In the film Freedom Writers (based on true events), students at Woodrow Wilson High School resort to physical violence and shoot at other gangs. A young and enthusiastic teacher, Erin Gruwell, wishes to make her class of at-risk teenagers read Romeo and Juliet but her colleague, Mrs. Campbell, tells her that the condensed version of the play was more than they could handle. Another colleague, Mr. Gelford blames these very at-risk students for the school’s academic deterioration.
Mrs. Campbell’s belief that at-risk students are incapable of learning is an example of a stereotype (generalized beliefs and expectations about social groups and their members). The negative attitude towards these coloured students harboured by Mr.Gelford is a case of prejudice (negative evaluations of groups and their members based solely on their membership in that group) while the gang violence rife in the school is a solid example of discrimination (negative behaviour toward members of a particular group).
What is fascinating to see in the film is how real-life teacher Erin Gruwell employed various effective techniques to unite her class across all races and backgrounds and how, with time, her efforts paid off in full, impacting the lives of her students. She first mitigated the negative effects of stereotypes before attempting to eradicate prejudice and discrimination seeing as stereotypes are the grassroots level of the problem.
Here are some of the ways in which she achieved this:
Employing the Jigsaw Process
Woodrow Wilson High School implemented a voluntary integration program where students of all races could gain admission as a form of desegregation. However, it’s not enough to just thrust these students into the same class and expect social harmony. Since classrooms can be competitive environments, self-fulfilling prophecies are created for both minority (eg. blacks and latinos) and majority (whites) group members. Stephen found that minority students suffer from decreased self esteem after desegregation which is seen in the case of Mrs. Gruwell’s class.
For this purpose, Aronson et al. devised something called the jigsaw classroom to improve the classroom atmosphere by serving a dual purpose of reducing prejudice and raising self-esteem. This is done by placing students in small desegregated groups where they have to depend on members of their groups to finish their work. Jigsaw works because it breaks down in-group and out-group categorization, making students think of their class as a single group instead. Another reason jigsaw is effective is because it places students in a favour-doing situation, causing them to like those who do them favours. Studies have shown that integration is more successful in jigsaw classrooms and this can clearly be seen in Mrs. Gruwell’s class once she changes the seating arrangement.
Providing information about the objects of stereotyping
When Mrs. Gruwell made her class do a “Toast for Change”, it allowed everyone to open up about their struggles and how they would attempt to change them. This exercise provided crucial information that made her students see that each and every one of them had their own struggles and this made them more empathetic with one another.
Reducing Stereotype Vulnerability
According to Claude Steele, many African Americans suffer from obstacles to performance that stem from awareness of society’s stereotypes about them which is called stereotype vulnerability. African American students and other minority students who receive education from teachers who doubt their potential and set up special remedial classes for them come to accept stereotypes that claim they are prone to failure. Mrs. Gruwell points this out to Mrs. Campbell when her request for more challenging reading material to give her class is denied because, according to Campbell, even simple abridged versions of literary texts are difficult enough for them. Disregarding this view, Gruwell succeeds in giving her class more difficult coursework and has faith in her students performance which pays off as they rise to the challenge and actually become eager to learn.
Increasing contact between the target of stereotyping and the holder of the stereotype
This may be one of the most effective ways to erode prejudice. According to Allport’s contact hypothesis, bringing members of different groups into informal, interpersonal contact with one another will reduce prejudice. This is why the field trip to the museum and the lunch with different Holocaust survivors played a crucial role in breaking down existing prejudicial barriers between the students.
Also having a common goal to work towards that promotes mutual interdependence helps. You can see this in effect when all the students work together on fundraisers.
Ultimately, Erin Gruwell’s success story is one from which many teachers who face similar issues concerning classroom harmony can learn from and is quite inspirational. It reaffirms that prejudice can be eradicated and we just need to make that effort to break down those barriers we’ve constructed for ourselves and others.
- Prejudice: Causes and Cures. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_aronson_socpsych_6/64/16429/4205981.cw/-/4206029/index.html
- Feldman R.S, Understanding Psychology, 10th Edition, (2011), Tata McGraw Hill, India