Swank's character, Erin Gruwell, is trying to teach students who come from difficult backgrounds. Some live in violent homes, others are gang members. Her students, who are mostly black, Latino and Asian, are divided along racial lines, which makes it harder for Gruwell to reach them.
Swank says the movie, which is based on a true story, is "about the power of someone who believes in you and one person can change your life and make all the difference."
When Gruwell took her first teaching job in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, she inherited a group of very angry teenagers that the system gave up on. But Gruwell refused to do so.
"She didn't have experience of how to do it and she was on her toes all the time," Swank told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm. "They (the students) ultimately did the work and they are the heroes because of that. I just think, you know, you make a choice every day to make your life what you want and they took their life in their own hands. They are so inspiring."
Swank said Gruwell saved their lives by encouraging her students to document and talk about their experiences. She put the violence they saw on a daily basis in context by teaching them about the history of injustice in the world with things like the Holocaust.
"I think she absolutely gave them that gift. It makes you realize to learn things like that, it's everything," Swank said. "You know, ignorance is, I think, one of the biggest catalysts of hurt and problems in our world. They opened up their mind and were willing to see people for who they are."
Swank admits to being drawn to roles like Gruwell's. She likes playing women who have been told they can't do something but are determined to prove the nay-sayers wrong.
"It's not anything that I searched out for and thought this is how I want to plan it out," she said. "This happens to be the roles that I think I am really drawn to. I am drawn to the outsider roles, the kind of ordinary person in an extraordinary experience because the world is full of those people and I like to tell those stories."
Swank herself was one of those women who persevered and triumphed against slim odds. She arrived in Los Angeles with $75 in her pocket. She said advice given to her by her mother helped her to succeed.
"My mom told me to believe in myself. It's the best gift I have ever been given and I'm sure I will ever receive. It's the most important thing you can give a kid," she said.
That advice has paid off. Earlier this week, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an experience that she said was amazing.
"I cried from the second I pulled up until the second I left," Swank said. "My mom, my grandfather was there, all these people who believed in me and helped get me there. It was such a great honor, to think I was going to be there on that street. I walked that street as a little girl and never thought I would be there."