Head of the Class
“Everything is inquiry,” says Lynn Gatto, a doctoral student at the Warner School and New York State Teacher of the Year. By Jayne Denker. Photography by Elizabeth Torgerson-Lamark.
In Lynn Gatto’s fourth-grade classroom in Henry Hudson School 28 on Rochester’s northeast side, midmorning is reading time. Pacing in a small rectangle of space surrounded by her students’ desks, the veteran teacher reads from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
While the students follow along in their own copies, Gatto stops often to ask questions.
“They found a ship wreck,” she says, her eyes as wide as those of the children watching her. “With dead people lashed to the mast! That's pretty grisly! What do you think happened?”
“They were killed!” a student exclaims.
“It was the doctor!” says another.
“You mean the professor,” a third politely corrects.
Gatto ventures, “Do you think it could have been pirates?”
At that suggestion, several students speak simultaneously, voicing their thoughts on what could be happening in the story.
“Okay, this is good,” Gatto says to her class. “You’re predicting. You’re speculating. That’s what this is called, when you guess at what happened and what might happen next.”
So begins another lesson in literacy and learning for Gatto, a doctoral student at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, who has made that interactive approach a hallmark of her teaching for the past 30 years.
She places a high premium on engaging students in conversation—the kinds of talk between and among students and between students and teacher that occurs naturally in classrooms—and she works hard to encourage students to express themselves.
It’s part of an educational outlook that Gatto is exploring further in her Ph.D. work at the Warner School. And it is an approach to education that has earned her honors as New York State Teacher of the Year for 2004. She represents the state for the national honor, which will be announced in June.
“She’s not your typical teacher,” says Samuel Rodriguez, principal at Henry Hudson Elementary. “She doesn’t walk and talk like your typical teacher. It’s not a job for her—it’s a lifestyle. She creates a culture in the classroom and promotes a collegial atmosphere—that’s what sets her apart. In her room there’s a community, a ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality.”
The first to admit that she thinks good teachers are born—not made—Gatto says she knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a preschooler, sitting at home watching the television show Romper Room starring the benevolent teacher Miss Rita.
“I used to watch that show religiously,” she says. “It made me think school was a warm and wonderful place. And when I got to elementary school, I found out it was. And I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
A desire to teach disadvantaged children also was spurred early in her childhood growing up in the Rochester area.
“On my way to visit my grandmother in Washington, D.C., I would travel through all these depressed neighborhoods, and I knew I was growing up lucky,” Gatto says. “I think that was the first time I knew I wanted to teach in city schools and help. I didn’t see myself going in as the ‘great white hope,’ but it felt like, ‘How could you not?’”
After earning her bachelor’s degree from Monmouth University in New Jersey, Gatto returned to Rochester to teach. She later earned a master’s degree from Nazareth College before enrolling in the doctoral program at Warner.
Today, Gatto teaches students from a less-than-affluent neighborhood in a gloomy ’70s-era concrete building with locked front doors and stained carpets. But she makes sure that her classroom is a vivid oasis that inspires inquiry and imagination.
Just inside the door is a park bench beside a large black plastic pond, a home for a tortoise. On the other side, beyond the coat room, sit two tall aquariums filled with fish, the taller of the two capped with a collection of snow globes.
Shelves surround her rarely used desk; they’re filled with plastic files holding students’ journals and books, shells, a plastic cage containing a live tarantula, and a frame containing the skeleton of a snake. Several computers are tucked into a corner beside her desk; an iMac has Internet access and connections for a digital camera and a microscope. Petri dishes containing a saline experiment fill one window ledge; the shelves below hold science equipment, more books, plastic containers filled with math aids, art supplies, and more books. More shelves create a reading niche bursting with books. Beside the bookshelves sit two plastic cages of gerbils.
The traditional blackboards are covered with fabric. When Gatto wants to write something for her students to see, she uses an overhead projector that actually projects overhead—onto the ceiling—possibly because it’s the only open space left in the room.
When it’s time to wrap up group reading and move to independent reading, the students scramble like troops on a maneuver: In seconds, they put away 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and grab the books they’re reading, as well as cushions to sit on and sound-deadening headphones, then move to the places they prefer to call their own.
Gatto sits with a group at a low table to discuss a book they’ll be turning into a play that they’ll perform for the kindergarten classes later in the year.
Even during independent reading, the classroom is not completely silent, and Gatto doesn’t mind.
In her classroom, hands are hardly ever raised, and when they are, Gatto reminds the students that they are welcome to speak freely and not wait until she says they may. While that may seem to fly in the face of traditional teaching—where a silent, orderly classroom is considered a successful one, and noise is associated with a lack of discipline—Gatto likes to think of her teaching method as “controlled chaos.”
In her eyes, it’s a good thing.
“In the classroom, it’s more than inquiry into one subject,” Gatto says, referring to recent buzzwords in education. “It’s inquiry as social construction. Everything is inquiry—all the activities, the environment.”
The verbal forms that such inquiry can take, particularly a specific type of classroom talk that Gatto calls “simultaneous overlapping conversations”—eruptions on the topic at hand, which encourages participation and engagement—are the focus of Gatto’s dissertation. She also regularly teaches a class at Warner on the theory and learning of elementary science.
Joanne Larson, associate professor and chair of teaching and curriculum at the Warner School, who has worked with Gatto on several projects, including her dissertation, says Gatto has a true passion for teaching.
“She wants to understand her practice more deeply—her relationships between her and her students and the parents,” Larson says. “Lynn is onto something with her thesis on simultaneous overlapping conversations as a learning method.
“There’s been a lot of research done on conversation and learning and literacy, but it’s the relationships and trust she builds. She lets the kids bring who they are to the learning context.”
Indeed, Gatto often tells her students that she is not the boss; instead, she says, they are all learners together.
And that includes the families of her students.
She makes frequent home visits to connect with each child’s caregivers. While home visits are not required by the school or the district, they are a key part of her overall teaching method.
“I bring parents on board right from the start,” Gatto says. “I expect them to be partners in their children’s education. I walk into their homes, and I sit on their couch. . . . I say, ‘I’m part of the family now. I offer you a money-back guarantee. If you’re not happy with the services, you get your money back.’”
Her “services” include keeping the parents active in the students’ education and activities.
For students like Arrkadeion Barron, a tall, quiet boy who is new to Gatto’s room, that’s part of what he likes about the class. He points out one of his favorite items in the room—a handmade mailbox.
“Mrs. Gatto has us write letters to our parents,” he says. “We can say whatever we want—nice things. And she delivers them.”
And she delivers on lessons she has learned in three decades of teaching—mainly that having students sit in orderly, silent rows and listen to the teacher talk is not the way kids learn.
“I think, ‘How do students learn best? How do you teach? Do you transmit the information to them?’ That’s the traditional method, and the American public education system is just mired in tradition—drowning in tradition,” Gatto says.
“I’ve spent my entire life observing other teachers, [thinking], ‘Oh, I'm going to be that. I’m going to say that. I’m going to do that.’ I’ve developed my technique over years, and I’m not done yet,” she says. “That’s what’s so great about teaching—there’s always something new, always something exciting. It’s new every day. And if you make a mistake, you get to fix it. You can say, ‘Okay, this is not working. Let’s just stop right here. I need to go back and rethink this.’”
But observing Gatto in action, it seems impossible that she would make a mistake or abandon a lesson. There is no down time, no time for students to get distracted or bored.
While students work on their journals, Gatto smoothly segues into two more activities. She hands out snacks, and then places a two-liter bottle filled with water in front of one boy who has completed his journal entry.
“Play with that,” she tells him.
An eyedropper floating in the bottle is a low-budget Cartesian diver, which sinks when the bottle is squeezed and rises when the pressure is released. When the students finish with their journals and seem focused on their cookies, she turns their attention to the diver, which they use not only to learn about pressure and diving, but also to complete a worksheet that requires them to put the steps of pressurizing the diver in the correct order.
That leads to a lesson on visualization: Gatto takes the Cartesian diver away and hands out large pieces of paper. She reads a true story of a diver who was attacked by a shark, and the students draw a picture of the event.
From the group reading session to the shark attack lesson, barely an hour has gone by.
As for Gatto’s time and her commitments, her plans extend only to the next school year, when she will take a year-long sabbatical from teaching to work on her dissertation.
She skips right over June, when she will find out if she has been named National Teacher of the Year, because her interests lie elsewhere.
Her main focus is, as always, on improving her teaching as well as contributing to the profession.
“A teacher recently said to me, ‘You’re raising the standard for all of us.’ And I thought, ‘How sad.’ My teaching has raised your standards? And why haven’t we raised the bar before?” she says.
“My kids are always talking, always moving, and always engaged. I don’t know why other teachers don’t do the same.”
Jayne Denker is associate editor of Rochester Review.