Gangland stories

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
Geraldine Brennan reads tales of turf wars, real and imaginary

The Freedom Writers Diary: How a teacher and 150 teens used writing to change themselves and the world around them

By the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell; Broadway Books pound;8.99; 14-plus

The diaries kept by Erin Gruwell's English class a decade ago in the middle of the LA gangland turf wars make gritty, inspiring, hopeful reading.

When Ms Gruwell encountered the class in her first job at Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, California, most had already given up on themselves and thought she would last a week. Her first classroom had gang insignia scrawled all over the desks.

The anonymous journals she persuaded her students to keep over the three years they spent together show the influence of the gang culture on the daily lives of many. Others suffered constant crises due to homelessness, abusive families or drugs.

The class label of "low achievers" afflicted the more privileged, too, and for some, the school cliques were as powerful and punitive as the Bloods and the Crips.

There is one touching entry from a boy who is convinced he is only in the class because of a computer error.

Within two years, the Freedom Writers had presented their diaries in Washington. The following year, all 150 of them went to college - exceeding all expectations.

Ms Gruwell now trains teachers through the Freedom Writers Foundation and her story is the subject of a film starring Hilary Swank, as her. Thousands of The TES Magazine readers were treated to a preview screening.

Her tips for teachers on the website ("make learning relate to your students' lives" and "empower your students to succeed") can sound trite out of context but the diaries, the subject of the film, are unmissable.

Worse than Boys

By Catherine MacPhail; Bloombury Children's Books pound;5.99; 12-plus

Catherine MacPhail's novels are tuned to how teenagers talk and behave. In this one, the reader is a fly on the wall in the cloakrooms, toilet blocks, isolated bus stops and late-night trains where gangs of girls in a small town in the west of Scotland make and carry out threats.

The Lip Gloss Girls' gang is more of a clique with a ruling queen bee; bright and mouthy Hannah is court jester until she falls out of favour.

As Hannah edges under the influence of the tougher rival gang, Catherine shows how the more vulnerable young people who are most likely to turn to gangs for security are also those most likely to be damaged

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