about their lives
in diary entries
The Fitch students heard from two of the original Freedom Writers.
By ANGIE SCHMITT
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
AUSTINTOWN — Outwardly, the students at Austintown Fitch High School don’t have much in common with the students who inspired the movie “Freedom Writers.”
The Long Beach, Calif., high-schoolers who were the subjects for the movie were mostly minorities living in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence shortly after the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s.
But English students in Steven Ward’s ninth- and 11th-grade classrooms at Austintown Fitch are benefiting from the same avant-garde curriculum that had such a powerful impact on students at Long Beach’s Wilson High School.
“Our demographics are not what they had at Wilson High School, and I don’t think we face the same challenges they do,” Ward said. “It [the principle] still directly applies to our kids.”
Like the California students, Ward’s teens are telling their own life stories through anonymous dairy entries. They’re studying the stories of others through literature.
And on Tuesday, Fitch students met two of the people who have served as the basis for their lessons.
Two members of Room 203, as Wilson High alumni like to refer to it, spoke to about 700 students at Fitch. Maria Reyes and Sue Ellen Alpizar had excerpts from their own classroom diaries published in the book “The Freedom Writers Diary,” along with other members of their class.
The book is required reading in Ward’s classroom. He said he was inspired to bring Reyes’, Alpizar’s and Gruwell’s message to Fitch because it gives high-schoolers an outlet for their personal problems and emphasizes the power of individual decision-making.
“It’s a focus on students and empowering them to change their own lives,” he said.
He said that, so far, his students’ journal entries have been pretty positive.
Danielle Strickland, 17, a student in Ward’s 11th-grade English class, said initially she was critical of the Freedom Writers’ program. Now, she considers herself a convert.
“Some of us think, ‘Oh, we don’t have as bad as problems as them.’ But that doesn’t mean we don’t have problems to write about,” she said. “Today, I feel like I’m meeting a hero.”
Reyes and Alpizar, both in their mid-20s, told students of their struggles to overcome experiences such as domestic violence, homelessness and conflict with violent gangs.
“All of us were bused onto this beautiful high school five blocks from the beach,” Reyes told students. “We were the ghetto kids; we were the colored kids. A lot of us were in rehab, a lot of ’em had just gotten out of juvenile hall, or were in foster care.”
Gruwell challenged students’ attitudes about their own self-worth, Reyes said. And Reyes hated her for it, she said. The speaker told students she filled the first pages of her journal with threats directed at her teacher.
“I thought we were the kids who weren’t going to make it, and [Gruwell] didn’t believe it,” Reyes said.
Reyes told students that she began warming to Gruwell’s lessons when she read “Anne Frank: The Dairy of a Young Girl.” The book is the real-life diary of a Jewish girl who spends two years hiding in an attic while her family attempts to avoid capture by Nazi soldiers, during the German occupation of Holland in World War II.
The book was published after Frank died in a concentration camp in 1945.
Growing up in a gang-controlled Hispanic neighborhood, Reyes said she could relate to the racial stigma and sense of fear Frank endured.
She told students she didn’t shed a tear when, at age 5, she witnessed her cousin gunned down by a police officer. Neither did she cry when her father was sentenced to 10 years in a maximum-security prison. But when Reyes read of Frank’s fate, tears rolled down her cheeks, she said.
“When Anne Frank talked about not being able to take the yellow star off her jacket, or she would be shot at, I knew how she felt,” Reyes told students. “I had to find my own voice.”
That lesson is what inspires Reyes to tour high schools across the country, she said.
“In high school, we want to pretend or front. We want to be popular. We never really show who we really are or the things we are experiencing at that moment,” she said. “I believe that what happened in Room 203 can happen in every classroom.”