In 1958, my mother was selected as Manatee County’s Teacher of the Year. At the time she was the second-grade teacher at Anna Maria Island School, where I attended elementary school. She was, without a doubt, the best teacher I have ever seen or known because she had the most wonderful way of helping each child find the very best in him/herself and of accomplishing it.
Consequently visitors, educators, or parents were always greatly impressed with the achievements of her children and also of the mannerly ways in which they conducted themselves. My mother’s classroom was next to the principal’s office and her principal, Sam Schiek, would sometimes ask my mother to come into his office where he would turn on the intercome to her classroom and then marvel at how well-behaved her class of 30+ children would be without their teacher in the classroom! Times were different. Parents were more supportive of teachers and of the educational system, and children were taught to be seen and not heard! Perhaps that explains some of it, but still, and undeniably, her children, class after class, year after year, were remarkable.
So it was not unexpected that when my mother went to the Anna Maria PTA and requested they purchase a new reading program for her they did happily. This reading program was called “Words in Color”, the brainchild of a brilliant educator, Dr. Caleb Gattegno. And with this my mother became the first second-grade teacher in America to teach this innovative approach to reading.
In a short time she recognized the vast advantages to this approach to the teaching of reading and spelling. Her children, who had a history of performing well on the achievement tests, scored even higher after the instruction with “Words in Color”. It wasn’t long before the Language Arts Superviser, Blanche Daughtrey, came to see what was happening in my mother’s classroom to produce such remarkable testing scores. She was impressed with the children’s ability to read advanced material and to spell challenging words. The school superintendant, Hartley Blackburn, made it possible for other teachers to implement “Words in Color”, and my mother trained many many teachers in Manatee County in how to use this new program. For many years “Words in Color” was used in several Manatee County schools. But, as teachers changed positions, retired, or moved to other places, and after my mother retired, it was difficult for the county to maintain this program and to support the teachers and offer the necessary training for it.
Having teachers as parents (my dad taught chemistry at Manatee High School) it was a natural choice for me to become an elementary-school teacher. I followed in my mother’s footsteps, learned “Words in Color”, and used it in the public schools in which I taught in Gainesville, Florida, Alhambra, California, and Oakland, California. When I moved back home in the mid 1970s, I became my own children’s teacher, teaching them to read at home with “Words in Color”. And when the Center began, I brought it here for everyone else’s children’s advantage. Teacher training was provided and classroom support was given to the teachers as proof of our commitment to the children’s education.
The author of this approach, Dr. Caleb Gattegno, often visited our school and gave workshops to our teachers and classroom presentations. His last visit was about 16 years ago, during the last year of his life. The torch was passed from him to his wife, Dr. Shakti Gattegno, who had shared in his work over the years. Her specialties were “The Silent Way” for the teaching of foreign languages as well as “Words in Color”.
Last month the Center sent three of its staff members to New York City to study foreign language teaching under Mrs. Gattegno. During that weekend workshop our visiting teachers were so impressed with Mrs. Gattegno as one who had great insights into how children learn as well as being a phenomenal teacher herself, that upon their return they insisted that we try to bring her and her influence to our school and our teachers. So we immediately contacted her and requested that she come to us and conduct a workshop for us. Because of her advanced age she no longer travels to present workshops as she used to, but to our delight and surprise she accepted our invitation. She was touched by our enthusiasm for her work, and was willing to travel the distance to honor her husband’s previous work at our school. I must add here that although Mrs. Gattegno is elderly, she is energetic, agile, and brilliantly keen, a role model for how all of us can age beautifully.
On Monday, April 12, Mrs. Gattegno sharpened our minds, challenged our thinking, and stretched our awareness of her husband’s gift to education. By studying how children learn, Dr. Caleb Gattegno discovered the powers of children’s minds and the skills they develop as they teach themselves everything they learned before they come to school. These characteristics and powers of children are still undiscovered and unrecognized by most educators today who frequently dismiss the work of babies as having no relevance to further education. Gattegno studied how babies teach themselves to speak their native tongue, probably one of the most difficult learning one does in one’s lifetime, yet all of us accomplished this without outside instruction and by the time we were three years young. That is to say, we taught ourselves at home. Gattegno marveled how each one of us is our own best teacher and what happened between home and school that caused so many of us to change from being these expert learners who could master the native tongue to poor learners when others taught us in schools. He identified many reasons for this decline, all of which could only be corrected by changing the way we view and teach youngsters. Gattegno knew that in order for children to continue to learn in school as well as they learned before they came to school meant that the school teachers would have to learn how not to interfere with the learners and their work. He reasoned that the teacher’s emphasis was misplaced on creating and perfecting lessons. Gattegno posed that it is not the teaching that needs to be emphasized, but rather it was the learning that needed to be stressed. Once learning about learning becomes more important than learning about teaching, educators can become aware of the mental powers all children have developed before they come to school, and can permit the children to acquire new knowledge through the use of these skills which are already a part of the children’s functioning. This new way of thinking about education was Gattegno’s gift to all of us. He called it “the subordination of teaching to learning.” It is the fundamental reason that children at the Center learn to read through Gattegno’s approach to reading called “Words in Color”. The dynamic of subordinating teaching to learning is present in all of Gattegno’s work.
Mrs. Gattegno refreshed us with ideas of her husband, helped us remember why we teach the way we do, and why we are who we are as educators, inspired us to continue our work, to continue to make the child’s work our mission by subordinating our lessons to the work of the child, and shared her respect for the ongoing work at the Center.
It was a wonderful day for me, a day when I could return to my “Words in Color” origins, bask in some favorite memories, and feel my fellow teachers deepen their understanding of Dr. Gattegno’s work and its applications for us and for your children.
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher