The IYWP Volunteer’s Toolbox: Icebreakers

How To Get Kids To Love Writing – Greenbiro intended for Black Kids Writing

by IYWP intern Robyn Henderson

Imagine. It’s your first day as a volunteer at an IYWP site. You’re standing in front of a room full of kids who might or might not know each other, and who definitely don’t know you. They watch you expectantly. You want them to have fun, write stories, and be creative. But where do you start?


Never fear! Welcome to the IYWP Volunteer’s Toolbox, a little introduction to some of the ways that our volunteers help to get kids writing, focused, and creative! Here are 4 icebreakers that can help get everybody involved!


Alliteration Name Game

Alliteration Name Game is a large group icebreaker activity that needs a pencil and paper.

Ask the class if they know what alliteration is. Alliteration occurs when a series of words start with the same sound. Have the students write down their first name and. depending on the first letter of their name, come up with three sentences to make an imaginary alliterative biography. Not every word has to begin with the same sound, but most of them should. For example: My name is Ivey. I am from Ireland. I want to eat an icicle. I live in an igloo. It’s important that the students know that the statements in their “biographies” do not have to be true to their lives. After the students are finished their biographies, share!

Any Truth Told Twice is Fiction

Any Truth Told Twice is Fiction is a sit down, individual activity that can be used as an icebreaker.

Have the students write a story that they have heard told by a family member about an event that happened before they were born. Encourage the students to fill in any gaps in the story with fictional elements. When the stories are complete, share! Originally contributed by Francine A. Pilkington to Badgerdog.

Favorite Words

Favorite Words is an individual writing activity that can be used as an icebreaker.

Have each student write down on a scrap of paper what their favorite word is. Collect them, then read each word aloud, having the student that wrote the word state their name and explain why that word is their favorite. After this has been done, place the words somewhere visible (perhaps writing them on a whiteboard or easel) and have the students write a poem or story using at least 3 of the words. Share!

Six Word Memoirs

Six Word Memoirs is a sit down icebreaker activity that requires a pencil and paper.

Have each student attempt to write a memoir for themselves using only six words. Go over six word stories written by other famous authors, such as Ernest Hemingway or Alan Moore. After the students have finished, share!


Want to know more about what it’s like to be an IYWP volunteer? Well, on Saturday, February 25 from 4 to 5 p.m., we will be hosting an Info Carnival on the second floor of the Old Capital Mall! If you’re curious, feel free to stop by!


Volunteer Spotlight: Leah Waughtal-Magiera

By Erin McInerney

Leah Waughtal

1. When did you first start volunteering with the IYWP and why?

I found IYWP through the course Writing With Purpose. At the time it was taught by Andy Axel and it was a really wonderful way to build volunteer work into my class schedule. Arts education and non-profit work were, and are, incredibly close to my heart. In my own hometown as a high school student I was able to benefit from programing that is very similar to what IYWP provides. For me it felt like pouring back into the vessel that had filled me, giving back to a literary community that had validated me as a young person. Reciprocal is the word that comes to mind. My involvement began my sophomore year and I’ve been here ever since.

2. Which is your favorite school to volunteer at?

You will mostly spot me at specialty events because I work with programing and event planning. But when I’m not helping out with an author’s workshop or a festival booth I regularly attend Tate Poetry Club on Friday mornings. That group of students is electric. I admit sometimes we spend too much time laughing  – but I promise the work they create at the end of each session is dazzling. I have recently started a Spoken Word Club at West High but Taters are a sweet spot for me.

3. What do you like about the IYWP as an organization? What keeps you volunteering with us?

I love the transparency. Our director and other core team members are always honest and excited to work collaboratively to create programming. There is something about that dynamic that truly speaks to authenticity. It would be a lie to say I’ve never been intimidating by the brilliant minds at IYWP, the educators and artists, but each session with them is filled with validation. If you have an exciting idea for anything – from something simple like a prompt to a full-blown workshop – they want to hear it all and they want to help you make it happen.

4. What is one most-memorable moment from your time with the IYWP?

This is a hard question because there are so many, so that means I have to name more that one! Eating Hot Cheetos and pickles with Tate poets during their end of semester party is definitely one. Listening to a high school student analyze a William Carlos Williams poem with more grace and skill than any college student I’ve ever met is another. Hearing Roxanne Gay give writing advice – definitely. But I think my favorite was the Alexander Chee workshop. There was a moment when the author braved a question on the tumultuous nature of being biracial – something he and the student who asked the question shared. He told her to write about that feeling because it was important. I think about that all the time and how powerful representation is – how vital it is for young people to see themselves reflected back by the artists they revere.

5. What is your favorite book? How would you format a IYWP writing class around it?

My favorite book right now is probably Sula but if you ask me next week it might be something different. I think I would look at that scene where the two girls throw the little boy into the river and he disappears. It is such a trippy dreamy moment. I would turn it into a prompt and ask writers to create a scene in which an unexplainable act occurs – one that irrevocably binds together the two characters who experienced it. Then, from there, write one ending in which things turn out happily because of this act and another in which the opposite occurs.

6. What was your inspiration for starting the spoken word club at West High? What has the process been like?

I come from a spoken word community. I slammed in high school and competed nationally on a team. I know how powerful spoken word is, how accessible it is, how fluid and accepting it can be. It’s a unique medium that doesn’t ask you to be a perfect writer, or hone some elitist skill. Its really about community, bearing witness, and reading stories. It was a gift that was given to me, in high school, when I really needed it. At West I just wanted to extend that hand – that opportunity to other young writers who might need that space like I did. It has gone surprisingly smooth so far and I chalk a lot of that up to the teachers at West who have made it possible and my co-facilitator Caleb, who is beyond wonderful. 

7. Would you rather have the ability to make something only in books reality or erase something that exists in real life?

Do comics count? When I got into Wonder Woman I was infatuated with her bracelets. They’re indestructible and great for dodging bullets. But my favorite part is probably that they’re made of a material named “feminum”. They would be pretty rad to have in real life. 

7 Ways to Get Your Kid to Love Reading!


Having trouble getting your kid to read? Have no fear! Here are some fun and easy ways to promote a love of reading in your child.

1. Let your kid read the books they want to read.

It may be tempting to place your favorite childhood book in front of your kid and expect them to love it as much as you did. However, it’s difficult to fall in love with reading if you don’t really like the books that have been selected for you! Give your kids the opportunities to pick their own reading materials.

2. If they won’t choose, pick books that match their interests. 

If your kid simply refuses to pick for themselves which books to read, then try to choose books tailored to what they already like. For example, if your child loves Transformers, maybe try picking books that have something to do with robots or cars, anything to get them interested initially.

3. Present a wide variety of genres.

There are so many different kinds of books out there for your child to read. If they start reading fantasy books, but aren’t loving it, try suggesting historical fiction or sci-fi. Maybe traditional print altogether isn’t working, so test out graphic novels. There will be SOMETHING that is appealing to your kid.

4. Read WITH your kids. 

For less experienced readers, reading alone can be really boring. Take the time to read books with your kids to make the whole experience more engaging. Also, what a great opportunity for some quality bonding time, right?

5. Embody the characters.

Reading can be most fun when you act it out! Or at least, add a little pizazz when you read out loud. Use silly voices and exaggerated tones to bring the book to life!

6. Set up a reward system. 

Most kids operate best when they have incentives. Reward reading with candy, movies, more play time, or really anything they will enjoy. This associates reading with positive connotations. Eventually, kids will learn to love reading without these rewards.

7. READ! Like, a lot. 

It may seem intuitive, but the more time you spend reading with your child, the more they will grow to love it. It may take a while, but with continued practice, a love of reading can slowly but surely blossom.

Reading about kids of color: Diverse Anthologies

by IYWP intern Robyn Henderson


It’s January of a new year, and we all know what that means. Resolutions! Every January, adults, kids, and teens alike resolve to read more. And by the end of the month, adults, kids, and teens alike remember why they had such a hard time the year before: novels take time and energy to finish. And sometimes, all you have time or energy to read is 20 pages. But, ladies and gentlekids, before you throw in the towel,  I have a suggestion that will save your new year’s resolution. Anthologies!

This week, we’re recommending anthologies for young adults and middle grade readers that feature protagonists of color. Most of them are science fiction (because, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a very dedicated nerd), so if you know of any good anthologies in different genres that feature kids of color, let me know in the comments below!


Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books

Flying Lessons

Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers. From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

Flying Lessons is a middle grade anthology aimed at 8-12 year olds that focuses on the lives of diverse kids. The common denominator between each story in the anthology is that each story focuses on people whose stories don’t usually get told. And that’s what makes the stories feel new and exciting. And the stories themselves are very relatable, from the story of a lonely black girl in an all white suburb, to the tale of a geeky brown boy who discovers that he can read minds…including the mind of his crush. These kids come from different races, have different sexualities, and some even live in different time periods, and the beauty of these stories is that they weave their differences with emotions and desires that everybody feels. I highly recommend it, and if you enjoy it, check out the authors!

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios


What do a disabled superhero, a time-traveling Chinese-American figure skater, and a transgender animal shifter have in common? They’re all stars of Kaleidoscope stories! Kaleidoscope collects fun, edgy, meditative, and hopeful YA science fiction and fantasy with diverse leads. These twenty original stories tell of scary futures, magical adventures, and the joys and heartbreaks of teenage life. Featuring New York Times bestselling and award winning authors along with newer voices: Garth Nix, Sofia Samatar, William Alexander, Karen Healey, E.C. Myers, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Ken Liu, Vylar Kaftan, Sean Williams, Amal El-Mohtar, Jim C. Hines, Faith Mudge, John Chu, Alena McNamara, Tim Susman, Gabriela Lee, Dirk Flinthart, Holly Kench, Sean Eads, and Shveta Thakrar

Kaleidoscope is a Young Adult science fiction and fantasy anthology,. The title really says it all. This is a colorful mishmash of stories that are mainly similar in the way they portray the distinctive, underrepresented teens at the heart of each tale. Definitely check this one out, and if you feel up to reading a novel, look up the authors, too!


Diverse Energies edited by Tobias S. Buckwell and Joe Monti

Diverse Energies

In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.

In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more.

Diverse Energies is a Young Adult anthology that focuses on science fiction with a diverse cast of characters in science fiction worlds. It runs through the tropes. Time travel, robots (in a yogurt shop, of all things), no-good governments, and futuristic technology. The stories have settings all over the world, with characters of many different colors and sexualities. As a plus, pretty much everyone who wrote stories for this anthology has written at least one novel or series featuring characters of color. If you love science fiction and enjoy the stories in this collection, feel free to browse through the work of each of these writers. And if you want to venture into science fiction for adults, quite a few of these authors have books for that audience, too. It’s a win-win for everybody!

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!