Freedom Writers offer lessons to Erie students, faculty

ERIE, Pa. -- After visiting East Strong Vincent and Wilson middle schools, two of the original 150 Freedom Writers shared their stories to the public at Erie High School Wednesday.

In 1994, Erin Gruwell, an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, changed her teaching style to better reach students.

The keynote speakers at Erie School District’s Community Night Event, Sue Ellen Alpizar and Narada Comans, were in Gruwell’s class.

Like many of the peers, classmates Alpizar and Comans faced poverty, gang violence and many other obstacles. Fighting for survival was the norm.

Their teacher, who they often called “Ms. G,” began encouraging discussions where the students identified commonalities, bridging gaps and unifying rivals. She began teaching the them about the world around them, and provided examples of others who persevered in the face of opposition. 

The students would eventually meet Holocaust survivors and walk through Nazi concentration camps. They found strength in those stories, and they began writing their own. For many of the students, it was their pathway to freedom.

"I think if you create a situation to where you're able to better yourself, then you're better for everybody else,” said Comans.

By 1997, the group gave itself a name: The Freedom Writers. The named paid homage to the Freedom Riders, an interracial group of civil rights activists who were viciously attacked for riding together and challenging segregation on interstate buses in 1961.

Today, Alpizar and Comans work with the Freedom Writers Foundation as outreach speakers. They tour the country with their stories, curriculum recommendations, and hope.

Comans said, "The fact that it can provoke conversation, because a lot of times there is no conversation about what somebody is going through and that's probably not the best."

The Freedom Writers Diary, which compiled journal entries of the 150 high school students, was published in 1999. Some of Erie School District’s teachers and students are reading the book and finding their own connections.

Erie High School junior Nicholas Herberle said, "These people just help me realize how lucky I am, and how I need to grow up and become a responsible adult like they are.

Montrell Thomas, a freshman at the high school, observed similarities between the Freedom Writers’ school and Erie High School, which recently merged with students from different backgrounds and neighborhoods. 

"Just like in their movie, there was a lot of students that went to that school just like there is a lot of students that [attend] this school,” he said.

Jill Crable, a principal at Erie High School, said, "It was nice that they had a teacher that invested time in them and believed in them; and took the opportunity to have them share what was happening in their life and bring that into the classroom, so that other students know that they are not alone."

Thomas said, "It doesn't matter what circumstances you're in. Always make the best of it, because there's always someone who has lower than what you have. Be grateful for what you've got."

The journey of the Freedom Writers inspired an eponymous film in 2007.

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