AWP Service Project: Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop

The AWP conference was a whirlwind of panels and readings and networking, but what really stood out was this service project at the book fair.  Free Minds Book Club, a DC organization dedicated to teaching and empowering incarcerated DC youth, brought in a workshop's worth of poems from youth in adult prisons.  

Conference attendees were prompted to respond with encouraging handwritten feedback, and in the process, read some great poetry from young voices who need to be heard. I also thought the blue handout pictured above gave some great tips on how to give useful, lasting feedback to young writers. This was a fantastic idea for a project, and an activity we're absolutely considering for our next event in April.  Stay tuned for more info!

For more information about Free Minds Book Club, check out their website at

Autobiography in the Making

This semester I decided to center our class around the theme of autobiography.  I've been bringing in different examples of autobiographical work that include short stories, poems, and excerpts from full-length books. One of my students, I'll call him D, was immediately engaged at the thought of writing his own autobiography.  The very first class, he opened his notebook and started writing pages of work, all while participating in discussion and reading the texts that day.

D has always been an amazing student.  He loves to read aloud, share his work with others, and participates beyond expectations with all of my writing assignments.  Sixteen years old, people!  All of this, dealing with the everyday distractions you might expect with a high school class in an adult jail.  

We're four weeks in, and yesterday, D approached me with 25 pages of writing, filled with stories from his childhood.  It's been such a pleasure having him in class, and reading his work was probably the most rewarding experience I've had so far teaching in this program. I've already bragged about his work with my peers and friends, but I thought i'd share the title page with you all, complete with a self-drawn cover!  I can't wait to see what comes next from D.  If it's another 25 pages, then we've got a serious book in the making!

Thanks for reading.  I'll be sure to keep updating the blog with progress from D, along with work from my other amazing and talented students.  

Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teaching Artist



The Black Boy and the Bullet

Today at ACJ I brought in a few of Danez Smith's poems for the kids to read. They really enjoyed "Boyz in the Hood 2" and "Juxtaposing the Black Boy and the Bullet." They argued over whether they were faster than bullets.  They wondered if bullets really lived their lives in a flash. We talked about metaphors and allusions and how powerful an image can be. It seems as though every time I try to get a message through to them about signifiers in poetry, these kids already know it better than I do.  

After reading "Boyz in the Hood 2," one kid paused and told us that in two years, he would just be a memory.  When I asked him what he meant, he told me he was worried his family and friends would forget about him if he was locked up. This was the first time he really shared openly in class, and I was devastated to hear that he felt this way.  We told him that we wouldn't forget about him.  That he should keep writing and sharing and that way no one could forget about him. No child should have these worries so early in their life.    

Last week I gave one of my students The Autobiography of Malcolm X and he reported back to me that he's already more than halfway through the book. That's 200-something pages!  He told me it's way better than the movie, and it seems like a very accurate representation of his struggle. He wants to go to Mecca.  He really just wanted to get back to the pod to read some more of the book.  Kristine told me she's going to try to get a class set and have everyone read the book. I was so excited at the prospect of this group of kids all learning the story of Malcolm X.  I'm really looking forward to what might come of this. Every week is a new adventure.

-Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teaching Artist



Our Self-Made Jails: Reflections on a Teaching and Anxiety

         During the first two weeks of class, I’ve been thinking about jails into which I choose to put myself. Are there things in my life that act like a jail even though I’m not physically in one? I’ve come to conclude that my own fears, worries, and hurt keep me in these jails. I worry a lot about what people will think of me. Will I say or do something wrong? Will they not like me? Will I not fit in or be included? Will I make a mistake or hurt someone? These fears often keep me at home or keep me from saying/doing anything at all. And staying in isolation is something that I choose because it’s easier. All the anxiety created by my fear disappears. At times it is better to live in my own cage, than to have fear in my life.

          I told these things to one of my friends. She said that she sees people every day who are smart, beautiful, and kind. They have the same fears – the same self-made jails. She also said that she wished that these people could see themselves through her eyes so that they would know that they are smart and kind. Hearing this helped me. It let me know that someone outside of my jail cared. And it made me want to step out of the cage I had created. I thought about this, and I decided that one important job that teachers have is to let students see themselves through the eyes of the teacher. Perhaps this is the key to having a successful class at ACJ, a class which continues to influence students as they move beyond the jail and perhaps keeps them from coming back.

Kellyn Yoder, Words Without Walls Teaching Artist

"The Power of a Felony"

Every Monday afternoon, I teach a group of kids at the Allegheny County Jail.  Termed "juveniles" at the jail, they have a separate pod than the adult population, but are still awaiting trial as adults.  Each kid is energetic, creative, and intelligent in his own way.  One student, Kenny, is somewhat shy in class, but at the end of last semester, he handed me a book's worth of poems scribbled on yellow composition paper for me to type.  I was very impressed with his work, and honored that he wanted to share them with me.  Today, I asked him if he wouldn't mind me posting a poem or two on the blog, and he barely hesitated to say I should post "The Power of a Felony."  Without further ado:

The Power of a Felony

Just brainstorming all the wrong I did in my life, and barely did anything nice, and mentally I’m broke, I can’t pay the price.  That’s why I keep a mask on with a smile, ‘cause showing my true feelings isn’t allowed in this situation by myself. 

No COD’s to roll with me cuz I’m my own hope man.

In this cold cell thinking about what this man dressed in black is going to say to me?  Wonder if he’s going to say screw me and throw away my freedom key?!

How is a man responsible for how many years another man do? 

But never took one step in that man’s shoes?

Why are reporters so quick to make you look like an animal in newspapers or on the news?

More money?  More views?  I don’t have a clue. 

And unfortunately that picture that painted about you sticks like glue—eww.

They painted a picture that made you look like you belonged in the zoo.

And to make matters worse your record follows you too and people are more likely not to hire you,

even though you have kids to feed and turned your life around and you’re trying to do good deeds but they ain't trying to hire you ‘cause you have a felony. 

Now how you going to feed your kids?  Rob a bank?

Without harming anyone but that’s not how the man in black is going to think!