Thursday, February 17, 2011

A paper I wrote about one of my education heros

Who is John Taylor Gatto?

A “controversial educator” would sum Gatto up in one brief sentence. He was a teacher for 30 years (working mostly with New York’s inner city youth) and New York teacher of the year in 1991, the very same year he resigned because, for one thing, he was tired of students being labeled and categorized, often placed into a role of failure. He is likely most known for his research on the history of education and his promotion of the “unschooling” movement; schooling is why he left the classroom in the first place.

Gatto has researched the history of American education and concluded, through serious research, that education and schooling are two different things. Education is knowledge and learning, but schooling is not. George Washington, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and Abe Lincoln were highly intelligent, educated men, but they were not schooled- they had not attended thirteen years of compulsory education and yet, they weren’t dumb. Gatto reflects the same perspective of schooling as many students and even some teachers do- boring- and he sought to find out why. Our current educational model is based off the Prussian education model that Gatto says, “is deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens- all in order to render the popular manageable” (Gatto, 2009). The Prussian system advocated that the “top” five percent of peoples go to private school to learn management and problem solving and the remaining ninety-five percent go to public schools to learn rudimentary literacy, obedience, and cooperation. This, to me, sounds similar to our ranking of students based on IQ (if you’re above the 95th percentile, you’re eligible for GATE) and test scores (proficient, advanced, etc) but I digress.

Therefore, his “unschooling” movement seeks to reverse the Prussian model of education which is often seen in the home-schooling movement. Unschooling focuses on the child, with learning centered on a child’s play, responsibilities, and experiences- a sort of self-directed education, very much like the education- not the schooling- of aforementioned “geniuses” such as Lincoln or Twain. Such a movement allows for differentiation, different learning styles and developmental differences. It is argued that the unschooled student learns to learn by doing, and learns great amounts through self-motivation.

But on to more pressing issues and how Gatto has been a change agent for curriculum! Gatto won New York City teacher of the year all three years prior to winning State, and it was not because of his radical research or unschooling, but on his radical curriculum inside the classroom. After resigning, he has continued to influence curriculum through the Bartleby project which will be mentioned later, as well as the already mentioned unschooling movement that has him traveling the nation speaking in symposiums to home-schoolers, educators, university students, the media, and so on.

“Camino Del Santiago” Field and/or Guerilla Curriculum

The Camino Del Santiago is a Spanish pilgrimage where the journey is more important than the destination, where people estranged by the pressures of modern life walk the road of pilgrimage to find themselves, be self-reliant, and enjoy nature, culture, history. Such a pilgrimage inspired Gatto to implement a related method in his own middle-school classroom.

With parental permission, Gatto’s students (who lived in the infamous Harlem borough known for high drop out rates, crime, and poverty) journeyed in small groups around their neighborhoods of New York City, but it was more than just walking…they discovered, classified, compared, examined, analyzed what they saw- utilizing Bloom’s Taxonomy higher-level thinking skills. The students chose what they wanted to do (teacher approved) and went out on their own. “Their own? How dangerous!” you may exclaim, but as Gatto puts it, adolescence is more a coined term than anything real; his students were capable of great things if challenged. He wanted his students to explore the “real” world of working adults which exists outside the classroom. He provided some structure, taking on the role of facilitator, but the success or failure of the students’ ventures were in their very own hands, in their control. They could take some control and accountability in their education. This field curriculum, or guerrilla curriculum, ruled Gatto’s classroom for five years, earning him the four said teaching awards in the process.

His students explored their neighborhoods, the world, and their education and reported back to the class. Students chose to map business districts, construct neighborhood profiles based on architecture, speech, and commercialism, explore police headquarters, compare, review and map pizza parlors and their clientele, record the life experiences of the homeless… all this was discovered by research, interviews, and personal experiences. Students compiled their knowledge into guides, pamphlets, and speeches that were at a higher level than many would have expected of inner-city thirteen year olds. In fact, some of his students helped develop talking job dictionaries for the blind and others worked with Gatto to write musicals. These students that were a mix of all students but consisted primarily of low-SES, low-test scoring students, often looked down upon as failures, yet they had a natural proclivity to learning when it extended beyond the textbook and beyond perennial style- education. Gatto found what interested his students and “ran with it”; instead of denying past experiences, emotions, passions, and cultures, Gatto allowed these to drive his curriculum. The often heard student complains of “do we have to do work today?” “this is boring…this is hard” and “when is class over” disappeared as students found joy in hard work- yes, hard work, because they were motivated and engaged, and they felt safe to take academic risks and challenge themselves. In fact, these very 130-some students engaged in 30,000 hours of community service in just one year!

Of course, any “exact” prescription for Gatto’s curriculum (such as there is for Reading First, Prentice Hall, etc) cannot be reported upon, as one must attend one of his symposiums to learn more information. However, I argue that you don’t need much more information after reading a few of his books, articles, or speeches as it is common sense. He does, however, lay out a few key points to a good curriculum/education.

  1. Community service- not necessarily picking up trash (although it can be that if that is your interest, such as environmental stewardship) but job shadowing and apprenticeship, and for more than one hour or one day. Don’t just volunteer your time and forget about it- reflect upon it.
  2. Independent study- not necessarily home schooling, but more self-directed study. Gatto cites one of his students that wanted a role on “General Hospital” and it took him all year to reach his goal, but in the mean time he spent countless hours studying theater history, acting, lighting, advertising, and how theater related to psychology, sociology, and history.
  3. Field Curriculum- as mentioned, it is an educational pilgrimage. To cite more student examples, some studied how to economically furnish a small Manhattan apartment down to the toothpicks and toilet paper, by tallying costs including tax, conducting interviews, and designing symbolic blueprints of their finished project. Another project included analyzing the commercial community of a 50-block area and the part-time job offerings and requirements it featured.
  4. Parent partnerships- the family has a right to “write” some of their child’s own curriculum.
  5. Work study- Gatto’s students became innovators and entrepreneurs (and yours can, too) and school time can be replaced by work time if the goal is a self-initiated business more than a way to make money. One of Gatto’s students made $600 selling home-made, self-illustrated comic stationary, another worked with the elderly to pedal homemade crafts of the streets, profits benefiting the elderly craftspeople themselves.
  6. Solitude and self-reliance- Gatto feels school removes private time and space from children and that at-home media does the same. Learning to become introspective, a self-directed learner, and to make your own decisions is a great skill that we seem to be losing. To quote Gatto in his acceptance for the New York City teacher of the year, “Right now we are taking all the time from our children that they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back; we need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school but which takes place away from the institutional setting. We need to invent curriculum where each kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self-reliance”(Gatto, 1990).

All of Gatto’s key concepts culminate in some form of product- through a written, verbal, and visual record. This makes it meaningful, educational, and a shared experience.

While most public schools have yet to adopt Gatto’s “guerilla curriculum”, many home schools have, and home schooling is a valid form of education, especially as home schooling rates increase- there were an estimated 1.5 million home schooled students in America in 2007 alone, up 400,000 students just six years earlier, which was triple what it was ten years prior. Gatto proposes how to rid of the nonchalant attitude and disconnectedness of today’s students and the related problems with education; “First we need a ferocious national debate that doesn't quit, day after day, year after year. We need to scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if we cannot, then the success of home schooling shows a different road to take that has great promise” (Gatto 1990).

Gatto’s writings have influenced how and what I teach, so he is not just a home schooling curriculum change agent but, minutely, public school. His research on education has given me a new perspective on how to teach, integrated with his guerilla curriculum. I would have never thought of reading “Freedom Writers Diary” with a class of 9th graders I had a few years past, and I would have just gone down the usual road of complaining to my co-workers in the staff lounge, that these students were un-motivated, more interested in “thuggery” than education. Instead, I saw many students light up inside and become interested in the book and relate it to their own lives. They each wrote a “diary” excerpt of their own; some chose to remain anonymous (to grade them, they’d show me they had written something, see, the page is typed but there’s no name, and bury it in my pile to edit after I’d checked off yes, they turned it in) and others proudly put their name on it. I had one student who had been from school to school, home to home, and carried a reputation and yet she told me her tragic life story and came into my office every day at lunch with a newly edited copy for me to review. When she found out I would not be her 10th grade English teacher, she was quite despondent. Another student who had left our school at the end of the year came back one day to visit and told her accompanying friend “this is the teacher that let us talk about stuff...about my homies dying and racist teachers and things”, as she handed me a drawing that said “I love you and miss you”. I cannot say that my teaching of Freedom Writers was exactly guerilla curriculum as it did not integrate many of the components, but it was my version of “getting my feet wet” in such a style of curriculum, one where I saw student interest (the complaint of them wanting to just listen to rap, ditch class, and graffiti their desks) and turning it positive. I saw them for who they were and where they’d been and used it to frame an intensive writing unit. That was the only assignment I had where one hundred percent of students turned something in- the usual turn in rate hovered around twenty percent.

Educational Justice and Cultural Proficiency

Gatto argues that elitist schools, mainly private schools, integrate field curriculum, self-reliance, and apprenticeship more often than public schools, but that all students can and should be taught this way. “What's sauce for the rich and powerful is surely sauce for the rest of us - what is more, the idea is absolutely free as are all other genuine reform ideas in education” (Gatto, 1990). Justice is a pillar of elitist schools as it should be for all schools. Gatto recalls that many of his students came back years later and thanked him for his guerilla curriculum, that that just one experience of helping others allowed them to re-think their lives, goals, and values. Best of all, Gatto’s program was free, and effective with his students which represented all incomes, races, and abilities. To find such programs in other schools before Gatto’s time, one would have to look primarily into expensive programs that generally were provided for in well-to-do areas. His idea of giving students choices and opportunities saw past any racial, class, or ability boundaries and saw all students as able to succeed.

I cannot find a direct, solid example of cultural proficiency in Gatto’s curriculum, except that it encourages students to explore and analyze their neighborhoods which certainly mean they encounter different cultures and learn to appreciate diversity. Also, his students exist in a safe environment where all can succeed, so no prejudices would be allowed. I do find that in Gatto’s research on the history of education, that he is vehemently against racism, classism, and ableism.

Without delving too deep into it as he has, I can say that Gatto has found that many “fathers” of education and psychology believed that human beings were to be molded and shaped into products, which relates to the need to control “inferior breeding stocks” through such methods such as eugenics- the breeding out, or control, of people that are “less than” – those with disabilities or those that were not Caucasian, as other races were thought of as intellectually inferior. Gatto argues that school sets to control “inferiors”, uniting eugenics and education. For example, G Stanley Hall (who invented educational psychology and coined the term and idea of adolescence) studied under educational guru John Dewey and was a proud follower of racial and gender-based eugenics.

More currently, I can’t help but think of the achievement gap and Gatto proposes the notion that eugenics, tracking and labeling of students, and test scores are promoting this gap. The achievement gap could be the direct result of our educational system. In 1940, national literacy rates were ninety six percent (all races combined), but by 2000 the NAEP reported a forty percent illiteracy rate among blacks (Gatto, 2009). In the well-known book The Bell Curve the author claimed such an achievement gap was based on the result of selective breeding, and that non-whites were less intelligent than whites.

To even go further, standardized testing, Gatto argues, perpetuates racism and classism even further, not just by labeling students and the humiliation thereof, but by the ideas behind the test in the first place. The first Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-1, which eventually became the SAT-9 which was the model for the CAT-6 in California) was authored by Lewis Terman, a member of the US Eugenics Society, author of other exams such as the Stanford IQ test, professor of educational psychology, and principal of a school in San Bernardino in the early 1900s. The “inventor” of IQ tests (which correlate well with SAT-9 tests) is quoted as having written, ““High-grade or border-line deficiency… is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes… They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers… from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (The Measurement of Intelligence, 1916, p. 91-92) And yet we use versions of his tests today, all which in his day, “proved” inferiority. In fact, the first SAT had questions ranked by when they occurred in the exam (and thus ranking “intelligence), in one section number one asked, “is milk white?” and number 94, “the most expensive carpet is….” Gatto and myself included, see that this sets up automatic classism and racism. Few low-SES students or minorities of their time could answer the carpet question, rendering them “dumber” than their wealthy white classmates. Of course our SAT tests are not as blatant now, but questions still arise as to their bias. But Gatto has a solution to this, one that is still in conception.

The Bartleby Project

In Gatto’s book “Weapons of Mass Instruction” Gatto proposes a revolutionary idea that challenges, in fact, tears down practices of current curriculum today under NCLB. Formally announced to an audience of Harvard Education students in 2008, it proposes in one simple statement, “I prefer not to take your test” that test being any standardized or IQ exam. No riots, no violence, just a simple refusal. Gatto says, to one’s own fears, you will not be refused acceptance at college because college is a business and they want your money regardless. And besides, at least in California, parents can ask to exempt their child from the STAR/CST (once called SAT-9 and CAT-6), but educators are not allowed to tell them this. The Bartleby Project “invites” 600,000 American students to peacefully refuse to take these tests or participate in any preparation for them. While it has not reached 600,000 (as that would certainly be in the news), the Bartleby Project has youtube, facebook, and blog pages so it is reaching some of our youth and when and if it does reach the participant goal, I feel it will affect our curriculum. Even if little is done to stop standardized testing, it will perhaps make the public aware of how testing and many curriculums do not promote educational justice.


Gatto may not have been as well-known of a change agent as Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers, or Howard Gardner, founder of the multiple intelligences theory. However, I feel his work is more underground because it is so avant-garde, and because it is based more in the home-schooling movement, which media and public education circles tend to ignore. I do feel everyone involved in curriculum should read some of his work as it gets you thinking about the status-quo of education, and how to reflect upon the curriculum you teach, to ask if you are serving all students equitably, and giving them the best chance at the best education possible.


Gatto, J.T. (2009). Weapons of Mass Instruction. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC.

Gatto, J.T. (2000). The Underground History of American Education. Oxford Village Press, New York

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