Why did you become a teaching artist?
I have a passion for writing and wanted to help students see it the way I do—as a tool for thinking through important questions, a way to climb inside other people’s minds, to explore ideas I am curious about, to be attentive to and remember special things. I create this experience for students primarily by letting them choose their own topics, and letting them see what I write about in my writing notebooks.
You write about having a passion for writing. Where did this passion come from? Have you always loved to write?
As a kid, I snuck into my closet with a flashlight, pen, and paper after bedtime and wrote fictionalized retellings of the day’s events. I was everything in those stories that I thought I couldn’t be in real life: a sassy smart aleck with an uncanny ability to insult and/or shame all those who wronged me in any way. I also wrote letters to my mom (my frequent antagonist) and then tore them into tiny undetectable pieces and threw them away. I suppose it was always about the process of writing for me, about how I felt after writing, not about publishing my end products.
The teaching of writing in schools has changed somewhat since I began 17 years ago, with many schools now trying to embrace the common practices of authentic writing workshops. It is exciting to be part of that shift. But from the beginning, teaching writing has made me a better writer, too.
How has teaching writing made you a better writer?
I’m more aware of what I am doing and why. It has made me more intentional in my art, and attentive in a different way to the craftsmanship of other writers. A few years into my Teaching Artist career, a mentor encouraged me to use my own writing as examples in class. I was initially mortified, feeling my writing wasn’t yet “good enough.” I took her advice anyway and started experimenting with thinking out loud about my works-in-progress. Students responded differently to me. They wrote better, not because they were copying me, but because the work seemed more important to them. They matched my vulnerability and worked on texts they cared about.
What is your favorite thing about being a teaching artist?
There are at least two kids in every class that remind me why I love teaching writing. It’s usually one kid who has not been very successful at writing in school and another who is used to getting praised for writing—the two extremes.
I can often spot the first kid quickly: he is sitting near the teacher’s desk away from classmates, or has been redirected several times by the teacher as they clean up and get ready for my workshop. This kid loves looking inside my writing notebooks. That’s what you wrote? Hey, I notice stuff like that all the time, too. I didn’t know writers do things like that. I love watching this kid’s enthusiasm rise up as he discovers that he can choose his own topic when it’s time to write: So I can write about dirt bikes? What about video games? Can I write about video games? I can see that I’ve changed his perspective on something he used to hate and made him feel capable.
The other kid has historically been praised for her writing. I make this student very uncomfortable. She tends to ask questions like: How long should it be? Is my teacher going to grade this? She’s the first student to raise her hand when the room goes silent except for the sound of pencils on paper. Can you look at this? Is this okay? This student reminds me a lot of me as a kid, so sometimes I push her a little harder than I push others. “Do you think it’s okay?” I ask, instead of giving her the affirmation she wants. This student is usually still annoyed with me by the time I leave, and she likely won’t change her ideas about writing much. But if I get to see her multiple times over the course of several weeks in a residency, she often learns to trust her own instincts and voice. A student like this handed me a note at the end of a 5-visit residency, “Thank you for showing me that what I write is important, even though I’m quiet.”
So that. That’s my favorite thing.
Julie Patterson is a writer specializing in memoir and essay. She also serves as writer-in-residence for the Indiana Partnership for Young Writers at Butler University and an adjunct professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Lesley University.