Unit Focus: The Boys of Unit J

The first time I walked into Unit J, I saw a few rows of boys with oversized sweatshirts draped over their shoulders sitting in front of a roll-away television. Some were squirming in their seats while others watched the screen attentively. Looking at my class roster, I saw a column of birth years that started after 2000. Their round faces reinforced the fact that the boys of Unit J are among the youngest juveniles incarcerated in Los Angeles County. They were about to be my first IOW students.
Accustomed to working with older youth on the outs, I brought in material that focused on self-reflection. After two unsuccessful lessons, I began to think the subject matter was “too deep” for them to grasp. Out of despair, I asked the boys what they were curious to learn. After a quiet pause, their hands shot into the air. As I took note, I realized how much I underestimated them. One boy wanted to learn more about animals and their ability to do things humans can’t, while another boy wanted to learn more about the latest tech gadgets. Hearing their diverse interests made me see their hunger to learn and the magnitude of their imagination. Their growing minds called for a different approach.
The next week we worked on creating our own superheroes. As the writing exercise progressed, the boys revealed themselves through their heroes. One of the boys, who had been disrespectful to his peers the previous week, revealed his hero’s weakness was negative thoughts; another boy stated not having love was his hero’s kryptonite. As they shared more about the heroes they had created, I realized that my role was to be their student. Only by allowing them to teach me could I be an effective teacher.

-Mindy Velasco

Mindy Velasco Mindy Velasco is IOW’s Writing Program Coordinator. A graduate of UCLA, she majored in Sociology with minors in Urban and Regional Studies and Women’s Studies. She has previously worked with youth in creative expression-centered school programs and taught writing to incarcerated youth. Mindy frequently serves as a substitute teacher for IOW classes.