University of South Carolina

20 to life: Alum helps jailed youth find their voices

By Peggy Binette,, 803-777-7704

For 16-year-old Brandon, life behind the razor wire at the Department of Juvenile Justice was characterized by isolation, loneliness and fear.

But thanks to English instructor Tim Bunch, Brandon found his voice through poetry. Bunch, who earned a master’s in secondary education at USC in 2005, has taught English and social studies and managed the Communities in Schools Program, a nonprofit partnership with juvenile justice, for 
20 years.

“I didn’t choose this career; it chose me. I was young and wanted to teach and make a difference. I just ended up behind the fence not realizing where I was. Now I am happily serving 20 to life.”

Tim Bunch

He credits a sociolinguistics course at USC and professor Tracey Weldon with changing his approach to teaching teens like Brandon.

“Tracey Weldon really challenged my thinking about language,” Bunch said. “Language connects us to family and culture. It isn’t about standard English or 
African-American English dialect — it is about both. Any dialect that is part of who you are needs to be honored.”

By respecting his students’ culture and experiences and creating a classroom environment that allows for standard and nonstandard 
English, Bunch has engaged students in positive ways. “It was amazing how they became more open,” Bunch said.

Brandon wrote a poem that expressed his feelings about a class study of Sharon Draper’s novel “Forged by Fire,” a story about a young boy’s struggles amid domestic abuse.

When Bunch told Brandon that his poem needed a revision, he said, the boy’s expression turned to defeat until Bunch explained that it was a sentence written in standard English that needed revision.

Bunch then gave Brandon a typed copy of his poem, which he said Brandon proudly clutched for the rest of the day.

“I have found that through writing what they know, it helps them to be trusting and become open so that life change can take place,” Bunch said. “My core belief is that we are all valuable human beings. These boys have done heinous things, but it doesn’t change their value.”

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Posted: 12/06/12 @ 9:00 AM | Updated: 02/26/13 @ 4:44 PM | Permalink