Since 2012, the Creative Writing MFA has offered students the opportunity to participate in an unique, hands-on teaching opportunity in the heart of downtown Toronto. When we receive applications from prospective MFA students, The Parkdale Project is one of the aspects of our program people are most enthusiastic and curious about. Going into our fifth year of the partnership, we decided to ask a few of those who have been connected with the initiative what made their experiences meaningful.
MFA Coordinator Catherine Bush remembers the first round of workshops conducted with Grade 7 and 8 students at Parkdale Public School, many of whom are from Tibetan and Roma families, or other newcomer populations, with diverse levels of literacy. “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 kids’ 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.”
The program has since expanded to include older students at Parkdale Collegiate. MFA workshop instructors teach the Parkdale Public students in teams of threes in a six-week practicum. At Parkdale Collegiate, based on MFA students’ request for an opportunity to teach solo, they teach individual two-class units. In preparing to teach Grade 12 students fiction writing for the first time, Mahak Jain (2013 cohort), had some apprehension. “Most of them were seventeen years old, and some of them were older—nearly adults. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would the students think I was wasting their time? Would I bore them? Were they going to give me a tough time just because they could?” She soon realized that the students were happy to have her there. Reflecting on it, she realizes it’s not all that surprising: “Imagine someone showing up in your life one day and saying to you, ‘Develop a character inspired by the physical characteristics of a dolphin or a giraffe or a beetle.’” Jain found the students were curious and engaged, and that while everything they undertook was a part of learning, it was also a departure from the usual way of learning. “I feel pretty great about having been a part of that,” she says.
Allison LaSorda (2014 cohort), another past instructor with the program, explains that in teaching Grade 9s, one of her goals was to bring accessible material to the students’ attention that they might not have encountered before. She had fun demonstrating that humour and poetry can co-exist. “One of my favourite moments was when a student volunteered to read ‘Birdwatching at the Equator’ by Al Purdy aloud for the class. As he moved through the lines, "[the male] dances to entertain his mate / pointing his toes upward / so they can discuss blueness / which seems to them very beautiful," he seemed struck, and his face lit up with a huge smile. It reminded me of something I may take for granted—that literature's potency is immediate and tangible.”
Jain also finds it helpful to remember her past students when she gets too caught up in the seriousness of writing. “The great thing about working with teenagers is that they aren’t concerned about their status as writers. Watching them work brought me back to the thrill of creating. The fun of giving characters absurd traits, the delight of throwing obstacles in their way.”
Those first Grade 7 and 8 students told others that the writing workshops were a highlight of the year and their teachers were “impressed by the MFA students’ professionalism, the quality of their lesson plans, and their dedication,” noting that the Grade 7s and 8s learned “that their experiences made great stories.” Of her own students, Jain, recalls their honesty and inhibition. “There was a story about a teenager who desperately wanted a car so that he could get away from his difficult home life, another about a fairy who wanted to live in the human world…I felt acutely aware that stories were a gift available to all of us.”
The MFA students also provide the Parkdale students with role models of people pursuing writing as a career and making writing central to their lives. The program culminates in the spring with an assembly in which MFA students join both Parkdale Public and Parkdale Collegiate students in reading out some of their creative writing. The work of the Parkdale Public school students is also gathered into a booklet each year and all students involved are given a copy.
The Parkdale Project continues this year with six MFA students team-teaching a six-week practicum the two Grade 7 and 8 classes at Parkdale Public and six students teaching two-day units in the Grade Twelve Writers’ Craft class at Parkdale Collegiate. Parkdale Collegiate teachers hope this collaborative project will inspire younger students in the school to take Writers’ Craft and foster an ongoing interest in creative writing among students.
Mahak Jain’s poetry and fiction have been published in The New Quarterly, Joyland Magazine, and Room Magazine. In 2014, she was long listed for Prism International's Short Fiction Prize. Her first book for children, Maya, is forthcoming from Owlkids Books in Spring 2016. She is also the incoming Administrator of the MFA program.
Allison LaSorda's writing can be found in The Fiddlehead, [PANK], and Brick, A Literary Journal. Anstruther Press recently published her first chapbook.