Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Champlain's Freedom Writers

What does a group of students at Champlain Heights Elementary School have to do with tough inner city high school students from the worse areas of Long Beach, California? You might not think much but teachers Dagmar Kafka and Angela Angel-Lara saw a connection.

The students in their pull out ESL and LAC program in grade six watched the movie, Freedom Writers. There was an immediate connection for these students who had not found school or sometimes life an easy place to be. The teachers followed up with reading excerpts of the Freedom Writers Diary edited by Erin Gruwell, the amazing teacher who changed her students’ lives-or rather helped them change their lives. Next the students wrote poetry from ideas from the Freedom Writers’ Teachers Guide.

Somewhere along the way, they thought that they would love to meet the real Erin Gruwell. By chance, Dagmar noticed that Erin was coming to town to speak at an event at the River Rock Casino Theatre sponsored by King David High School (a small private school) with a curriculum emphasizing social responsibility. The cost was $36 a ticket and what with the cost and getting the students to the event in Richmond, the group wasn’t sure this was a real possibility.

Inspired by how the real Freedom Writers invited wrote letters and raised money to invite Miep Gies (the woman who helped hide Anne Frank and her family during WWII) and Zlata, who wrote about her life in war torn Croatia, to visit their school, the ten students at Champlain decided to invite Erin to visit their school. They sent their poems and letters.

She wrote back that she was fully booked by King David so it wasn’t possible for her to visit Champlain. She told them she would be happy to meet them for half an hour prior to the cocktail reception planned for those who paid $300 a ticket before she spoke.

At this point they decided they needed to start serious fundraising. They had to go to the event! They sold 100 freedom writer kits-a journal and pencils and erasers, but that was only just over $100 profit! MLA Wally Oppal came to the school to talk to the students about Racism. They told him about the project and he made a donation of $10 per student. Other donations were received from the Champlain Parents’ Advisory Council, the Sisters of Charity, Ms. Kafka’s mother, a former teacher at Champlain Annex etc. One student’s dad donated his limousine service, providing free gas, parking, and his time. Each student only had to pay $10 to cover the price of the ticket and dinner.

The big day came. The kids were excited. One student was ill but there was no way she wasn’t going. Imagine how excited they were when they finally met Erin Gruwell. She had read their letters and poems closely, guessing who each student was, and greeting them warmly and giving each his or her own personal Freedom Writers’ diary and a picture of herself, Hilary Swank (who starred in and produced the movie) and the original Freedom Writers. She didn’t just spend a half hour with them but an hour. She promised them she wasn’t saying good-bye then but would say good-bye after she spoke.

While Erin had to meet those $300 patrons of King David, the Champlain Heights went off to a nearby Pizza Hut. The students told me how surprised the other customers were surprised to see a group of dressed up kids arrive in a limousine!

They thoroughly enjoyed the event itself, sitting in the plush theatre, listening to their heroine and new friend, and getting to watch a clip of the original Freedom Riders as well as the movie version. As promised, before she went to sign books, she met the Champlain group at the theatre exit and gave each a hug and a good-bye. They went on to take advantage of the fantastic dessert buffet provided by King David for all the attendees.

When I had spotted the group at the event, I knew I had to know the story of how they got there. Dagmar shared pictures and we arranged for me to visit. I can’t tell you how moving an event it was for me to see the passion of these young students, their involvement in their writing, and their commitment to change and being the best people they can possibly be.

This is Ms. Kafka’s last month of teaching before she retires. She is a teacher who has certainly made a difference and taught her students that dreams are achievable.


Ian said...

Awesome. You people are the real freedom writers. How inspiring.

Naima Cullen said...

It's amazing how you fight your rights using that mighty pen.