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Famed teacher who helped students to form Freedom Writers to speak at APSU

In the fall of 1994, an idealistic first-year teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., began her career in a classroom of at-risk students – many of whom were victims of racial intolerance and simply accepted it as part of their lives.

When the teacher, Erin Gruwell, grabbed a hold of a note being passed that showed an ugly racial caricature, the moment was the catalyst Gruwell needed to usher her students into an eye-opening journey against intolerance.

In the fall of 1994, an idealistic first-year teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., began her career in a classroom of at-risk students – many of whom were victims of racial intolerance and simply accepted it as part of their lives.

When the teacher, Erin Gruwell, grabbed a hold of a note being passed that showed an ugly racial caricature, the moment was the catalyst Gruwell needed to usher her students into an eye-opening journey against intolerance.

She and the class began reading the works of Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic as their guides, and as they saw similarities from those readings in their lives, the students wrote diaries of their own. They dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists, the Freedom Riders.

Their diary entries are featured in the book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which also was the basis for the 2007 motion picture “Freedom Writers,” starring two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Gruwell.

Gruwell told her students they have something to say, and that inspired them to shatter stereotypes and fight apathy. To celebrate that spirit, Gruwell will speak at Austin Peay State University in a keynote address open to the public.

Gruwell will present a talk at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 30 in the Dunn Center gymnasium. The event is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow her talk. 

Currently, Gruwell serves as president of the Freedom Writers Foundation. She raises awareness by traveling nationwide to speak inside large corporations, government institutions and community associations.

She and her students have appeared on numerous television shows, including “Oprah,” “The View” and “Good Morning America.” Her class has been featured on National Public Radio and in national newspapers and People magazine.

Gruwell is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, where she received the Lauds and Laurels Distinguished Alumni Award. She earned her master’s degree and teaching credentials from California State University, Long Beach, where she was honored as Distinguished Alumna by the School of Education.

Gruwell’s book and Sept. 30 appearance are part of a reading initiative at APSU called The Peay Read, designed to provide a unifying experience and contribute to the academic experiences for freshmen students. However, the reading program also offers opportunities for sophomore, junior and senior students.

A committee reviewed several books and chose “The Freedom Writers Diary” as The Peay Read’s common reading book. Committee members also have worked with other academic departments to plan activities culminating in Gruwell’s keynote address.

Examples of The Peay Read student activities and memorabilia include the following:

-- T-shirts with “Freedom Writers” printed on them and given to freshmen students enrolled in the APSU 1000 First-Year Experience program, which is including the book in its classroom discussions.

-- Bookmarks with book quotations, which will be used in student discussion groups focused on those quotations.

-- Faculty-student class discussions, including gaining skills about how to fight injustice.

-- Student book reviews, with authors of the “best 10” essays invited to a dinner with Gruwell.

-- A showing of the movie “Freedom Writers.”

For more details about this year’s book reading selection or The Peay Read, visit http://www.apsu.edu/Read/.

For more information about Gruwell’s upcoming talk, contact Dr. Dixie Dennis, chair of The Peay Read committee at APSU, by telephone at (931) 221-7415 or by e-mail at dennisdi@apsu.edu. -- <I>Melony Shemberger</I>