference and I thought she might be an inspirational, passionate speaker!! (I enjoyed seeing your son’s Washington, DC experiences)

  • Barbara Moose

    I’ve “heard of” you from David Warlick’s blog & presentations. . . it looks and sounds like you would be a great presenter for us too . . . I may be contacting you in the future.

  • Thanks for blogging about your NECC09 experience. I’ve found your posts very worthwhile to read and have forwarded some of them on for colleagues to read too.
    I was fortunate enough to go to NECC in 2005. Part of that unforgettable experience was for me to see Erin present in a workshop. So glad to hear her message is still being valued and loved by educators.
    And thanks to you for writing about it and inspiring me all over again.

  • lattelilly

    We had the experience of hearing Erin at our 2008 convocation. She was amazing. I appreciated her genuine stories and struggles as an educator myself. Thanks for sharing!

  • Trip Lewis

    Thanks so much for sharing your notes, thoughts, and comments here.

    I had the opportunity to meet Erin at the 2009 New Brunswick Teachers’ Association Combined Council Day in April. Members of my BEd class and I were on a bus to the event and got stuck in traffic, thereby missing her keynote address. On our arrival she found out that we had missed her talk and agreed to (perhaps, requested is a better word here) hold an intimate Q&A session with our class. By the end of our time with her, there were more pictures being taken and hugs being shared than you could imagine. Out of the 60 or so of us present, I do not believe that there was one of us that did not leave that room without a whole new level of inspiration and, likewise, passion toward finding ourselves in the classroom.

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