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Freedom Through Expression

Susan Notes: Although education should be for everybody and not just those with academic potential (how do you know what potential is if young people are never given the opportunity?), I applaud this program for one thing: The teacher gives students leather-bound journals like his own. A teacher who offers this to students gets my vote of confidence.

Do you know how good a leather-bound journal feels in your hands? And in your soul? I don't care what other details about this program might make me wince, those leather-bound journals are important.

COLUMBIA, S.C. The grounds of the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice are ringed by a towering razor wire fence, an imposing reminder of everything its young inmates don't have. But inside English teacher Timothy Bunch's classroom, the focus is on all that they do. A rainbow-colored poster sums it up: "Attitude is the mind's paintbrush. It can color any situation."

On a dreary Monday morning, Bunch opens class by reading from Shakespeare: "Blow, blow, thou winter wind/Thou art not so unkind/As man's ingratitude." After discussing the verse and reading a poem of his own about ingratitude, Bunch has the students, dressed in yellow T-shirts and ash sweatshirts, write in their journals about what they are grateful for.

Bunch, 45, is program coordinator of a two-room schoolhouse founded through a partnership between Communities in Schools, a non-profit stay-in-school network, and the state juvenile justice system. Started in 1991 for incarcerated teen boys with academic potential, this academy-model program, also called Communities in Schools, has an enviable record. Its 24 or so students gain an average of 2.3 years in English and 2.1 years in math each year. Its recommitment rate, or the percentage of students who end up reincarcerated, is just 35%.

Bunch has been lead teacher at CIS for a decade and is the heart of the program, which includes one math teacher and a part-time social studies teacher. "They trust him. Here they will make trouble for other teachers, but they will not mess with Mr. Bunch," says Laura Miller, CIS site coordinator.

A lean, gentle-voiced Southerner, Bunch doesn't intimidate, never swears and only rarely raises his voice. Just 5-foot-10, he commands respect with compassion. Though his students know he'll enforce the strict rules that govern DJJ's behavior and rewards system, they also know, deep down, that he cares about them.

In some cases, Bunch is the first person outside the students' immediate families to make that connection, says Andy Broughton, who coordinates the Insiders, a public-speaking program for crime prevention. Bunch founded the program in which CIS students travel to schools to share their stories as cautionary tales. "So they're willing to work their behinds off in his class, because they don't want to let him down."

Bunch simply tries to reach his students where they are. "My kids are at-risk in every sense of the word they're beyond at-risk," he says. "It's valuing them and getting them to understand their lives are valuable."

Some students have veneers so thick Bunch never gets through. He has been threatened and once was even assaulted by a student. But Bunch believes teaching is what he was meant to do, and he says any personal struggles he faces give him more compassion for others.

"I believe I am called to teach, from a spiritual standpoint as well as a professional standpoint. I think like a teacher; everything is a lesson. I want kids to love learning as much as I do."

A poet who models his writing class on the Midlands Writers Workshop he attended, Bunch uses writing to reach students, intertwining the processes of confronting themselves and finding their voices. Providing students with leather-bound journals like his own, Bunch writes when he asks them to write, creating an environment where they feel confident to write honestly and share their works aloud.

While remaining professional, Bunch strives for honesty with his students. "The more open I am, the more open they are," he says. "You begin wherever they are, and you do the best you can. When there are teachable moments, you jump on them and teach them about life."

Bunch takes the big issues head on. In one project, he had students write in response to Holocaust films, including Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful.

"Every one of those kids has been victimized on some level," Bunch says, and their poems spanned topics of empathy, remorse and victimization, racism and prejudice, mercy and compassion. Making decisions, hurting people and leaving scars were all matters of intense personal reflection.

Through teaching, Bunch emphasizes not who his kids are but who, each day, they are choosing to become.

"He's like a conscience," says David Brown, 17. "I relearned an issue, that life is not fair." Brown is quick to quote one of Bunch's oft-repeated sayings: "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond."

— Tracey Wong Briggs
USA Today


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