Rochester fourth-grade teacher Lynn Astarita Gatto picked teaching as a profession long before she knew the theories behind what she was accomplishing in the classroom.
"Those intellectual aspects of teaching are an important part of who I am as a teacher and what makes me a good teacher," says Gatto. Her selection this week as New York State's Teacher of the Year recognizes her as a teacher who digs deep to find the best practices to help all children.
"This award validates for me and my colleagues who teach like me that we're on the right track," she says. "In my class, I create a core of learners. Part of what makes me a unique teacher is we are all equal learners and we are all learning together." When students read a story out loud, for instance, any listener can pose a question. "Oh, I never knew that," Gatto might say, or someone in the group could connect the story to other texts or popular culture or their lives.
Because she wanted "to put theory behind what I do," Gatto enrolled as a doctoral student at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester in 2000. "I have so many people come to my classroom that I wanted to articulate my practice," she says of her decision to pursue a Ph.D. "I quickly realized that there was much more to being a doctoral student. I didn't understand I was going to become a researcher and apply new research."
In her classroom, Gatto's desk adjoins those of her 22 students to form a large rectangle in their corner of Henry Hudson Elementary in the Rochester City School District. For 29 years, Gatto's classrooms have overflowed with noise and excitement. She places a high premium on talk.
"Talk is the literacy my students bring to the classroom," says Gatto, whose own teachers tried to hush her when she was a very talkative child. "For us to squelch that and not let kids develop doesn't make sense."
Children have so much to say that Gatto is focusing on a specific type of classroom talk for her doctoral work at the Warner School. With her coursework finished, her dissertation will examine "eruptions of conversation" that happen spontaneously in the classroom. "I'm looking at these simultaneous overlapping conversations (SOC, she calls them) to see how they happen and how they connect to meaning-making," she explains. From her experience, SOC is an important part of children's learning.
As a fourth-grade teacher, Gatto knows she's responsible and accountable for how her students perform on their first set of state language arts and math tests. Every child in her class showed at least one year's growth from the third to the fourth grade this year.
Gatto, a graduate of Brighton High School who earned a bachelor's degree at Monmouth University in New Jersey, was set to take a sabbatical for the 2003-04 year and concentrate on her doctoral studies. She'll postpone that plan since being named New York's 2004 Teacher of the Year.
In the fall, the Honeoye Falls resident will return to her classroom and assume other duties associated with the honor. The award that recognizes and celebrates outstanding teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade was announced June 16 in Albany. More than a dozen educational organizations in New York State were involved in the selection process. She also will compete for the national award.
Gatto's ambitious workload doesn't end with her fourth-grade class. She's published articles in teacher journals, contributed a chapter to an academic book, and written science modules for elementary school students. Each spring, she teaches a course in the Warner School on the theory and learning of elementary science.