Creators, Makers, and Doers: Josie Fretwell
Posted on 6/24/16 by Arts & History
Josie Fretwell is an educator with a passion for helping students develop unique and independent ideas through different forms of written expression. As an active member in Big Tree Arts, she brings poets and spoken word performers from around the country into her classroom to inspire and inform her students about the creative possibilities writing offers for those willing to explore beyond traditional boundaries. It is through these interactions that a largely underserved group can gain entry into a rich and diverse literary community.
Can you describe your role in the community?
Well, my primary role in the community is a classroom school teacher. I’m a public school teacher and I teach English and language arts. So, my role is to encourage kids to develop strong writing and reading skills that they can use creatively for their own purposes and also in the service of the community, in their jobs or in any area where they would need the skills of reading, writing, and literacy, to be effective, contributing members of the community.
What is it that you most enjoy about teaching English?
I think the thing I really like about teaching English is to see kids really start to be able to express themselves. It’s interesting, for most people, it’s easy to express yourself in language. It’s easy to talk, to explain, what you’re trying to, but the transference of that into writing as a skill is really a complicated thing. It’s a complicated thing to learn how to write persuasively or even clearly. It takes effort and it takes time. And it takes the development of your mind, your mental development, and even your own emotional development. Like in understanding how to address more subtle or elusive things, like tone, and even the development of vocabulary and having a wide-enough range of words to express yourself on a variety of topics in a way that’s entertaining or persuasive or informational. If you’re trying to describe or explain, those are all very complicated tasks. I think that’s why you see a lot of people can write, but only people who really devote themselves, heart and soul, to writing as a life or a career really achieve excellence in it. It’s one thing to be able to write a letter or a memo. It’s another thing to be able to write something really extraordinary. Of course, that’s not what we’re about here in public school in tenth- and eleventh-grade English. It’s more about how to wrangle this tool to serve you in your ability to understand and how to communicate to someone you’re not talking to, without the benefit of being able to talk and juke around and use your body language. Just to write to communicate is such a powerful skill, and I really appreciate watching kids struggle with it. A lot of kids really do want to write and they want to write well, but they know that they have a ways to go to get there. It can be pretty satisfying to see kids really engage with the struggle.
What is your role with the Big Tree Arts organization?
My role with Big Tree Arts is to host traveling performance poets and spoken-word poets that come through the Valley. Generally, we are hosting people that are traveling from community to community to perform at slam poetry events, so these artists are traveling around the country, performing and competing on the slam poetry circuit that Big Tree Arts is in.
Big Tree Arts has been around for many years now, eight, as an official non-profit. Their stated mission goal is to promote and support performance spoken-word poetry as a free speech and creative event for the Treasure Valley. They work with poets that are traveling around to bring them here to feature their work. When traveling poets come and present their work at an event at the Neurolux, the High Note or Woodland Empire Brewing… they [are] featured, meaning that they stand up and perform their poems and then community members can get up and also perform their work. So, the traveling poets come to, not only to feature, to headline an event, but also to teach workshops to students in the public school system, writing and poetry workshops. So, my role, very long-windedly, is to host those people, those traveling poets, when they come through the Valley. And they will then come to my classroom at Frank Church High School and teach sometimes a single-day poetry workshop, but more ideally a two- or three-day writing workshop, where they’ll come on successive days and work with kids to develop their voice.
Can you speak about the importance of what it means to bring those individuals into your classroom?
It’s always a highlight, I think, of the students’ experience in English class. English is a pretty standard process of learning to write essays, learning to read more and more difficult content, to understand literary terms and concepts and learning to write for a variety of audiences and purposes, and all of the things that the English practices are for. That’s all really good and really necessary, but it can feel, sometimes, dull.
Slam poetry is the opposite of that. Slam poetry is very, of the moment, it’s very modern; it’s very relevant to what might be happening politically or socially, in a relevant “today” kind of context. Whereas an English Eleven essay or an English Eleven lesson, for example, might ask kids to read Ben Franklin, which is great, there’s some great stuff that you can read and learn about Ben Franklin and to learn the history of your country and understand him as a writer, but then you have a slam poet come in and he slams about Donald Trump. That’s a whole other level of relevance and awareness and connectivity for kids to start to build a much larger general fund of awareness not only about the social and political stuff that’s happening in their own generation, but also to start to understand that language arts is something that serves a variety of purposes, one of which is to critique your own society in ways that are fun and inventive and allow you to express yourself publicly in a way that is funny and also critical. I mean critical in the sense where you’re asking some deep questions and also including your own personal opinion about those deep questions as opposed to just analyzing someone else’s opinion to address a question.
A lot of times in English, you’re asked to read what other people said about something and then base what you think on what other people said or felt or wrote down. Slam poetry, as a form, is very personal and allows kids to really engage with the freshness and the immediacy and the relevancy of their own voices.
Can you talk about the state of the literary community in Boise?
The literary community in Boise, from my point of view—from what I see and know—is a very rich, very happening, very vibrant community. Big Tree Arts is one part of it. I’m happy and proud to say that Big Tree Arts is a part of what’s happening, in terms of creative, literary art forms in Boise and in the Valley.
But the other great poetry and writing group that’s happening right now is a group called Death Rattle. They’re focused more in Canyon County, but we also have the MFA program at Boise State which is really continuing to develop not only writers coming out of the MFA program here but also continuing to draw really big-time visiting professors, teachers, and writers that are coming from different parts of the country that have had a lot of critical and commercial success.
So, there’s a lot happening in the literary writing scene in Boise that’s really positive, very rich and very multi-layered. The Big Tree Arts’ thing is a lot about connecting people to their own experience and voicing that experience in a public forum that is dedicated to free speech. So, that’s our bailiwick.
Are there any resources you recognize that are lacking for the betterment of the community?
Well, it’s one thing to have, for example, the Log Cabin Literary Center and its events, Death Rattle and its events, Big Tree Arts and its events, the MFA program at Boise State supported events or lectures and things that people can attend. It’s one thing to have all of those lovely, amazing people working and working and infusing our community with a lot of arts energy and arts activities. But, as always, there is then the question of who has access to those things? Is there really a democracy of access to those groups and their activities and their events?
I think Boise does a pretty good job of having a wide and broad tent with a very inclusive ethic, but, as with anything that isn’t about the day-to-day necessities of life, there will be a class of people that will be very aware and very active and very involved in arts kinds of community, opportunities and events. And then there will be other people that just aren’t as aware and aren’t as active because either they don’t feel like they belong there or they don’t have the resources to participate. I think that can go both ways.
In a community that has all of the rich kinds of resources and the depth of the creative community that we have in Boise, there is still the need to continue to make it as widely available to as many people as possible. That’s an ongoing goal, or objective, to continue to make sure that you’re reaching as wide of audience as possible and that audience is as diverse as possible.
Finally, do you have any inspiring words to writers, other teachers or just any inspirational words that you like to pass on?
In order to continue to write, you have to have a reason. Because writing can be very healing, it can be very fun, it can be very entertaining; it can be very taxing and frustrating, but writing is your voice. It is unique and is a tool to help you not only develop that voice, to understand yourself, but to share yourself with the world in ways that can be very powerfully inspiring and healing for other people, too. So, writing is just one of those things that, I think, is a practical tool. It’s a practical tool for getting things done during the day. And it’s also a magic wand for creating culture.
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.