Innovative Laguna Beach High School English teacher retires 

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

By Timothy Hessen, Special to the Independent

In the months before the pandemic, English teacher Dawn Hunnicutt accomplished her goal of launching a Creative Writing course 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 had students who said the workshop was the highlight of the pandemic, and I know that may be a low bar but I think it was really meaningful to the students,” Hunnicutt said. “I felt that it was my gift to the seniors who were going through so much because of the pandemic.”

Hunnicutt, an English teacher of nine years at Laguna Beach High School, has retired following the 2021-2022 school year. Hunnicutt taught several levels of English in her career, including 11th grade English, 10th grade English and 10th grade English 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 launch a Creative Writing course at LBHS, which received approval for UC academic credit in 2019. The focus of the course was to teach students how to write creatively through poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and playwriting.

“I knew the Laguna students were ready for it,” Hunnicutt said. “We have an incredible student body and I knew they would just soak it all up.”

Hunnicutt’s first year teaching the class coincided with the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the school and shifted the class over to online learning. However, Hunnicutt still managed to keep the course interactive for her students by having an online spoken word poetry workshop, led by prominent spoken word poets Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay.

Kay and Kaye are the co-directors of Project VOICE, a group that teams with schools to bring live performances of award-winning spoken poetry and poetry workshops to students. Project VOICE first interacted with LBHS students in the spring of 2020 with a live online performance for all students and the week-long workshop for the students in Hunnicut’s Creative Writing class, and did the same for the Creating Writing class in 2021.

Hunnicutt credits her ability to get her Creative Writing class and the workshop they did with Project VOICE approved to the flexibility of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

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

As Hunnicutt wraps up her teaching career, she predicts the rise of the use of technology in the classroom after years spent in online learning as something that will forever change how 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 spoke highly of Hunnicutt’s contributions to the school and the example she left for future staff.

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

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