Freedom to write, speak moves students

Tara Powers

Even though inner-city Philadelphia is less than 30 minutes away, it’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub of the Sweet 16 and NovaFest and forget about what high school students there encounter on a daily basis.

Members of the sophomore Service Learning Community heard firsthand accounts of those experiences from four Philadelphia students – Jefferson Cauvin, Christina Francis, Whitney Mathieu and Nydera Walker – who took part in the Freedom Writers program during their eighth-grade year. The students – three sophomores and one freshman – now attend various high schools in Philadelphia.

The March 27 event was organized by members of the SLC, specifically the Fourth Hour Council and the fourth hour group that meets on Wednesdays at 3 p.m.

Michael Galbraith is the eighth grade reading specialist at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School in Philadelphia who was instrumental in bringing the Freedom Writers program to his classroom. He received the Milken National Education Award in 2007 for his work with literacy and the Freedom Writers project.

The program’s creator, Erin Gruwell, came and spoke to the seventh and eighth graders at Grover Washington. After Gruwell’s presentation, Galbraith decided to try the project with his students.

He instructed them to write about some event in their lives that had changed them forever, positively or negatively.

“Some kids that never wrote had dashed off four to five pages of intense, good personal stuff,” Galbraith said. “I realized as the day shot into one of my top three all-time teaching days that this is something really important that has to be done.”

The Freedom Writers Foundation – named for the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement – is a nonprofit organization started in 1997 that works to decrease high school drop out rates and encourage students to pursue higher education.

The program, which encourages students to read aloud journal entries about the effects of death, violence and poverty in their lives, was made famous by the 2007 movie starring Hilary Swank.

The eighth graders who participate in the Freedom Writers program at Grover Washington score 40 percent better than the rest of the eighth graders on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests and also demonstrate better class attendance, according to Galbraith.

“I had the grades because to me it was easy, but I was still looking for trouble,” Walker, now a freshman, said of her attitude before getting involved with Freedom Writers.

Walker said that the Freedom Writers program helped her sort out all of the issues that were on her mind.

She now attends Central High School, which requires scores of 85 percent in both math and reading for admittance.

 “You don’t think about what negative effects people go through on a daily basis,” said Cauvin, now a sophomore at the Science Leadership Academy. “People get jumped, and people get killed for no reason. When I started doing [the program], that made me think about other people and how I could make a change just by saying ‘hi’ to people.”

“I didn’t think that Jefferson would live to see today,” Galbraith said, recalling the interpersonal violence in which Cauvin was enmeshed when he was in the eighth grade.

In addition to the Freedom Writers, Galbraith and his students also participated in a program at Temple University Hospital called Cradle to Grave, a violence prevention program designed to make the effects of street violence more real for the teenagers.

As part of the experience, one student in the group is placed on the trauma table in the hospital. Circular red stickers are placed on the “victim” to simulate entry and exit wounds. These simulations sometimes include over 20 “gunshots,” a fact that was surprising to some of the participating students.

“I never thought people could be so cruel,” said Cauvin, who was chosen to be the trauma victim when his class participated in Cradle to Grave. “There’s not a day I didn’t think about me laying on that table,” he said as he reflected on his first year of high school before he transferred to the Science Leadership Academy.

“It was a very powerful and cathartic way for them to overcome the challenges they face and the difficulties they have as teenagers,” Galbraith said.

Galbraith’s students also had the opportunity to speak on the National Public Radio program StoryCorps. The eighth graders interviewed the parents and grandparents of Philadelphia murder victims.

SLC members in attendance said they were moved by the heart-wrenching NPR interviews and stories of violence they heard.

“I think the part of the night that affected me the most was the NPR clip of the voices of murder victims’ families,” sophomore Erica Wenger said. “The fact that the students could hear things like that from the families in person, as part of the program, and then turn around and write from the families’ perspectives, and write well, is absolutely amazing.”

Cauvin said that only the riots, shootings and gang violence, never the good things that happen, make the news today.

“Not everybody chooses that,” he said. “You’ve got to know [people] first; don’t judge them. Here’s my saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover ’til you flip the pages.”