NECC 2009 closed with an inspiring keynote by Erin Gruwell, president of the Freedom Writers Foundation, who described how technology (coupled with great teaching) can unleash students’ creative potential and enable powerful collaboration.

As a recent college graduate, Gruwell began teaching at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., where students “lived in a racially divided urban community and were hardened by first-hand exposure to gang violence, juvenile detentions, and drugs,” she explained. The school also had limited textbooks and no technology.

“One of the students in my class was named Maria,” Gruwell said. “She was wearing an ankle bracelet that monitored her whereabouts because she was on probation. Her father was in jail, and her mother worked for limited wages in a dead-end job. When she was a little girl she watched her only role model, who told her stories of princes and far away lands, get shot multiple times and die, bleeding, at her feet. Her father taught her to be hard, because it was easier to get by that way. She was one of my many students, and she did not care to hear what one preppy ‘cheerleader’ teacher had to say.”

After many months, and many attempts to connect with her students, Gruwell assigned The Diary of Anne Frank, which touched Maria. In the diary, Maria saw another girl who was trapped by her circumstances. In many ways, Maria, as well as many other students, identified with Anne.

This led Gruwell to an idea: Why not let the students write their own diary?

“I saw that every one of my students, [whom] parents, teachers, and the educational system had given up on, has a journey and a story to tell. Where did it start, and where is it going?” she said.

After Gruwell managed to procure a donation of 36 new PCs for her classroom, her students began creating their personal online journals, “just like Anne Frank,” said Gruwell. “They saw that no matter what bad things may occur in life, if you have a voice, your memory and spirit will live on. With this project, they began to realize that their lives mattered, and that they did have something to contribute.”

The students dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers”–an homage to the civil-rights activists, The Freedom Riders.

Gruwell decided to go one step further: to capture their story in a book titled The Freedom Writers Diary–How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.

The book reached No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, and the proceeds were used to put all 150 students through college.

Gruwell and her students have appeared on many television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Prime Time Live with Connie Chung, Barbara Walters’ The View, Good Morning America, and CSPAN’s Book TV. Her class has been featured on National Public Radio and in national newspapers and People magazine. Paramount Pictures released the feature-length film Freedom Writers in January 2007, a film based on Gruwell’s story featuring Hilary Swank in the lead role.