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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Writing changes US students' lives
By Michaela Graichen
BBC News, Philadelphia

Philadelphia teacher Michael Galbraith with student Naibria Reid
Michael Galbraith says his students make remarkable progress
School is back in the US after the summer break, and for some teenagers in America's gritty inner-city neighbourhoods, concentrating on lessons will be a daily struggle.

Personal problems, gang violence and family break-up distract some students from their class work.

But one school in Philadelphia is using a technique to help pupils learn more by encouraging them to write about their problems.

It's called The Freedom Writers project.

As part of their English lessons, teenagers write journal entries about their feelings then read them aloud to their classmates. The results make powerful reading.

Teacher Michael Galbraith from Philadelphia's Grover Washington Jr Middle School is surprised by the anger some of these students - who completed the programme in the spring - are expressing.

He says the project has also helped kick-start some sagging school careers.

"Many of the students became more serious about their studies and their reading and writing skills improved significantly," he says.

Filmmakers have been so inspired by the Freedom Writers project that a Hollywood movie is being made about some of the programme's first students and about Erin Gruwell, the California teacher who devised the idea.

'Man Enough'

Trey McCloud, 14, once refused to bring a pen to class but now has a passion for writing.

His journal entry addressed to his father, entitled Man Enough, changed everything.

Trey McCloud
Writing helps Trey McCloud release his anger, he says

"You say you're a man - yeah, you're man enough to leave me, man enough to not write back or talk to me. You don't even know my voice.

"I'm man enough not to embarrass you in front of your family. When I become famous and have a family, don't you ever come to me and say you're a father because you don't deserve to be called a human.

"Yet I will forgive you, because I am man enough."

Trey says he gets upset a lot and "breaks down". But when he reads aloud to his fellow classmates, he feels respect. Writing helps him release anger that he has been "storing up".

And it has turned him around academically, his teacher Mr Galbraith says: "Trey showed the most rapid development of any student I've had, and that's after 13 years in the business."

'Fat people'

Dontae Hardin stands tall in a bright yellow T-shirt as he reads about the bullies who tease him about his weight.

"Fatty, fat-boy etc, I've heard them all," he writes. "I don't understand why people are teased for being big.

Dontae Hardin reads from his journal
Dontae Hardin rejects self-pity and urges others to do the same

"I've been this way all my life and that's never stopped me from taking chances. I have pride in who I am.

"People seem to always look down on those who eat a lot. If we were supposed to be created equal, why are fat people treated different?"

Dontae says the best thing about the project is that it helps young people to help themselves.

"Even though children may feel that they're the only ones that go through this thing, everyone around the world has at least one problem that's similar to theirs, so they shouldn't feel bad for themselves."

Successes

The Freedom Writers technique is part of a privately developed education project and is used infrequently in government schools.

Teachers like Michael Galbraith hope that it can be adopted into the general school curriculum - and that his students can follow the success of the original Freedom Writers.

The first pupils to go through Erin Gruwell's programme have had successes few would have predicted, he says.

All 150 of them went on to college.

"What you might have expected if you saw them freshman year, first day, the expectation... was that they were going to be drop-outs - they could be shot or imprisoned or might just become pregnant and leave school.

"What became of them is you now have journalists, you have teachers and you have writers out of those 150 students who went to college."


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Hear four Freedom Writers read from their journals



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