Exclusive Interview: Dr. Ted Swartz, Founder, The Bronx Charter School for Better Learning Transcribed by Marissa Schain
Dr. Ted Swartz, former CUNY professor and psychologist, has never allowed the press into his school. Education Update was privileged to gain insight into one of the most unique methodologies for teaching children.
Dr. Pola Rosen, Education Update(PR): Tell us about the technique that is used in this school, whom it is named after and the fascinating saga on how you first came upon your teaching technique?
Dr. Ted Swartz, (TS): The person who first developed this approach is Dr. Caleb Gattegno, and he named the approach The Subordination of Teaching to Learning. I knew nothing about it when I started teaching. I was in my early twenties really struggling through the first couple of years as a teacher. Coursework in college didn’t prepare one for the realities of being with children in inner-city neighborhoods. It was a middle school, grades five through eight. The school had only been open two to three years. The principal of the school was a wonderful man who was determined to change the lives of these children. When I was on a break walking through the halls of the school, I happened upon a room with about a dozen children. I saw someone with gray hair and a wooden pointer and charts— this was Dr. Gattegno. I came to discover that he had a way of engaging children and what seemed to be a magical capacity to take them from wherever they were to someplace that was significant to them. These were children who didn’t know they could read very much, and who found themselves discovering things that to them felt as though it was worth their time.
PR: And they were able to read at the end of the half hour?
TS: Yes, they were able to read words on the chalkboard including words that are generally considered advanced: asthma, consciences, tongue, etc. He discovered that if he could design materials and techniques that put children in touch with something they already knew and with something they thought they could do, they could learn.
PR: One of the compelling things about your story today is that you said you were an observer for about a half an hour in a classroom with a man that you never met before and that led to a lifetime of your dedication to this technique. Can you tell us what you feel is being done in this school that is making a difference in the lives of these children?
TS: One thing that I consider most important in the work that the teachers here are trying to do is to always look beyond what may be on the surface, in terms of the way that students are behaving or functioning, whether they’re right or wrong, and to see in them deep profound intelligence. That I’d say is the core of what is happening here and can be happening much more every day.
PR: You think there’s something in the system that’s having a negative impact?
TS: I would say that most grownups relate to children as human beings that haven’t been fully developed. What Cattegno saw was that we are all complete at every stage of development and that for children of the age of three or four to have taught themselves how to speak proves they have to be extremely smart. If I am responsible for the children of that elementary school, every one of them is extremely smart. When they seem to be slow or struggling or not interested in science there must be something about how I’m working with them that’s not quite right.
PR: Sometimes adults will say, this child has a talent for math, but he is not so great in writing of vice versa. Is that really an untruth?
TS: I would say it’s empirically true that the child might not be doing well in math, but I would also say if that child taught him or herself how to speak, there’s a mathematician in there that we have not yet reached.
PR: So there’s something about the teaching techniques and motivation that we have not done for that child, and we’re not helping that child reach the full potential in that area. What you’re really saying is that every child can be terrific in every academic field.
TS: If they had all the time in the world for every area, there isn’t an area of academics that I don’t think a child couldn’t be extremely good at.
PR: Is there a special teaching approach in this school that’s used specifically to the academic area that you would see here and not in schools across the city?
TS: In this school, the lessons do not typically involve a teacher explaining, giving definitions, or telling children about things. Teachers pose very carefully crafted challenges that will enable children to discover what they need to know.
PR: Who crafts the challenges?
TS: The teachers craft the challenges as part of a group decision. There are some criteria that we use in order to make sure it’s a challenge that will really grab the children, hold their interest and result in the academic knowledge we all want them to have.#
PR: Currently, the focus in our society is on measurements. People criticize that there is too strong an emphasis on it while others say it is important to establish some benchmarks. What measurement is being used here at the school?
TS: So far, for the years we have been testing from our 3rd year though our 8th year; we have exceeded District 11 in ELA and in mathematics. I would expect that every child in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade who takes state examinations would perform very well. When we agreed this would be a charter school and not a private school, we agreed that we would be accountable for these children doing well on state tests and certainly better than children in the larger district. I think that’s a fair standard to hold us to, and we’re comfortable with that.
PR: Can you tell us about inclusion and special needs children?
TS: We have about thirty children who are classified and of those children only fifteen or so are assigned to a teacher who pulls them out for certain things in small groups. We have a school psychologist who works with the children as needed.
PR: Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers?
TS: I’d like to say that we are a work in progress. The teachers we have working in our school are involved in trying to understand how to connect with the intelligence with all their children. Clearly, there are some children who learn and progress more quickly. If we can have the teachers seriously ask themselves every day, can I do better tomorrow” then I am satisfied that we created a place that will do better every day.
PR: If you had a wish that could be fulfilled, if you had a dream, what would that be?
TS: If you bring me a group of any children in this school, I would feel very comfortable in knowing how to engage them in a way that is very meaningful and leads to a lot of learning.
PR: We hope to be there to share your additional insights and observations.#