Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freedom Writing

In 1999 a group of students at Wilson High School began writing journal entries at the insistence of their teacher, Erin Gruwell. These students later became known as The Freedom Writers and were immortalized in both the book and movie versions of The Freedom Writers Diary. Gruwell, a first year teacher from Newport Beach, California, had no previous experience dealing with the experiences many of her students in the Long Beach school would face on a daily basis. Many had to travel two to three hours on disorganized Los Angeles public transportation just to reach the school each day while Gruwell had led a life of privilege and ease.

When a cartoon was passed around the classroom mocking one of the students Gruwell exclaimed, “This is the kind of propaganda that the Nazis used during the Holocaust!” prompting one brave student to ask, “What is the holocaust?” Shocked, she questioned how many in the class knew what it was—no one raised their hand. She pressed further, “How many of you have been shot at?” Almost every hand in the room went up. She saw, then, that she must alter her strategy for working with these students, her methods were very obviously adapted to fit more clearly with the experiences and social backgrounds her students, her followers, were bringing to the classroom (Heifitz, Selznick).

They read several memoirs typical for high school students including Zlata’s Diary and the Diary of Anne Frank. They were fairly accessible for the students and Gruwell saw in them a way she could get through to her students. Writing regular diary entries about their lives and classroom forced the students to begin to know themselves and gave them a major role in deciding which direction their coursework went in. These are principle traits of servant leadership in which the leader, the teacher, worked toward raising their followers sense of self and devoting themselves to ensuring their emotional needs are met (Smith).

It is also an undeniable example of creative leadership. She was facing a challenge herself and turned it back onto her students, challenging them to take the skills and experiences they had and use them in an educational context (Amabile). She brought out all of the differences and similarities in her students by helping them get to know each other by sharing their entries, creating an environment where they were free to learn from one another and expand on each others previous experiences in a type of creative work-group (Amabile).

Gruwell had to determine some way to understand her students—she needed to empathize with them and using the diaries to learn about them was a great way to do so while still being entertaining. It also inspired and excited the students, as it was something they could truly understand and excel at (Choi). With the diaries the students grew to feel a sense of collective purpose and support for one another (Burns).

This type of creative leadership was undeniably effective and beneficial in Gruwell and numerous other teachers’ classrooms as it helped students to achieve things and take a pride in themselves they likely would have never experienced on their own. But, does such leadership cause us to ignore the smaller details? Sure, many of the students went on to do amazing things, including receive degrees from Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, but others did not do so well with this method of teaching. There were other valuable skills that were surely overlooked in the focus on writing.

The extent to which students exerted themselves in the English course undoubtedly led to less of a focus being paid on subjects such as the maths and sciences. This could be seen at an organizational level as well as a leader may go out of his way to assign creative and challenging tasks but forget to ensure that necessary paperwork gets filed or new supplies are ordered. Is there a time and place for creative leadership? Do those working in a creative environment just have to be more disciplined than the rest of us? Pouring their energies into revolutionary projects while still remembering to place an order for more post-it notes or work within a strict budget?


  1. Very interesting post Jayme! Erin Gruwell seems to fit well with the criteria of being a creative leader. In this week's reading, Max Depree writes that a leader paves the way for change (Depree 99) and helps the organization prepare for it. When Gruwell realized that her students did not have a basic understanding of some aspects of history, she changed her plan and adapted it to the student's needs. Gruwell also set an example of openness and acceptance (Depree 100) by allowing her students to express themselves in their journal entries and by allowing them to have a voice in the way their curriculum would be shaped.
    It is interesting to see that some of her students went on to receive Ivy League degrees and some did not do as well. I think with any leadership style, you will have a minority that will not accept it or work well under it (it is not one size fits all). I wonder if at the time, it became evident that some of the students were not working well under this system. Did she attempt to change her teaching style to encourage those students?

  2. Thanks Jayme, great post. I think this eventually was produced into a movie too?

    I agree that Gruwell is an example of creative and servant leadership. She began using unconventional means to develop her students and work towards her supposed goal of providing her students a new framework and goal for thinking about education. And it's a great question to try and determine whether in the process of revamping her students, she left out other crucial areas of development.

    I would argue that to me, Gruwell appears to be more of a transformational leader, as Burns defines it. She recognized the discriminations and struggles of her students and made changes in the name of equality. Gruwell gave them aspirations to work towards and sought to change their dispositions by changing the process of her facilitation. I think that when she articulated the value of education to her students, framed it in such a way that her students could relate, she was able to get her follower buy-in for change, and in the process, even created the use of referent power that her students became inspired to follow.

    As far as whether or not she exercised the appropriate leadership in covering all aspects of education, I can't say I can answer not knowing. I feel that that answer would depend upon whether her students failed as students as a direct result of her facilitation, or that their potential wasn't reached because of her teaching style. Perhaps if she focused only on English as a subject and math students felt neglected, than yes perhaps she was weak in one area of her leadership, but I see her more creating an overall framework for transforming her students in all areas of their development.

  3. Thanks, Jayme. This article is interesting. This is definitely a good example of how a teacher put her all effort to know her students and help them learn what they want. It reminds me of a bad experience happening during my elementary school. My 1st grade teacher was very known for developing talented students. During my 1st grade, I was always left behind in class. Once I used very thick pencil to write my assignment. When my teacher checked our assignment, she was very angry and and punished me. Also, she wanted me to show my assignment with the whole class as a incorrect example. For me, that was such a big insult. My teacher is totally a negative role. She used a coercive power to lead the whole class. If students did the wrong things she thought, she gave us punishment as carrot and stick theory(McGregor, 1960). In addition, Coercive power(Hughes, Ginnett ,and Curphy, 1993) was what my teacher utilized to reach her goal or visioin- to be a renowned teacher at school. Based on my personal experience, a teacher should be like Gruwell.

  4. The students, at least for the most part seem to be effective followers and to some extent as a result of her creative leadership style. It seems that she allowed them to become effective because she brought out their ambition, which is what Kelley pointed to as an important aspect of followership. She also allowed the students to guide her in the direction that they needed the most help in so perhaps they were also playing the role of the leader.

  5. I think the question you pose, is there a time and place for creative leadership, is an interesting one. I think of a classroom as being a traditional place of creativity and exploration to start out with. I consider the school environment a "safe zone" away from all of the stresses and repercussions of say, a for profit company. It is an environment that not only gives one the opportunity to try new things but also to fail with no major damage on the organization or “investors.” Though teachers have standards, they are able to practice creative leadership more easily because essentially it is a learning environment in the first place. In the business world, I would argue that is much harder is exercise creative leadership because of all the other outside demands that are put on the organization and the shear size and complexity of organizations these days. We read this week all the perks SAS has set in place to help develop and maintain their "creative capital" but it seems to be the exception rather then the rule in the business world possibly because of these issues.


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