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.
Registration will open a few weeks in advance to initiative launch
valued objects and qualities that have been passed down from previous generations
(including traditions, languages, personal objects or buildings)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note: Slides are in google format, but can be downloaded in .ppt. All slides for days 1-7 are included. 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.
(This poster was designed by a student at a youth facility in Nebraska)
Live webinar will be scheduled in the end of March
Words Unlocked Features
Listen to our 2021 Words Unlocked Podcast:
In 2016 a podcast was made by students participating in Words Unlocked:
In 2014, winners from our competition were featured on NPR:
(includes links to listen to several poems)
Wyoming Girls School, WY
footprints dug through the snow
curtains twisted to the side
mud on the dreary ledge
the last few hours a fathomless fuzz
you could do more
you need more, experience is lively
i look up
i see beams in gloom and boredom
isolated from pure things in life
rays show themselves out the strange window
gliding their path to distaste in society
blood reveals itself like string from my torn neck
red smears stains on my chest and thighs
crusted, like a bygone pallet
muscular musty stench of cigarettes and atrocity
my nose filled with fraud
pain tangles with me in torn sheets
keeping me company as silence fills my lungs and throat
where holes are formed and kept
empty pit, hostage
when will this end ?
doesn't a window symbolize freedom ?
artificial light becomes my home
remorse files around me like a bubble
wherever i turn
ghosts follow from the past
i open my eyes
another sip, another drag
my nose suffocated from a peculiar dust
devouring every memory
consciousness can’t speak for itself
whatever happened, didn't
i know where my body is now
but where is my mind ?
i open the curtains
i feel the sun i've known
rebirth upon my dull face
i feel my body
i feel my soul
my mind speaks clearly
i experience cleanliness
but there is no cure
there is no sudden restoration of mind and body
there is time, there is feeling,
there is healing
every hour, every day
remedy for a broken soul
i am becoming restored
Rising From the Ashes
Ashes dance within the howling air
Twisting boldly to express their feelings.
Ashes, for me. These are parts of myself that I have shed
As if I’ve outgrown my very own skin.
Parts of me that no longer exist inside myself,
Which leaves me searching all over for something I cannot have
Because it’s outside of my reach.
Still, I reach blindly, only to fall from my instability.
Bewildered, abashed, not understanding but also not willing to see,
Remembering days when I was naive,
Molding memories that made me want to hide inside myself forever.
Looking at the world through the eyes of self-pity and insecurity,
The lens through which I perceive and view is immensely dull,
Stimulating feelings of inadequacy,
Finding a source outside of myself to blame,
Because there are pieces of me that I cannot express freely.
Like the symphonious cry of the Phoenix,
The tears I shed release pain that needs to be healed
As time wears on, I decide, in my mind, that I don’t want to feel confined.
I want to feel humble, free, and at peace with the war I modulated inside of me
For the lack of control I felt with circumstances that I once faced.
So I learn to accept myself for who I am, and the things I cannot change,
While changing the things I can.
The ashes transfigure from the parts of me that were sacrificed.
The ashes rise and form a variation of myself that I did not fathom possible.
A new me, a new hope, a new beginning,
Created from the sheddings of my old self, purified anew.
The ashes, the broken segments of me that rest apart from my consciousness
Ascend into the sky, fusing together to assemble a version of myself
That has been redeemed of all regret and sorrow.
A version of myself that now possesses strength and wisdom,
A divine masterpiece, rather, me, who can be solely at ease,
Even when challenges face me.
Not in the past or future,
But in the moment of my rebirth.
The Phoenix soars high in the sky,
Overlooking the masses that gaze upward,
Accepting both the sophistication and influence it presents,
Enraptured by the resilience and wisdom they feel in their subconscious,
And the beauty they see before their eyes.
The Phoenix is preeminent in the realm of spirituality, harmony, and peace.
Possessing the essence of balance,
An element that has ascendancy in our lives as we experience it.
The Phoenix cries out, releasing agony through tears
Healing itself and others with its own process,
A continuance of healing.
The Phoenix ascends high in the sky,
But never repeating
What once was.
New Bridge High School, OR
As a kid I was misguided
Dad left me
But why did I care
Mom never cared
So I left her
13 different schools in 8 different years
Too smart for my grade, but too stupid to see
See what and where my actions would bring me
Kids killing kids you got to be kidding me
A picture of violence gets a new shade darker every day
So I picture myself in a box unfamiliar shirts around me
Shirts of blue surround me
Shirts of grey define me
And I’m scared I try to do good but somethings growing in me
A darkness like I’m a blind mind with no sight
And a year
It’s a long time to not make a mistake
So it feels like everything I do is a mistake
I guess that’s why sometimes it feels like I’m drowning in a lake
Deep breaths they say
But how do you breathe with a force of a guilt measured by years on you
A door shut
A lighting strike
It’s all about perception
In a year my perception changed from gunshots to doors locked
But I try to will them open
I try to will a different perception
And that’s how I know these unfamiliar shirts around me are my family
So I try to be familiar with family
So one day
These Blue shirts wont surround me
The Renewal of Me
Dorothy Kirby, CA
Can’t you see the smile in me?
My time ~ I feel free!
The brightness, the light in my eyes.
I’m happy. It is Spring.
See fit too fond of folly.
I’m not sad anymore. It’s the rebirth of me.
The freshness of my mind to begin again.
I planted a seed in my mind.
To feel free again.
To God, he and I have come to an amends.
The renewal of my heart.
It shall never turn cool again.
I’m a Black girl, African American.
Rape, Pain, Heartache…still, I have faith.
I am renewed.
Life has improved.
Growing from a seed that Spring has helped blossom.
I am fresh and new.
The old pain and sorrow will not be missed.
I’m ready to live…
ready for others
ready to co-exist.
Durango Transitional Center, AZ
Durango Transitional Center, AZ
Okaloosa Academy DJJ, FL
Woodfield Academy, NY
New Bridge High School, OR
Slate Canyon School, UT
*click on the titles to view the poems
Story of All Stories
By A. Vaughn.
Hogan School, MO
A boy hard but unknown like a forgotten book
Judged by the skin that covers his body
Instead of the knowledge he holds deep inside
The book is cherished by crimes and built in pain
From only fifteen pages of his story
The book is left in the trash for its dangerous chapters
Surrounded by several books with different covers but equal stories
So who is he to judge the others
Who is he to determine the next books chapter
Or how another books story should, could, or would end
Some books descendent from slaves
Others descendent from masters
Brave ones sacrifice their ending for a new story on a better shelf
For opportunities and a chance to be read
Peace will help write new chapters for better endings
If each book respect and embrace one another covers and stories
Forgive the past endings and history
Each book has their own dreams and journeys awaiting
As well as problems and challenges to face
Why not give the helping hand that is desperately needed
Why not love more than hate
Books that were trash are now treasure
Books that were treasure are now trash
But they will always have their forgotten stories
The cover is only temporary
The pages and chapters are forever
Second Place (tied)
No Love Lost
By Heaven A.
Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, TX
The door was locked
Resident around me flocked
Sedated and blocked
Looking lowly and largely for a leap to the free
Livid lost and surrounded by leery folks
Furious frantic ferocious fellows
Careless carefree cherry tossing items at me
Her delicate touch cherished
She the candle of my life
Her love wider than the ocean
Know future lies around her.
If so, why am I here?
Life is feather
Flew folks to unknown territories
Forced to align to foreign treaties
Focused on connecting to trajectories
To land on freedom island
To feel heavenly pleasure
Because of the full treasure
That no one can measure
Second Place (tied)
Morton School, NE
I walk, hearing the running water upon the land
Lives disappear behind old oak trees, reaching high above me
Where they’re no longer visible to the human eye
Studying the life that wanders the forest where I now lurk,
I look high and low for the creatures who still roam
Near the treetops and rivers and ponds
In the forest, I wander
By B. Collins
Bootcamp Perrin, TX
Our life is like a circle.
Going round and round.
Just waiting for a miracle
Listening closely for a different sound
Waiting for somewhere to go
Because we simply don’t know
Existing together as one.
Fighting a battle, we haven’t won.
Our life isn’t full of fun and joy.
It feels more like 50 people trying to share one toy.
This is not a place full of glee.
People don’t know what I’m going through unless those people are me.
But in the end we are still here.
We know everything even their fears.
Though they know what makes me cry
The fear we all have of saying goodbye.
In the end when we get out
Going home without a doubt
Will it be ok for me to cry?
Can I finally ask the real question of Why?
But when you leave don’t trip, don’t fall.
Because maybe life isn’t a circle after all…
Where I'm From
By Samuel B.
Elkins Mountain School, WV
I was raised on the wrong sides of town.
I was raised where kids cannot play on playgrounds.
People in my city cannot coexist.
People on my community do as they wish.
A place where you cannot walk around.
Without wondering if you are going to be gunned down.
A place where some try to make it out.
But as a young kid they strike you down.
As mothers are weeping.
Suspects are still creeping about.
Waiting for a victim ready to pounce.
As a community we choose to deny the truth.
From a single shot from a gun.
“Bang” there goes our youth.
By H. Gutierrez
Crestview Youth Academy, FL
The view of this cold world is tragic
Where young kids kill people with automatic
God where you at so you can stop this madness
So funeral home don’t run out of caskets
People can’t speak of what they see
If they do, they rest in peace
Government officials discriminate how we livin
They don’t help us with welfare, so why they trippin
They change our hood with gentrification
Without having a say and bringing frustration
We need peace and love and coexistence
Don’t matter what color it is there should be no difference
Our brothers and sisters can’t walk alone
Some have the mindset; they won’t make it back home
Police judge us by look and style
Don’t matter if your adult or child
They beat us and treat us unfairly
Because they work for the government and the badge they carry
The United States says we have rights
Y’all tell me, if it is truth or lies?
I’m Hispanic, he’s Black, you’re white,
As a family, We Should Unite!
BreakFree Choice Award
Sweet Home Los Angeles
Dorothy Kirby, CA
In LA where people die every day.
Coexistence is a struggle.
For my brown and black brothers- it’s a rumble.
Out here your color will get you killed.
And to some people this is a thrill.
In this place we call home we just tryin’ to coexist.
But what does this mean?
It means embracing the struggle,
And fixing the rumbles.
We coexist through love, unity, and strength
No keepin’ each other at arm’s length
So that we all can live another day
And co-exist in this place we call LA.
Breaking My Mother's Addiction
Granite YES School, UT
What I know for sure is that my mother
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
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
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
Now that I’ve grown up a lot, I’ve come to realize
that I want to love my mother from
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
her addiction won’t last forever.
Second Place (tied)
The Drug In Me
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)
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!
Nancy B. Jefferson High School, IL
where fear is non-existent.
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.