SURPRISE ENDINGS As students finish diary entries for the year, they look to the future.

Posted: June 29, 2006

In a bold project, a class of Philadelphia eighth graders explored the violence and pain in their world through shared diaries, revealing their feelings and fears in a transforming experience. In a five-part series, The Inquirer chronicles their six-month journey.

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Friday, June 2 - Thirteen-year-old Jeremiah Robinson has a surprise for his teacher, "a big surprise."

"Not heart-attack or stroke surprise," the short, solemn teen insists.

"I will read today," Jeremiah announces.

Michael Galbraith, 40, opens his arms in a welcoming fashion and says, "I'll be here."

All semester, as his eighth-grade classmates at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School read from their diaries, Jeremiah had held back.

His offer to speak up today, the last day of journal readings, is another small victory for Galbraith, who set out to turn his students on to writing and - along the way - help them understand one another better.

He saw their literacy test scores improve. Absenteeism dropped - to 13 days on average this year, compared with 15 days for the same students the year before.

Some, such as lanky Jean Paul Arroliga, who had struggled to write, were dashing off pieces in rhyme:

"Maybe my rap game will blow up at night.

Boy, would that be a nice sight.

But for now, I'm just going to write.

Doing what I gotta do.

So I can be what I want to be.

Hoping this world has a future for me."

Reggie Whitman, 14, whose anger had worried Galbraith, says that writing is his new way of coping: "Now, I just write it down and relive everything that happened in a positive way," he says. "I don't feel as if I need to use violence to make myself feel better anymore."

Heather Rodriguez, 14, reveals she is tackling an issue she found the nerve to write about: her weight. She has dropped eight pounds.,

"I saw students feel safe to take risks in this class, more than I've ever seen before," Galbraith says. "They took risks about things that sometimes there's a taboo about; for instance, the taboo about putting your business out there."

There were disappointments.

Galbraith was perplexed that despite his emphasis on openness and trust, some students - particularly those in a second diary class he taught - continued to get into fights.

Others didn't write in their journals as much as he had hoped.

Still, principal Michael Rosenberg of Grover Washington, which is in Olney, plans to take the program to other grades. And Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Philadelphia School District, is contemplating training for other district teachers.

Today, 29 of Galbraith's 31 students, more than ever before, agree to read aloud - about their future.

Naibria Reid, who led her class in an antiviolence march, says she's signed up for a peace project at a charter school she will attend next year.

"It's not ending for me," she says of her peace efforts.

Reading from her diary, she tells the class: "Ten years from now, either you'll be working for me or buying from me."

Long Nguyen, 15, no longer wants to join the military to wrest his native Vietnam from the communists. He wants to be a physicist and create a device to prevent global warming.

"I want to preach like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I will show people that violence is not right and should not be done."

The bubbly Cynthia Vega, who had missed 48 days this school year, tells the class, "I want to emerge from a caterpillar to a butterfly and spread my wings to fly."

Trey McCloud, 14, the broad-shouldered teen who didn't want to pick up a pencil last fall, asks for more time to write when Galbraith calls on him. Bullied earlier in the year, he tells his classmates he wants to start an association for abused children. He plays bass guitar and admires saxophonist John Coltrane.

"I'll keep my friends near me because they kept me going."

David Leal, 15, dubbed "Mr. Metaphor" by Galbraith, discovered his talent: writing. He'd started the year talking of the tension between his two worlds: his peaceful, religious family and the tough streets.

"I want to be a person who lives to see 40, a person who gets to see his kids in the right place. . . .

"I want to be remembered not by my writing . . . but by the boy who took his life for the good and for the better and changed it, who saw half of his friends go to jail and hopped up and being baddies and decided what the hell - that's not me."

At last, Jeremiah, who had been picked on repeatedly over his school years, sets his journal on his knees and begins to read. His classmates fall silent.

"As I got older, my future started to become clearer. I wanted to be a doctor and a preacher.

"I want my family and friends to look up to me, not look down on me for what I did wrong. . . . I don't need violence. My writing is my sword and I don't need anything else.

"I want to be able to do things without being scared, and when it's my time to go, I want to go saying I did it - not, damn, I should have never did this. When I've stuck my sword in the golden sands of time, I know I've done good, because I want to go to heaven."

The class applauds. "Nicely put together, Jeremiah," Galbraith says.

"This class has grown so much," Galbraith tells his students, sitting, as usual, in the back of the room. "It's about what you guys did and how you accepted each other."

He stops and blinks hard. The students see that their teacher is about to cry.

"It's just really cool how you guys allowed everybody to have a voice in here," he continues.

"People who wouldn't say a damn thing six months ago are now willing to say things, and they are valued members of this class, valued members of this community, and . . . the most important thing that I'll get out of this year is what you guys grew into."

Students ask Galbraith about his future.

"I have my assignment for next year: eighth grade," he says. "This is what I do."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

ABOUT THE SERIES

For six months, The Inquirer followed the "Freedom Writers" diary project at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School, sitting in on the class' biweekly diary readings, traveling along on field trips, and visiting students at home. Quotes from diaries were used with parents' permission.

The Online Version

To see the full five-part series, "Writing for their Lives," which follows Michael Galbraith's eighth-grade diary class from January to June; multimedia slide shows of the students reading their essays; and responses from the public on this project:

http://go.philly.com/writing

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