There's a radical - and wonderful - new idea here . . . that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people's ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world." - Deborah Meier, Educator





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Choices: Essays by Incarcerated Youth

by WKCD|August 28, 2014


Among the submissions for our "Stirred But Not Shaken" writing contest were twelve remarkable essays from youth at the Northern Viriginia Detention Center, passed on by their English teacher, Jonathan Jelliffe. The Center has a school so that youth don’t fall behind while they’re locked up, although some of the youth arrive as dropouts. Not surprisingly, it’s a difficult place to keep school. The youth, almost all male, ages 12 to 18, stay at the facility for two weeks to several months, although some remain for as long as six months. It's education on the fly.

Still, Jelliffe does all he can to bring words alive for his students. He makes sure that what they read and write is personal, that it’s connected to the hard lives and choices they experience daily. He keeps an eye out for contests and other incentives for his students, including chances to make their writing public.

We have compiled the essays Jelliffe’s students submitted to WKCD’s 2014 writing contest (they appear without author names at the request of the Northern Virginia Detention Center.) You can read them here. Below Jelliffe talks about why his students write and what they'd like us to know about them.


If you asked my students why they write, I think they would probably say it gives them the chance to share their lives. I'm always talking with them about writing as a form of personal expression. And so I think that a lot of them would probably say, though they may not used these words, that they write because “it's an opportunity for me to tell my story, to share my struggles and my challenges, to share my life.”

When they do a piece of writing, I always ask them to read it aloud and get feedback from other students. We try to stay positive in the critique we give. I tell them to find the positive first, to say to the writer what they've done well, and then make suggestions for how they can improve it. I caution them against tearing down the writing. It's a struggle to make sure the process doesn't become negative; negative is so much of what these youth know.

And when they write, I ask them to really focus on what they learned, to reflect on their experience. I tell them: “We're not just writing this stuff to say, ‘You know, here's what I did,’ and glorify the violence and glorify the negative here. We want to look at it carefully, we want to be able to say what we learned from the experience.”

What do these "at risk" youth want people to know about them? I think they would want people to know that life hasn't been easy for them. I think a lot of them would say, “I've made wrong choices. I've realized that.” Some of the ones that leave and return would say, “I just keep making these wrong choices. I know they're wrong choices, but this is my world. I don't really feel that I have opportunities.”

They'd want the world to know that they're not bad. They're looking for ways out, they've got good hearts, and they really want to do the right thing. They want to find success in life. They've made choices that have hurt them, but that shouldn't define them. I think a lot of them feel caught in a cycle, wishing a door would open for them, looking for a support system they don't have but desperately need, looking for adults who can help them make the right choices.