Staff Spotlight: Assistant Director Lisa Roberts

The Iowa Youth Writing Project is a machine of many cogs. An incredible number of people make up the organization, and they are all vital to its success. From volunteers, to donors, to the amazing kids we work with, none of it could be possible without their support. With all of these wonderful people, it is important to spotlight specific members of the organization who go above and beyond to make the IYWP as great as it can be. One of said people is staff member Lisa Roberts. Lisa is the Assistant Director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project. She officially began the position this fall, but she has been working with the IYWP for many years and is considered a core member of the team

Because Lisa has been with the organization for so long, I asked her what her inspiration was for joining the IYWP in the first place: 

“When I first moved to Iowa City in 2011, I was looking for a way to meet like-minded people and use some of my training to give back to the community,” she explains. “Turns out, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, since the people I’ve met have been incredible. They’ve helped me grow as a teacher by expanding my ideas on what can happen in a workshop. My interactions with the kids have been amazingly rewarding as well.”

Lisa often works with kids at workshops in addition to executing her administrative duties. She finds that these two actions can work well in conjunction with each other, especially when it comes to programming. For example, her greatest accomplishment with the IYWP melded both administration and on the ground work:

“My greatest accomplishment was probably getting our therapeutic writing workshop up and running at the John McDonald Residential Treatment center. I wrote the grant that inaugurated the project. In fact, that was the first grant I had ever written, and it was exciting to have it accepted by the Iowa Women’s Foundation. Then there’s reaching out to JMRT, connecting with administration, and training new volunteers in therapeutic writing techniques. Of course, the most important part of all was being able to work with this amazing group of young women every Saturday during the school year for two years. It was amazingly satisfying to see that program through its initiation to full on development, until it was so successful that we could pass it on to new site coordinators and a new group of volunteers,” she said.

Clearly, Lisa has done an unbelievable amount of work in order to help the Iowa Youth Writing Project grow and further its mission. When I asked her about her most memorable moment with the organization, it was very difficult for her to pick:

“Oh, there are so many great times when kids who at first didn’t want to write finally got the spark and took off to do incredible work. I felt lucky to be able to be there when that happened. However, I’m probably going to have pick when I saw little Janice again, at the end of the summer, about a month after her Superhero Gear camp. She saw me from the end of a long hallway in the public library, and she yelled, “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see you again!” She ran at full force all the way down the hallway. When a gift like that comes at you at full speed, all you can do is plant your feet, bend your knees, and open your arms. She launched from about three feet away and just latched herself onto me in the biggest hug. That was the best way to end a summer of awesome camps.”

Lisa’s devotion to the Iowa Youth Writing Project is shown not only in her interactions with kids, but also in her long hours spent writing emails, coordinating sites, and developing programming. This administrative aspect comprises a large portion of Lisa’s job and is essential to the success of the organization. Lisa’s work is admirable, and it is the wonderful people like her who make the IYWP not only function, but thrive. Thank you, Lisa, for all the work you do.


Why Writing with Purpose?

By Michael Corsiglia, Writing with Purpose Peer Assistant and former student

Can college students gain real world experience from a course?  A question that is asked constantly throughout the academic world.  For one class at the University of Iowa, the answer is yes.  Each semester 15 students are able to enroll in Writing with Purpose, a class that uniquely works hand-in-hand with a non-profit organization based in Iowa City.  The Iowa Youth Writing Project is an organization that provides free in-school and after-school writing workshops for students in hopes of empowering children with language, literature, and creative thinking.

Students who take this course have the opportunity to work at one of three different sites in the Iowa City area.  The sites range from high school students at Tate High School, younger elementary students at Longfellow Elementary, and 5th and 6th graders at Mark Twain elementary school.   As part of the course curriculum students create their own lesson plans to be used once weekly at their schools.  During class time students brainstorm different ideas and strategies to best create an imaginative, creative, and fun environment for students.

The course is perfect for college students with aspirations in teaching or any career working with children.  Unlike other education courses at the University this course involves hands on experience in an actual classroom, with real students, and a real lesson plan.  The course even gives students the opportunity to publish their own anthology of works that are written by the students at their site.

Volunteer Spotlight: Derek Kellison

VolunteerSporlight-KellisonAt what site(s) do you volunteer, and what activities do you do with these kids?
I volunteer at the McDonald Residential Treatment Center in Monticello where we host a creative writing workshop every Saturday.

What initially drew you to the Iowa Youth Writing Project?
I was initially drawn to the IYWP almost three years ago when Audrey Smith, the then Intern Coordinator, talked to me about all the cool and exciting things I could do while volunteering. I started out at Mark Twain, and I’ve been with the IYWP ever since.

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote about your volunteer experience?
The most rewarding thing for me so far as a volunteer has been listening to the stories of Monticello residents about their successes after our first semester of working together. When we started there many of the residents were a little unsure of what to think of us weird, crazy writer people. Since then we have built an inviting, trusting, and creative community together.

How do you assemble a lesson plan? Is there a set process, or is it more rooted in intuition?
Whenever I sit down to make a lesson plan I find myself drawing mostly on events in my own life that are affecting me at the time. There’s no real method to the madness, but I can always see the end goal in my head.

What motivates you to volunteer? What keeps you coming back?
Similarly, I am motivated to volunteer by a goal that I always have when going into a classroom: to have fun while learning. If I can make a connection with a student, I know I’m doing something right. The smiles that form when that connection is made are always the best rewards.

Last summer you were a Creative Ambassador for the IYWP in your hometown. Can you tell us what exactly the Creative Ambassador Program is and what you got out of it?
Last summer I lead a creative writing workshop in my hometown, Shenandoah, as part of the Creative Ambassadors Initiative. Creative Ambassadors is an outreach project started by the IYWP and supported by the UI’s Art Share in the summer of 2014. It was designed to bring IYWP programming to schools, communities, and children throughout the state of Iowa. What is unique about the program is that it made connections between UI students/IYWP volunteers and their hometowns. The first workshops of the program were based in Boone and Shenandoah and centered around poetry and comic books. The IYWP’s Adam Edelman and I led these workshops.

My own workshop included four kids from the Page County area (Shenandoah and surrounding rural communities) who were of grades 4-6. We worked building characters and experimenting with the form of comics. The students were all very dedicated and talented, and we had a blast! Here is a description of the activities we worked on:

Character Sketches: This activity features two characters who may or may not know each other. For the first character we introduced ourselves to the group as if we were the character. Then we created a dialogue between the first character and the second character. During the course of the two characters’ conversation strange things like severe weather and phone calls from the president happened to help shape the dialogue.

Profile Sketch: In this activity we chose characters from the previous activity to sketch in full. Then we listed facts about them: likes, dislikes, hobbies, family, jobs. This activity allowed us to get better acquainted with the characters before we put them into a comic.

Creating a Comic: To prepare for this activity we first practiced panel drawing and then made rough sketches of what we wanted the final comic to look like. We then used the dialogue and characters from previous activities to refine these sketches into the final product.

Improv Comics: These comics were made by all participants in the two-day workshop. The comics start with one stick figure placed anywhere on the comic and are passed around the table for each participant to add their own touch. We keep going around the table until the pages are filled with everyone’s drawings. Some additions are big, others are small and harder to find. These comics depict funny scenes, epic battles, dance parties, and much more.

Volunteer Spotlight: Hanna Busse

VolSpotlight-HannaBusseAt what site(s) do you volunteer, and what activities do you do with these kids?
I volunteer at Monticello. We do lots of writing and drawing activities, and we generally focus our activities this way: they can provide a way in, inside yourself to explore your emotions, your past, etc., or a way out, out of your real life (which is sometimes difficult) to places of fantasy and science fiction and make believe. Some favorites include exquisite corpse and anything with music.

What initially drew you to the Iowa Youth Writing Project?
Honestly, I needed a writing certificate credit that wasn’t a creative writing workshop! My advisor, Danny Khalastchi, suggested that I give Writing with Purpose a try. It turned out to be my favorite class!

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote about your volunteer experience?
One of my favorite experiences was seeing the kids from Longfellow Elementary at last fall’s reading at Prairie Lights. I volunteered with them during spring of 2014, and it was amazing how much some of them had grown as humans (they got so tall!) and as writers. And they remembered me! Some even said hi.

How do you assemble a lesson plan? Is there a set process or is it more rooted in intuition?
I tend to pick a warm-up, a main activity or two, and a “cool-down” (opposite of warm-up) or sharing time. As far as coming up with ideas, I’m totally an intuition kinda gal. There are a million books and web resources out there. That I don’t use unless I’m super stuck.

I love the collaborative spirit of the IYWP. Usually, I’m planning in a group. At Monticello we take turns, but usually I’ve got some ideas ahead of time. I’ll share them in the car on the way over and get other people’s feedback. We tend to build on the ideas, or find newer, better ones and build on those.

So by the time I sit down to write up the lesson plan, I already know 90% of what I’m going to write. (Usually I feel like none of it is my work, though that’s not true, really. And anyway, Catherine Blauvelt always used to encourage us to be pirates and steal bits of lessons from anywhere and everywhere!) I guess mostly, then compile things into one coherent lesson plan.

What motivates you when you volunteer? What keeps you coming back?
The people. Forming relationships with the students is important to me; I can’t just STOP showing up!

Also, I feel like I’m part of a volunteer team. We each have unique skills, and I never want to leave my team in the lurch when they need someone quiet to sit in the corner with a student who doesn’t want to share anything out loud. (I happen to be good at that.)

I’m also selfish. I love participating in the activities (especially theatre games) and being creative myself!

Can you tell us a bit more about the movement + word program you’re working on with Jess Anthony from the Dance Department?
Essentially, the program is a series of four days, four lessons, at Monticello where we use dance and movement as an alternate way to explore creatively. We then take that new knowledge and experience and apply it to writing.

We’ve done one workshop so far. We introduced the students to movement and dance in an approachable way with a warm-up that made us aware of our bodies and the space around us. Then, we partnered up and practiced using different “shapes” (straight shapes, curved shapes, angular shapes, and twisting shapes) to pose and to move. Lastly, we split the group in two. Half worked with their partners again while the other half wrote short phrases or adjectives describing what they saw. We took those lists of words and phrases and used them as the basis for a free-write.

And there’s more to come! I think we’ll be splitting into groups and making scenes or tableaus with different shapes. The audience will then write about what they, as viewers, see in the scenes (Is it a family having dinner? Or two birds flying over ocean waves? An apartment building lying on its side?) and build a narrative.

Thanks so much to Hanna for all her time and creativity!

Volunteer Spotlight: Deanne Wortman

Volunteer Spotlight

At what site(s) do you volunteer, and what activities do you do with these kids? I am volunteering with Gianna Canning at Mark Twain school in Iowa City.

 What initially drew you to the Iowa Youth Writing Project? Rachel Yoder contacted me. I have am an avid reader and have become interested in writing.  I had taken two writing workshops with Rachel in the past and subsequently one of my stories was published in Little Village.

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote about your volunteer experience? On the Wednesday before Halloween one of the kindergartners looked at me and told me I was old.  “How can you tell?” I asked. “Just the way you are and your hair is white.” “Would you like me to tell you how my hair got white?” …And so I told the kindergarteners about my summer camp experience with The Headless Horseman when I was about their age and how it has been white ever since!

I have heard that you use props and costumes (e.g. puppets, hats) for some of your lessons. What inspired you to do that? Is there a particular puppet/hat/boa that the kids like the most? Monica Leo and I created Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre many years ago and I worked in the Iowa City Public Library’s children’s room for many years presenting several story programs each week. I became a storyteller and puppeteer sometimes partnering with a musician friend. We also participated the the Iowa State Arts Council’s “Artists In The Schools” program. For many years we performed and worked with children in schools all over Iowa.  During this time I collected, puppets, costumes and props which we used in our Picture Story Theatre performances. I am not performing much anymore but my house is full of interesting storytelling stuff. It is a pleasure to see the delight in the  Kindergartner’s faces when I bring  Mr. Cat or The Bad Flower or Mr. Frog or the Two Bad Crows to Twain on Wednesdays. I think the puppets are happy to get out of the house, too. Besides being a lot of fun, it is a way for kids to begin to learn how to tell a story and all that involves

How do you assemble a lesson plan? Is there a set process or is it more rooted in intuition? I have a general idea of which skill we want to practice but the choice of puppet, story, prop and activity is more spontaneous. I have a lot of resources right at home so finding the right prop seems to come naturally.

Kindergartners are really of pre-writers so I had to think of ways to involve them in the narrative in process other ways.  I try to make a program that involves building the intellectual tools needed in writing: active listening, understanding narrative structure, remembering a sequence of events, characterization, details…. color, sound, smells, actions, etc.  through physical and visual activities. I have used draw and tell stories, tell and cut stories, finger games, Kamishibai (a kind of portable mini story theater involving picture cards), songs, drawing etc.

What motivates you, when you volunteer? What keeps you coming back? 
I enjoy talking to young children. They are curious, enthusiastic, excited, loving and funny.  Everything is new to them. Working with them it is all new for me again and again and again! There is a pleasure in watching them grow in ability and understanding. Working with young children keeps us old folks from getting grumpy!

I also volunteer as a storyteller at Oaknoll Retirement Center where my audience is mostly older than I am (and they all have white hair!) It is a similar experience for both listener and teller no matter the age.

Thanks again, Deanne! Your work is greatly appreciated!

To sign-up online to volunteer with the IYWP, please visit

Volunteer Spotlight: Davy Knittle


Davy was interviewed by IYWP Intern Stephanie Smith.

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote about your volunteer experience?
Last May, I attended Tate’s graduation, and it was exciting to see so many of my Poetry Club students graduate. It was also exciting to see how many of the students in the graduating class gave Kate Richey (the teacher who I work with in Poetry Club) a huge hug as they walked across the stage. In the time I’ve spent working with high school students, she’s the best teacher I’ve ever met, and she’s a tremendous resource to the students in our club, so it was really lovely to see how excited so many of the students at Tate were to give her a big hug.

How do you assemble a lesson plan? Is there a set process or is it more rooted in intuition? The lesson plans that I use in Poetry Club at Tate are different from the lesson plans that I use in my Poetry Writing class with my undergraduate students, but in both cases, when I design curriculum, I’m interested in creating a lesson where students can make use of a new idea or approach to expand the way they think about what they know, or to put together information in a different way.

One exercise that Jess, another Tate volunteer, led a few weeks ago did this perfectly. She gave students slips of paper with words that have many different definitions and asked them to use as many definitions as possible in a poem, which our students really enjoyed, and which got them thinking about all of the strange things language does. This became an exciting part of the poems that they wrote that day.

I heard you helped write a grant for the Iowa Youth Writing Project. Is there any advice you would give for aspiring grant writers? Rachel Yoder and I just finished writing a grant for the Junior High Writing Conference in April 2015. I loved writing a grant for IYWP because it gave me the opportunity to put into words what an amazing program IYWP is and how grateful I am that my students have our poetry club as a resource. Through the IYWP, I have the opportunity to spend time with high school students both thinking about poetry and just enjoying what poems can do and how exciting it is to make something new out of what you walk around thinking and seeing every day.

What motivates you when you volunteer?
At Tate, I’m motivated by the space that we make in Poetry Club. It’s just half an hour once a week, but it feels like a sacred space. The work that my students write is amazing. I’m also inspired by watching Kate Richey work with her students. I’ve thought for a long time that I’d like to work with high school students forever, but watching Kate has made me even more certain and has shown me what a difference a really excellent teacher can make.

Thanks again, Davy! Your work is greatly appreciated!

To sign-up online to volunteer for the IYWP, please visit

PARTNERS OF IYWP: Gary Connors-Boe, Four Oaks

Gary Connors-Boe

By Adam Edelman

Shortly after World War II when Gary Connors-Boe’s parents were not getting pregnant as quickly as some of their friends, Gary’s pious Lutheran mother made a deal with God.  She promised that if God would allow her and her returning G.I. husband to have a son, she would, like Anna in Hebrew scripture, dedicate the boy to the service of God.  Soon after, for the usual reasons, she became pregnant and Gary was born.  He grew up with frequent reminders of this “miracle” and the obligations that came with it, obligations that he accepted initially.

Gary had the “Leave It To Beaver” version of a normal 50s childhood.  Kind and loving parents, he did well in school, and had no lack of friends to ride bikes with, play baseball and football, and occasionally make mischief.  It wasn’t until the eighth grade that Gary had any experience that challenged his middleclass American enculturation, that was when he walked into the biology class taught by Jim McDowell, one of those rare and gifted instructors who could do more than just teach a subject, he could teach young people to think for themselves.  Many years later, Gary would realize McDowell’s pedagogical method as Cartesian.  He told his students to ask, “under what circumstances might what an authority figure has posited be NOT true.”  At the same time and contrariwise, Gary’s Lutheran pastor and confirmation teacher, a stern and humorless vicar who held Gary and other adolescents captive for two hours every Sunday morning, was laboring diligently to render the sin of curiosity from each of his students.  Memorization was his game, and he allowed few questions other than timid requests for bathroom breaks.  He was a wooden fundamentalist who believed the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., beginning on October the 23rd, at the sensible hour of 7 A.M.

That’s what Gary was served up for confirmation class on Saturday and church on Sunday.  For the rest of the week he was under the exhilarating spell of scientific discovery in Mr. McDowell’s class.  There he was fascinated by what the Leaky family had discovered in Oldivae Gorge in Africa.  Australopithecine, the five foot tall, tool making, three million year old antecedent of us all.  It was a humanesque bi-pedal savanna dweller that possessed a brain one-third the size of ours, yet it was large enough to sustain its species far longer than we Homo Sapiens have sustained ourselves to date.  What Gary learned in biology class just seemed to carry more weight as an explanation for the origin of man than his pastor’s interpretations of the Old Testament, not to mention it was a lot more interesting. Gary’s pastor once claimed that the Bible was either all true or all fraud, and it soon became clear to Gary that Christianity was a fool’s errand.  At the beginning of the two year Confirmation process he had been hands down the pastor’s best student, being a prodigious memorizer, but by the time graduation came around Gary was “just doing it for the Bulova watch and the money gifts.”  So much for serving God.

Years later, Gary WOULD end up in seminary after all, having found that it was possible to believe in both Darwinist and Christian theory.  In the second of his four years in graduate school he discovered Paul Tillich, the polymath existentialist German theologian who fled the Nazis during the war and wrote “The Courage To Be,” a book once referred to as “a grown-up’s ‘Catcher In The Rye’” by John F. Kennedy.  Tillich says it is foolish to ask the question, “Are you religious?” since the word “religion” derives from the Greek “religio,” meaning that which ties together, as in “ligament.”  Everyone has something that ties things together for them, and whatever that thing is, is their ultimate concern, or god, in Tillich’s view.  He further proposes that some concerns/gods are better than others.  The way Tillich defined an adequate god is a god that does three things for its devotees.  The first is it gives a sense of identity.  The second, it protects from evil in the profound sense, and the third is to provide “the good life,” a life that is satisfying.

Through Tillich Gary realized that after leaving the God of his upbringing, his new god, what tied things together for him, came through what he learned from the natural sciences, and from the friends he was surrounded by.  His friends gave Gary their group identity, protected him from the teenage evil of having no friends and thus being labeled a “nerd,” and with his friends he engaged in many pleasing activities.  But the problem with gods is they can break down.  Friends disperse after graduation, but opportunities for a new god always arise when the old one is gone.

“I graduated from high school and some of my friends went to the University of Nebraska, others went elsewhere, and suddenly the group breaks down.  So I have to find another God.  At one point my God was being an army aviator and a captain.  I felt, who am I?  I’m captain Gary Boe, United States Army, helicopter pilot.”

Of course, that God broke down too when Gary returned to civilian life.  He then became a successful salesman.  It felt good, for a time, just to make money and excel in his career, Gary said, but he began to realize that way of life was not going to be sustainable for him.  He desired protection from being unsuccessful, but he also wanted protection from the sense of meaninglessness that kind of life can bring.  There was no earth-shattering event in his life that led him to rediscover his faith, go to seminary school, and become a pastor.  Instead, the change came as an increasing desire to bring meaning to his identity.

“I don’t like to sound like some fanatic, although I probably am on some level a fanatic, but the whole idea is that for me the Christian story frees me from worrying about myself so much, and frees me to give a hoot about others.”

Gary is now a retired pastor, and he works as the Family Support Specialist and Program Coordinator for Four Oaks, a non-profit child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral health agency based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  It is the largest child welfare agency in Iowa, and serves almost fifteen thousand kids a year.  Four Oaks has also partnered with the Iowa Youth Writing Project to provide literacy education to some of the children who receive services from Four Oaks.

Anyone who sits down with Gary and discusses faith and religion will quickly realize he is not a common Christian apologist.  For one thing, he said his religious reawakening could have just as easily brought him to Buddhism or Judaism, which, Gary said, are wonderful traditions too.  It just so happened to be the Christian tradition that he had grown up around and it was therefore that tradition that he reinvestigated and got caught up in.  Gary also believes that Jesus didn’t do a whole lot that was new and different.  Jesus is significant for Gary because he repristinated the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke about distributive justice and working on behalf of the widow and orphan.  It is this spirit of social justice that inspired Gary to utilize his talents as a salesman and as a theologian to give back to his community through the Four Oaks organization.  He points to a passage in the book of Mathew, chapter twenty-five, as particularly inspiring to him.

“I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat.  I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger, and you took me in.  I was naked, and you clothed me.  I was sick, and you visited me.  I was in prison, and you came to me.”

Gary has spent time working with people in prison, he has been involved in world hunger issues for thirty years as a donor and as a letter writer to congress.  He’s a member of Bread for the World, a hunger lobby group.  He has also been involved in gay and lesbian issues, women’s issues, and refugee issues.  However, Gary wants to distance himself from the viewpoint that these kinds of “good works” are rewarded with paradise in the afterlife.

“I enjoy doing it, I don’t feel like I have to do it in order to get some post-life reward or avoid some post-life punishment, I’m not sure what I believe about what happens when a person dies.  I’d like to think that the God who Jesus revealed loves us enough that he doesn’t want death to end the relationship, but beyond that I don’t know.”

By Drawing on his own experiences of personal growth, Gary is able to connect with the children and families who are served by Four Oaks.  Gary noticed that the ultimate concern for many of the youth he works with is their friends, just as it was for him after he began to seek an identity that he wasn’t born into.  Gary said friends are not a bad God to have for teens because it’s a functional God. Through the time spent hanging out with other teenagers they discover an identity independent of their parents at a time in their lives when that is very important to them.  It allows teenagers to make a break with their family’s values, even though they can’t yet break physically by moving out.  Having friends while undertaking the adventure of breaking with family values makes the adventure less frightening.  Observing the importance of friends to the teenagers he works with has, in turn, helped Gary to understand his own journey to find a fulfilling identity.

“There are a lot of people who do the kind of thing that I do not because it’s the only thing we can do, not because we’re stuck in some way, but because we see it as a mission.  The money isn’t good, the possibilities of burnout are high, because we don’t always get the results we would like to get, but nonetheless I think that I am paradigmatic of a lot of people.  It’s a cause.  If not a religious cause as it is in my case, it just comes out of the fact that they have hearts as big as Iowa barns.  It just seems to be a good and redemptive thing to do.”

Whether Gary’s passion for his work at Four Oaks is the result of divine inspiration or biological hard wiring, he doesn’t seemed to be disturbed by either possibility.  Gary has no delusions of grandeur about having a monopoly on what might be ultimately true.  What is most important to him is that he has chosen his way for himself.  Gary claims his identity, his God, and enjoys what he does for a living.  Through his work at Four Oaks and beyond, Gary continues to help others find “the good life” for themselves.