Words Unlocked

Words Unlocked is a month-long initiative that includes a seven-day structured poetry curriculum. Our practitioner-ready curricular materials, which include additional optional lessons, culminate with a nationwide competition for poetic works.

Far too many young people are locked up around the country. Through this initiative, we continue to ensure that their words are not.

2021 Theme



Existing together and at the same time; living in peace with each other. The strength of human bonds, across different backgrounds and divides, is powerful.  While we cannot choose whether or not to live with others, we can choose how we want to do so. When we embrace tolerance, respect, and forgiveness, when we focus our relationships on shared meaning, we find success.  

Teacher Resources

The semi-structured curriculum below is ready to be customized by teachers.  We have provided a suggested calendar that includes curriculum for 7 days and leaves the remainder of the month open for optional lessons and the creation, revision, and selection of poetic works for school-wide contests and anthology creation.

Adjusting to meet your students' needs is strongly encouraged.

*If you need the daily handouts in pdf format, please email us at initiatives@breakfree-ed.org

Please note: Slides are in google format, but can be downloaded in .ppt. All slides for days 1-7 are included here. All materials or handouts referenced are linked to in the individual google slides or teacher notes accompanying the slides.  To download the slides as Microsoft PPT, click here.

We have optional lessons that can be used in addition to our structured 7-day curriculum.  These include lessons on poem structure, rhyme scheme, elegies, odes, concrete poems, and an additional lesson on metaphors and similes. .ppt available here.

Below are two posters that may be printed and shared in schools and classrooms to build excitement.

Poster 1


(This poster was designed by a student at a youth facility in Nebraska)

Poster 2 

Coming soon!

Please be sure to use the submission template

2021 Calendar

Please note, the lesson days can be customized to best fit your school schedule.

Words Unlocked 2021 Calendar (2).png

Words Unlocked Features

In 2014, winners from our competition were featured on NPR:

Poetry Behind Bars: The Lines That Save Lives — Sometimes Literally 

(includes links to listen to several poems)

Words Unlocked Free Voices Of Young Offenders

In 2016 a podcast was made by students participating in Words Unlocked:

Listen to the Podcast

2019 Winners

First Place


Breaking My Mother's Addiction 

By D.A.C.

Granite YES School, UT


What I know for sure is that my mother

loves me,

but her addiction might be forever.

What I know for sure is the sun

will come up tomorrow,

people will die, and life will keep

moving on.

I know that life is hard sometimes,

and some days I won’t want to get up.

A child of an addict craving my mothers’ love,

it makes my heart sick.

What I know for sure is I made a little girl

of my own.

I know I don’t want to cause the same

pain I felt

to my daughter in her life.

What I know for sure is I love

my daughter

with my whole heart.

Running away will never work.

A mother cannot run away.

It only causes more pain.

I also know forgiving my mother and then myself

might take a long time,

but in the end, I need to remember

my mother did, still does, and always will

love me.

Now that I’ve grown up a lot, I’ve come to realize

that I want to love my mother from


a distance.

I know that I can show my daughter that

I love her in a different way.

What I know for sure is I will

break the cycle of drug addiction.

My mother loves me, and because of me,

her addiction won’t be forever,

and the sun will come up tomorrow.

I know if I break the cycle, then

through me,

her addiction won’t last forever.

Second Place (tied)


The Drug In Me

By McKenzie

Juniper Hills HS, ID


I am white and crystalized,

My world is through the eyes of people that see dark skies,

I take him or her through it all, I am running through the veins when they overdose and fall,

I love the addicts who come back for more,

I get inside little girls and close the door,

I don’t want to be me but I’m too scared to die,

I can see everyone lie, I watch men rape girls and sell me,

I am hard to make so they pay their fee,

I see the men who think their able to treat them and me this way,

I know it’s all because they shoot me into their bodies every day,

My name is tweak but the guys with the flashing lights call me methamphetamine,

Why live when people only want you to use,

I want to win but they always get caught and I lose,

I always end up taking a family away,

Why can’t they just love me without all these prices to pay?

I don’t want you to be addicted I just want you to want more,

That is who I am, I’m rotten to the core.

I know you heard about tweak but let me tell you about me,

Paranoia taken over my mind,

Needed to get away,

I hid the side of me I didn’t want them to find,

I belong to the game, the game that you don’t want to play,

Where big guys make you take your clothes off,

Hands sliding down,

Needles entering them just to feel that cough,

The big man won’t sell me anymore,

He doesn’t allow anyone else to touch me,

He is what I am for,

Padlocks on the windows and of course they locked me inside,

He put his hands around my neck,

I screamed and he said don’t worry it’ll be alright,

He said I just want to show you what it feels like,

I let him of course, Ride me like a bike,

He let me go in hopes I would come right back,

I ran as fast as I could,

I hid in someone’s backyard and that’s when I heard the pack,

The sound of their heavy breathing finally stopped,

I ran out because I thought they had left,

They grabbed me in an instant,

I went back and he shoved me full of meth,

The man who did this to me for months was never far away,

I got pregnant and that was it he was going to be a daddy now,

He got really mad one night and kicked me, I started to cry and held my side,

The baby was gone it died,

I got away to get pregnancy tests without him knowing,

He searched for me scared I might not come back,

The cops found me and wouldn’t let me go,

They found the drugs in a house raid,

I hope this will change some way,

This is happening behind closed doors every day.



Second Place (tied)


By Anthony

Pinellas Juvenile Detention Center, FL


I’m locked up, choked, covered, and tied by iron and steel chains,

Chains that cannot be fought by strength but by brains,

These chains have bound around my body, mind and soul,

Two-to-three years of my growing adolescence have they stole,

Too many times have I had these metal snakes biting into my skin,

Sharp teeth digging at my wrists and ankles digging deeper within.


Too many times I seen another like myself having turned and made mistakes,

Wishing they could go back and change their ways,

Looking for someone else to blame and who should pay,

I remember when I was that same way a few years remain.


But, I understand I’m riding this road alone; if want to pass their will be a toll,

Luckily for me, I’ll soon be home and free,

But many others are not able to say the same,

Some have chosen to stick to this life and claim it for themselves to be,

Others plead and cry and hate themselves for joining their friend’s stupid “game”.


One mistake will change a life more than they may think,

Our choices will lead you down paths and roads you will either love or hate,

Only very few make it out without being pushed to the brink,

I hope my words have gotten through to help, before it’s too late!


Third Place


Astral Plane

By Jahamahn

Nancy B. Jefferson High School, IL


A place,

where fear is non-existent.

A place,

where you’re not forced to move decisions.

It’s the same place

where no sane man is a citizen;

it’s the same place,

for me to go visiting,

my grasp on

reality must be slipping.

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