A virtual classroom has resulted in a one-of-a-kind learning opportunity for creative writing students at Lethbridge College. An award-winning lineup of authors and illustrators from across North America took the time to visit with students this semester to talk about their careers, writing and illustrating styles as well as to provide tips for students looking to begin their own careers.
Instructor Dr. Amy Hodgson-Bright, who has a PhD in English focused on Children’s and Young Adult Literature, invited five guests to visit her Writing for Children and Young Adults class. When she was an undergraduate student at Mount Allison University 14 years ago, Hodgson-Bright had the opportunity to meet and interact with multiple authors and she wanted to bring that experience into her own classroom. An author of two young adult novels, she says there is value in connecting with both works of literature and those who are writing it.
“As an English student, the ability to connect to not just what we were reading in class, but also to who was writing it, enriched the experience,” says Hodgson-Bright. “Research shows inviting authors into the classroom helps students’ lifelong engagement with literacy and helps them see more meaning in writing and reading. When I found out I got to teach this creative writing course, I wanted to give students the same opportunity that I had.”
With the class being delivered virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hodgson-Bright wasn’t limited by geography when identifying speakers for her class. The guests included Seattle-based author Deb Caletti, who is a National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor recipient; Canadian writer and illustrator Sydney Smith, who was awarded the Governor General’s Award; Canadian author Heather Smith, winner of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award; Chicago-based comics artist Kat Leyh, recipient of the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book; and local cartoonist and educator Eric Dyck, illustrator of Slaughterhouse Slough (and regular contributor to Lethbridge College’s alumni magazine, Wider Horizons).
“The best part of the guest author visits for me was learning of their varied methods and motivations of and for writing,” says student Leif Isaacson. “While not all would be useful for me in my own writing, the experience of seeing different authors with different methods and approaches was most helpful to me. It aided me in expanding my view of just what writing is and can be.”
In preparation for the author visits, and for writing their own creative fiction, students read books by each of the authors.
“I found it incredibly intriguing when Sydney Smith, one of the authors, walked us through the process of writing Small in the City,” says student Steffanie Costigan. “It made me realize how much thought and work was really put into this book. To be honest, I always thought that writing children’s books would be easier than writing for an older audience, but after he walked us through his process, I realized it is not – it is just as much work and research as writing for an older audience.”
The author visits were supported by an internal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Exchange grant. Earlier this year, Hodgson-Bright presented about the value of author visits to enhance learning, motivation and connection at a virtual conference at Louisiana State University. She looks forward to inviting new authors into her creative writing class in the upcoming winter semester.
“Halifax-writer Sydney Smith has won one of the most prestigious awards in Canada for one of his picture books, the Governor General's Award, and he was so relaxed and informal with students,” says Hodgson-Bright. “He presented from his studio, and invited students into his workspace. Most authors are not untouchable people living lives and careers that students can't aspire towards. They're really just normal people who love to write and have turned that into their job.”
In addition to the author visits, Dyck led students through an illustration workshop to prepare them to illustrate their own children’s picture book.
Hodgson-Bright has also received a SSHRC Explore grant to help launch a student-edited literary magazine for the campus, which she hopes to launch in 2021.
Additional student quotes
“The author visit with Deb Caletti was an outstanding experience that benefited me tremendously. I have gained further confidence with my writing for young adults and youth after hearing the advice and knowledge that Deb had to offer. I give two big thumbs up for this experience!” - Madison Dry
“I have to say Deb Caletti has been my favorite author visit, save the best for the last. I found her experience and the advice she shared very valuable. I was surprised at how much I found myself relating to her. I loved her drive to fight for her dreams and passion. It really did shine out in this author visit – how much writers must fight and sacrifice to become successful.” - Steffanie Costigan
“Having the opportunity to hear from many different authors in class was a very cool, insightful experience and one that helped me grow as a writer. Heather Smith's visit, in particular, was one that helped me create my own children's story that I was able to be proud of. - Abigail Hall
“The author visits were a unique and valuable experience. I was very grateful for the opportunity to listen to them speak about how they put their ideas to paper, as well as the publication process.” - Colby Lindseth
“For someone who is fairly new to creative writing in general, I liked that we got to talk to these authors and learn about what shaped them to write and create their books. I really liked Deb Caletti's visit, it felt more personal to listen to how her experience shaped her and her stories. Also, the advice she gave really helped me pinpoint some great ideas for stories.” - Renee Boser
“I enjoyed all the author visits we had this semester, but my favorites were Deb Caletti, for her past struggles and her present triumphs, and Heather Smith for her informative and helpful presentation on writing stories and getting published.” - Patricia Adams