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Voices of Teens is one of those books that make the reader want to laugh and cry simultaneously. Laugh because it is a case study in the power of one teacher to inspire a classroom of disadvantaged Philadelphia eighth-graders to become transformed by their writing, and cry because the content of their work can be so heartbreaking.Prompted by a visit from Erin Gruwell, author of The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, Michael Galbraith, a literacy teacher, and Robert Vogel, a teacher educator at LaSalle University, joined forces to bring the Freedom Writers program to eighth-graders at Grover Washington Jr. At a school assembly, Ms. Gruwell spoke about the lives of her students, many of whom faced challenges similar to those of her Philadelphia audience.
She also read portions of their work that delved into deeply personal topics. Mr. Galbraith then asked his students if they would like to be part of such a program. Their response was immediate and enthusiastic.
Galbraith proceeded to purchase 70 journals, one for each student. Journals were to be kept in the classroom to ensure that they were available to students at all times. Many of these students faced violence in their neighborhoods (nearly two-thirds of his eighth-graders had lost a family member to homicide!), along with dislocation, homelessness, hunger, and poverty, not to mention the normal physical and social changes of adolescence. For these students the opportunity to get down on paper their thoughts, feelings, and worries and to describe their lives while working in a safe environment with a trusted teacher and respectful fellow writers was transforming.
One student conveyed the impact of the program in this way:
I am glad to have the chance to be a writer. Being a writer gives me an opportunity to express my feelings. Instead of keeping it all inside me, I write it down on paper. … I know most people my age like to lock away all the pain. … When I write, I feel the story I’m telling. It’s my story and only mine. … All I want to say is share your story. There are really people out there who care. I love being a writer now, and I know there are people who want to listen.
In addition to the therapeutic benefits of writing about their thoughts and feelings and sharing them with an audience of fellow students, the Grover Washington kids’ academic skills improved significantly. Independent analysis demonstrated that of five writing domains (focus, content, organization, style, and conventions), all improved during the course of the school year, particularly focus and content. Thanks to the Voices of Teens program, Grover Washington was the only Philadelphia middle school serving children of poverty that made Annual Yearly Progress, a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Voices of Teens is in fact three books in one. The first section provides an overview of the program from the organizers’ point of view—its implementation, resources, challenges, and successes. The second section describes the program from the student writers’ point of view. It includes many writing prompts, such as “I Am From … ” and “Teen Challenges,” and samples of the writers’ work. The third section is a DVD that truly brings the program to life. Video clips of the principle, teachers, and students, as well as writing mentors from LaSalle University, put voices and faces to the written words in the first two sections.
The Voices of Teens: Writers Matter text and DVD make up an inspiring how-to guide in a compact package. It is highly recommended for those involved with literacy programs for all ages.