Sunday, October 11, 2015

Inclusive Classroom Lessons from the Movie Freedom Writers

(A still from the movie Freedom Writers. Image Source:

In my Education and Anthropology class last Thursday, we watched the movie Freedom Writers. I am a movie buff (In fact, based on my innumerous references to movies in class while teaching, last week one of my students, Nicholas, asked me, “Ashish, are you the movie guy?”) but very few movies make me think as deeply as this one did. Based on a real-life story, the movie tells the tale of a high school in Long Beach, California. Erin Gruwell joins the school as the new English teacher. She is given the responsibility to teach English to “at risk” students who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and most of them have a long history of racial and gang violence. They do not see a future for themselves and do not see how school is helping them in any way. Gruwell, a first time teacher, works her way through the administrative struggles to ignite her students’ passion for learning and helps them envision a future for themselves. How does she do it? Through inclusive pedagogy! She teaches us the following four important lessons about creating inclusive classrooms:

Validate students’ capacity to learn: The first and foremost requirement of making a classroom inclusive of students’ needs is to have enough trust in the students that they can learn and succeed. We fail the students a lot before they encounter actual failure if we do not lay our trust in their abilities. When the entire school treated her students as a burden, Erin believed in her students’ abilities and kept putting in efforts to provide new learning experiences to her students. She even took up two part-time jobs after her regular job so that she could buy books for her students and take them to museum trips.

Listen and understand: To make the teaching inclusive, the teacher needs to listen to students’ needs and understand their needs by being cognizant of the sociocultural backgrounds they come from. For assignments, Erin Gruwell asked students to tell their own stories through an anonymous journal. These stories not only helped Erin to know her students better but also increased her students’ confidence as they started believing that their own stories are as important as any other story and others need to know their stories.

Have instructional materials relevant to one’s background: Students, in any classroom, come from diverse backgrounds and the same educational material might not cater to the needs of all the students. Erin Gwen soon realized that her students did not see value in learning about Homer and his works. Hence, she changed the texts to the ones about the lives of teenagers in times of violence and war so that her students could relate their own experiences with the texts they were reading.

Bring in your own personal identity to relate to students: While a teacher needs to have deep sympathy with their students’ oppressed histories, they also need to empathize with the students to relate with them on a higher level. And this empathy can only be evoked by the teacher if they bring their own personal identity and history to classrooms and relate others’ intense experiences with their own culture and identity. Erin Gruwell does that almost perfectly when she brings her own Jewish identity and the history of Jewish oppression to relate it with her students’ identities and histories of oppression and violence.

In Erin’s case, most of her students had a history of oppression and violence and all of there were identified as “at risk” students. Students in our classroom might not fall into those categories. However, we can still make the classroom more inclusive of students by understating their identities and aspirations. As, educators we need to understand the classroom context and devise our instruction accordingly. And that way, we can move toward "inclusive classrooms" in true sense of the terms.


  1. Thank you for sharing! It has been a while since I've seen Freedom Writers, but from what I can remember this is a nice example to use in this context. I hadn't thought about journaling as an approach in creating a safe space until I read the post and thought about the movie. I can appreciate journaling as a safe space and non-threatening, because it is an outlet that can be used to release thoughts, ideas, or processes to work through.

    I remember when I was in Academic Writing for Doctoral Students for Qualitative Research course and the professor would have us turn in “Scholarly Journals” tri-weekly, and it was effective to some extent, because it permitted time to deeply think and reflect before sharing out to the entire class with some topics as well as provided self-reflection on where I am as the learner and where I am situated in the research. I also think journaling sets the stage for lead-in participation, which we were able to learn from one another, exchange critiques and feedback as well as having the opportunity to develop leadership roles in serving lead discussants. Ultimately, a safe space in relation to the movie and my academic experience encompasses unique perspectives from everyone collectively and these varied perspectives are beneficial and vital to the learning process and developmental component.

  2. I really appreciate your use of a positive example of an inclusive classroom! I remember watching the movie, Freedom Writers, in high school, but we discussed it as a teacher who went above and beyond class. We never discussed the basic actions that could be done to create an inclusive environment. This movie has a lot of actions a teacher could do that creates an inclusive environment as you highlighted in your blog post. Ms. Gruwell did go beyond what was required of her, but she also set up an environment that should be the norm in education.

    I know when I was in high school, we didn't have enough money to print out tests, so teachers had to ask students to bring in paper and we had our tests on class copies that we printed four pages to a single sheet (which was very difficult to read). School don't always have the resources they need, but they can create an environment that still feels inclusive.

    Thank you for a positive example!