Last week, Patricia Lee (Patti) Gauch spent four days at Gill St. Bernard’s as author in residence, during which time she worked with Upper and Middle School students and with members of the English and Language Arts Departments.
Outside of Gill, Gauch is best known as the former editor in chief of Philomel Books (a children’s literature imprint of Penguin Books), a position she held for 25 years. She has given dozens of writers their start—either at Philomel or through the writing workshops she has led throughout her career—and she is an author in her own right, having published 39 titles for young readers.
At Gill, however, Gauch will always be best known as a former teacher and the woman for whom the school’s creative writing award is named. It is a Gill-centric view that Gauch does not discourage. "My connection to Gill runs deep," she says. "I was integrated with Gill and with the philosophy of the school. I went all over the place with my students, using the world for experience. My time at the school taught me how to work with writers one-on-one; it was great training for my subsequent career as an editor."
Emphasizing her connection to Gill, Gauch tells a class of fifth-graders about one of the first manuscripts to cross her desk at Philomel: Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon. When Gauch read the story, she immediately thought of one of her former students, Ian Schoenherr, as a potential illustrator. Feeling he was not ready for a project of that scope, however, Schoenherr showed the manuscript to his father, John, who was a professional artist. The book, illustrated by former GSB parent John Schoenherr, went on to win a Caldecott medal.
Gauch taught at Gill during the 70s and 80s, and she has lost none of her ability to connect with students over the intervening years. During her recent visit, she led several workshops for students in Creative Writing, a course offered each year by English Department chair Andy Lutz. As the students shared their work, Gauch was sharply focused, ready to respond to the uniqueness of each voice. She offered enthusiasm and encouragement, but there was nothing generic in her praise—each observation, precise and targeted, guided the writer to the next step in his or her own work. "My obsession is words and getting you to a place where there is almost no separation between your words and experience itself," she said. Her advice: "Go far enough. Don’t just say two; say five. Go there."
When asked about the chance to work with Gauch, Charlotte Walsh '17, an Advanced Creative Writing student, said, "Mrs. Gauch was really insightful. She looked at my writing and was able to tell me where to focus and where to let up a little. I also really appreciated her point of view as an editor, her understanding of what can make a publisher invest in a manuscript." Another writer in the group, Steven Hassett '17, said “She helped me make my writing more readable, more approachable. I liked the way she emphasized the importance of voice, telling us that in fiction, a strong voice is much more important than perfect grammar."
In addition to working with Upper School students, Gauch also worked with Middle Schoolers on voice. Middle School English teacher Zoe Tuohy, who welcomed Gauch into her fifth-grade classroom, said "The students loved it and I was so inspired by her. Patti shared her love for reading and writing and talked about how her experiences at Gill shaped who she became as an editor." Tuohy’s appreciation is one echoed by everyone Gauch encountered at Gill. Over her career, Gauch has reviewed tens of thousands of manuscripts and influenced hundreds of authors, but her ability to make one-to-one connections with each writer—from literary luminaries to enthusiastic fifth-graders—truly sets her apart.
Gauch’s visit also represented a professional development opportunity for the faculty. She met with Upper School and Middle School English and Language Arts teachers after school to discuss what she belives to be a nation-wide lack of creativity in student writing. "Patti met with us for over an hour," said Lutz. "She reviewed several readings and challenged us to envision ways to tap into a student's imagination and creativity."
This was Gauch’s third time returning to Gill St. Bernard’s as author in residence. "Pat brings vision and energy to Gill St. Bernard’s every time she visits," Lutz said. "Her enthusiasm is infectious. Getting exposure to a writer and editor of Pat’s caliber is so important for our students. She is a treasure!" According to Lutz, planning has already begun for Gauch’s next visit. Given Gauch’s fondness for the Unit program which offers extended daily instruction time with students, the two have discussed the possibility of a future creative writing unit.