Giving Chester students some 'freedom'

Clif Adkins talks with King's CREW leader Stefan Buchanan, 13, in his classroom at Chester Middle School.
Clif Adkins talks with King's CREW leader Stefan Buchanan, 13, in his classroom at Chester Middle School.

CHESTER -- Clif Adkins hopes to turn his Chester Middle School classroom into Room 203 of Long Beach, Calif.'s Woodrow Wilson High School, circa 1994.

That class, depicted in the 2007 movie "Freedom Writers," was where a green 23-year-old teacher named Erin Gruwell convinced inner-city kids to trust each other, reveal their stories and ultimately find academic success.

This fall, Adkins will be one of only two teachers in South Carolina using Gruwell's curriculum, which focuses on tolerance.

The name "Freedom Writers" was taken from the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, which Gruwell's class studied. And in a time when racial hostility was running high in their hometown, Gruwell's students read about the heartbreak of other young people such as Anne Frank, who died during the Holocaust. They began writing about their lives.

The idea was that writing would help these students -- the ones most teachers had written off -- cope with their problems and move on with their lives.

Adkins, a 24-year-old teacher in his second year on the job, sampled that environment earlier this month when he traveled to the Freedom Writers Institute in Los Angeles.

"If I can do anything," he said, "when my kids come into my classroom, I will try my hardest, with everything in my might, to recreate that environment for them. ... I've never felt more comfortable -- and no judgment -- than I did while I was at this institute."

During his four days in California, Adkins said, he and 29 teachers from across the country were Gruwell's students, as the famous teacher demonstrated the techniques she used with her class in 1994.

Some of their activities were games Gruwell used to help students become more open about their experiences and more trusting of their peers.

Adkins' fellow students were of various backgrounds. And there they were comfortable with their histories, even discussing subjects some might consider taboo.

"That's what was so wild," he said. "It's a feeling and it's an environment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It's what we all long for."

One of the activities Adkins played was the "line game," which challenged students to step forward if they identified with a certain experience.

"That was a very powerful game," he said. "You saw how much you had in common with these people. And it was the things that you wouldn't normally want to even let anyone else know about yourself."

These kinds of games are what Adkins hopes to bring to his class this fall. A career and character education instructor, he hopes to use Gruwell's strategies to build trust with his students, and he wants to create a place that fosters learning in math, reading and writing.

Adkins also plans to focus on experiencing history. For example, instead of simply talking about the conflict in Sudan, he's asked a man who escaped persecution there to talk to his class about what he witnessed.

"If you've not hooked your students' attention, no matter what you're going to say, it's just not going to matter," he said. "You have to hook them first."

In just a year at Chester Middle, Adkins has "hooked" many students. Last year, he started the King's CREW, a group that studies the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and promotes unity and community service.

The CREW -- an acronym for commitment, respect, education and wealth -- began as a way to keep kids out of gangs. The club grew to some 220 members by the end of the school year.

Groups like the King's CREW and a curriculum such as the one used by the "Freedom Writers" are essential to reaching Chester's students, said Gail Hamilton, Chester Middle's principal.

"The school's going to have to do more and more," she said, adding that economic times have forced local parents to work out of town and put in more hours to take care of their families.

"They don't have as much time to spend with the kids," she said. "The schools have got to pick up some of the slack here. And so this is one way that we can help kids get through this."

Who are the "Freedom Writers?"

"Freedom Writers" were Erin Gruwell's students at Long Beach, Calif.'s Woodrow Wilson High School in 1994.

Their name was taken from the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement. This group of inner-city students found academic success and inspired the 2007 movie "Freedom Writers."