How I feel now
I have just finished reading an article I wrote for Questions a bit over a year ago. In it, I shared feelings of great ambivalence about my new job as superintendent/principal of a small school district in northern New Jersey. The year has been extraordinarily rich from both a professional and personal perspective and I have learned some things, both about myself and the demands of the assignment. In looking back at how I felt a year ago, I am struck mainly by two facts: I still experience the conflicting emotions of optimistic excitement and disquietude and yet I somehow feel more centered, as if the two act as weights on opposite ends of a scale and I am between them, balanced over the fulcrum.
I devote the attention required by plentiful administrative tasks. Still I have found that I can spend a good deal of time working directly with students, and it is there that I feel I can do the most good and that I feel whatever I do comes from a wholesome focus on what the moment calls for. Most of my teaching over the first three months of this school year has taken place in the school’s three first grade classrooms. I have been using Words in Color to help the children, a total of almost fifty, formulate the criteria and develop the security to which they are entitled in their quest to become readers and writers of English.
Results with 4 first graders last year
My work last school year with some first graders, identified by their teachers as being in trouble in reading, produced good enough results to pique their teachers’ interest in Words in Color. I knew my efforts were best characterized as clumsy and that if I were more skilled, much more learning would have been evident; nevertheless, things went well enough that the four children not only showed improved reading, they also, more importantly, displayed a much more positive attitude about coming to school and learning to read. Their teachers and parents witnessed a dramatic increase in the children’s energy, eagerness and attentiveness. Overall, they just seemed happier to be in school and far more comfortable with themselves, even though I worked with them for only three half hour sessions a week, at the most, when their parents brought them to school a half hour early. Despite my protests to the contrary, the three first grade teachers saw what I was doing as phonics and they were interested in bolstering their adopted “literature based” approach to reading with instruction in decoding skills. There our points of view merged and we agreed that I would introduce the “Words in Color” approach through a short summer workshop for them (which turned out to be only 1/2 day in length) and through my working each day in their classes for an unspecified length of time.
Working with 3 classes this year
My work in the three classes has developed into a somewhat curious state of affairs. One class is composed of the eleven children who have been identified as least likely to be able to keep up with the established first grade curriculum. The other two classes have about twenty children in each, who the Kindergarten teacher estimated to be more ready. There certainly is a difference in how I have experienced working with the three classes, in part predictable and in part a surprise. The children in the smaller class, not surprisingly, require of me much greater precision and creativity. To help them in any significant way demands that I constantly reach beyond the tried and true techniques and activities that are sufficient for most children to master reading and writing joyfully and in stride. Mainly, I have learned that I can help them best by avoiding gathering them together for a “lesson” and instead inviting them individually or in groups of two or three, here and there, to join me in doing something, for example, finding all the words they know on chart 2 or reading all of the sentences we can invent that use the words they know, with a word they have just figured out, such as “puppet.” We are clearly playing games at such times, which produce playful inventions, including those that may not easily generate a feeling of complete “correctness,” but nevertheless sound very much like English and can generate meaning, especially with variations in phrasing: puppet sat up; puppet sit up; pat is puppet; puppet is pat; pop puppet is up, etc. Inviting children from the other two first grade classes to join the smaller class for some activities has also proven fruitful, and has led to joyful interaction that leads to exclamations of delight from many of the children: “He got it all by himself!”; “She didn’t even need my help!”; “Can we come back and help you tomorrow?”
There are differences in the work with the two larger classes that I did not expect. The time I spend in one of them is so easy, filled with fun and fast progress that the time in the other is, by comparison, slow, heavy and ponderous. Many of the children in the former literally jump out of their seats when I enter the room, eager to show me the books they have just read to one another in pairs during “free reading” time or just to tell me something on their minds (“It’s my brother’s birthday,” “We saw a funny movie over the weekend,” etc.) Some of this welcoming occurs in the other class, as well, but less so, as the children seem more restrained and self-conscious. Once the lesson begins, an effortless calm settles over the first class, whereas there is a less settled feeling in the other. I find myself resorting to more artificial games, for example, when someone comes to the front of the room, he or she has to read all of the words on the board or chart uttered by the person before, plus one or two more. I also rely on exhortations to stop moving about so much or to pay better attention.
It’s tempting to hypothesize why the work is so much more fluid in one class than the other: the different personalities/styles of the teachers; the fact that one tends to remain in the room and participating while the other often walks out of the the room or does some paperwork; the mix of students and so forth. Still, it seems better just to meet the moments without such analysis and to be as attentive and present in those moments as I can, vulnerable to the demands of what is happening, whether it seems to flow easily or not. Some days, it takes more discipline than others to visit all three classes, since I could easily find excuses on any given day not to visit all three; but I resist the temptation, with rare exceptions, and have seen progress as a result. Not only are the children in all three classes reading better at this time of the school year than their teachers have come to expect, my suggestion to put up all twenty word charts, despite the paucity of wall space, has received a warm welcome from all three teachers. While the children, as a group, are bursting to explode all over the charts in only one of the classes, those in the other two will profit, along with me, from having the totality of the challenge displayed, especially since so many words have been mastered through the standard reading program, giving them links and access to the whole of the written language through the convenience of the color coding.
The teachers and Words in Color
The first grade teachers show varying levels of initiative regarding the Words in Color approach. One, who teaches the class with eleven children, uses the techniques and materials on her own most days. The progress with her children is the slowest, but she has demonstrated insight into some of the ways of working, such as replacing such practices as “performing” to keep the children’s attention, telling the children answers, repeating oneself, providing lots of explanations and saying what the children have just said when they are correct, with efforts to wait watchfully when utterances are not immediately forthcoming, to figure out what to do from what is happening, to take what is known and to do as much with it as possible, to get the children to focus on what will provide them with criteria for correctness and so forth. I admire her courage and stamina and greatly appreciate the trust she has put in me that the approach has enormous potential, along with her students, and that the real issue is our finding the right things to do.
The teacher in the larger class that is so easy to work with has continued lessons when I have occasionally been called out of the room for an important phone call or other urgent matter. Also, she usually circulates among the children, providing support when the lesson is in progress. It is obvious that she too has replaced some old habits with new ways of working, as when she tells a child to look more carefully, rather than telling a word, or when she covers part of a word with her finger and asks something like, “What do you say for this… and so, what’s the whole word?” I cannot say whether or not the teacher in the third class has taken some benefit from my working with her students, though she has shared with me from time to time that she has helped the children to read some new words by referring them to “Dr. Swartz’s words” or “Dr. Swartz’s charts.” She also volunteered recently that she has seen some “carry over” from the Words in Color approach to the way children try to figure out words in other material she uses with them.
Overall the work is very heartening. Since I intend to remain in this job for awhile, it is easy not to be in a hurry or to have any expectation for some particular change in how the teachers work with the children. I continue to feel uncertain about how I can be a good resource for them, so that their teaching becomes more subordinated to learning as they become more aware of the fact of each child’s enormous potential, coupled with the fact that there are ways of working that nurture that potential into actuality in the various subject matters; therefore, I simply offer to do lessons with their students, as someone endeavoring to work in such a manner.
A sixth grade class
Every so often, something extraordinary happens, as when a sixth grade teacher recently asked if I would like to show one of her classes how to use the Fidel. I gladly accepted, even though she alerted me that the intelligence of the children in the class is matched only by their lack of cohesiveness and their competitiveness with one another. She is a fine, dedicated teacher and an exceptionally bright, caring and sensitive person who is highly respected by her colleagues. Still, she finds the class difficult to work with.
Well, I have now worked with them five or six times, in sessions ranging from about twenty to forty minutes… and it has been one of the most enjoyable and invigorating teaching experiences I have ever had. The twenty or so children in the class have been simply wonderful and have just devoured everything I throw at them. They are well on their way to having mastered the use of the Fidel as an instrument for understanding and examining the English language. They do keep me on my toes, since their quickness to turn their attention to each other or to other things requires that I keep a sharp edge to the exercises, maintaining a constant vigilance to providing challenges that stretch them, but which do not take them to places where they do not yet have criteria to function. Their teacher has expressed admiration for a side they had not yet shown her, one that moves them to support, even cheer for each other as one by one they go to the charts and try to pick out the spellings or just the sounds of strings of words I put to them (or that they put to themselves). It did not take long for them to come together in that way, as for example during the very first lesson, when they burst into applause for one of their peers who managed to pick out “springtime in paris.” The lessons with this class just seem to flow from the events that occur; it really doesn’t matter where I start. The group is so with the moment that I only have to yield to the flow and we rush along together at an exhilarating pace.
The sixth grade teacher asked me the other day to talk with her about what has been transpiring. Even though it was late on a Friday afternoon, we found ourselves in a long discussion about some very important issues, such as: “How do I know how to spell a word?”; “Does reading a lot help someone to become a better speller?”; “What is the difference between being able to spell more words correctly and becoming a better speller?”; “What is the difference between memorization and visualizing?”
And to think, I get paid for all this.
Where will it all lead? I ask myself that from time to time, since I feel a pull toward a vision of education that provides for our “humanness” much more so than is typically found in schools today. The richness of such an education, so well defined by Dr. Gattegno in the fields he studied, fulfills students and teachers alike and seems to hold a promise with broad and profound implications for our evolution. It is easy to dream of a world in which educators are all practitioners of the science of education, attentive to the realities of learning that are there for the discovering and watchful for the easily overlooked gifts that emerge when children’s powers of learning are recognized and taken into account; it is not so easy, though, to help actualize the dream. For now, it seems best to be available and to let the power of the work have its effects in the place I am working, which is comparatively free of distractions. Perhaps the time will come to let a wider audience know of it and to invite others to consider its value.
© Ted Swartz
The Science of Education in Questions – N° 14. Une Education Pour Demain, France. May 1996
Dr. Theodore (Ted) Swartz was the lead applicant and founder of the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, one of New York state’s highest achieving independent, public charter schools, with average English Language Arts (ELA) and math scores exceeding those of all comparison groups, including all of NYC schools, all of NYC charter schools and all of New York State public schools.
Dr. Swartz was a first grade teacher during Bronx Better Learning’s first two years of operation. Since then he has served as the school’s Executive Director for three years and now as the Director of Professional Development.
Just prior to his involvement with Bronx Better Learning, he was the Superintendent and Principal of a one-school, 400 student, K-8 district in Sussex County, New Jersey. Under Dr. Swartz’s leadership, the district established a strong track record of academic success, including its achieving the distinction of being the school, among 21 in the county, with the highest percentage of students meeting state standards in all sections tested, on both the fourth grade and the eighth grade statewide assessments.
He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, Special Education, from New York University.
“A New Job a Year Later 1994” by Ted Swartz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.