The day Woodrow Wilson High School students Darrius Garrett and Maria Reyes stood in Erin Gruwell’s classroom and raised plastic champagne glasses filled with sparkling cider was the day their lives changed forever.

Before they met Gruwell, Garrett and Reyes were a couple of troubled teens headed down dark and similarly hopeless paths–paths that, had their fortunes not changed, likely would’ve found them living on the streets, selling drugs, in jail–or worse.

Garrett was a street-hardened teen who had lost more than a dozen friends to gang-related violence. When he was just 14, he saw his best friend take his own life with a handgun in a game of Russian roulette; Reyes, herself a gang member, showed up in Gruwell’s classroom for the first time with her probation officer and a bracelet around her ankle. She was under house arrest, Gruwell later learned; like Darrius, she was 14.

Today, Garrett and Reyes make up two members of the Freedom Writers, a band of 150 students from a troubled neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., whose inspirational stories are now the subject of a major motion picture.

Fortunately for the Freedom Writers, the story of their teenage lives ends not in tragedy, but in success. It was that story that brought Gruwell to the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Conference in Austin Feb. 7.

In an emotional opening keynote address, Gruwell recounted how, as a rookie English teacher in one of California’s toughest high schools, she founded a unique writing program that ultimately would transform these “unteachable” students from high school failures to New York Times best-selling authors and, perhaps even more importantly, college graduates.

Though Gruwell’s story has earned her national acclaim, thanks largely to the attention of Hollywood, she insists her situation at Wilson was no different than that of other educators who struggle to connect with troubled teens, especially in inner-city schools, where guns and violence are as much of part of their everyday lives as school.

No matter what walk of life students hail from, Gruwell told attendees, no matter what they’ve been through–whether it’s drugs or violence, poverty or abuse–the worst mistake a teacher or parent can make is to give up on a child.

“If you tell kids again and again that they are stupid, what happens when they believe it?” she asked.

From the first day she arrived at Wilson as an English teacher, Gruwell said, it was obvious to her that the students in her classes, most of whom came from poor families, had been written off by the school system.

Rather than accept that her students were destined to fail, Gruwell–the daughter of a former professional baseball player and executive who once had dreamed of becoming a lawyer–committed herself to reaching them. If she could get them to open up, she thought, eventually they could change.

It soon became clear that the standard curriculum wasn’t the answer. After all, these were kids who were in gangs. Only just entering high school at the time, many of them already had been to prison, or charged with a crime. Some of them were dyslexic or had other, as-yet undiagnosed learning disabilities. Conventional methods simply weren’t going to cut it. Her students were different. And, if she was going to have any hope of reaching them, Gruwell knew, she was going to have to teach differently.

Rather than deluge her students with lessons about ancient writers and playwrights to whom they were unable to relate, Gruwell instead started looking for stories about kids who had faced difficult challenges in their own lives. She introduced them to stories such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night, two horrific accounts of teens in Nazi Germany.

Before long, she said, the students were reading the books and talking about the characters in class. Having grown up in neighborhoods where survival was something they took seriously, she said, the kids empathized with the stories of Wiesel and Frank.

So taken were her students with the story of Frank that they decided to write to Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who became famous for helping Frank and her family hide from the Nazis–and who preserved Frank’s now-famous diary for publication following her capture and eventual death in 1945.

When Gies received the impassioned letters from Gruwell’s students, she agreed to visit them in Long Beach.

It was through this meeting that her students recognized the power of their own writing, says Gruwell. And the Freedom Writers were born. The group derives its name from the Freedom Riders, a group of African-Americans who rode a bus through the South during the Civil Rights movement in support of equality.

Once her students recognized the power of their own writing, Gruwell says, they were hooked. They soon began writing their own personal stories. Shared anonymously with the class, the stories recounted the trials and tribulations of their troubled lives in Long Beach. Some wrote of violence; others of pain and abuse, or poverty. The students wrote descriptively and with passion, tapping into a creative vein many of them never knew they had.

It was a breakthrough, said Gruwell, and it gave her an idea.

Using literature as her tool, she decided she was going to give her students a chance to “wipe the slate clean.”

Because the students wrote and shared their stories anonymously, she said, it enabled them to confront their problems in class–to vent–without feeling intimidated or ashamed.

The students eventually compiled their stories into a book. Recently reaching No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, The Freedom Writer Diary is now the subject of a major motion picture starring Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank.

Like the original Freedom Riders, Gruwell said, her students’ story is one of inspiration and of hope. In her message to educators at TCEA, Gruwell challenged teachers to explore innovative approaches to learning. While testing and accountability are important in today’s education landscape, she said, there is no substitute for the impact of real-world learning.

What teachers need to do more than anything, said Gruwell, is find a method of connecting with students, encouraging them to learn by tapping into what resonates with their own experiences, their own personal life stories.

It’s a difficult challenge, she admits. But, thanks to the evolution of technology in classrooms, reaching out to students is at least becoming easier.

In an interview with eSchool News, Gruwell talked about how she used technology in her own writing program, securing donated computers and developing standard document formats and other templates for students to use to help them preserve the anonymity of their stories.

As it did in her class, Gruwell said, technology can be used in a variety of ways to help “level the playing field” in schools, especially in troubled classrooms, where traditional methods have fallen short.

By getting hard-to-reach students such as Garrett and Reyes excited about reading and writing, Gruwell said, her hope was to create a culture where her students’ desire to learn eventually would prevail over their troubled pasts.

To further the adoption of what she calls the “Freedom Writers Method,” Gruwell retired from Wilson to start the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for underserved youth through scholarships and other educational programs.

Now, she’s traveling the country and challenging other educators, many of whom are confronted with situations similar to her own, to do the same.

“Each one of you has to go back into your schools and into your communities and change that journey,” she said to a packed exhibit hall. “And maybe, just maybe, education is the way to change it.”