Growing Imagination in the Iowa Youth Writing Project

by Anne Easker

On Oct. 30, in a small art room at Longfellow Elementary in Iowa City, children run through the room, weaving around tables and making enough noise to fill the space.

“Do you want to hear a spooky story?” one of the writing club volunteers asks.

At her prompting, all the children come to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of her. As she starts to read, they grow quiet and lean toward her, eyes wide as she reads a story called “The Spooky Toe.”

When she finishes, one girl exclaims that it was “not even scary,” so the volunteer issues a challenge to the children to write their own scary stories. They spread out among the tables as the volunteers pass out paper, and the room stays quiet as they start to write.

The scene is typical of many programs run by the Iowa Youth Writing Project, a nonprofit outreach dedicated to inspiring Iowa’s children and teens through literacy and creative thinking.

Iowa City has long been a city that celebrates literature, from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the many author readings at Prairie Lights Bookstore and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. However, sometimes the intellectual level of literature seems daunting, as if creativity is limited to only the most sophisticated adults.

Lisa Roberts, an English professor for 18 years, moved to Iowa City in 2011 and got involved with the Iowa Youth Writing Project after deciding she wanted to reach younger kids before they’ve made up their minds about whether they are creative or not.

“By the time kids get to college, they already know what they want to do,” Roberts said. “They’ve already developed their ideas about if they are good at it [creative writing] or not.”

The project was founded by a group of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates in the summer of 2010. Dora Malech, ‘05 Writers’ Workshop graduate who got involved that first summer, said the group “felt that it was important for the literary culture of Iowa and Iowa City to be accessible to community members of all ages.”

The project started with six kids and a handful of volunteers and slowly began expanding its programming and volunteer base, as well as finding partners in the community, such as the Frank N. Magid Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Iowa. This partnership helps deepen the Iowa Youth Writing Project’s outreach efforts by bringing the resources of both the university and the community together to better the futures of Iowa’s youth.

Activities vary by age group. Typically, volunteers start off with an activity or game that will let the kids move and let out energy, such as Question Ball where they throw around a beach ball with questions written on it, and whoever catches it has to answer the question their right thumb lands on.

Dan DeMarco, one of the two intern coordinators, said he recently had the kids suggest the questions for one of these events and was surprised by the range and intensity of the questions they suggested.

“The questions range from crazy like, ‘Why are horses awesome?’ to ‘Do you really know who you are?’” said DeMarco. “They got really deep, and then they’d go back to, like, ‘Do you read on the toilet?’”

After the activity, groups get into more writing-focused exercises that range from activities with words to more story-based activities. DeMarco is currently leading a detective series, focusing on a different aspect of a mystery each week. One week the kids made up a detective character, then the crime, suspects, etc.

For younger children, programs often involve drawing, improvisation, music—anything that will allow them to think creatively.

IMG_1092Erin Marshall, another intern coordinator, volunteers at Pheasant Ridge Community Center and said she is impressed by how the kids often want to go above and beyond. While leading an activity where they were supposed to draw their favorite season, one girl asked if she could make a book.

“I was like, ‘Yes! I’m happy that you want to do more!’” Marshall said.

The program isn’t only focused on elementary students either. One of the programs with the most volunteers is at the John McDonald Residential Treatment Center in Monticello, working with at-risk teens in the correctional system. Lisa Roberts said, for these students, volunteers try to create activities that will provide a way in or a way out—a way to think about and process their lives or a way to escape to a new fantasy world they’ve created.

DSC00256One prompt that works well for this is the portal exercise, where a volunteer names an object in the room as a doorway to another place, and students write a story about going anywhere in time and space.

“Some of them go back to before they made a mistake that made them end up in the residential treatment center,” said Roberts. “I had one of them go back and say she would spend a day with her birth mother, talking about the movies they would watch together and how they would snuggle on the couch.”

“Others are just beautifully wacky and talk about this fantasy culture on a planet called XJ7 and how the people have five heads, and all this cool stuff,” Roberts added. “There’s just so much you can do with a good prompt like that.”

Of course, working with kids also comes with its challenges. For Roberts as an English professor, switching to elementary classrooms was a transition.

“In college if people are bored, generally they just tune out,” Roberts said. “With these kids, when they’re distracted or they feel like they can’t do it, they get loud and wild. That didn’t happen in a college classroom. You have to regroup quickly and pull out a bag of tricks. I literally have a bag of tricks.”

In Roberts’ bag, she keeps an array of interesting items like her daughter’s baby shoe, an ocean sponge, a whisk, and a Super Woman cup. She always takes out the Super Woman cup first and starts creating a story with it. Then she passes the bag around, and each kid takes out an item to continue the story.

Roberts said that overall the program is not about the quality of the kids’ writing or turning them into novelists. Instead, it’s simply about growing their imaginations.

“We’re not trying to make famous writers,” Roberts said. “If that happens, that’s amazing and wonderful, but what we’re hoping to do is give them the tools to think creatively and imaginatively about all of the challenges in their lives.”

“All sorts of different facets in your life are going to become stronger if you build your imagination,” Roberts added.

In addition to feeding the kids’ creativity, volunteers said the kids challenge convention within their own life and writing.

“They’ll come up with stuff that I honestly wish I could come up with,” DeMarco said. “We had them create a fantasy world one time. They were like, ‘All right, there’s three kinds of people in this world. There’s vampires, circle people, and werewolves.’ And then they start getting into this really in-depth political stuff about how they interact in the world.”

DeMarco has frequently found himself inspired by the kids more than by his own writing classes at the university.

“The undergrad program kind of sculpts writers to follow this one path, and I didn’t realize how bored I was with that until the kids came up with all these zany ideas,” DeMarco said. “They helped me with my own writing to not be so wrapped up in convention.”

It’s an idea that is being welcomed by groups locally and nationally. This summer, the project received a $20,000 grant from the Iowa Juvenile Home Board and another $5,000 from the Iowa Women’s Foundation.

The extra funds are allowing the project to spread across the state. Currently, there are nine different programs—six in the Iowa City area, two in the Cedar Rapids area, and one in Monticello. In the summer, they also run a program called Creative Ambassadors, where volunteers experienced with working locally will run workshops in their hometowns.

Lena Dunham Round Table 017In October, Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO television series Girls, worked with the Iowa Youth Writing Project to run a round table with students at Tate High School during her stop in Iowa City on the book tour for her recently released memoir. The volunteers are excited about the project’s growth and its implications.

“It’s showing that outside organizations love what we do, and they want to partner with us to support us helping kids grow their imaginations,” Roberts said.

Judging by the stories created at Longfellow Elementary, imaginations are certainly growing. While writing a scary story about a girl faking love for a boy in order to get his blood, second grader Olivia said her favorite thing about writing club is that she gets to write, and her favorite thing about writing is “that you get to make up stuff and create your own universe.”

Anne Easker, an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, wrote this piece as an assignment for one of her journalism classes. Thanks, Anne!

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