Julie Patterson

Look closer at your neighborhood public school, Indy

I’m a parent of two preschoolers in Indianapolis. I hear parents talk. I know many are enraged by a public school lottery that feels like a smoke and mirrors magic show at a Vegas casino. I know that a rising number of parents are at least marginally aware of the privileges they carry in their daily lives. And I know that many choose to live in Indy’s urban core because they want diversity in their children’s lives.

What I don’t know is why we are fighting among ourselves, essentially pointing fingers at other parents, and pretending our neighborhood Indianapolis Public Schools will be fine if we just show up there.

I initially began writing this article in response to Matthew Gonzalez’s February 2018 feature in Indianapolis Monthly. In that article, Gonzalez bravely, accurately asserts that misguided allocation of resources has effectively reintroduced segregation in IPS and other urban school districts around the country (“The IPS Magnet School Conundrum,” February 2018). But Gonzalez goes on to espouse something I’m hearing too often in parent circles: that parents who choose magnet schools are to blame, that we are the magic resources our neighborhood schools are missing, and that if we choose to apply to one of the magnet schools that lack racial and socioeconomic diversity, we surely do so out of fear and racism.

Nope. Nope. Nope. 

When I wrote “CFI” on my OneMatch application, I was not reacting to the student population in my neighborhood school. I am not rejecting diversity. I’m rejecting the outdated teaching methods and deficit-focused views of students that I predominantly hear and see in our neighborhood schools.

And if you don’t reject that, too, then you might be contributing to the pervasive, systemic social injustices in them.

Suggesting that white families flock to select magnet schools to escape diversity does everyone a disservice. Instead, ask me what I don’t like about the neighborhood school my daughter currently attends for preK, or what I don’t like about the neighborhood school we could choose for her to attend next year, or what I don’t like about dozens of other public, private, and charter schools I’ve visited as part of my job for the past 14+ years. My answers might surprise you.

I often wonder if part of the problem is that most people can’t articulate what makes a school “good.” A lot of well intentioned people have tried and continue to do so, tried to replicate or implement this or that in the name of improvement. It’s a lot like writing (the only other subject I understand deeply): lots of us recognize a good text when we read it, but most people can’t name the specific craft strategies a writer employed to achieve it. There are countless misconceptions about what writers do and why. Maybe that’s true of schools, too. Maybe lots of us aren’t even sure what makes one school feel more desirable to us than another. Maybe it would be helpful if I told you what I see.

When I walk through IPS neighborhood schools like the one where my daughter attends preK (a school that is 75% non-white), I mostly see this:

  • Students sitting at desks in rows, far enough from one another to discourage talking or seeing someone else’s work.
  • Behavior charts and achievement scorecards on walls and bulletin boards.
  • Student work on display that all looks identical.
  • Posters describing “rules”; signs listing what NOT to do.
  • Materials stored largely out of reach, possibly out of sight.
  • Books grouped by reading level
  • Textbooks and worksheets
  • “Hugs and bubbles,” or hands clasped behind backs, or other unnatural-looking rituals when students walk in groups in hallways.

These are largely the same things I see in our own neighborhood school (74% non-white). These are the things I’m rejecting.

What I see at CFI 2, CFI 70, and several other magnet schools (predominantly white, as noted in original IM article):

  • Students seated at tables or desk clusters, even in the middle and upper grades, often talking about what they’re working on, collaborating to solve a problem.
  • No behavior charts or achievement data visible that might suggest to a student that he/she is less capable or less deserving than anyone else.
  • Work on display that shows students interpreting and applying the same concepts in different ways, or solving the same problem via different strategies, rather than simply mirroring one model or supposed exemplar.
  • Posters and signs that remind students what they can do. Charts that list what students have observed in books, ways they have solved math problems. Interesting questions posted on walls. All of this often in students’ handwriting.
  • Not just common school supplies visible and in reach but also interesting materials (paints, clay, artifacts, specimens, games, etc) that are likely to entice children to create, explore, discover, learn.
  • Books arranged by genre or topic rather than level of difficulty. Books not confined to a single bookcase or “library,” but instead peppered throughout the room (in the math area, science area, etc) as if to remind students that texts, too, are tools that help people learn things and get various jobs done.
  • Real world texts like books, magazines, newspapers, and digital devices that people use to research and learn about things from different perspectives, instead of textbooks. Homework/classwork that resembles the work that professional writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, and others do, rather than contrived worksheets.
  • Students traveling the hallways as conscientious adults do, leaving room for others to pass, alert to entry points and corners, and with hushed voices. Though they may occasionally need gentle reminders to practice these norms, they are trusted to follow without need for awkward artificial restraints.

I could list more differences that I’ve noticed: where the principals are and what they’re doing during pickup and dropoff times, or school library policies like whether or not kids get to take books home over fall break. I could point out that the neighborhood school my daughter attends for preK has not cleared the snow on its sidewalks even once this year, but I have gone to magnet schools for my job immediately after dropping her off and walked on cleanly shoveled paths. I could tell you that when I visit CFI for work, a student representing the class I’m visiting typically greets me at the office, introduces him/herself, shakes my hand, and escorts me to the classroom. I could admit that I cringe when I’m in my daughter’s school during morning announcements because they are mind numbing, ineffective, and patronizing: asking students to remain standing after the Pledge for uniform inspection, and introducing a “growth mindset” buzzword with an abstract definition that means nothing to the students, for example.

These are significant differences between schools, disparities that I wholeheartedly agree constitute “separate but equal” thinking.

The real question we as parents in IPS should be asking is not, Did we make the wrong choice for our child? But rather, Why are these schools so different? Do the powers that be in IPS even understand what makes CFI successful, or do they, too, mistakenly assume it has everything to do with the student populations there? Have we filled our neighborhood schools with the same resources, opportunities, and messages that we provide the faculty, students, and families in our magnet schools?

Here’s a hint: CFI’s success has nothing to do with “International Baccalaureate.” And it’s not about who the students are. CFI is appealing and succeeds academically because it is built on an educational philosophy that the faculty understands and buys in to; it has highly capable principals free from mis-micromanagement; principals with the power to choose their staffs; high quality, consistent professional development opportunities for teachers; authentic learning experiences for students; and, most importantly, teachers who choose their words and their actions intentionally, with a genuine belief in their students.

That’s what I wanted for my children when I typed “CFI” on my OneMatch application. That’s what I want for every child in IPS. I offer my observations with hope that we can stop pretending that our neighborhood schools will be better if the white families show up. We can’t just show up. We’ve all got to go in with our eyes open, with some knowledge of what to look for, what to demand. If we do that, we will have schools even “better” than CFI, schools that actually reflect the diversity of our community and the true capabilities of all our children.

Because frankly, I’m also afraid. Afraid that if parents stop demanding schools like CFI, there won’t be any.

Note: I submitted this response to Indianapolis Monthly and other news media in Indianapolis, but no one wants to print education commentary and/or they want it confined to short blurb on the “letters to the editor” page. Indicative of the problem, perhaps, that only a privileged few—non-educators, of course—get to write more than 2,000 words on education, and the rest of us are confined to 200-300 word sound bites.

Writing as a way of life

Check out my interview on Inside the Teaching Artist Studio, a project of Arts for Learning Indiana that profiles exemplary teaching artists and how we augment excellent curriculum in schools. An excerpt:

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.

Read the interview

What writers do: Obsess, recall, wonder, question, and record (an example)

On the first page—the title page, if you will—of my new Moleskin journal, a pre-printed,  practical suggestion beckons to me (see photo above):

In case of loss, please return to: __________________

As a reward: $_____________

I can’t get started writing in this journal, because I am stuck in fascination on this otherwise pristine French vanilla page. I’ve owned other Moleskin notebooks—though admittedly this is my first 8″x10″ one—yet I don’t recall a page like this. Has it always been there or is this an innovation, a carefully researched product development advancement?

The practicality of it appeals to me. I once lost a journal, left it behind at a breakfast diner in the heart of Boston (and it wasn’t even my breakfast diner where it might have been safe). I didn’t sleep for two full days worrying about it. I left it during Sunday brunch, I realized it after 2 pm closing, and the diner was closed on Mondays. Had it been noticed or unwittingly swept into the trash? Who found it—employee or patron? Did they turn it in to “lost and found”? Did the diner have a lost and found? Or did the finder keep it? Wouldn’t I have kept it if it were me? Probably I would have had the heart to turn it in with a qualifier: I get this myself if no one comes back to claim it. I wondered if anyone read it? Did they laugh? In the good way? Or cry? Did they see any potential? Did they like it? Boston is a literary city, after all, so there was a lot at stake for me. What if it was found by a publisher, an acquisitions editor, an agent? What if…

I showed up an hour after the diner opened on Tuesday. “I think I left a notebook here on Sunday,” I said to the server at the counter.

“Oh yeah,” interrupted a different server—but not the one who had worked my table on Sunday. She motioned with the coffee pot in her hand. “You were sitting over there, in the booth by the window?”

“Yes,” I confirmed, almost looking her in the eyes, unsure whether to feel elated or embarrassed. At that point in my life, I was still too naive to understand that emotions are not mutually exclusive.

“It’s in the back,” she said to the server I had approached first. He left the counter and retrieved it—begrudgingly, I’m fairly certain.

As I walked out, my small leather journal hugged tightly in my hands, the other server called after me. “Good luck with that.”

My heart sank, pulling my chin down as my eyes met the floor. “Thanks,” I mumbled.

Clearly, she had opened it and had read at least part of it. Or someone had done so and told her about it. She was nothing but kind and encouraging; still, I never went back to that diner. I was too embarrassed.

Nearly 20 years and zillions of technological advances later, the manufacturer of my new journal seems to anticipate incidents such as this and implies that I should not only print my name and address on its title page but also assign a monetary value to its contents and make a promise of reward that I’m not certain I’ll be in financial position to deliver?!

I’m not sure if this prospect motivates me, angers me, or saddens me. On one hand, hell yes, my notebooks are worth something. A lot. At conservative estimate, it will take 192 hours to fill these pages. Even at Indiana’s minimum wage, that’s $1,392. But if there’s an actual book in this journal? $10,000? More if I publish another one or two books first? What if a Harry Potter winds up in that notebook…no wait, that question is easier to answer. If a Harry Potter ends up in my notebook but I lose it and you return it to me, I’ll reward you quite generously, but you’ll have to wait roughly 10 years post publication, which might easily be 10 years post showing up in my notebook. So you’ll get an IOU payable in 20 years. It seems Moleskin hasn’t given me a big enough blank line to write all that.

Seriously, Moleskin, why the “$”? Why can’t I write, “My eternal gratitude”? Or “Your clean conscience”? Why does it have to be about $? Reward: A role in contributing to literary culture and the teaching of writing. No? Doesn’t sound enticing enough to the average citizen? Shame on us, then.

Bam. That’s it. Project #6 for 2018: the story of a lost artist’s notebook, its contents, and what happens when an average citizen makes an above average effort to return it to its owner. I guess I’ll make some notes about the possible storyline in my new journal.

Thanks, Moleskin. This is why I keep a writer’s notebook, after all.

Julie Patterson strives to make the writing process visible to students and teachers in grades K-16. You might enjoy these additional posts that allow us to peek inside her notebooks: I Have Lived (and Write about It) and Inside my Writing Notebooks: Julie’s 5 Most Frequently Used Notebook Strategies.

I have lived (and write about it)

Notebook entry about trip to hair salon

I am honored to be a contributor to a blog that I love, Sharing Our Notebooks curated by children’s author and teacher Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. I have given writing teachers a quick peek inside my notebooks in the past, but with Amy’s blog as inspiration, this time I am really putting myself out there, baring entries that fed the works closest to my heart.

Read the full blog post here. Then be sure to snoop around the blog to see others’ notebooks and pick up some try-it tips for your own writing inspiration.

Teaching point: writers don’t rely on punctuation to convey emotion

Over on the Partnership for Inquiry Learning’s “Real Teaching, Real Learning” blog this week, I share a revision strategy that I frequently teach in elementary and middle schools, and explain why I’m now calling the exclamation point an excavation point.

…good narrative writers (fiction and some types of nonfiction) don’t rely on punctuation to convey emotion. Good writers know that characters convey emotion. Their body language, their actions, and their speech reveal what they feel.

Read more

One way of looking at 13 cardinals 

On the third anniversary of my mom’s death, I was visited by more than a dozen red cardinals in five days. I otherwise hadn’t seen one since Christmas, a full six months earlier.

I looked up the meaning of cardinal sightings, though I had a vague memory that my mom had told me once that cardinals were signs of deceased loved ones. Google confirmed this: cardinals have long been regarded by multiple cultures as spiritual messengers capable of traveling between the Earthly world and the afterlife. Other online guides suggested that the cardinal is a sign of affirmation, meant to validate decisions and signify change.

The first of my thirteen cardinal sightings was significant by itself. Three birds came close to me at once, so that alone made an impression. But I have a tendency to overanalyze and then minimize things, so I assume the other cardinals came in large quantity so I wouldn’t disregard the sign. I wouldn’t get too hung up on what, exactly, the cardinals symbolized. After all, it didn’t really matter if they were some manifestation of the Spirit, sent to affirm my decision to return to teaching and writing; or a sign of affection from my mom herself, a nod from her as my former babysitter that my young kids would be fine in child care a few days a week; or a blessing from my brother to move forward with my existing memoir; or a sign from Nana…no point agonizing over what single message the red cardinals brought. Their gist was that things were generally very good for me. I was initiating a lot of forward momentum in my life, and the universe approved.

I’ve always believed in signs. Once, when I was contemplating an unprecedented move from my hometown in Indiana to the city of Boston, a city I had never even visited, I looked up at the ceiling above my dead-end cubicle and prayed, “If I’m supposed to go, God, give me a sign.” Aware even then of my tendency to overanalyze and doubt myself, I quickly added, “And make the sign really obvious so I can’t second guess it.” My telephone rang immediately. It was someone from my company’s office near Boston, an unprecedented call.

Most of the other signs in my life have been subtle. But those cardinals were unmistakably different. Like the immediate phone call from Boston.

A few weeks after the cardinal visits, an illustrator friend posted a photo of some art she was experimenting with digitally. It wasn’t something she intended to show or sell, just a glimpse inside her studio that day, a way she was pushing herself to try new media. The equivalent, perhaps, of me posting a photo of a notebook entry where I tried writing fiction. But her subject had been a handful of bright red cardinals. Immediately, I knew I needed her digital doodling, so I asked to buy a print of it.

Now, my friend’s red cardinals sit on my desk as a reminder of the real life cardinals that told me I should be writing again.


I am excited to resume my journey as a writer and teacher of writing.

About the title

As I thought about all those cardinals, I kept being reminded, too, of one of the first exercises in an undergraduate poetry course I took in 1995. We were practicing observation, and one of the mentor texts we studied was “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. The poem I wrote for my assignment was held up as an example in class, an especially significant feat because by common measure I didn’t belong in the class. I wasn’t technically an English major and had gotten special dispensation to enroll. So perhaps the cardinals weren’t the first birds in my life to tell me something, and that may well be worth noting, too.

Conferring with Young Writers: 5 Quick Reminders

Originally published in April 2015 and updated this month, teacher/consultant Mary Roderique and I offer five quick reminders and how-tos for conferring in writing workshop. Read more

Ways to celebrate, publish student writing

What do you do at the end of unit of study?

Your students have spent weeks cultivating their texts through a complete unit of study— from noticing ideas in their everyday lives to noodling on thoughts in their notebooks, then drafting, intentionally applying craft strategies, revising, revising again, and editing.

What do you do to reward their efforts and emulate “publishing” for an audience beyond the teacher?

See ideas in my Indiana Partnership for Young Writers gallery

Looking closely at upper grade students’ nonfiction

With Katherine Bomer’s book Hidden Gems in mind, I take a close look at a text by an upper grade student and offer my analysis of what’s going well, what I’d teach next.

Read more

A Unit of Study in Poetry

Check out the poetry module I created for the Indiana Partnership for Young Writers’ website for a step-by-step tour of how you might teach this unit of study. Sample mini-lessons, noticing charts, conferring videos, conferring notes and more are included—many from my own classes. Also includes “Teacher Try-Its” to help you fill your own writer’s notebook with material that you can teach from!

Visit now

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