Freshmen at St. Gregory College Preparatory School took to cooler climes atop Mount Lemmon last month to explore their writing with noted Tucson author Laila Halaby.

During the two-day retreat, which was part of the school's Our Stories Project, 54 freshmen took "Coming of Age" short personal stories they had written and dramatized them, with help from Halaby and St. Gregory English teacher Kate Oubre.

They illustrated their stories with guidance from art teacher Judy Derickson. Drama teacher Lisa Bodden helped them create storyboards for videos.

It's the third year Halaby has inspired St. Gregory freshmen through her workshop.

Said Benny Louchheim: "I liked how she could write amazing things from little inspirations in her everyday life."

Student Tess Cotter said the workshop helped her realize the power of writing.

"Writing something down can make you remember your life rather than having distant memories. Writing can be an outlet and a powerful thing in life."

Before the retreat, students read Halaby's "West of the Jordan," gaining insight into the lives of Islamic women.

"This year, we both wanted to get more ambitious and really have students delve into their writing more fully, which is how the project was born," Oubre said of the workshop.

"What's great about Laila's work is that it really subverts Western readers' ideas about Muslims and about the Middle East," Oubre continued. "She focuses a great deal on individual people and how they survive turmoil and the pitfalls of political, social and religious conflict."

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As a workshop leader, Halaby's "energy and enthusiasm really appeal to budding young writers as well as to reluctant ones, and each year, the work that students accomplish is a bit more polished and real," Oubre said.

The workshop gave teens the opportunity to look outside of themselves to better understand what others are going through, based on their writing, Halaby said.

"It helps you to honor your own experience and appreciate the experiences of others," she said.

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