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'Getting students to write journals leaves them glowing with pride'

How a 'slightly cheesy' film inspired a classroom project that transformed GCSE English classes for one college teacher

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How a 'slightly cheesy' film inspired a classroom project that transformed GCSE English classes for one college teacher

Its cheesiness is cringeworthy, the 14-year-olds look more like fortysomethings, and it’s an unhelpful model for managing workload, but Freedom Writers is one of my favourite movies. Fortunately, very few people seem to have seen it, so I can make that declaration safe from too much public humiliation.

Aside from a banging hip-hop soundtrack, the appeal of “true story” Freedom Writers for me is partly the narrative of the idealistic English teacher, Erin Gruwell, who won’t accept prescribed low expectations, and partly her real-life model of using writing as an expressive catharsis that she persuades her students to buy into.

She presents each student with a journal in which they can write whatever they want: diary entries, song lyrics, poems. She won’t grade them because, as she points out, how can you grade the truth? They are kept somewhere secure to reinforce that they are a safe space for self-expression away from judging eyes.

'Complexity and sensitivity'

Some of my own learners have felt able to express themselves with complexity and sensitivity:

“I just wish one day people won't be scared to be themselves. And people will stop being so mean and judgmental and leave people alone. You know, everyone could be fighting their own battles.” – C, former student

I’ve used this idea of low-stakes writing, where learners don’t have to fear teacher annotations, a number of times with GCSE English groups; some challenging, some vulnerable, some simply lacking confidence. The film introduces the idea very effectively, but I do make sure I let them know that I will read them and have to act on anything worrying they choose to write. I’ve learned that some students will take inspiration from films to create fictional narratives that trigger safeguarding alarm bells.

If your budget allows, giving students the opportunity to choose their own journal helps them to feel invested in it. High-street discount stationers offer a wide range of eye-catching notebooks at low prices so they can feel truly personal – or the entire group can try to ironically out-do each other by ordering journals covered in glitter and unicorns.

“My behaviour has deteriorated rapidly since the start of the year. I just can't control myself from having a laugh with my mates.” – B, former student

Adding to Erin Gruwell’s list of suggested subject matter, I often try to steer my students towards writing letters to their future selves. It tends to crystallise their thoughts and feelings of the moment and provides an audience they know well and can be intimate with. Oh, and despite my warnings, you’ll need a stack of referral forms because many will still use this as a route to disclosure. And you know what? It’s better than silence.

Taking ownership

If you have a big enough classroom, it’s best if the students give themselves some space. They need to take ownership of the writing time and the journal. It’s a good way to spend the last 10 minutes of a lesson. I encourage my students to listen to music while writing if it helps them avoid other distractions. In fact, for some, a good way to start writing is to copy down songs. With rhythms internalised, it doesn’t take long for them to begin mixing lyric fragments. They then adapt the language to say something new.

“It's moments like this, that silence is golden. So definite, quiet. Time stood still. I am not you.” – N, former student

Be patient and persistent. Some will not want to write at first, but the majority will be willing to give it a go. Focus on maintaining a calm space for the writing to happen, and those who try to opt out will eventually get bored and be swept along. Make it part of the routine; the same time every week. It will soon move from something accepted to something habitual. They will look forward to it.

“I'm actually enjoying this! I like writing things, like stories. It's quite nice because when I read it back to myself, it seems like someone else has written it.” – C

'Learners like to be valued'

The great disappointment with Freedom Writers came when I picked up a copy of the book. Made up of entries supposedly from Erin Gruwell’s own students’ journals during the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, it was just not convincing. The extracts suggested far too much teacher input to me when the great value of the exercise should have been highlighting the value of written expression regardless of perceived literary merit. It has been some of the simpler extracts that I have found the most moving of my students'.

“The last time I saw my dad was two months ago. He bought me a McDonald's and then he had to go but he wouldn't tell me why. I knew that he didn't want to see me. I could tell from his eyes when he looked at me.” – V, former student

Gruwell’s idea of creating a book from journal extracts is perfect, though. Our learners like to be valued. I imagined that they would be protective and shy over their writing, but once the habit is established it becomes clear that they not only want me to read their entries but are disappointed if I don’t.

The first group I ever tried the journals with glowed with pride at the end of the year when I suggested taking anonymised extracts from each to create a yearbook. The feeling of having contributed to something real and tangible visibly reinforced their confidence. Even though they had worked individually and separately, they felt it brought them together in a shared ritual. There was no danger of feeling they had done something wrong and, consequently, the sweet, metallic smell of biro ink represented a release.

“I felt really down and a failure. I cried because I felt I couldn't do anything… I feel like I should give up but I know there is so much ahead and I don't want to ruin my plans.” – L, former student

Freedom Writers is a slightly cheesy film, but at heart its premise of giving young people the space and time to express their thoughts on paper is profound. It does not go unnoticed by our young people who lack confidence and skills in literacy that our culture usually captures what it values most in the written form. In encouraging them to have the confidence to write about themselves or anything they feel like, it confers value on to their voices and their experiences. Low-stakes writing journals will help your students to develop those voices and speak to the future.

 Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720

The journal excerpts are from a past cohort of students who agreed to share their writing.

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