The Freedom Writers Method

One80 – March 2007

EMPOWERING STUDENTS THROUGH THE WRITTEN WORD

By Shlomit Kriger, News Coordinator

Imagine waking up each day to a life of anger and confusion, not knowing if you or your friends would live to see tomorrow. You’ve suffered abuse, homelessness, served in juvenile detention, belong to a gang…or all four and then some. You’re in a class where you’re deemed “unteachable”, and your peers have drawn invisible racial boundaries in the classroom. No one, not even the administrators at your school, have faith that you will succeed academically. That is, until one teacher refuses to let you get left behind.

This was reality when Erin Gruwell taught in Room 203 at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif. during the ‘90s. Fresh out of university, Gruwell initially felt unprepared for the environment she stepped into. To better connect with her students, Gruwell revised her teaching styles, assigning them books on topics such as the Holocaust and racial discrimination—over time empowering them with characters to which the students could relate. Her students penned diaries reflecting on the issues the characters faced as well as those in their own lives. She also devised activities and field trips to help them learn respect and tolerance of one another.

Gruwell’s inspired teaching methods kept the students returning every year and improving their grades. In 1998, 97 per cent of her students graduated (150 teens). Coining a reference from a period during the civil rights movement, Gruwell’s students called themselves the Freedom Writers (named after the Freedom Riders of the 1960s). That name was also used to publish a book featuring their diaries and experiences called the Freedom Writers Diary (FWD).

Today Gruwell and her past students are sharing their stories with educators and youth across North America, promoting the Freedom Writers Method (FWM) based on Gruwell’s unique teaching methods through the Freedom Writers Foundation (FWF) based in Long Beach. Their story has also been featured in a recent movie, Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank.

Approximately one out of three students in the U.S. who starts a public education does not complete high school; in Ontario, the high school dropout rate is about 30 per cent. To help curb the statistics, the FWF runs the Freedom Writers Institute, a five-day seminar to train educators to become official ‘Freedom Writer Teachers’ using Gruwell’s methods.

Last fall, 32 teachers from across North America attended the Institute, five of them from Brampton, Ont., including McCrimmon Middle School teachers Darwin Chan, Michael Ross, Jamie Coburn, and Kelly Dhatt, and Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School teacher Robin Meehan. The students at McCrimmon and Fletcher’s have also either experienced or seen much bullying and violence in their neighbourhoods. Many of the students’ parents are immigrants, and some have single-parent families or extended families.

Along with the use of the FWD, the teachers at McCrimmon (including Erin Dietrich, who has also met Gruwell) are now using some of the books Gruwell had used at Wilson High, including The Diary of Anne Frank, The Outsiders, and Monster. Their students are journaling about some of the issues the books raise, including racial discrimination, bullying, and violence. The students have also participated in different debates and some games to get them talking about these sometimes uncomfortable social topics.

“I’ve had kids in my class say they didn’t know writing could make them feel better, so it’s also cathartic,” said Ross. “[Some have said] instead of going home and crying I just write in my diary and I feel better, or I don’t have someone else to talk to.”

“One thing Erin said that I think is very powerful is when the kids are journaling… I’d rather have them pick up a pen and use that to get their feelings out than use a gun, or a knife, or punch someone,” added Chan. “She’s really trying to get the kids to share their emotions in a positive way.”

While some have argued that the teaching methods Gruwell promotes don’t belong in classrooms and that teachers shouldn’t take on the role of social workers, the teachers at McCrimmon all agree that learning more about their students through their journals is helping them better understand how to reach them. They said some of the more withdrawn and shy students have now opened up and participation levels have increased.

“The teachers are not responsible for saving the students’ lives, but it is their job to take the time to get to know the students and make them feel comfortable and safe so that their minds are open to learning,” said Faye Walsh, executive director of the FWF.

Coburn admitted that getting to know his students on a deeper level through their journals and getting to this level of comfort with them is very “scary”, but that as a teacher “you have to change your philosophy a bit.”

“Instead of just delivering the program to your students, you allow the students to help tailor what you’re delivering. You find appropriate material that speaks to the students and helps pull them in.”

“One of the reasons why we love [the method] is because it’s not just academic but also advisory,” added Dhatt. “Instead of just going in to talk about an issue and saying this is how things can be fixed, you can really start opening up the discussion and making a lesson out of it.”

Upon her return from the FW training in California, Meehan assigned the students in her Grade 10 English class at Fletcher’s to read Theories of Relativity by Barbara Haworth-Attard, a novel about a homeless teenage boy who struggles to stay alive and resist the temptations of drugs and prostitution. She decided to use the FWD to supplement the reading of the novel, and began with Diary 24, which related homelessness.

Meehan found that the diaries along with the novel helped spark important discussions about the issues. “I was really impressed by the quality of my students’ journal entries and by the fact that they seemed really interested in what was happening to the main character in the core text and the issues raised,” she said. “I think the fact that they read the diary entries of real kids allowed them to think of journaling as a cool way to express their opinions, thoughts, and feelings.”

Meehan is now working with a committee at her school to plan how the FW method will be implemented on a broader basis for the 2007/2008 school year. The plan includes after school workshops, journaling and creating monologues based on issues raised, field trips emphasizing the fact that skills are cross-cultural, and an Interdisciplinary credit package of courses. “We intend to use the FWD to improve our students’ reading and writing skills, and to also stress the idea that we all have common experiences, feelings, etc. and we need to be respectful of one another’s ideas and opinions,” said Meehan.

Gruwell and her colleagues plan to train 150 educators through the FW Institute this year, as well as begin a capital campaign to eventually build the Freedom Writers Institute Campus. “We really want to help teachers in schools improve the performance of the kids,” said Walsh. “We believe that there is an educational inequality… So we hope the FWM can help teachers reach any kid no matter what. Education is the only way to level the playing field.”

For more on the FWF visit www.freedomwritersfoundation.org. For more on the FW movie visit www.freedomwriters.com.

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