University of Calgary


Creative writing in the community

New Writer-in-the-Schools Program connects U of C writers with high-school students

Diane Guichon mentors three students from Gaia Marsden’s Grade 7 GATE Humanities class: (L-R) Mitch Ballachay, Louise Neave and

Diane Guichon mentors three students from Gaia Marsden’s Grade 7 GATE Humanities class: (L-R) Mitch Ballachay, Louise Neave and Mandy Hagen.
/ Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
By Janice Lee

A new program launched by the Department of English brings high-school students face-to-face with creative writers from the U of C.

The Writer-in-the-Schools Program places an English graduate student or recent graduate from the University of Calgary at Queen Elizabeth High School in Calgary to enrich students’ learning in the field of creative writing.

Working primarily with students in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) stream, the program gives students the opportunity to have the mentorship of a member of the creative writing community. The program, funded by the Faculty of Humanities and the GATE Parents Association, provides for 12 hours a week of mentoring from September to April.

Diane Guichon, MA’06, is the first Writer-in-the-Schools. Last year, she won the City of Calgary’s W.O. Mitchell Book Award for her first book of poetry, Birch Split Bark.

“I think it’s important to show young people that there are people all around them who are actively involved in writing and trying to articulate and engage in what it means to be human in today’s society,” says Guichon. “Creative writing requires students to do more than just regurgitate ideas—it helps them to engage in the world around them.”

Guichon works closely with teachers, providing ideas on how to incorporate creative writing into their curriculum and bring engaging texts into the classroom. Over the course of the year, she’s worked with students from Grade 7 to 11 in a wide range of capacities, including one-on-one sessions; readings with published authors; engaging students to write and perform their own one-act plays; and leading workshops on how to write poetry.

“I enjoyed writing when we had to include specific words into a short story,” says Mitch Ballachay, a Grade 7 student. “It was fun to see the different ways the other students would process the words into unique stories.”

Classmate Dallen Mohagen liked the “free-writing” exercise. “It lets your mind soar without being judged or graded.”

The U of C’s Writer-in-the-Schools Program was inspired by the High School Poet-in-Residence program at the University of Arizona. While on a Fulbright fellowship at Arizona State University, Tom Wayman, an associate professor in the Department of English, had the opportunity to see the program in action.

“Return to community is one of the basic commitments of the university’s academic plan, and the Writer-in-the-Schools Program seemed an excellent way for the department and the faculty to put this principle into practice,” says Anne McWhir, head of the Department of English.

Guichon not only acts as a creative writing mentor but, as a recent U of C graduate, also gives the Queen Elizabeth students a connection to the U of C. “These students are deciding now whether to pursue science or humanities programs and investigating which post-secondary institutions they’d like to attend,” she says. “Having a real-person contact at the U of C and seeing what kind of work is being done at the university level can help them in making those kinds of decisions.”

As the first year of the program comes to an end, Guichon and Dane Scholefield, the school’s GATE learning leader, believe the experience has boosted the students’ enthusiasm for literature and writing.

“With Diane’s help, students have engaged in creative writing workshops, produced excellent pieces of writing, and listened to a number of guest authors speak about their craft,” says Scholefield. “This will undoubtedly have a meaningful and lasting impact upon our students.”