This ambitious drama is based on the true story of an idealistic teacher who took on the challenge of educating a diverse group of high school students classified as “unteachables” in Los Angeles in 1994 shortly after the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots.
Woodrow Wilson High School is a formerly high-achieving school which has encountered some difficulties bearing its new racial integration plan. In 1994, Erin Gruwell, an enthusiastic young teacher starts at the school. Her enthusiasm is challenged when she finds her class is composed of “at-risk” students, the “untouchables,” and not the eager-for-college students she expected. Her students self-segregate into racial groups within the classroom.
This causes problems, as gang fights break out and, consequently, most of her students stop attending class. Not only is Gruwell challenged with gaining her students’ trust on personal and academic levels, but she must do so with very little support from her professional peers and district higher-ups. For example, her department head refuses to provide Gruwell with an adequate number of books for her class because the books will get damaged and lost. Instead, she suggests that Gruwell focuses on instilling concepts of discipline and obedience in her classroom.
Two students, Eva, a Latino-American girl and narrator for much of the film, and Sindy, a Cambodian refugee, frequent the same convenience store. One night, Grant Rice, an African-American student at Woodrow Wilson, frustrated at losing an arcade game, demands a refund from the store owner. As Grant storms out of the store, Eva’s boyfriend, Paco (as retaliation for losing a fight against Grant that took place earlier during a gang fight at Woodrow Wilson), attempts a drive-by shooting to kill Grant, but misses accidentally killing Sindy’s boyfriend. As a witness, Eva must testify at court; she intends to guard “her own” in her testimony.
At school, Gruwell intercepts a racist drawing by one of her high school students and utilises it to teach them about the Holocaust. She gradually begins to earn their trust and buys them composition books to record their diaries, in which they talk about their experiences of being abused, seeing their friends die, and being evicted.
Determined to reform her high school students, Gruwell takes on two part-time jobs to pay for more books and spends a lot more time at school, much to the disappointment of her husband. Her students start to behave with respect and discover a lot more. A transformation is specifically visible in one student, Marcus. Gruwell invites various Jewish Holocaust survivors to talk with her class about their experiences and requires the students to attend a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. Meanwhile, her unique training methods are scorned by her colleagues and department chair Margaret Campbell.
The following school year comes, and Gruwell teaches her class (now sophomores) again, making it the second year that she is their teacher. On the first day of semester, Gruwell makes her class do a “Toast for Change”, allowing everyone to open up about their struggles and what they wish to change about themselves. Later on, the class makes enough money to have Miep Gies to arrive to the United States and tell her experience when she helped Anne Frank, her family, and the Van Pels hide from the Nazis; she then also persuades to the students that they are heroes and that they “within their own small ways, can turn on a small light in a dark room.”
These two events inspire Eva to break free of the demands of her father to always protect her own rather than tell the truth. At Grant’s trial, she shocks the courtroom by revealing that Paco actually killed the man in the store; Grant is spared of being convicted and Sindy later forgives Eva. On leaving the court, Eva is attacked and threatened but ultimately spared by members of her gang and ends up going to live with her aunt in order to keep herself safe.
Meanwhile, Gruwell asks her students to write their diaries in book form. She compiles the entries and names it The Freedom Writers Diary. Her husband divorces her and Margaret tells her she cannot teach her kids for their junior year. Gruwell fights this decision, eventually convincing the superintendent to permit her to teach her kids’ junior and senior year, much to their elation.
The film ends with a note that Gruwell successfully prepared numerous high school students to graduate high school and attend college, for many the first in their families to do so.