Interview with John Taylor Gatto

You need experience, adventure, and explorations more than you need algebra!

– John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto is massively important to me. His book A Different Kind of Teacher shook me to the core, convincing me quit studying science in college and dive head-first into the world of alternative education.

In 2007 I first met John in person at a homeschooling conference, after which I enjoyed a few conversations over fax (his preferred communication tool). In 2010, at another homeschooling conference, we had a beer together. Every time I’ve interacted with the man I’ve more deeply admired his wit, humor, depth of knowledge, and passionate communication style.

In 2011 John suffered a stroke and retreated from the limelight. But as Pat Farenga reports, he’s now doing better, has a new website, and will re-release his massive Underground History of American Education later this year. (I appreciate Pat, Jerry Mintz, and Barb Lundgren for supporting John during his recovery, promoting his medical donation fund, and helping me communicate with him.)

After hearing of his recovery, I reached out to John to ask a few questions about his “guerrilla curriculum”—a term he coined to describe his method of providing a real education to his students as a NYC schoolteacher—as I’m currently deep in thought about how to structure my upcoming residential program for teens. He kindly wrote back, and I’m reposting his full response here. Scroll to the bottom to view my original question list.

And now, ladies and gentlemen: John Taylor Gatto.

Blakester, I’ll start with your second question, as it involves a fundamental assumption that must be eliminated to reach the best roughly in human potential—that significant differences in performance depend upon age—I reject that belief totally.

By studying the lives of great performers in human history, men like Alexander the Great, Andrew Carnegie, Ben Franklin, et. al., I concluded very early that our conceptions of childhood as a time of ineptness became a self-fulfilling prophecy—a guarantee of weak, childish young people, whereas the young lucky enough to have had to deal with adult challenges early on invariably turned out better, however “better” is defined.

Put simply, I expect the same performance from a 14 year old as I would from a 45 year old—as long as the superior standards of judgement are recognized thoroughly, an understanding I spent a great deal of time developing, so that kids could judge their own work without needing my intercession.

A favorite activity of my teenage boys, for example, was drawing comic book characters which was alright with me, I told them, as long as you do it right because many lucrative jobs in New York City are available to those who possess those skills—in advertising, the toy business, computer games, etc., but even the best among you do it wrong, an insult which angered those recognized by peers as the stars.

To prove that I set up a display of professional comic art and publicly analyzed conspicuous points of difference that can’t easily be perceived by careless observers, like Jamaal (who had agreed in advance to allow me to use him as a foil). Notice that Jamaal’s panels are all the same size, while virtually no panels in the pro cartoon are the same—the pro varies his panel shapes to suggest movement and action, a technique Jamaal doesn’t even know exists. And that isn’t all—see that all parts of Jamaal’s characters are well inside the borders of his comic panels while the pro drawing shows heads, feet, hands, and body parts like elbows and knees breaking out of the borders of the panels to attract the reader’s attention in an interesting way. Jamaal spends hundreds of hours each year in class reading comic books instead if schoolwork, and he thinks he is imitating pro work, but the truth is that he does not even see what is before his eyes. He would be better off cutting school and sitting in the public library with a stack of books on the principles of graphic art before him until he understands the kind of thinking and rules that kind of drawing grows out of, so Jamaal, here’s a pass to go right now and do that today and for the next two days, too, then come back Friday and show the class some of the things you learned. Don’t worry, I’ll make it ok with your other teachers and your mom—just learn to do it right!

Blake, your first question asks what kind of projects we tackled; let me name some of the biggest, but the details of production will be in the reissue my Underground History of American Education, out this June. (Sorry, no time for details now because of diabetic weakness.)

The biggest first then: About 10 years ago, the City of New York turned down a multi-million dollar offer from Beatle’s widow Yoko Ono to build a memorial to the music group in Central Park, a rejection which disgusted three of my girls who asked me to do something about it. I told them to take the next three months out of school to convince the planning board to reverse its decision—which they successfully did, causing Yoko to give a party in their honor. They organized a petition drive and a letter-writing campaign among teenagers across Manhattan which produced the reversal and gave Manhattan a major tourist attraction.

Another boy took a year off to master the intricacies of the acting business to win a role on General Hospital, the TV soap opera.

Our second biggest triumph was to turn the school yard into a weekend flea market and farmer’s market that 1) earned the school district 100,000 dollars a year in fees and provided weekend jobs for hundreds of students, 2) brought fresh produce at low prices into the neighborhood, 3) proved emphatically that teenagers can add value to a community over a period of years. (Our market is still thriving 20 years after its opening and could be imitated by every school in the nation to the benefit of schools and citizens.

We did more, Blake, but my strength is failing me. We wrote, edited, and published a professional newspaper, called The Westside Teenage News that sold [1000? 10,000?] copies an issue and provided students with documentation of excellences valuable to scholarship applications. We wrote a children’s book in verse, titled The Adventures of Snider, the C.I.A. Spider, to be published this summer byt a California private school called Kinza Academy. And by year’s end every year we generated dozens of student businesses earning real money through entrepreneurialism.

In all these projects, I provide (or recruited) guidance/advice from older, experienced men and women; one of our yearly goals was to provide personal mentors to every student and for every private interest. if I could start my own private school, I would operate it for every age group like an elite private boarding school like Groton, St. Paul’s, Choate or Hotchkiss, with academics on the level of, or better than, an Ivy League College.

The most important thing I learned in 41 years of schoolteaching was 1) stage theories of human development are nonsense, used as tools of class warfare, and 2) you need experience, adventure, and explorations more than you need algebra!

That’s all for now, B-man, I am exhausted. Good luck, amor, salud, dinero, oro, plata, chocolate, your friend, John.

[all emphases were John’s]

My questions for John Taylor Gatto:

  1. John, you’ve been planning to write a book about the “guerrilla curriculum” you employed as a New York City public schoolteacher. Tell me about the curriculum, its purpose, and some examples of the challenges you gave to students.
  2. How old were your students? How much did age matter in the guerrilla curriculum?
  3. What were some of the most successful or memorable challenges that you issued?
  4. Which challenges flopped or failed miserably?
  5. What did you learn about the capacity of young people to tackle complex, real-world problems? What can they do on their own, and when do they need significant help?
  6. What does the phrase “self-directed learning” mean to you? Did you see yourself as helping kids become better self-directed learners?
  7. If you could start your own small private school, or summer camp, or other youth organization, and run things exactly as you pleased—what would you do?
  8. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in all your years of teaching, writing, speaking, and thinking?

For more background on John’s approach, watch this 1991 mini-documentary:

The Guerrilla Curriculum: excerpt from a handout I received at one of Gatto’s talks



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