On June 1, 1990, a 13-year-old Secondary 2 student at Voyageur Memorial School in Mistissini received a letter from the then-Commissioner of the Cree School Board, Kenny Blacksmith. The typewritten note of congratulations commended Betty Anne Forward for her choice of a powerful public-speaking topic, Women and Violence; a speech she delivered before two audiences – the first in her hometown and the second at the regionals in Waswanipi.

By choosing to write and speak about an edgy and often avoided issue, Forward was, without realizing it, becoming a voice and an activist for universal concerns – in other words, a Freedom Writer.

Freedom Writers group photo 1A few years later, following the 1993 Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial, a gifted high school teacher in Long Beach, California, rallied support for an “at risk” class of inner city high school students, who believed they’d been “written off” by the world. Their poor exam marks, juvenile police records, tragic family histories and racial hostilities gave them a bad reputation, even in their own school. However, Erin Gruwell proved that one determined teacher could turn all that around.

Gruwell began by giving her students books they could relate to, stories of other teenagers such as The Diary of Anne Frank, about a victim of the Nazi Holocaust, as well as dozens of biographies written by courageous teens all over the world. Over time, her students began to empathize with each other and with young people everywhere, no matter their nation or language.

Gruwell’s students began writing anonymous journal entries about the adversities they faced in their daily lives. Without disclosing themselves to each other, they wrote about what it felt like to be kicked or beaten as a child, and how that pain can turn into a self-hatred that eats away their insides. They wrote about gangs, drugs, death, anorexia, dyslexia, teenage love, weight issues, divorce, suicide and all their issues that needed voicing.

What the students noticed, though, as their stories were read out in class, and as each one was appreciated and honoured, is that they began to say, “Hey, I wrote that. That story is about me.” They also wrote about their teacher who often housed them for safety reasons, so that even today, Gruwell and her former students are very much connected. Their children are her grandchildren.

Gruwell’s students discovered that writing is a powerful way of dealing with the cards society had dealt them. They learned that through their stories, they could write a new history.

Fast forward to 2007. After a busy day with her Secondary 3 students, Forward – now an English teacher in her home community of Mistissini – and her husband, Ben Matoush, settled down to watch a DVD. Forward had no idea that within a few minutes her teaching life would soar to new heights.

The film, Freedom Writers, starred Hilary Swank and told the story of an inspired teacher and a group of enthusiastic student writers working together in a Long Beach classroom. By reading about other youth all over the world, and by writing stories about their own histories, each student’s personal experience became universal.

Freedom Writers - Betty Anne and Erin Gruwell

Erin Gruwell (left) and Betty Anne Forward

The following morning, Forward set in motion the principles of “freedom writing” in her own classroom at Voyageur Memorial School. For the past seven years, she has encouraged her students to read riveting stories about other teens from around the world, to write about how they can relate and to begin to write stories of their own lives, centred in Mistissini. It seems, no matter how far apart teens may be, their shared experiences are part of one universal heart.

“I noticed that over time, my students also claimed their own stories,” said Forward. “When they saw how warmly their stories were received in class, they began to overcome their fear of embarrassment and say, ‘I wrote that.’”

Forward had a huge surprise this past June – she posed for a photo with her mentor, Erin Gruwell, at the annual Freedom Writers Training Conference in California. Asked by the Cree School Board to attend the event, Forward flew to Los Angeles and was met at the airport by members of Gruwell’s original class of students – the real people, not the actors – who accompanied her to the conference centre in Anaheim.

On the first day of conference, teachers from all over the world met and began their first activity. Forward was paired up with Darrius Garrett, one of the original Freedom Writers and author of the memoir, Diary of a Freedom Writer. The two began to work on a personal Coat of Arms, a shield divided into four parts – My Goals, People I Admire, My Likes and Things That Are Unique About Me. Encouraging each other, Forward and Garrett cut out photos from magazines for the four categories and then, at the bottom of the shield, wrote their personal motto. Forward’s was three words: Never Give Up!

“As I worked with Darrius,” said Forward, “I realized how powerful and fun that an introspective activity can be. I felt a surge of excitement about sharing it with my students in Mistissini. Over the week of intense learning activities, I learned many respectful ways students could get to know more about themselves as individuals. I already knew that each student is valued and important – and I could see how these fun activities could bring out their special, unique features and celebrate them.

“At the end of the conference, I felt so close with all of my new friends. On our last morning, we teachers gathered in the hotel lobby with our packed bags, most of us in tears, not because we were going home to our loved ones, but because we couldn’t continue to be together. It was a great comfort to know my new friends would never be farther than a Facebook page away – a constant conversation that continues every day. That morning, I was given a small pin by Erin Gruwell, and looking at it every day I am inspired to the work of a Freedom Writer, namely, sharing experience to better humanity.

“Universality of experience begins in one classroom and fans out to include every classroom in the world. We’re writing across continents, one freedom story at a time,” said Forward.

And now, here’s a surprise for all regional teachers of the Cree School Board. Waiting for you in each of your school libraries, are copies of Freedom Writers and Gruwell’s memoir, Teach With Your Heart. Forward invites teachers to visit the Freedom Writers’ website (www.freedomwriterfoundation.org) for lesson plans, animated activities and incentives.