BRUCE JOHNSON is small for an eighth-grader. He has a mild speech impediment. But the wiry 13-year-old is fierce beyond his years.
Assigned to discuss how people treat others inhumanely, Bruce opened his journal the other day and stood up to read:
I'm here to educate you how our society treats each other . . . . Here's how it's in the school. People sticking out their feet so people can trip over them. I can't even think of a plant I would want to do that to. . . .
Now, here's a few examples of how it works outside in the world. Genocide. Murder. Rape. Sabotage. Racism. Slavery. Minimum Wage. Well, that's my topic. . . .
Three La Salle University students looked at each other in amazement. They had spent the last semester mentoring the eighth-graders in this writing class at AMY Northwest Middle School, on Ardleigh Street above Upsal, in East Mount Airy.
The program was as instructive for the mentors as for the youngsters they helped to transform raw journal entries into more formal essays.
Rebecca Petner, 20, a junior from New Jersey, said that the first time she heard the young people reading, "It caught me a little off-guard. One student started reading: 'I am from Killadelphia.' She said it over and over, like a poem."
Sophomore Kaitlyn Linsner, 20, who grew up in Illinois, said that it didn't take long to learn from the students' writings that "some of the same things they are worried about in the eighth grade are the same things I thought about when I was in the eighth grade."
And Caitlin Docherty, 18, a freshman from New York state who had not worked with younger students before, said of her mentoring experience, "I love it."
Snapping like beatniks
Bruce's classmates showed their appreciation for his words by snapping their fingers along with their writing teacher, Giuseppe Leporace.
Leporace's class, classroom 206, has the feel of a beatnik cafe after a poetry reading.
"We've been told that our clapping gets kind of loud," Leporace said. "So they've switched to snapping instead. We don't want to disturb the other classes."
Leporace, 31, called Mr. L. by his students, bounded around the room, seeking volunteers.
Tia Adams, 13, raised a hand and read:
Love me. Love me even though I may not be the son you wanted. But I'm the daughter she wanted.
The pain of needing a father's love is especially acute for Tia. The she in her sentence is her mother, who died when Tia was 5. Tia found her lying on the floor.
With eyes revealing a much older woman's pain, Tia said that her mother had died of an infection after having been misdiagnosed at a hospital emergency room the night before.
"I have a little godsister, and when I see her with her mother, I look at them and I wish I had my mom, too," said Tia, who lives in West Oak Lane with her grandmother.
'It helps me get out my feelings'
The stories, sometimes sad, sometimes questioning and sometimes funny, are written every day in Mr. L.'s class.
At first, some students said, they didn't want to read their personal journals out loud. But most have come around.
"It helps me get out my feelings," said Lauren Messam, 13, of West Oak Lane.
Lauren said that if there is something in a journal that students don't want Leporace to read (the journals are kept in class every day), "We put a star on top of the page, and he won't read it."
Christopher Johnson, 13, said he wasn't crazy about writing at first. But as other students wrote about their lives, he said: "I began to open up more and share my experiences."
Lauren, Tia, Christopher and Bruce are among 32 students in this class at AMY (it stands for Academy for the Middle Years) Northwest, a special-admission magnet school.
They take almost all their classes together, so they've learned to trust each other with their private lives.
The students allowed the Daily News to publish the journal segments in this article.
"We are probably the only middle school in the city that has a teacher dedicated to a full roster of writing classes," said AMY Northwest principal Marco R. Zanoni.
Now in 4 Philly schools
Leporace, a second-year teacher at AMY Northwest, teaches writing to 178 seventh- and eighth-graders.
He isn't the only Philadephia teacher taking part in the urban-writing program designed by Robert Vogel, a La Salle University education professor.
The program, which helps middle-school students get excited about writing by writing about their lives, is now in four Philadelphia middle schools and one New Jersey high school. It involves about 450 city youngsters.
It began in Philadelphia in 2004 when Vogel teamed with Michael Galbraith, a teacher at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School, on Olney Avenue near B Street, in Olney.
Vogel wanted to design a program modeled after the Freedom Writers project developed by Erin Gruwell, a former California high-school teacher. Gruwell's book of her students' writings was turned into the movie "Freedom Writers."
Vogel and Galbraith published a book this year based on the student writings at Grover Washington. It's called "Voices of Teens: Writers Matter."
In addition to Grover Washington and AMY Northwest, the writing program also is found at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, on Courtland Street near A, and at the Parkway-Northwest High School, on Germantown Avenue at Allens Lane, Mount Airy.
In South Jersey, Vogel has launched the program at Pope Paul VI Catholic High School, in Haddon Township.
While the original Freedom Writers program was created for high-school students, Vogel wanted to try it with middle-schoolers.
"It's a very difficult period for students," Vogel said. "They're going through development stages so quickly, and at different rates. . . . There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress."
Leporace said that the program helps the young people. "I've noticed a lot fewer behavior problems this year than before," he said. *