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Standing out

The Baltimore Sun

It was a simple but revealing homework assignment for a group of fifth-grade girls at Van Bokkelen Elementary School in Severn: Come up with a list of questions you would like to ask your classmates.

Karen Gibson gathered the girls for their 45-minute class in a portable classroom last week and taped a line on the floor.

As she read from the girls' list of questions, she asked students to step on the line if they could answer yes to a question or agree with a statement she read.

Students would then step back off the line to wait for the next question.

It started off easy: Step on the line if you like rap music. All but one of the girls moved forward before stepping back. Eight girls stepped on the line when asked whether they had a pet.

It didn't take long before the questions turned serious: Who knows someone who died in gang violence? Seven of the girls moved forward. Who has seen someone commit suicide? One girl slowly walked to the line, looking over both shoulders to see if anyone would join her. No one did.

This type of sharing might seem jarring, and it is meant to be. By opening up to each other through the spoken word, the girls are learning to express themselves through the written word, Gibson said.

The girls' next homework assignment: Write a poem or an essay in their marble notebook journals about how the line game made them feel.

Some of the girls already knew what they were going to write.

"It was fun, but sometimes I didn't want to go on the line," said LeeAsia Simms, who got choked up when recalling her Wednesday class.

The exercise is familiar to those who have seen the 2007 Paramount Pictures movie, Freedom Writers. The film tells the true story of an English class in a rough, gang-ridden, high school where the teacher finally wins the students' attention and respect by getting them to open up in their journals.

Students who had been written off by teachers and administrators raised their reading and writing test scores. Many were the first in their families to go to college.

Their journals eventually were published in a book called The Freedom Writers Diary. The students took the name from the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who challenged racism on bus trips to the segregated South during the 1960s.

Erin Gruwell, the teacher, eventually helped found the Freedom Writers Foundation to try to replicate the teaching style nationwide. After seeing the movie, Gibson traveled to Charleston, S.C., to meet Gruwell at a book signing last year. The two hit it off, and Gruwell selected Gibson as one of nearly 200 teachers so far for her five-day training workshop.

Gibson is one of only three teachers in Maryland who have been trained. One teacher works in a juvenile detention facility in Western Maryland, and another works at Salisbury University.

Gibson, who took the workshop in August, thought that the methodology of getting students interested in writing would help more if it began earlier - in fifth grade, before students started middle school. She wanted to try it at Van Bokkelen, Jessup and Odenton elementary schools where she taught English to speakers of other languages. She opened it up to other fifth-graders because she didn't have enough fifth-grade ESOL students at each school to form groups.

The program started Friday at Jessup Elementary School, where fifth-graders could choose whether they wanted to participate. Odenton Elementary started the program in October with ESOL students and hand-picked students who were receiving special education for behavioral problems.

Maurine Larkin, principal of Odenton Elementary, was so excited about the program after seeing the movie that she had Gibson speak to a group of teachers at her school in September. Larkin and three teachers screened the movie with Gibson recently and are talking about setting up workshops at Odenton for any county teacher.

Larkin said teachers are hungry for new ways to reach students.

"People are really looking for things to help kids and make school a place they want to come," she said.

Freedom Writers started in September at Van Bokkelen, where the majority of students who attend the school qualify for the federal free and reduced-cost meals program. Teachers there selected fifth-grade girls from the Ladies Club, a group of about two dozen third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who receive lessons in etiquette, good behavior and setting goals.

The girls, some of whom said they don't like school, said they look forward to Freedom Writers.

"We like to come here because we get to tell out things we kept inside for a long time," Brianna Aquirre said.

"It's like one big family," Shakala Diggs said.

The girls go through different exercises in class before two or three girls volunteer to read from their journals. Usually they learn new vocabulary. They all agree not to judge each other and to show empathy. They also agree not to share anyone's secrets.

Gibson said she is not grading them on grammar or correcting errors - yet. For now, Gibson flips through the journals to ensure that the girls have written in them every week, but she promises not to read anything on pages the girls have folded over. None of them do, Gibson said.

Once the girls "feel good about writing," she will work more on the mechanics of syntax, Gibson said. That way, the girls will learn to hone their skills. "They're going to be more articulate," she said. "They're going to be writing all the time."

Leonard Massie, the new principal of Van Bokkelen, saw the movie and was open to the technique. He said he wants to see how well it works for the girls before expanding it to more students. So far, he is pleased with Gibson's weekly reports.

"We've gotten nonwriters writing and writers writing more," Massie said.

In California, Gruwell had a hard time convincing administrators that the line game or other sharing exercises had anything to do with learning English. Students who have distractions at home for whatever reason don't feel inclined to pay attention to Shakespeare's stories if no one cares about their own, she said.

"So much of my process is really embracing the literacy process," Gruwell said in a phone interview before a speech in Boston last week. "You have to engage those kids first before you throw that rigor at them."

Gruwell said Van Bokkelen is lucky to have Gibson.

"She is an amazing dynamo, and we feel so fortunate to have her be a part of our organization," Gruwell said.

In an article on Freedom Writers in Sunday's Anne Arundel section, Lee'Aisa Simms' name was misspelled. Also, in a caption with a related photograph, Rayven Richardson's name was misspelled.The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.
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