How Iowa is helping young people find their voice: BTN LiveBIG

How Iowa is helping young people find their voice: BTN LiveBIG

It should surprise no one that we’re rather keen on writers. And when it comes to writing in the Big Ten, one university springs immediately to mind: the University of Iowa.

Home to the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the university’s leadership in the field has even led to Iowa City being named a UNESCO City of Literature – the only one in the United States.

Writers such as ZZ Packer, Sandra Cisneros and T. Coraghessan Boyle cut their teeth at the IWW, and the faculty can count among their ranks Phillip Roth, John Irving and Jane Smiley.

However, a few years ago it occurred to a group of IWW graduates that, for all the city does to further and promote the work of adult writers, it was somewhat lacking in resources for budding young writers, particularly those from underserved and vulnerable communities.

From that realization was born the Iowa Youth Writing Project, a free program that aims to inspire area students in grades K-12 to awaken their inner scribe.

“Every week, the IYWP goes into thirteen different schools and community centers to lead one-hour long creative writing workshops,” says Mallory Hellman, the program’s director. “They focus on getting the students excited about using their own voice as a channel for expression.”

Volunteers, pulled not just from the university’s writing programs, but from a variety of academic field, from education to social work to science and business, help the students explore how language can be marshalled into use describing their lives and worlds. The goal, says Hellman, is to cultivate within the students a stronger sense of self and self-confidence via written expression.

“I think now, more than ever, words have extremely resonant power, particularly to youth,” she notes. “It’s important to cultivate the skill of expressing oneself properly, precisely and with feeling.”

For IYWP program coordinator Dan DeMarco (English ’14), the scope of the program, the range of ages it serves, gives volunteers a profound and rare chance to watch the growth of young writers. “It’s so rewarding, working with kids and seeing that confidence built in their own work.”

One of the greatest gifts that the program gives to the students, says DeMarco, is validation that their voices and stories matter. Where often adults tend to brush aside the work of a child, IYWP gives participants the opportunity to have their writing not just heard, but elevated.

Every semester, IWYP publishes student works in professionally-designed anthologies distributed to the students, their families and friends. The students also get the chance, once a year, to read their works in public at the famed Prairie Lights Bookstore, where writers like David Sedaris and Jonathan Franzen regularly hold readings. These facets of the program go a long way to helping the students understand that they are just as much a part of the Iowa City writing community as the published essayist or lauded poet.

The impact of the program reaches beyond traditional creative writing forms as well. The skills learned through the IYWP, those of concision and thoughtful assertion, will help students craft college application essays, research papers, professional documents and personal correspondence later in life. Or, it writing might just turn out to be an important outlet for emotions.

“It can be a nice release valve,” notes Hellman, “for tension, for pain, for anything a student might have gone through. It’s a healthy coping mechanism to take claim of your own narrative. We’ve had a lot of students say to us, ‘Now I use writing to cope, now I journal every day, now when I feel like I’m out of control, I write.’”

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