Known around the world as one of the foremost institutions for writing, the University of Iowa boasts a treasure trove of resources when it comes to teaching the craft.
In April, a group of 26 students and seven teachers from seven high schools across the state of Iowa worked with professors and graduate students in the UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program to get a taste of what it’s like to learn and write in a college setting. It was all thanks to the Lloyd-Jones Residency for Versatile Writing, named in honor of the late Richard “Jix” Lloyd-Jones, who taught for more than 40 years as a professor in the UI’s Department of English.
Iowahigh schools that participated in the Lloyd-Jones Residency:
- Coulter/Alexander/Lattimer School District
- Cedar Falls High School
- Columbus High School (Columbus Junction)
- Iowa Valley High School (Marengo)
- North Iowa High School (Buffalo Center)
- West High School (Davenport)
- Van Meter High School
Lloyd-Jones dedicated his life and scholarship to English education and was considered an innovator in teaching students how to write. His work inspired writers and educators across the country, including Bonnie Sunstein, UI professor of English and education.
Shortly after Lloyd-Jones’ death in 2014, his wife, Jean Hall Lloyd-Jones, a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives and Iowa State Senate, wanted to ensure his legacy lived on. With her own donation and help from Sunstein and a few advisors, she began to envision a writing initiative to honor her late husband.
“I wanted to have something my husband would like and would believe in,” Jean Lloyd-Jones says, noting Richard’s passion for intertwining English and education, as well as helping Iowa high school students, regardless of their college plans.
The idea of how best to honor Richard Lloyd-Jones crystalized when faculty in the Nonfiction Writing Program hosted a series of writing master classes for visiting students from a private high school in California.
“I turned to my colleagues at the time and said, ‘I wish we could do this for kids in Iowa,’” says Sunstein. “That night, I woke up in the middle of the night and I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we do this with the Lloyd-Jones program?’”
After a meeting with Jean and the UI Foundation, the Lloyd-Jones Residency began taking shape.
In addition to the gift from Lloyd-Jones, Sunstein received a Community Impact Grant from the UI Office of Outreach and Engagement. That grant paid for food and lodging for the 26 high school students, ensuring their participation would be free.
Sunstein then set out to find high school teachers willing to give their students this experience.
Dan Sovers (BA English education ’02), was eager to help at Iowa Valley High School in Marengo, Iowa.
“The opportunity to work with Bonnie was a big part of it,” Sovers says of deciding to take part in the program. “She was my teacher in college, and the way she goes about the teaching of the craft of writing, it inspires you. I wanted my students to be exposed to that and be a part of it.”
From April 28–30, the high school students and their teachers took master classes from UI graduate students pursuing their MFAs in nonfiction writing. The graduate students were selected based on pitches and lesson plans submitted earlier in the year. Undergraduate students also were selected as counselors to take the visitors on tours of Iowa City and meet for meals at various dining halls on campus to give the participants another taste of college life.
The high school students also attended an evening reading at a local restaurant given by MFA students who received travel writing awards from the Nonfiction Writing Program.
“It gave them a sense of what college is supposed to do,” Sunstein says. “One of the students—when we were at the readings—said, ‘I thought this only happened in the movies.’”
Bernice Santiago, a visiting assistant professor in English, was heavily involved in planning the Lloyd-Jones residency and got to see firsthand how much the opportunity meant to the high schoolers.
“Some of the kids said that this was an opportunity they had only dreamed about before,” Santiago says.
At the end of the weekend at the UI, each high school student read a piece they wrote in a final reception at the Old Capitol Museum. Many stories came from deeply personal places and showed an artistry that belied their age.
“I was quite impressed with the readings by all of the students,” says Jean Lloyd-Jones, who called the residency a great success. “It was very encouraging. The teachers who brought them here were very impressive as well. They seemed to have gotten a lot out of it themselves.”
Sovers says being involved with the residency program reminded him of why he became a teacher.
“To be honest, this experience has really rejuvenated me,” Sovers says. “This was just teaching kids how to find their passion and how to chase it.”
“Getting to watch them sort of wrestle with words in a way that was not tied to any standard or any kind of assessment is a powerful experience,” says Brenna Griffin (BA English education ’05), an English teacher at Cedar Falls High School.
For the students, learning new techniques and practices for their writing was just one aspect of the overall experience.
“I was confident in my writing from the get-go, but I remember the first day being here, I was thinking maybe I’m not good enough to be here,” says Madison Larsen, a student at Cedar Falls High School. “Through this, I learned to be confident in my own writing, and I realized it’s not about comparing (your writing) to other people’s work.”
For more information about the Lloyd-Jones Residency, visit lloyd-jonesresidency.com.
The residency was one portion of an overall initiative to honor Richard Lloyd-Jones. Sunstein, Santiago, and other graduate students who taught the master classes will also spend one day at each of the participating high schools this spring or next fall. They’ll work with the writers individually and will teach an additional master class for residency participants and other students at the schools.
Given the quality of writing that the participating high school students showed in the final readings, both Santiago and Sunstein say they felt affirmed.
“Those kids are hungry and they’re passionate,” says Santiago. “If they can get access to resources, that is a beautiful thing that we can do. It is something they can take and build themselves up into better writers and better people. They just need the resources—and we can offer them.”
For Sunstein and Santiago, who spent two years working on creating this pilot program, the hard work was well worth it.
“I think it was a win-win situation for everybody, and you rarely see that,” Sunstein says. “There’s nothing better than seeing a kid feel free about creating, informing, and feeling as if their voice has something to say to a reader.”