Grade 8 students pose with copies of the books they wrote with the help of U of G's creative writing MFA students.

Parkdale Public School in Toronto is like many city schools, with children from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. As U of G instructor Catherine Bush says, the community of Parkdale served by the school “has been home to waves of immigrants, many of them refugees.” At the moment, the student body includes many Tibetan children and Roma children from Hungary, for example.

It also includes some of the children of Michelle Elleray, a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies, and it’s through Elleray that a unique program linking U of G students working towards an MFA in creative writing with Parkdale’s Grade 8 kids has been initiated.

“I live here, my kids go or went to school here, and Catherine Bush lives nearby and cycles past the school regularly,” says Elleray. “We wanted to explore how the University’s strengths could contribute to a vibrant, but also challenged, group of people in our midst.” The students have varying levels of skills with the English language, and poverty is a problem for many of the families.

At the same time, the MFA students taught by Bush were looking for opportunities to gain experience in teaching. Beverley Cooper, for example, says: “I trained as an actor, and have worked as an actor and writer for over 30 years. I have done a little teaching, mostly workshops. After I graduate I hope to continue my writing career but also add teaching to my resume.” Naoko Kumagai expresses similar goals, adding: “I had minimal teaching experiencing – mostly tutoring ESL – before I started here.”

With Elleray, who is on the school’s parent council, providing a link to the school, and Bush working with the MFA students to develop lesson plans and activities, they initiated a six-week project that involved all four of Parkdale’s Grade 8 classes. “Parkdale’s classroom teachers were great,” adds Bush. “They are so engaged and vital as teachers. They warned me that the student teachers would have to be ready to think on their feet.”

Six weeks later, though, the classroom teachers were equally positive about the MFA students. Says Elleray: “The teachers were very impressed by the students’ professionalism, the quality of their lesson plans and their dedication in working with the kids.”

Those lesson plans led the Grade 8 students in writing zombie haiku, memoirs, rants, poetry based on a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet, The Adventures of Tarzan at ESL School and other creative projects. Often the written work was enhanced by illustrations. Says Bush: “When you are working with children with diverse language abilities, drawing can open up the story.”

Kumagai says the young students “had lots of energy and were full of ideas. They wrote some wonderful stuff.” The most challenging part? “Keeping them focused.” Cooper also comments on the challenge of managing the exuberance of the students, but adds that “they were lively and engaged, and it was fun getting to know them. The quality of their writing was surprisingly high.”

Bush loved seeing the program in action. “I watched the MFA students gain enormous confidence over the six weeks they worked with the children. They put so much resourcefulness and creativity into planning the sessions, and then hearing the children’s stories and seeing how creative they could be was exhilarating for all of us. The children gave us back as much as we gave them.”

Elleray says the students also gained in confidence. “They learned that their experiences made great stories,” she says. The teachers have all agreed that they’d like to be involved next year.

The program finished up with an assembly where each child was given a copy of a spiral-bound book (printed and bound at U of G) containing the stories, poems and other work created by the Grade 8  students. “We wanted them to have something tangible,” says Elleray.

She adds: “We have funding to continue this another year, but we hope that the project will be ongoing, giving the MFA students the chance to gain classroom teaching experience, enabling Parkdale’s Grade 8 students to voice their ideas and views of the world, and showing the University’s engagement with critical literacy in the wider community.”