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The movie Freedom Writers is a book-to-film adaptation that follows the story of first year teacher Erin Gruwell and her at-risk students in room 203. The beginning of the movie is narrated by main protagonists Eva, who explains the strict moral code of taking care of one’s own; this code will become the main conflict in this movie. It tells the story of racially charged students living in an environment laden with gang violence. The story takes place at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California in 1994; two years prior the school was part of a voluntary integration program. Before the integration, the school was considered high performing and had stellar academics, once the students were integrated, the existing staff deemed the program to be a failure because the newer students were lower performing; which resulted in the school underperforming as a whole. Ms. Gruwell’s class was filled with students that were deemed as underperforming, most with reading levels well below their grade level. Ms. Gruwell begins her time at Wilson High by clashing heads with the department head who believes that resources should go to high performing students or those that were part of the honors program, Ms. Gruwell begins to fight for resources and funding, when the district and the school refuse the resources, she begins to work two part-time jobs. She assigns each student a journal to free write in, and the stories they tell about the adversity the face daily begins to open her eyes to the challenges in the classroom. The students slowly start to overcome their racial differences (some of the change is due to a mutual dislike of their teacher), and over the course of the two years, the students meet grade level expectations. Throughout the two-year journey with her students, Ms. Gruwell faces resistance from her colleagues, the school board, and even her husband. The adversity is eventually overcome, the students spend four years with Ms. Gruwell, and the school board begins to back minority students.
The movie is an excellent example of sociological theories, namely conflict theory and labeling theory. Conflict Theory in layman’s terms is a model that rejects assumptions of the preservations of social order theory. According to this theory society is organized around fundamental inequalities that privilege some groups or individuals while disadvantaging another group or individual. This theory allows for humans to unleash capacities by challenging the current power structure. Unlike social order theory or functionalism, the society is not built on shared norms and values, instead a society can rise against a dominant force that powers or controls weaker parties. Typically, conflict theory is applied large scale, but in this particular instance conflict theory can be applied to the microcosm that is Room 203 at Wilson High. Labeling theory is used to analyze deviant behaviors. Labeling theory basically is that self-identity and behaviors of individuals can be determined by the terms used to classify them. In essence the terms used to describe someone becomes what the person self-identifies as. Label can lead to an individual becoming deviant which can change teacher expectations and even lead to a prophecy that might have otherwise never existed had the label not existed.
The clear conflict that is throughout the movie is related to the student’s gangs’ ties. When considering education, the movie shows the evidence that supports conflict theory, evidence “(1) that there are distinctions among status group cultures- based on both class and ethnicity”; this is represented by the first comparison of classrooms in the movie, the honors program had pristine white desk and state of the art equipment in their classroom, while Ms. Gruwell’s students had damaged desk and old materials. The student in the honor’s program were typically white, while Ms. Gruwell’s class was predominately minority. Another example of conflict theory is in regard to the faculty positions. Modern society imposes a hierarchy in regards to faculty and authority, the example given in the movie, Ms. Gruwell, after many failed attempts to convince her section head to provide better materials for her students, she goes above her head to speak to her Principal directly, then later directly to the school board. Evidence (2) of Conflict Theory states “status groups tend to occupy different occupational positions within organizations…Evidence (3) of Conflict Theory states that occupants of different organizational positions struggle over power” ; these apply directly to the portion of the story where Ms. Gruwell is facing difficulties convincing her superiors to provide better resources for these students. The students are also placed into a hierarchy, where the minority students were viewed as undervalued by the pre-existing faculty that was at Wilson during the integrating program. The students of Room 203 also faced a similar struggle where they had gang affiliations that preyed on weaker gangs, and where weaker gangs would rise up against the power; in the educational aspect, they were consisting underfunded because of these affiliations, throughout the movie the students had to rise against the powers of the administration, such as when they wanted a guest speaker.
The most prominent theory that is seen most consistently throughout the movie is Labeling theory. One of the first examples that comes to mind was the introductory scene of the students, not the physical walking, but the way the group was described to Ms. Gruwell. Ms. Campbell, the section head for English, introduced the students as that are “two months out of juvenile hall, some have to wear ankle cuffs to monitor their whereabouts”, this contributes to the label of the minority students as deviant, so they are treated as such by school officials. Ms. Campbell then proceeds to explain how the lesson plans needs to be revised because the students test scores indicated they were too difficult; the labeling theory here allows for the teacher to modify her expectations of the class. These expectations may then lead to making inferences about the students regarding their class and status. This contributes to the outcome of Labeling theory, a self-fulling prophecy.
The movie tells a story of endless time, a society that was built on hierarchy, decides to label a subculture, which causes those individuals to become deviant. The deviance then leads to a creation of tension between the two subcultures. This tension escalates into a power struggle and conflict emerges until the powerful group is consider defeated on a consensus is met. The applications of Conflict Theory and Labeling theory are clear throughout the film and are considered prominent in our modern education system. The labels may no longer be race, or gang-affiliation, but the label is ultimately a good or a bad student, someone who is gifted, average, or below average. The labels determine teacher expectations and the standardization makes education inequal between two respective groups.
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