Students connect virtually with empowering author
Students incarcerated at Echo Glen Children’s Center are learning about an entirely new type of freedom—the kind that comes through expressing their ideas through writing.
The program, “Freedom Writers,” is a national movement to empower at-risk students to reach their full potential and grow into dynamic, educated adults. It is based on the book “The Freedom Writers Diary” by teacher Erin Gruwell, who dramatically turned around her low-performing students using unorthodox methods in her California classroom.
At Echo Glen—a state-run children’s detention center in Snoqualmie with an educational program run by the Issaquah School District—teacher Jenelle Cleland decided the book and philosophy could motivate her own students. After reading “Freedom Writers Diary” and watching the corresponding movie in her class, other staff saw exciting results and decided to follow suit. The students learned to write without worrying about mistakes, and they began writing letters to Gruwell (“Mrs. G”) and the Freedom Writers Foundation.
“Writing letters has been a form of empowerment for our students,” said Echo Glen teacher Pat Barry. “ … They poured their hearts out, shared their life experiences, and related to the characters in the movie and the real life students from Ms. G’s class.”
Some students also wrote to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and received learning materials and a membership in return. The real-life audiences provided an authentic and rewarding writing experience, according to Barry. Students have realized they are powerful members of our community who can inspire positive change.
Best yet? Gruwell responded and offered to speak face-to-face with students via the online video calling service Skype.
" [The students] were engaged, polite, and asked great questions," said Barry. "The experience was powerful, thoughtful, and at times, tearful."
Gruwell spoke from there heart and from her personal experiences. She also made sure that every student who had a question for her had a chance to speak and went well over the allotted time.
After the Skype session, students began a writing club called "Writers Unleashed" in which they are not graded on their writing but are able to generate their own quick writes and writing prompts. The experience is therapeutic, helping students connect to and express their feelings and experiences, Barry said. They hope to publish their works for others to read.
Students also set up was their own "Toast for Change," in which they come together to make pledges in toast-format to reinforce their sense of community.
To foster even more participation in these programs, Echo Glen hopes to secure grant money to pay for additional Skype sessions next year. Gruwell has also offered mini scholarships to the students to spark students’ hope for the future.
—by Austin Clausius