History of the Missoula Writing Collaborative

Above: Sheryl Noethe teaches in 1996, two years after cofounding MWC in 1994.

Above: An in-class reading in a Lewis and Clark 4th grade classroom, with Writer in Residence Sheryl Noethe and teacher Sharon Jones.

Above: MWC Writer in Residence Robert Lee teaches at Lowell School.

Above: An article highlighting Caroline Patterson’s (MWC Executive Director 2014 – 2023) teaching at Central School.

Above: Caroline Patterson and children’s librarian Pam Carlton with the Missoula Children’s Poetry Map at the Missoula Public Library.

Above: Writer in Residence Sam Dunnington works with a student at Ovando School in rural western Montana.

The Missoula Writing Collaborative was started in 1994 as the brainchild of philanthropist Susan O’Connor and Professor Virginia Carmichael. After they moved to Missoula from Texas, they realized the area could be a great home for a poetry-in-the-schools program, similar to the Writer in the Schools program (WITS) in Houston. They hired Sheryl Noethe (pictured at right), poet and author of Poetry Everywhere, who met with Rosellen Brown, the founder of the WITS program in Missoula. Under the guidance of the WITS program, Noethe and her cofounders created a board and started a pilot program in five Missoula schools. 

The pilot program was to write poetry in the classroom, because with its focus on music, imagery, storytelling, and voice—combined with its brevity—poetry worked as a terrific way to teach children about the power and potential of language.

During the year-long program writers visited classrooms for one hour each week. During that hour, the writer presented a triggering poetry exercise for twenty minutes, then the students wrote for twenty minutes, and lastly the students read aloud for the final twenty minutes. 

It is the combination of listening, writing, and then reading aloud that is the magic of this program: at the end, the instructors produce an anthology of the children’s work and they organize a reading which teachers, parents, and friends attend. Children who, at the beginning, could barely put a pencil to paper, proudly walk to the microphone to read poems about Ice Princesses, Odes to Pickles, Wolf Poems, and poems about the Clark Fork River, the Bitterroot, and the Mission Mountains.

This alchemy happens year after year in these writing classrooms—but each time a student discovers the magic of his or her voice—our program is reborn.

Our program grew as additional Missoula schoolteachers began requesting the program for their classrooms. In 2001, a full-time director, Megan McNamer was hired. and the program continued to expanded into schools in Missoula and the surrounding areas, as well as pilot programs in Hawaii and Hydaburg, AK. State and national arts grants, as well as additional foundation grants support expanded programming in additional third and fifth-grade classrooms. With the help of a 2010 Strategic Plan, the organization stabilized its funding and growth. An Our Town Grant in 2012 supported additional writing collaborations with local conservations groups, studying raptor migrations and rivers in Missoula. In 2014, an NEA Art Works grant supported additional programming on the Flathead Reservation of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, starting in three schools, which has now expanded to five. Additional schools in the surrounding areas of Missoula have added MWC creative writing to the curriculum. MWC has also experimented with interactive distance learning to bring creative writing residencies to remote Montana communities.

In 2014, MWC hired a new full-time director, Caroline Patterson. Along with part-time artistic director Sheryl Noethe, Patterson secured funding to bring poetry residencies to all Missoula fourth-grade classrooms. In 2015, MWC also became the fiscal sponsor for Free Verse Writing Project, a program that provides creative writing for youth in juvenile detention center.

In 2016, MWC writers created a Missoula Children’s Poetry Map with funding from an Our Town Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Residency programming expanded to 31 rural, tribal, and town schools in western Montana with funding from the NEA and the Montana Arts Council as well as many public and private organizations. This ARCGis map is located in prize-winning Missoula Public Library and features 500 poems, recordings, and illustrations of Missoula neighborhoods by Missoula children.

MWC hires outstanding writers to teach in the classrooms. We require our staff to have advanced degrees (an MFA or MA) or an equivalent record of publication.  Our writers are practicing artists who are well-published and well-known in their fields. Two of our writers have been Montana poet laureates. Most have published books or have been published in prestigious literary journals, many have been recognized by national and state arts fellowships and grants and are well-known among their peers. We believe that having practicing writers work with students brings an unparalleled level of expertise and experience with the written word. After all, these writers face the fear of the blank page every day—and have spent years learning strategies to cope with the imagination.

MWC writers pivoted their learning through the pandemic years in 2020 and 2021, when Montana schools were closed. They made poetry videos and taught online classes, a skill that has continued to serve them well. This continued presence in the schools was vital when schools reopened. Poetry was an important tool to help students reconnect socially and emotionally after a year of isolation. Our writer, Dana Fitz Gale, also completed a student indicating that creative writing in 4th grade classrooms also markedly improves literacy.

This presence also helped MWC to expand after the pandemic. In 2022, MWC initiated two new writing residencies. Caroline Patterson began the Continental Divide Residencies, supporting creative writing in elementary schools in Seeley Lake, Lincoln, and Ovando schools, supported by the Tykkeson Foundation. She also initiated the Clark Fork Creative Writing Residencies in third and fourth grades in Alberton, St. Regis, and Superior elementary schools, with funding from the Jane S. Heman Foundation.

Poetry projects have blossomed in the past few years. In 2022, our writers and their students collaborated in 41 classrooms throughout western Montana to create hometown poetry posters about towns ranging from Dixon to Darby, and in 2023, MWC collaborated with American Rivers and students at C.S. Porter to create river poems about seven western Montana rivers: the Clark Fork, Clearwater River, Fish Creek, Kootenai Creek, Morrell Creek, Rattlesnake Creek, and Rock Creek.

MWC writers pride themselves on being able to work in varied classrooms throughout western Montana, from Ovando to Ronan, from Arlee to Darby. Now in our twenty-ninth year, our writers are in 38 rural, tribal, and Missoula schools. Since our creation, our writers have introduced approximately 50,000 students to the joy of creative writing. We look forward to expanding into additional western Montana classrooms with our successful program.

On June 14, 2023, Caroline Patterson retired to pursue to a writing career. Her successor, Caroline Simms, is thrilled to continue the tradition of working with writers, funders, and classroom teachers to bring the joy of creative writing to young students. As Sheryl Noethe says, “Poetry saves lives.”

Left: Writer in Residence Chris La Tray leads a group of 4th graders in a reading onstage at Ronan High school on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.