Freedom writers flying to LA

An English class . . . with a whole lot of difference.

An English class . . . with a whole lot of difference.

CLASS ACT : A school trip to
America next month awaits this group of Freedom Writers — an English class with a difference at Lytton High School. The class includes teaching styles from Erin Gruwell, an American teacher they are off to meet (and who inspired the movie Freedom Writers). From left, in front, are Casey Akuhata-Brown, Aria Patuwai. Far left is English teacher Michelle Lawrence and far right is Meredith Akuhata-Brown, who brought the concept to Gisborne. Sitting on the couch at left is Stan Bodle, with Vivian Pareanga. Standing behind the couch are Takoda Ackerley and Rerehau Biddle. At the back, from left, are Stanley King, Harry Win-Hewetson, Lani Patumaka, Piri Orotaunga and Ford Baker. Pictures by Rebecca Grunwell
FREEDOM WRITERS: Keeping a journal is part of this English class with a difference. It has helped Rerehau Biddle, 17, know her worth. She journals with fellow student Stanley King, 17, who says he is a tolerance ambassador.

A student fills a bowl with cereal, takes it to his desk, and starts writing in his journal. The song Whatever it Takes is being played loud and there’s a couch with cushions. Journalist Sophie Rishworth went to a Year 13 English class last week and met an inspiring group of teenagers who know their worth. They are called Freedom Writers, the only English classroom in New Zealand doing what they do . . .

Freedom Writers is based on a concept started by American teacher Erin Gruwell. Her unique style of teaching led to the publication of The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.

It then led to a Hollywood movie called Freedom Writers.

Lytton High School English teacher Michelle Lawrence was inspired.
She wanted to know how she could bring what Erin was doing with the teens in America to the teens at Lytton — which was to build confidence and instil a passion for learning.

Then she met Meredith Akuhata-Brown, who had met Erin, and the two brought about the first school in New Zealand to have a Freedom Writers English class that also meets NCEA standards.

This is an English class with a difference.
There’s a couch, a kettle, a toasted sandwich maker and a food table with cereal, bread for toast, hot drinks, peanuts and sometimes blueberries, and dark chocolate . . . brain food for the teens to graze on during class. It’s called Food for Focus and Eat for Education.

Michelle did a study and found more than half of her students were not eating breakfast every day. Others admitted they found it hard to focus when they knew they did not have lunch either.

Pak’nSave donates when it can. The students sometimes bring a couple of pieces of bread from home for themselves to toast. Ms Lawrence provides the rest.

She has 72 students over three Freedom Writers English classes from Year 11 to 13.

Ms Lawrence wants all 72 to become global citizens. They have a range of abilities.
“I’m really proud of them.”

English class with ‘a lot of personality’

Deputy head boy Stanley King, 17, loves English and writing.
“It’s how I communicate my feelings and get them off my chest.”

He has dealt with bullying, living on his own and losing his Dad when he was 14. This is an independent teenager whose struggle has built resilience. In turn, he wants a career to helps others when he leaves school. He says he is a tolerance ambassador — a Freedom Writer.

Fellow student Harry Win-Hewetson, 17, thinks everyone needs to be a tolerance ambassador.
He joined the class when it started three years ago because he heard Ms Lawrence was a really good teacher.
He was “not a natural” at English. But Ms Lawrence made it connect with him.

Student Jesse Walker, 17, describes it as an English class with “a lot of personality”.
That’s all do to with Ms Lawrence — commonly referred to in the classroom as “Miss”.

The 55-year-old English teacher, mother of two and grandmother of three, has been at Lytton High School for 18 years.
She remembers a teacher telling her in Sixth Form (Year 12) that she was not university material and perhaps should think of other things to do.

“From that minute on, I was determined to prove them wrong.”

As a teacher, there will never be a student on her watch who is discouraged.
“I won’t let these kids feel they can’t.”

She now has a Bachelor of Arts, with a Masters in American Film, from Canterbury University. She is also the assistant head of faculty at Lytton and a specialist classroom teacher.

Ms Lawrence came back to Gisborne, where she was born and bred, to help kids here.
She teaches them that backgrounds are not a barrier — it does not matter what part of Gisborne you live in.

“The joy for me is first that they turn up to class, then that they succeed.”
That means turning up to exams.

“These kids, when they started with me, were not engaged in English and did not believe they could do an exam.”
So Ms Lawrence went through practice exams and taught them approaches to use. She has had a 100 percent attendance rate to the NCEA external exams and a 95 percent pass rate.
“Then these kids come back to me and they say, ‘I did it Miss’.”

They journal, they read Diary of Anne Frank. They also watch movies, true stories like Blind Side and Dangerous Minds.
“I use techniques and skills from Erin and my own skills and ideas too.
“But it’s work and that’s what I say to them — you have got to meet me halfway and this links into our Lytton philosophy of “Together to Excellence”.

The classroom walls — 12 years in the making — are a collage of movie posters, quotes, photos of the students.
The journals build confidence in writing and trust skills too.
The teens write about whatever they want and at the end of class journals are locked away.

Ms Lawrence does not read them unless one of the students asks her to.
Rerehau Biddle, 17, says Ms Lawrence was a big reason she loves the class.
“She gets us to embrace what is different for each and every one of us. It has opened my eyes.

“And it’s also knowing that I have a worth.
“It helps in dark times just knowing that I can do things, that I do have worth.”

Rerehau says the other thing this style of class has taught her is that you’re not alone.
“Someone out there will champion it for you.
“I never used to like English but I do now. I feel very supported by Miss.”

For Rerehau, and some of the other students, this will be their first time overseas when they embark on a 10-day tour of California.

Twelve students, Michelle and Meredith leave on July 4 — just a coincidence that it is American Independence Day.
They will visit the Museum of Tolerance, do workshops with some cool people, visit the Freedom Writers Foundation and meet the real life people who inspired characters in the film, including Erin.

Lawyer Dan Ybarra, who is active in the Freedom Writers movement, will host them at his house and they will take mini vans for trips. They also want to see the Mexican wall being built in San Diego.

Their parents have been “fantastic” with helping the kids save for it, says Ms Lawrence.
When the trip to LA to meet Erin Gruwell was first talked about two years ago, some were sceptical that this big school trip would eventuate. Today, it is only 11 sleeps away.

Kalani Hooper, 17, has been part of Freedom Writers since it started in her year 11.
Her boyfriend Jesse started this year. He likes how you can be yourself.
Journaling is great for those days you have a lot on your mind, he says. Plus . . .
“This is the first class in my whole life where you can get food”.

Kalani likes that side of it too. It helps her to focus because she skips breakfast in the mornings. She feels the class has made her more outgoing and more comfortable,

They both like the whanau environment and the teacher.

Fund-raising has been going for two years. There have been sausage sizzles at The Warehouse, plus making and selling toasties to other students.

Ms Lawrence thanks The Warehouse for their support by allowing them to hold sausage sizzles, the whole Lytton High
Staff, especially Bronwyn Johnstone for letting students pick fruit at her orchard and sell it, and the cooking department at Lytton who have worked so hard behind the scenes.

A student fills a bowl with cereal, takes it to his desk, and starts writing in his journal. The song Whatever it Takes is being played loud and there’s a couch with cushions. Journalist Sophie Rishworth went to a Year 13 English class last week and met an inspiring group of teenagers who know their worth. They are called Freedom Writers, the only English classroom in New Zealand doing what they do . . .

Freedom Writers is based on a concept started by American teacher Erin Gruwell. Her unique style of teaching led to the publication of The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.

It then led to a Hollywood movie called Freedom Writers.

Lytton High School English teacher Michelle Lawrence was inspired.
She wanted to know how she could bring what Erin was doing with the teens in America to the teens at Lytton — which was to build confidence and instil a passion for learning.

Then she met Meredith Akuhata-Brown, who had met Erin, and the two brought about the first school in New Zealand to have a Freedom Writers English class that also meets NCEA standards.

This is an English class with a difference.
There’s a couch, a kettle, a toasted sandwich maker and a food table with cereal, bread for toast, hot drinks, peanuts and sometimes blueberries, and dark chocolate . . . brain food for the teens to graze on during class. It’s called Food for Focus and Eat for Education.

Michelle did a study and found more than half of her students were not eating breakfast every day. Others admitted they found it hard to focus when they knew they did not have lunch either.

Pak’nSave donates when it can. The students sometimes bring a couple of pieces of bread from home for themselves to toast. Ms Lawrence provides the rest.

She has 72 students over three Freedom Writers English classes from Year 11 to 13.

Ms Lawrence wants all 72 to become global citizens. They have a range of abilities.
“I’m really proud of them.”

English class with ‘a lot of personality’

Deputy head boy Stanley King, 17, loves English and writing.
“It’s how I communicate my feelings and get them off my chest.”

He has dealt with bullying, living on his own and losing his Dad when he was 14. This is an independent teenager whose struggle has built resilience. In turn, he wants a career to helps others when he leaves school. He says he is a tolerance ambassador — a Freedom Writer.

Fellow student Harry Win-Hewetson, 17, thinks everyone needs to be a tolerance ambassador.
He joined the class when it started three years ago because he heard Ms Lawrence was a really good teacher.
He was “not a natural” at English. But Ms Lawrence made it connect with him.

Student Jesse Walker, 17, describes it as an English class with “a lot of personality”.
That’s all do to with Ms Lawrence — commonly referred to in the classroom as “Miss”.

The 55-year-old English teacher, mother of two and grandmother of three, has been at Lytton High School for 18 years.
She remembers a teacher telling her in Sixth Form (Year 12) that she was not university material and perhaps should think of other things to do.

“From that minute on, I was determined to prove them wrong.”

As a teacher, there will never be a student on her watch who is discouraged.
“I won’t let these kids feel they can’t.”

She now has a Bachelor of Arts, with a Masters in American Film, from Canterbury University. She is also the assistant head of faculty at Lytton and a specialist classroom teacher.

Ms Lawrence came back to Gisborne, where she was born and bred, to help kids here.
She teaches them that backgrounds are not a barrier — it does not matter what part of Gisborne you live in.

“The joy for me is first that they turn up to class, then that they succeed.”
That means turning up to exams.

“These kids, when they started with me, were not engaged in English and did not believe they could do an exam.”
So Ms Lawrence went through practice exams and taught them approaches to use. She has had a 100 percent attendance rate to the NCEA external exams and a 95 percent pass rate.
“Then these kids come back to me and they say, ‘I did it Miss’.”

They journal, they read Diary of Anne Frank. They also watch movies, true stories like Blind Side and Dangerous Minds.
“I use techniques and skills from Erin and my own skills and ideas too.
“But it’s work and that’s what I say to them — you have got to meet me halfway and this links into our Lytton philosophy of “Together to Excellence”.

The classroom walls — 12 years in the making — are a collage of movie posters, quotes, photos of the students.
The journals build confidence in writing and trust skills too.
The teens write about whatever they want and at the end of class journals are locked away.

Ms Lawrence does not read them unless one of the students asks her to.
Rerehau Biddle, 17, says Ms Lawrence was a big reason she loves the class.
“She gets us to embrace what is different for each and every one of us. It has opened my eyes.

“And it’s also knowing that I have a worth.
“It helps in dark times just knowing that I can do things, that I do have worth.”

Rerehau says the other thing this style of class has taught her is that you’re not alone.
“Someone out there will champion it for you.
“I never used to like English but I do now. I feel very supported by Miss.”

For Rerehau, and some of the other students, this will be their first time overseas when they embark on a 10-day tour of California.

Twelve students, Michelle and Meredith leave on July 4 — just a coincidence that it is American Independence Day.
They will visit the Museum of Tolerance, do workshops with some cool people, visit the Freedom Writers Foundation and meet the real life people who inspired characters in the film, including Erin.

Lawyer Dan Ybarra, who is active in the Freedom Writers movement, will host them at his house and they will take mini vans for trips. They also want to see the Mexican wall being built in San Diego.

Their parents have been “fantastic” with helping the kids save for it, says Ms Lawrence.
When the trip to LA to meet Erin Gruwell was first talked about two years ago, some were sceptical that this big school trip would eventuate. Today, it is only 11 sleeps away.

Kalani Hooper, 17, has been part of Freedom Writers since it started in her year 11.
Her boyfriend Jesse started this year. He likes how you can be yourself.
Journaling is great for those days you have a lot on your mind, he says. Plus . . .
“This is the first class in my whole life where you can get food”.

Kalani likes that side of it too. It helps her to focus because she skips breakfast in the mornings. She feels the class has made her more outgoing and more comfortable,

They both like the whanau environment and the teacher.

Fund-raising has been going for two years. There have been sausage sizzles at The Warehouse, plus making and selling toasties to other students.

Ms Lawrence thanks The Warehouse for their support by allowing them to hold sausage sizzles, the whole Lytton High
Staff, especially Bronwyn Johnstone for letting students pick fruit at her orchard and sell it, and the cooking department at Lytton who have worked so hard behind the scenes.

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