Chicago Public Schools and the Importance of Programs Like IYWP

By IYWP intern Megan Wynn


I decided that I wanted to become a part of the Iowa Youth Writing Project because I understood the importance of writing for young people in order to find their voices. When I tell people about my internship with the IYWP and explain to them what IYWP is, I consistently get the same reactions. People never think about the importance of writing for youths and the impact writing has on the ability of young people to express themselves. They always see the importance of a program like the IYWP once I explain it, but I think many people in their own lives don’t truly recognize the power of the arts and the communication and expression that the skills of reading and writing provide. Only when it is not available to them do they notice its impact.

Upon becoming a part of IYWP I’ve heard so many pieces written by kids that are absolutely moving. It’s truly incredible what these kids have to share. I feel as though I could learn from their perspectives on the world. Kids are empowered when they are given the outlet to express their unique thoughts and creative ideas. Many youths don’t have an outlet for creative expression and sometimes never will. My sister Kate and I talked about this over break.

My sister is a twenty-two-year-old English and Social Studies middle school teacher in the Chicago Public School system. Her particular school is struggling to stay afloat.

Kate has dreamed of being a CPS teacher for as long as I can remember. From a very young age we would play “school” and she was always the teacher and my other sister and I were her students. Living in the suburbs of Chicago Kate discovered the unfair differences between the schooling of inner-city kids and her own education, and she became obsessed by the idea that she was going to make a difference as a teacher one day. Kate did some student teaching in Albany Park during college, but the school she has worked at now for a few months has changed her.

Over break she told me about the possibility of her school closing. She told me that the building itself was falling apart, kids were failing standardized tests, and her classes were huge with over thirty-five students. She told me that it was hard to keep all of the students motivated and that some would just put their heads on the desk and not speak to her. She has had to fail a few of her students. Teachers in the past wouldn’t know what to do so they would give them all As and this caused students to struggle even more later. “It sets them up for failure because it never gives them the chance to catch up to their peers.”

“One of the bigger problems is that all of my students are at different levels of learning.” Some of her eighth graders can hardly read, but most are at a fourth-grade level. “It makes it incredibly hard to choose what material to use or go over.” Another huge issue is that a lot of the students do not speak English. “A few of my kids are coming from different countries, most are Spanish speakers, but some speak Gujarati, and some of them are from Haiti. We don’t have the language support needed for many of our students. Plus, many of these countries do not encourage education so it’s really hard to gage where students are at.” She told me that CPS schools just don’t have the money to give students the individual resources they need.

So far, Kate’s experience with CPS schools has been very discouraging for her. Although, she told me that there are some movements towards change and the recognition of each individual student and their needs. There is after school tutoring available where all the teachers stay a few hours after school to help students with their homework, and they are implementing talking circles during the students’ advisory periods where students and teachers can take the time to discuss issues in the school. “It’s great in theory, but advisory periods are only fifteen minutes and the first thing in the morning so many students show up late and miss it or don’t really settle down until it’s over.” My sister finds the tutoring offered after school is the most beneficial. “I can sit down individually with students and help them with any problems they’re having.”

I told her about the IYWP here in Iowa City and how we aim to give kids that individual attention and encourage them to think creatively. She thought IYWP and programs like it would be helpful in giving these kids voices. “Some of them don’t have the best home environments so giving kids a time or place to learn how to read and write and express their creative ideas would be incredibly beneficial.” Programs like IYWP could give the individual attention kids need and cater to their reading and writing levels. Writing is a powerful tool in expressing oneself and because of the CPS system many students don’t ever get to attain the power to create. My sister worries about her students moving on to high school because for any of the better high schools, students have to apply. She knows that many of her students will be stuck at high schools that cannot provide for their needs and she fears that they will always be fighting to catch up and might not.

My sister struggles to make a difference at her school because the problems in CPS schools are way larger than she could ever imagine. “The CPS system is corrupt far beyond what I ever thought.” Students should not have to suffer from it, though. They should be able to depend on their public school system to be able to give them their education. Many CPS students are growing up in poverty and their education is what they have to pull themselves out of it.

IYWP has not only encouraged creative writing for the youths of Iowa City but has also impacted many lives of the community. I hope that IYWP and programs like it continue to grow and multiply in order to reach all of the kids that could really benefit from what they have to offer. It is so very important what the IYWP does and strives to do. Everyone deserves the ability to express themselves and to use writing as an outlet to do so.


Prairie Lights Reading Recap

IMG_5809As the new year approaches, we are taking a look back at some of the amazing events the Iowa Youth Writing Project has held this year. One such event is the annual Prairie Lights Reading. The IYWP holds a reading at the Prairie Lights Bookstore, in which kids from every single weekly site get to stand up at the podium and share some of the work they’ve created during an IYWP workshop. The room is always filled to the brim with supportive parents, friends, and volunteers, all eagerly cheering on these wonderfully imaginative kid-readers. After an hour long reading, participants and audience members alike have the opportunity to schmooze and relax while enjoying cake, cheese, and crackers at our celebratory reception.

This year, the reading took place on Thursday, November 16th, from 6-8pm. We had readers from Johnson Elementary, Longfellow Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Horn Elementary, just to name a few. Our director, Mal Hellman, was the emcee for the event, and she delighted everyone with her enthusiasm and charm. The kids’ stories were a wonderful mix of serious and silly. One especially poignant short story came from Audrey, who told a tale detailing the struggles facing an immigrant family. Her themes of love and acceptance were thought-provoking, and the audience found her work incredibly meaningful. There were a number of wildly fantastical creations as well. A Horace Mann reader set her Harry Potter fan fiction in the future, where Voldemort took full advantage of new social media to post selfies. Eva from Horn Elementary created a planet as big as a marshmallow, while another Horn reader made a planet that rained glitter chocolate chip candy. Needless to say, the room was filled with joy, magic, and pure fun.

The Iowa Youth Writing Project feels so grateful that we have the chance to work with such amazing kids who produce such extraordinary writing. It is a wonderful experience to see all the semester’s hard work be recognized at the annual Prairie Lights Reading. Thank you to everyone who made the event possible, and we cannot wait to continue on with another semester of empowerment, imagination, and creative writing. See you next year!

Madeleine’s Declassified: Volunteer Survival Guide

Volunteering for the first time can be difficult. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines that you can follow in order to have an incredible volunteering experience!

  1. Review the lesson plan before coming to your site. It’s always best to be as prepared as possible, so make sure you are familiar with the lesson plan. This way, you don’t have to waste time at the site, and you are fully capable to answer the kids’ questions.
  2. Bring as much energy as possible! Kids always respond well when their volunteers are energetic and excited — it really is contagious! This fosters creativity and fun for both you and the kids.
  3. (Almost) Always say yes. IYWP workshops are a place for imagination and expressive freedom, so we very rarely say no to ideas. We try to encourage kids in their creative growth, not put down any ideas that seem “too silly” or “unrealistic”. We WANT silliness! That being said, we don’t want to condone any violence or offensive language. Use your judgement to determine what is appropriate.
  4. Trust your intuition. It can get easy to become overwhelmed with self-doubt, but fight against it! Don’t second guess yourself, because more times than not, your instincts are right.
  5. Have fun! The only way for the kids to have fun is for you to have fun as well. IYWP workshops are meant to be educational and fun at the same time, so have a BLAST!

Now you’re ready to go inspire kids through literacy and creativity. Good luck!


Reading about kids of color: Magical Families

by IYWP Intern Robyn Henderson

Every family has its struggles and internal dramas, and these families just happen to have magic that factors into every aspect of who they are. This week’s recommendations focus on girls whose magic and love for their families challenge them to see the world around them differently. Enjoy!


Cici, A Fairy’s Tale: Believe your eyes by Cori Doerrfeld and Tyler Page

ciciA lot is changing for Cici. Her parents are separating, her wacky abuela is moving in, and on her tenth birthday, she wakes up with fairy wings! Cici’s new magical powers let her see people as they truly are. But what she learns about her friends and family isn’t always easy to accept. She has only one day to decide whether to keep her wings. When Cici wishes life could just be normal again, will she choose to believe in the power of fairies?

Believe Your Eyes  is the first volume in a graphic novel series about Cici, a ten year old Latina girl whose life is going through a lot of changes. However, despite all of the changes that she struggles with, Cici is all about perspective. The first half of the story focuses on how she sees the world around her as just a regular girl, while during the second half, her fairyhood (I think that’s a word…) pushes her to find a different perspective. Cici is a great, relatable protagonist, who handles change by avoiding it and the people who love her because she honestly doesn’t know what to do or say. I really enjoyed how the story brought her closer to her family when she discovered that both she and her Abuela had magical powers in common. This is a sweet, genuine story that shows the value of looking at the tough parts of life from a different perspective. I recommend it for kids from ages 7 to 11.


The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste


Corinne La Mer isn’t afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. She knows that jumbies aren’t real; they’re just creatures that parents make up to frighten their children. But on All Hallows’ Eve, Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden woods. Those shining yellow eyes that follow her to the edge of the trees, they couldn’t belong to a jumbie. Or could they? Corinne begins to notice odd occurrences after that night. First sehe spots a beautiful stranger speaking to the town witch at the supermarket. Then this same beauty, called Severine, turns up at Corinne’s house, cooking dinner for her father. Danger is in the air. Sure enough, bewitching Corinne’s father is the first step in Severine’s plan to claim the entire island for the jumbies. Corinne must call on her courage and her friends and ancient magic to stop Severine and save her island home.

The Jumbies has the feel of a folk tale. You know the kind I’m talking about, where three sisters who are sent on an errand and only the youngest is clever enough to outsmart a witch or something like that. Corinne, our Afro-Caribbean protagonist, feels like that type of heroine, one who is so rational and scientifically minded that she barely even believes in jumbies, but strategic enough that, when she does, she can make a plan and act on it without falling into a panic. This story is about family, and Corinne’s love for her father, as well as her mother who died when she was young, motivates her to protect the people around her in whatever way that she can. The Jumbies is a great middle grade novel for kids who like fantasy with a folk tale flavor mixed in.


Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova


Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives. Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin. The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland….

Labyrinth Lost is an exciting, fast paced YA adventure that follows Alex’s quest to rescue her family back from Los Lagos after she accidentally banishes them to Los Lagos, a sinister magical world. Accompanied by  Nova, the aforementioned Mysterious Boy, and, spoiler alert, her best friend Rishi, Alex learns to accept her magic and use her power to set her family free. If you know a kid who loves YA, especially YA with (spoiler) LGBT characters, then they will probably enjoy this book. It follows the expected formulas and has a lot of the expected cliches, but it fills the roles differently and does very interesting things with the expected tropes. However, the summary that only focuses on Alex’s quest does the book a bit of a disservice. The first third is about Alex’s relationship with her mother, two sisters, and her aunt who died about ten years before the story starts. At its heart, this is a story about a family that has magic in its bones, and Alex’s acceptance of both her magic and her place in her family. The novel is very much female driven, so if you’re looking for stories about strong female characters who are growing into their powers, this one is for you.

My First Volunteering Experience

By IYWP intern Megan Wynn


Kids sprouted from every door and corner of the hallway. Most were smaller than me but some were inches taller. I suddenly felt like a baby buffalo trying to learn how to walk along with its herd. Some kids walked impossibly fast with their books held in an aggressive embrace, while others lazily swung their folders around and made short conversation with their friends. I couldn’t imagine what being back in middle school would feel like. I hadn’t been back to a middle since, well, I was a middle schooler. I can’t say I miss it.

I started to get a bit nervous then. From my own experience, middle schoolers can be mean. I started to worry. Will they think I’m just weird? Will they listen to me and respect me? Am I too shy for this?

The front office woman at South East Junior High unlocks a classroom for us and I wobble in awkwardly trying to dodge an approaching mob of kids coming down the hall. We set our things down and wait a few minutes looking at the clock and mumbling about the lack of attendance.

One girl walks in. She’s older and she speaks oddly like an adult. She tells us that there are a bunch of kids who are in the wrong room because there was a confusion with the announcements. My coordinator tells me to go with the girl to retrieve the rest of the kids. We make small talk on our way there and I’m surprised by her voice and how it sounds more mature than mine. We go downstairs to another room where six more kids are waiting. She announces to them that they are supposed to be in a different room. They all storm out of the classroom and we head back upstairs. I was so relieved that they were interested. They told us that more eighth graders joined but they weren’t able to come this week.

All of them were extremely passionate. They all introduced themselves: one kid was writing his own fiction novel that he was looking to publish, another girl had a popular fan fiction blog, and two boys were budding rap artists who wrote their own lyrics and put their stuff on SoundCloud. They all truly wanted to be there, it was incredible. Then my coordinator and fellow volunteer introduced ourselves. I said that I like to write scripts for film and all of the kids either perked up or had bug eyes. One girl even said, “Really? That’s so cool!” I realized then that despite being interested in writing for the majority of my life, I had never really considered screenwriting until I was exposed to it in college. I guess it’s kind of a new and interesting form of writing. It made me excited to maybe bring what I know into my days with them and maybe get some of them interested in it.

Towards the end of our short thirty-minute session, we played a writing game where someone would start writing something for one minute and then pass their notebook to the person next to them. The notebooks made it around the room and the results were both hilarious and creative. The kids were super excited about them and left the class in a rush, still laughing at their work. I’m not going to lie, I was a little sad to see them go. Each student had their own unique personality. They were all so interesting, creative, and passionate. With my first volunteering experience under my belt, I’m really excited for next Friday!

Reading about kids of color: Familiar Fantastical Worlds

by IYWP intern Robyn Henderson

I have a soft spot for stories that are set in worlds that look and feel a whole lot like ours, with a couple of minor tweaks. Worlds where an ordinary kid might wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, and then play a magical game of tag at recess. I also love worlds that seem foreign and fantastical, but are actually very similar to our own if you look closely enough. Whether the story takes you from the mundane to the magical, or shows you how fantastical things can become very ordinary, the books in this week’s list highlight characters whose worlds are both familiar and fantastical. Enjoy!


The Arrival by Shaun Tan

the arrival

The Arrival is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time. A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

The Arrival is a picture book about immigration, and it follows the story of a man coming to a country searching for a better life for his family. Along the way, the man meets different characters, who each tell him their stories of how they arrived in the strange new country. The most remarkable thing about this book is that there are no written words in it. There is no narration. The stunning illustrations tell the stories of the different characters that the man encounters, in a way that is both very strange and very reminiscent of immigration stories in the United States. This is a picture book that is great for all ages!


The Care and Feeding of a Pet black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

black hole

Caring for a black hole is rather complicated. Eleven year old Stella Rodriguez has to learn the hard way, when a black hole follows her home from NASA one day, and seems to want to live in her house as a pet. The black hole swallows everything it touches, which is rather frustrating but also turns out to be a convenient way to get rid of those items that Stella doesn’t want around. Especially the ones that remind her of her dad, who died recently and left a cosmically vast space in her heart. But then the black hole ends up accidentally swallowing something too precious to lose. Now Stella herself must go deep inside to embark on an epic, interstellar adventure. After all, her whole world is at stake. Who knew having a pet black hole could cause so much trouble?

Do you like astronomy? How about fantastical situations and spontaneous humor? Stella Rodriguez, the preteen protagonist of the middle grade novel, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, is a genuine, dorky, and hilarious girl who somehow ends up with a black hole as a pet. The black hole—who she names Larry, short for Singularity—simply wants someone to hug it but can’t touch anything without accidentally absorbing it. A decent part of the book focuses on Stella trying to figure out how to keep Larry from absorbing everything, especially cute, fluffy things. However, Stella’s story only partly focuses on training Larry. A main theme of this book is about how kids deal with loss and grief, and I think that the story handles this idea very well. The story deftly explores Stella’s relationship with others and with her father in a sincere, lighthearted way that makes you feel as if she could be somebody you know. Minus the black hole.


Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata witch

Akata Witch transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?

Akata Witch is a Young Adult fantasy novel that follows Sunny on her journey from the mundane to the magical as she discovers magic, her own powers, and friends in her new home. She and her friends are strong characters who are intelligent and powerful, but whose magic complicates things that the average twelve year old struggles with. They still have to deal with bullies, but they want to use magic on them to get the upper hand, and other things like that. One thing that is really distinct about the magical world that Sunny inhabits is the idea that things that would be considered handicaps in the non-magical world actually lend a lot of power to those with magic. One character has a learning disability, according to the non-magical world, while in the magical world of the Leopard People, he is a prodigy with a rare power. Akata Witch is a high stakes, surprising, and fun magical adventure that turns the expectations of the reader on their heads, all while feeling very close to the world that we are so familiar with.

4 Last Minute Halloween Costumes for Kids

by IYWP interns Megan Wynn and Robyn Henderson

Are you having a hard time putting together a last-minute Halloween costume? Here are four super easy costumes inspired by your favorite children’s books and teen novels! Enjoy!


IYWP frodo

Frodo from Lord of the Rings

Do you want to be a world changing hobbit?  Wear shorts, a brown or green vest, and a cape. Add a ring on a string as a final touch, and you’ll be ready to start your adventure!






IYWP eloise



How do you become the world’s classiest little socialite? A black skirt, black shoes, and black suspenders are only the first steps. Add white tights and white suspenders, plus a red jacket and a red bow. All that’s left is your pug dog Weenie!




IYWP fox

Dr. Seuss Fox in Socks

Red jumpsuit…check!

Red tutu…check!

Red fox ears and tail…check!

Blue gloves and socks…check!




IYWP harry


Harry Potter

Do you happen to have a pair of round glasses, a stick and a long black cloak or coat? How about a white button down, a tie, and a grey vest? All you need to do is draw a lightning shaped scar on your forehead to be magically transformed into everyone’s favorite boy wizard!