Skip to Content

Student Authors Set To Graduate

Her 14 Inner City Students Head to College

By Barbara Murphy, Stone Middle School, Huntsville, Alabama

An 8th grade teacher encouraged her inner city students to write and publish a book about their lives. Now, four years later, they are set to graduate high school and enter college, partially paid for with the proceeds of their book.

In May 2007, a special group of inner-city students known as "The Reality Street Writers" will graduate from high school. What makes them special? Although they were classified as "gifted," these students were considered "at-risk" and "unwilling to use what brains they have."

The story of The Reality Street Writers begins when they were 8th graders.

Teacher's Inspiration
Erin Gruwell, high school teacher of the "Freedom Writers" (of current film fame), spoke at our district's first teachers' meeting of the year. She talked about the transformation of 150 students and the world around them-through the publishing of their journal entries. Using The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo as their guides, they undertook a life-changing, eye-opening journey against intolerance and misunderstanding.

I remember thinking, "Why can't I do that with my 8th graders?" In my creative writing classes, I require students to keep a journal to express their ideas, observations, and emotions.

Presenting the Idea to My Students
At the beginning of school, I introduced my students to The Freedom Writers' Diary, the collected writings of Gruwell's students, and I proposed that they publish their own writings. At first, the students were not overly excited about doing a writing project, but they didn't shy away from the challenge.

Who thought we could actually get a book published? I thought we would quit halfway through. —J.I.

During that first semester, we read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp. They learned to see in these books parallels to their own lives, as they recorded their thoughts and feelings in their journals. They dubbed themselves "The Reality Street Writers."

The real point of our book is us telling the world what we wanted to say and share. We chose not to remain silent anymore, to speak out against injustice in the world and to prove that just about any hardship can be overcome.   —J.R.

Writing About Their Lives
The students selected the topics of family, home, gangs, neighborhood, friends, love and hate, and school. Their stories reflected the school's demographics-working class families, subsidized housing, 98 percent of students receiving free lunch, and 70 percent single-parent households-and the problems of drugs, gangs, neighborhood and family frictions, and financial difficulties.

You see dealers and ho's stand on the corners waiting to make a drop, sell whatever they can; weed, coke or ecstasy.   —L.T.

The students spent hours in the computer lab, typing, revising, editing, and retyping. They critiqued their own and each other's work.

Writing these entries in our journal has taken a lot of stuff off my chest.   —B.G.

Some, caught up in the wave of creativity, added poetry. Others wrote about the local detention home.

Three times I've been sent to the D. Home. It's not exactly your Hilton Hotel!   —T.C.

Community Support & Unexpected Opportunities
The community support exceeded our expectations. Two local corporations covered the costs of printing and a local lawyer set up a nonprofit corporation to manage and account for any proceeds from the sale of the book. (This money is in a trust fund for the students' college education.)

So what, if it (the book) doesn't make a lot of money, writing a book is a big accomplishment for kids our age.   —B.G.

Local author Homer Hickam (author of Rocket Boys, Torpedo Junction , and many others) served as the class's mentor and wrote our Foreword. On the day of our first book signing, Hickam told the students, their parents, and community guests, "Millions of people want to write and be published. Only a few can, and these students are among those few."

The students received local and statewide recognition and coverage in five educational publications, made appearances on local TV shows, and met with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Two of the Reality Street Writers are in college and the others have plans for college!

Because of this book we have expanded our thinking, writing, and speaking skills. We spoke to all sizes of groups, 20 to 3,000 people. It was hard work but it made us better people.   —B.G.

In the past four years, the students have succeeded academically (all are in the top 30 percent of their classes) and been involved in community and school activities. This project opened doors for the students to places they never knew existed.

Writing this book...made me think of people in different ways. When I started reading…the other stories, I realized no one's life is sugar coated and everyone has problems…This book really opened my eyes to not be judgmental of others.   —K.W. 

Where Are They Now?
Students in some big-city school districts have a less than 50-50 chance of graduating from high school with their peers.

I am proud to say that 100 percent of my student-authors, The Reality Street Writers, are graduating in May 2007 (except for two who graduated early and are now in college). In the last four years, these students have succeeded academically, have done community service, and have planned to go on to further education. They are responsive, responsible, and active-totally engaged in their education. In the last four years, some students traveled to Washington, D.C., Denver, Atlanta, and Birmingham to speak about their book. At the end of their senior year, they will be honored by Alabama Governor Bob Riley and others for their achievements.
Perhaps these young people would have succeeded without being published authors. Who knows? But these students have two accomplishments of note in their young lives. They have written a book, something rarely done at their age. And they have beaten the odds by graduating from an inner city school.

Related Content
Freedom Writers Foundation - A nonprofit organization that helps decrease high school dropout rates through the replication and enhancement of the Freedom Writers Method. (The Freedom Writers movie is based on the book Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.)

About the Author
Barbara Murphy teaches English literature and writing at Stone Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama. As a gifted specialist, Murphy works with the advanced core content area teachers. She also teaches Spanish, journalism, and creative writing and works with students on independent projects.