Thursday, December 8, 2022

“As someone who does not inherently enjoy writing, I was very much hesitant to enroll in Writing and Community Outreach,” honors student Josh Hutton admits. He goes on to say, “My hesitations were quickly dismissed, however, because the class was much more than that.”

Writing and Community Outreach, a general education course, is one of many venues through which the University of Iowa endeavors to connect with the broader Iowa City community. Like many courses offered at the UI, it has an honors section. Sara McGuirk, the honors section instructor, plays an active role in many departments at the university. Her work ranges from coaching women’s rugby to teaching various English courses.

As the title suggests, Writing and Community Outreach is a course designed to reach out to the Iowa City kindergarten–twelfth grade (K–12) community and offer them opportunities to develop their literacy and compositional skills, usually through lectures and group writing exercises. One such exercise may ask students to write creatively and describe a setting and its characteristics. Writing prompts like these enable students to become comfortable and confident in their abilities. Helping students achieve a greater level of writing is one of many avenues of instruction within the course.

Not only do students within the community develop their skills, but the honors students are challenged in a way that fosters their pedagogical growth. Students are expected to be intellectually engaged and critical of the material. McGuirk points out that students should “bring a creative mind to every learning opportunity…[and] promote interdisciplinary thought processes.” McGuirk also emphasizes that students should “talk about [their] relationships to writing,” referring to sensitive topics and what inspires them to write in the first place.

Mallory Hellman, the director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project and course supervisor for Writing and Community Outreach, posits that “an ancillary benefit of [the course] was that students who were in this course would learn a lot more about the communities they were engaging [with].” The class prompts students to grow as both thoughtful writers and critical thinkers while getting involved with the Iowa City community in a positive way.

While in the class, Hutton’s group worked with the elementary school students. He notes, “I had such fun planning and implementing our lesson plans with the students. Not only was I able to enjoy the class, but I was also able to be out in the community and learn what it meant to engage with others and truly try to make a difference.”

Additionally, it is intended for students to develop as conscientious, accepting individuals capable of working with and educating all manners of people, regardless of heritage, appearance, and other traits. Several of these growth exercises consist of reflections where students write about their place in the world (such as their socioeconomic status, race, and age), then describe both internal and external conflicts that emerge as a result. In the course, McGuirk explains, “Students will have extensive discussions exploring the historical and structural basis for inequality, and we will reflect critically on our own social and cultural perspectives.”

Many exercises and readings in the course address specific objectives: confronting systemic racism and abuse, educating children, creating safe educational spaces where students can express themselves and ask questions, and more. For example, several discussions in the course encourage students to talk about issues caused by racial and class stratifications and highlight the reasons behind these issues. Students then have the opportunity to demonstrate and further improve their freshly developed skills with K–12 Iowa City students, forming a two-way learning experience.

Many students who enroll in the course are pursuing a career in an educational field, which makes Writing and Community Outreach a great option to earn some vital career practice. One outreach effort was aimed at Tate Alternative School, which emphasizes nontraditional educational teaching methods to fit the needs of its students. The Writing and Community Outreach students-turned-teachers who went to Tate felt a bit pressured going into the school because of its unique student population. However, the Tate students found their lesson on the similarities and differences between Shakespeare and Lil’ Wayne’s styles of poetry to be fascinating.

Writing and Community Outreach is an opportunity for both the university and K–12 students to develop alongside one another. It is just one of many that the honors program provides across and beyond campus. The mutual benefits to the students and students-turned-teachers are inspiring for those looking to reach out to their community.
Hutton muses, “Sure, I learned about myself as a writer, but I think more importantly this class taught me how to adapt, how to remember that there are so many in every community who are neglected and forgotten about, and that being involved in the community is needed now more than ever.”