For English teachers and students alike, the magic of a great work of literature is its ability to connect to the reader, or to bring the reader into its universe. While authors so frequently bring students into their worlds, LGHS freshman English teacher Tiffany Hamm takes her students’ exploration of their course novels one step further by bringing the authors to them, just one way she helps them recognize the worlds depicted in The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird as their own.
One such novel is Shyima Hall’s Hidden Girl, an autobiographical account written by a victim of human trafficking, which Hamm added to her curriculum in order to bring human trafficking to light for her freshmen. While her students were initially skeptical, issues that were previously invisible to them became more tangible when Hamm invited Hall to speak about her book at LGHS.
“It’s just taking education and ramping it up a little bit,” explains Hamm, “You know, why not make the phone call to see if someone can speak on behalf of their novel? There’s more to grab onto than just the book in front of you.” This year, Hamm’s students were also able to meet with Renee Firestone, a holocaust survivor; and Erin Gruwell, the original Freedom Writer teacher and current leader of the Freedom Writers Foundation.
Erin Gruwell founded the Freedom Writers foundation after working with a group of underprivileged students in
LA. Gruwell helped her students publish their book The Freedom Writers Diary, which inspired the 2007 movie Freedom Writers. The Freedom Writers Foundation encourages English teachers to focus on the individual student. By focusing on the individual, Gruwell and her program aim to help students think reflectively about their own character and desires, as well as think outwardly about their place in the world.
After applying four years in a row to the Freedom Writers Foundation, Hamm was accepted as a Freedom Writer teacher in April 2014, along with only 25 other teachers worldwide.
“We have a lot of homework to do,” said Hamm in reference to what both she and her students have to accomplish before she goes to DC with the Freedom Writers Foundation from May 1-5. Their tasks include a book written by Hamm’s students for Hamm to have in-hand when she meets the Secretary of Education next month in DC. As a Freedom Writer teacher, Hamm also has homework throughout the year, such as a helping her students send 50 letters to President Obama.
Hamm began implementing Freedom Writer philosophies in her classroom long before she was officially part of the program. For years she has recited the mantra “What would Erin do?” as a reminder to follow the philosophies of Erin Gruwell.
“The essence of Freedom Writers is we don’t have to play small, and we don’t have to be what someone says we are,” explains Hamm. Gruwell offers the Freedom Writer teachers techniques on how to connect with students and “dream big” at a five day training session over the summer, which Hamm attended last August. Hamm said the session especially stressed “thinking about how to get to [a student] as opposed to the kid next to them,” or focusing on each student’s individual needs and talents.
Gruwell also gives the Freedom Writer teachers opportunities to connect with her and each other by keeping in touch throughout the year, such as celebrating the successes of the program’s teachers on monthly two-hour conference calls. Recently, the Foundation celebrated Hamm’s five trips to the Museum of Tolerance with each of her English classes.
The Freedom Writer Foundation includes a variety of teachers from different countries and environments; still, most of the program’s members come from underprivileged schools similar to that of the original Freedom Writer class. Hamm recognizes that the average LGHS student is affluent and “very different from the Freedom Writer student,” but believes that a major function of the program is to show that “we are all more alike than we are different, regardless of where we come from.”
Touching on how her background affected her own education, Hamm said, “Education was not a big deal in my household. I was the first one to graduate high school. To think that I could ever be with great people, people who were showcased in a movie… I never thought that was possible for me. Then I started dreaming big: Why not? I deserve it too. My story’s not war-torn Sierra Leone, I’m living in the Santa Cruz mountains, but I deserve it too. When you start to think like that, it opens up possibilities.”
Hamm hopes that her ability to dream big for herself will be reflected by her students. She wants them to “look at what I do and say, ‘Well if she can do that, what can I do?’ Then the challenge is back on them to not play small.”
In order to maximize what her students can do with their resources, Hamm regularly reminds them to think about why they are pursuing their education. She does so in small ways, such as encouragement on the online assignment website (“I am proud of ALL of you today”), and throughout her curriculum as she inspires her students to think analytically about the world around them and their place in it. “There’s value in education. That’s why I am here,” says Hamm.