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Freedom Writers Diary - Indiana University Northwest’s Reading in the Region Reading Guide

Note:  This guide is meant to help you think of ideas as you read the text.  You do not have to answer all or any of the questions; instead, you can use them to inspire or prompt thought.  In the same manner, you should feel free to read the entries in the Freedom Writers Diary at your leisure, pace, and focus.  Individuals may participate in this initiative to the level of each person’s comfort—read, think, gather, and discuss to the extent that you wish.  We look forward to many interesting and fruitful conversations as our community experiences The Freedom Writers Diary and the issues it evokes.

General Overarching Questions

  • Trace the changes one student undergoes in a particular semester or over the whole four years.  Or, trace the change the whole class undergoes over the course of a semester or the four years.  Discuss the four-year evolution of the Freedom Writers--from needing change and being influenced to change to spurring change in others (being agents of change).
  • How are the lives of the Freedom Writers war-like?  How do individual Freedom Writers win particular battles and why?  Do any or all of them win the war?
  • What can the Freedom Writers teach us about working with people who are different from ourselves?  How do you work with someone who is different from you?
  • Why do you think the Freedom Writers were so receptive to Gruwell?  After all, they seem to have had experience with people who said they wanted to help this group of students before, so why would this one woman be any different than the ones who came before her here or who exist elsewhere?  What made Gruwell effective?
  • The Freedom Writers found parallels between their lives and the literature they read for Gruwell’s class.  What effect did finding those parallels have on the Freedom Writers?  Are there connections that you made between yourself and an aspect of the text?  Why or why not?
  • Do you think writing can lead to change?  Can writing really make a difference (for the individual or a larger group)?  Why or how?
  • What diary entry stands out in your mind after you completed reading the book?  Why?
  • The “Epilogue” includes description of some of the activities of the Freedom Writers after their graduation.  Which diary entries made you curious enough to wonder what particular Freedom Writers are doing today?
  • Different types of writing (diary entries, short stories, plays, poems, newspaper headlines, letters, etc) exist in this book.  What role do these written texts play for the students?    Why?  What particular genre of writing appeals to you?  Why?  Discuss how different types of writing empower or influence people.

“Foreword” by Zlata Filipovic

  • What inspired the Freedom Writers to start their diaries?
  • Zlata Filipovic describes the Freedom Writer’s efforts as follows:  “They had organized themselves and chose to do something different, something memorable, something powerful and humane” (xi).  How would you describe the actions of the Freedom Writers?
  • Why does Zlata write?  Why do the Freedom Writers write?  Why do you write?
  • What effect can writing have?
  • How have the diaries of Anne Frank, Zlata Filipovic, and the Freedom Writers influenced people?
  • What is the diary to Zlata?  To the Freedom Writers?
  • What parallels does Zlata see between herself and the Freedom Writers?  What parallels do the Freedom Writers see between themselves and Zlata?  What parallels do you see between yourself and either Zlata or the Freedom Writers?
  • Zlata says that we think bad things only happen to other people (xiv).  Do you agree with her?  Why or why not?
  • Zlata discusses the ways in which individuals “suffer because of many things over which we have no control” (xiv), and she lists some of those things.  She suggests that our reactions to this could involve becoming a victim or addressing injustice in a humane manner (xiv-xv).  What other options exist for dealing with this type of suffering?  What benefit does dealing with injustice humanely have?
  • In the face of suffering and injustice, what effect can writing have, according to Zlata (xv)?  Do you agree?  Why or why not?
  • Zlata says that the Freedom Writers have decided “to break this cycle” (xv).  What cycle is that?  Would the individual Freedom Writers see themselves as having broken a cycle?  Why or why not?
  • How does Zlata see Erin Gruwell?  How do you see Erin Gruwell?
  • According to Zlata, what are ordinary teachers like?  How does Gruwell compare to this?
  • What does Zlata hope this book will do (xvii)?  By the end of the book, what do we find out that the Freedom Writers hope the book will do?

Freshman Year—Fall 1994

  • What becomes the core of Gruwell’s curriculum?  Why?  What happened?
  • How do her fellow teachers treat Gruwell?  Why?
  • How do the students react to her at first?  How do they react to being in her class?  How do they see themselves at first?  How do they see each other?
  • How does Gruwell’s class compare to the Distinguished Scholars class?
  • How are schools like the city, according to one diary entry (9-10)?
  • In Diary 4, the student writes, “It’s kind of sad when you have to run away from something that isn’t your fault” (11).  How does this statement apply to each of the Freedom Writers?  How does it apply to you?
  • Describe the different types of violence the students encounter.  How does each deal with this violence?
  • Death of a loved one is something that the Freedom Writers repeatedly face.  How do they discuss death?  What is their attitude toward it?  Discuss the similarity with / difference between their experiences of death and yours.
  • Repeatedly throughout the text, the diary writers talk about an “undeclared war.”  Based on their descriptions / entries, how are their lives war-like?  How do they see their lives as war-like?  What elements in your life are war-like?
  • At the end of Diary 8, the writer suggests that, if she had been made “to do something really bad,” she would have quit the sorority pledging.  What were the girls made to do?  Why does this writer not see these things as really bad?
  • How do the students see Gruwell’s class by the end of the semester?
  • How do the various students react to Durango Street? To The Last Spin?
  • Describe Gruwell’s class during the Fall of 1994.  What are the kids like?  What do they learn?  What do we learn about them?

Freshman Year—Spring 1995

  • How does Gruwell feel about the system?
  • How does she see her approach to the class?
  • What role does John Tu play for the class?
  • What parallels does Gruwell draw between the students’ lives and Romeo and Juliet?  What effect does this have on her students’ thinking?
  • How do students react to the “Peanut Game”?
  • Describe the students’ comments on the Oklahoma City bombing.
  • What do the students learn from their trip to the Museum of Tolerance?
  • Gruwell introduces a ‘change’ ceremony.  What influence does this have?
  • What lessons did Gruwell’s class learn in the Spring semester of 1995?  What do we learn about them?  About ourselves?

Sophomore Year--Fall 1995

  • How do the other teachers view Gruwell’s successes? What is her initial reaction?  What changes her mind?
  • What influences Gruwell's reading choice for this next year?
  • As we encounter the various problems these students have (homelessness, illness, incarceration of self or family member, alcoholism, etc.), what role does Gruwell play for them? What roles do the classroom and other students play?
  • What is the class’s reaction to Twelve Angry Men?
  • Compare the Distinguished Scholars class with Gruwell’s.
  • Connect the books Gruwell gives the Freedom Writers to their continued change in this semester.
  • What is their reaction to reading about Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic?
  • How does one student react to reading Maass’s article?
  • What lessons did the students learn during the semester?  How did they change?  What lessons did we learn?

Sophomore Year—Spring 1996

  • What does Tommy say in his letter to Zlata?
  • How are the lives of the Freedom Writers war-like in this particular semester?
  • Describe the visits of Gerda Seifer, Miep Gies, and Zlata Filipovic.  What effect does each visit have on the Freedom Writers?
  • Why does Miep Gies call them the “true heroes?”  Do you think they are the true heroes?  Why or why not?
  • What does Gruwell want to be the class motto?  What does it mean to be the fire, the lightning, and the thunder?  Are you the fire, the lightning, and the thunder?  Why or why not?
  • Discuss the importance of Zlata’s visit.
  • Discuss the familial role of Gruwell’s class.
  • What lessons do the students learn this semester?  How have they changed?  What did you learn from their experiences?

Junior Year—Fall 1996

  • What did Gruwell learn over the summer?
  • Why do students switch into Gruwell’s class?  What do they avoid? What do they gain?
  • The students read of Emerson’s “self-reliance.”  What does it mean to them?
  • The students have clearly changed in their attitude toward a variety of things like violence.  Why, then, does the student do nothing in Diary 56?
  • How do the students react to the Catcher in the Rye?
  • What effect does The Color Purple have on some students?
  • What are some of the things that have influenced these students’ lives?
  • What lessons do the students learn?  How do they change as the semester progresses?  What lessons do we learn from and about the students?

Junior Year—Spring 1997

  • What issues does Gruwell discuss in her entry (139)?
  • Discuss the different reactions to silence in this semester.
  • How do the students react to the assignment to write about events that changed their lives?  Why does this assignment make them react so strongly, especially given their experiences thus far?
  • At least two entries have addressed dyslexia (page 23 and 147).  Are these entries by the same student?  Why or why not?  How has the student changed (if at all)?
  • What do the students discover from editing the entries of other students?
  • What does one student learn from his / her mother’s discussion of Rosa Parks?
  • What do the students learn from the Freedom Riders?
  • Discuss the students’ trip to Washington, including why they go, what the trip is like, and what they learn there.  In particular, describe their visit to the Holocaust Museum.
  • When they return from their trip to Washington, what do the students discover has happened?  How do they react?  What do they do?  How does the public react to their actions?
  • What have Gruwell’s class and the Freedom Writers as a group gradually become for each of these students?
  • What lessons did the students learn during the semester?  How did they change?  What lessons did we learn?

Senior Year—Fall 1997

  • Upon what does Gruwell focus as the Freedom Writers enter their senior year?
  • What was the writer of Diary 99’s attitude until he / she met Cheryl Best?  What was it after that encounter?
  • Of what do the Freedom Writers dream?  What do they want to accomplish? As the Freedom Writers look to their future, what issues confront them, threatening their dreams?  How do they respond to these issues?  Are they able to overcome them?  Why / how or why not?
  • Discuss the role of mentor (the mentors for the Freedom Writers and the Freedom Writers as mentors).  Why is this role important?  One student says that they were given the “torch” to carry to the kids at Butler Elementary (209).  What torch is that, and how do they pass the fire to the kids?
  • Compare / contrast the hazing incident in Diary 111 to that of Diary 8.
  • How does the death of or near-death of a parent influence individual Freedom Writers?
  • What lessons have the Freedom Writers learned?  How have they changed?

Senior Year—Spring 1998

  • What awards and recognition have the Freedom Writers received by the beginning of their spring semester, according to Gruwell?
  • How do the students react to going to New York and preparing to do so?  How is this similar to and / or different from their reactions to and experience of their trip to Washington?  What lessons do individuals learn on the trip?
  • How do the Freedom Writers view getting their book published?
  • One Freedom Writer says, “I am far from perfection, but I’m changing” (240).  How could this describe other Freedom Writers?  Could it describe you?  Why?
  • In Diary entries 125 to 127, the teens deal with issues of representing the group and being accepted for themselves.  What are their individual issues?  What do they have in common?
  • Diary 44 and Diary 128 are both by Nicaraguan refugees (possibly the same writer).  Compare / contrast the entries, or discuss the development of the individual if you think the same writer constructed these two entries.
  • A Freedom Writer writes, “Silence ensures that history repeats itself” (248).  Discuss this concept in relation to other entries where the writers address silence.  Think about it in terms of writing, telling stories, and writing diary entries as a sort of talking or giving voice.  What can silence do—good and bad?  What can making oneself heard do?
  • What are some of the things that stop individuals from going to college (or slow them down) in this book?  Did you have a hard time achieving your dream of going to college?  Or, are you worried about not being able to do so?  Why?
  • A number of entries discuss athletics.  What role do sports play for some of these kids?  Are sports important to you?  Why or why not?
  • Even though most of the students seem excited about their futures, some note a fear.  Of what are they afraid?  Why? 
  • What does graduating from high school mean to the individual Freedom Writers?  Why is it important to them?  How is your experience of this milestone similar to and / or different from that of these teens?
  • Diary 142 summarizes and interprets aspects of their four-year journey together.  Look at how this writer characterizes the events of each year and the lessons learned.  Do you agree with his / her description?  Why or why not?  How would you characterize each year and / or the whole experience? 
  • What is Room 203 to these students?  Who / what have the Freedom Writers become?

Epilogue

  • What future travel plans do the Freedom Writers have?  Why?
  • What changes do the Freedom Writers (and Gruwell) experience after the Freedom Writers graduate?  What programs do they develop? 
  • The Freedom Writers lose one of their own to cystic fibrosis.  How do they handle this loss?  Look back at the earlier entry by the writer who had cystic fibrosis, and discuss the entry in comparison/contrast to what we learn about him in this later entry.
  • In the final passage of the book, the author(s) suggest that the reader can “pick up a pen and be a catalyst for change” (277).  How does writing, according to this book, lead to change?  The author draws a line of influence from Anne Frank to Zlata Filipovic to the Freedom Writers to you.  In one sense, by reading the book, you have already made that line a reality (you read this book written by individuals who read the book by Zlata who read the book by Anne).  Beyond ingesting the ideas expressed in the book, how can you be “a catalyst for change”?

Some Themes / Overarching Topics

  • Power of writing / reading
  • Letters
  • Poems
  • Tolerance
  • Hate
  • Violence
  • Families
  • Change (for self and others)
  • War
  • Race
  • Territory
  • Being alone
  • Success
  • Injustice
  • Teachers
  • Death
  • Mentors
  • Heroes
  • Incest
  • Molestation
  • Homelessness
  • Illness
  • The future
  • Silence
  • Graduation
  • Dreams