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Letter-Writing Workshop for Children of Incarcerated Parents

In my final semester at The Cooper Union, I took a course titled "Teaching as a Social Practice" taught by Omar Olivera. For my final project, I made a proposal for a letter-writing workshop for children of incarcerated parents. I myself was a child of an incarcerated parent, my own father having been in and out of prison until I was about 17. (I'm happy to report that he is five years clean at the time of writing and doing amazing service work for young men living with addiction.) Although we live in different states, we have a close personal relationship and are able to talk any time on the phone. But for many years, our forms of communication were limited to hand-written letters and phone calls interrupted by messages reminding us both of his confinement (messages like "You are receiving a phone call from a inmate at ___," and "You have five minutes remaining").

When critically examining my work as an educator for this class, I tried to mine my own childhood for things that could be of use to children now. I remembered my experience of writing letters to my dad and thought it presented a unique workshop opportunity for kids in similar situations. Although I planned this activity especially for kids with incarcerated family members, letter-writing can be a beautiful way for people to connect across distance of any kind. Separated from my partner for months at a time during the pandemic, I took up letter-writing again and remembered how touching it is to receive something so tenderly made by hand. Currently, this is only a proposal, but I would love to conduct this workshop with kids at some point.

Here's how it would go:

Because I'm a big children's book nerd, and think story-telling is generally a good way to introduce a topic, I would start by reading Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson's new book Milo Imagines the World aloud. The story follows a boy named Milo on his journey to visit his mother in prison. Along the way, Milo makes drawings for his mother of all the people he sees and the lives he imagines them living.

Then, I would share some photos of letters my father has sent me over the years, speaking a bit to my own experience with letter-writing. For years at a time, I knew my father through these letters, and it's clear he put a lot of effort into them (some drawings are by him, some by other inmates). Although I don't have the letters I sent him, I noticed that he asked me a lot of questions about day-to-day life in his letters ("Are you still in gymnastics? If so can you flip yet," "How's school? Is everything going ok? Are you getting good grades?"). As someone who was missing out on life's mundane moments with me, I imagine those details were especially interesting to him. I would have kids consider those details when writing their own letters.

As a child, I didn't understand that my father was an addict, and could be uncompassionate when he returned to prison after promising not to. It's clear from this letter that I lashed out about that. But I still share this one because it hints at the fact that I made little games for him to play. I remember drawing mazes and puzzles, which he clearly appreciated. I might also suggest kids include things like that in their letters.

It's always awesome to receive a drawing from a loved one, so that's an idea too.

Another idea: writing a poem or song! In this case, my dad wrote me a rap.

Finally, kids would have the opportunity to write/draw their own letters to an incarcerated or long-distance loved one. Depending on the age and letter-writing experience of the participants, it might be helpful to break things down step-by-step and provide a clear framework like this:

Beginning Letters (3 minutes):

To begin, participants will be asked to select a paper for their letter, then write the date in the top right-hand corner of their papers. Then, they will be instructed to begin their letter with “Dear ___,”

Brainstorming (2 minutes):

Activity leader will ask all participants to get as quiet as they can so that everyone can think clearly. Then, they will be instructed to close their eyes and think about what they would like to tell their parent/family member about in this letter. Activity leader can prompt them with guiding questions like:

What have you been doing in school?

What have you been doing for fun?

How are your other family members doing (parent, siblings, etc.)?

Do you have a story you want to tell this person?

What do you want to ask them?

Body of letters (15 minutes):

Participants will write the body of their letters. When you're incarcerated, you miss out on everyday things. Therefore, participants will be encouraged to tell their parent/family member about the things they’ve been doing day-to-day, and anything else that might be on their minds.

Finishing Letters (2 minutes):

Finally, participants will be instructed to sign their letters with “Love, ___.”

Optional - Drawing time! (10 minutes):

Participants will be given supplies to elaborate on their letters with drawings. These can be done on the borders of their letters, or included on separate sheets of paper.

Folding Letters (3 minutes):

Participants will be instructed to fold their letters so that they can fit into the envelopes.

Placing Stamps, Sealing Letters (5 minutes):

Participants will be instructed to seal their letters. Then, they will be instructed to select and place their stamp in the top right corner on the back of the envelope. Parents or guardians can assist with addressing and mailing the letters.

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