Laguna Beach High School’s Innovative English Teacher Retires

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English teacher Dawn Hunnicutt sits in the classroom where she taught creative writing at Laguna Beach High School. Photo by Timothy Hessen

By Timothy Hessen, special for the independent

In the months leading up to the pandemic, English teacher Dawn Hunnicutt achieved her goal of launching a creative writing class at Laguna Beach High School. Although she had to finish the school year remotely, her poetry workshop left a strong impression on the family of a graduating student, Luca Elghanayan.

The 20-year-old died suddenly while attending UC Berkeley in May. A poem he wrote for Hunnicutt’s class was later read at his funeral.

“I’ve had students say the workshop was the high point of the pandemic, and I know that might be a low bar, but I think it was really meaningful for the students,” Hunnicutt said. “I felt that was my gift to the elderly who were going through so much because of the pandemic.”

Hunnicutt, an English teacher for nine years at Laguna Beach High School, retired after the 2021-2022 school year. Hunnicutt has taught several levels of English over the course of her career, including Grade 11 English, Grade 10 English, and Grade 10 English with Honors. Among the veteran teachers Hunnicutt has joined in retirement this year are LBHS chemistry teacher Steve Sogo and El Morro Elementary School teacher Tamara Wong.

With a degree in creative writing, Hunnicutt was driven to start a creative writing course at LBHS, which received UC academic credit approval in 2019. The goal of the course was to teach students how to write creatively. creatively through poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and playwriting.

“I knew the Laguna students were ready for this,” Hunnicutt said. “We have an amazing student body and I knew they were going to absorb it all.”

Hunnicutt’s first year teaching in the classroom coincided with the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed the school and moved the class to online learning. However, Hunnicutt still managed to keep the course interactive for his students by hosting an online spoken word workshop, led by prominent spoken word poets Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay.

Kay and Kaye are co-directors of Project VOICE, a group that teams up with schools to bring live performances of award-winning spoken word and poetry workshops to students. The VOICE Project first interacted with LBHS students in Spring 2020 with a live online performance for all students and the one-week workshop for Hunnicut Creative Writing Class students, and did the same for the creative writing class in 2021.

Hunnicutt attributes his ability to get his creative writing course and workshop they held with Project VOICE approved to the flexibility of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

“The great thing about Laguna District is that there’s always a way,” Hunnicutt said. “If you want something for your class or have an idea for something new for your students, there’s a way in this district to make it happen.”

As Hunnicutt winds down her teaching career, she predicts the growing use of technology in the classroom after years of online learning will forever change the way teachers approach education.

“We need to be innovative going forward,” Hunnicutt said. “The days of creating a lesson and using it for the next 20 years are over.”

Principal Jason Allemann praised Hunnicutt’s contributions to the school and the example she left for future staff.

“Dawn has been a great colleague to me,” Allemann said. “The years that I worked with her taught me a lot about education in general, and I think the main lesson from her years here that we can move forward with is that the Education is always about the students before it is about what you teach.”

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