In the early 1990s, an undeclared war claims countless lives and devastates unnumbered families in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Armed with guns, gangs of youths -- Hispanic, Asian, Black and White--- fight amongst themselves for territory on the street and even in the schoolyard.
Coming to the ethnically and economically diverse Wilson High School as a young, unproven teacher, Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is enthusiastic, idealistic and extremely naïve about the classroom of freshmen she is about to take on. But the first day of school soon opens her eyes when the students immediately segregate their desks into racial groups and a fight breaks out during her lesson.
Initiated but unfazed, she believes there is a way to change society for the better -- an attitude she got from her activist father. However Steve Gruwell (Scott Glenn) has softened over time and is less than supportive of his daughter's dream to improve these young people's educational opportunities.
Still Erin persists. Along with sentence structure and vocabulary lists, she tackles the racial tensions that dominate the classroom by initiating innovative approaches to English. She introduces her class members to the horrors of the Holocaust and The Diary of Anne Frank. Later, she teaches her pupils the power of the written word by giving each student a journal in which to record his or her own experiences. It becomes their avenue to record and help make sense of their lives. In turn, as she reads through the scrawled entries, Erin gains a whole new appreciation for the challenges and ordeals her students face every day on the streets.
Yet not everyone applauds her success. Threatened by Erin's persistent and sometimes unorthodox efforts, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton), the English department head, becomes increasingly stingy with resources and hesitates to help the class of "at-risk" underachievers. Even Erin's husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) distances himself as the highly-motivated educator commits more and more of herself to her students.
Bloody depictions of gang violence (drive-by shootings, beatings and gunfire) and frequent profanities including one sexual expletive help to establish the rough backgrounds from which these students come. However they are likely too graphic for some teens and especially children. Tension and disrespect also run rampant in the classroom and is aimed at students and teacher alike.
Despite the students' aggressive outbreaks and the administration's lack of support, Erin pushes herself to connect with her pupils. Believing the kids are not "unteachable," her perseverance eventually breaks through their tough exteriors. Helping the hopeless find a venue for their voices, Erin Gruwell's real life story will inspire older students, parents and educators alike.