“Learning is as natural as walking.” The world loses a terrific educator: Robert Calfee, 1933-2014

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“Why teach them to march, when they can learn to fly?” Bob reading to an Escondido Elementary kindergarten class in 1985 (Photos: Ed Souza)

I traveled with Robert Calfee to schools in New York City, Pittsburgh, and around the Bay Area, when we were conducting research for the 1995 book we co-authored, Teach Our Children Well (Portable Stanford Series). The second chapter of the text was published as a Washington Post op-ed, and won a national award.

That was back in my days as the news director for Stanford’s School of Education – and before that, I had worked with a project called “Stanford and the Schools.” Bob was my first boss at Stanford, and I coauthored (with Stanford University President Donald Kennedy and Education Dean Myron Atkin) the book that came out of the project, Inside Schools. Then Bob and I tackled this second book together.  He was an amazing educator and an easygoing travel chum. I was greatly saddened to hear of his death by cancer on October 24 – I hadn’t even known he was ill.  You can read more about it here and at the UC-Riverside website, where he was dean, here.

Bob was a passionate champion for ‘the rhetoric,’ the formal use of language to reason, persuade, and argue – whether its getting kids to talk the administration into getting new lockers for the school, or whether they think the novel they’re reading is a good one. He believed in writing. He said students can read a book without comprehending it, but it’s hard to compose an essay passively.

calfee1He emphasized “critical literacy” – that is, learning to use all forms of language for thinking, for problem-solving, and for communications. He said it was the way he had been taught in Kentucky, during a rather hardscrabble childhood, partly spent in an orphanage.

To that end, Bob created Project REA/Inquiring School, an educational endeavor that emphasized making schools “communities of inquiry.” As I recall, Project READ was for the classroom, Inquiring School was for the school as a whole. Rather than focusing on students who were branded as ‘defective,’ he focused on professional development for teachers. He wanted to steer instructors away from teachers’ guides that, he said, read like the IRS tax manuals. He tried to wean them away from follow-the-recipe teaching. He was undaunted by low-achieving, multilingual classrooms in poor neighborhoods with histories of low achievement. Those were the ones he was looking for.

This is from our book together: “We have repeatedly found that most students, including those identified as low-achieving, have sharper academic value and pedagogical potential, but they don’t know what they know. They cannot recognize and use their background experience until someone – a teacher – offers the cognitive tools for expressing themselves and participating in group problem-solving.” Our conclusion? “Children walking into their first classrooms vary widely in experience and temperament; but for virtually each one of them, learning is as natural as walking. Why teach them to march, when they can learn to fly?”

calfee2It wasn’t just talk; I watched him to it. For example, he walked into a boisterous classroom of elementary students within minutes – coming in cold, with no preparation, he’d have them in his hand within minutes. He’d start with a question – how would they explain where they lived to a man from Mars? – and follow up their suggestions with ‘Tell me more’ or ‘Why?’ And from that he would teach. Not only did he learn a great deal about the students that way, but he engaged them where they were right then, right there, instead of beginning with abstractions far away from their daily lives.

I recall him talking about a student whose difficult family background was such that he had a better working knowledge of how government works than many adults do – but that knowledge didn’t get tapped in the classroom.

He wanted to see classrooms brimming with life, and walls covered with students’ writing, webs and weaves and story graphs. Silent classrooms bothered him more than noisy ones.

We were often on a tight schedule, and after visiting one school, a teacher said she wanted to discuss matters with him as we waited for our taxi. It was a frigid winter morning – I think it was in the Bronx. He turned up his collar against the wind, and said gently, “Let’s talk here.” And they did. That was sooooo Bob.

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FROM TEACH OUR CHILDREN WELL: Robert Calfee was a guest teacher for a lunch-hour economics class in Yerba Buena High School east of San Jose, in a poor neighborhood and a port of entry for new arrivals from around the world. Here’s his impromptu instruction:

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In recent years (Photo: Smart Ants, Inc.)

Calfee: What do you guys think economics is all about? What words come to your mind when I say ‘economics’?

Students: Money. Scarcity. Products. Profit. Services.

Calfee: Why do you think we need to know about economics? What’s the value? [Silence. Teachers frown.] Have you got an economic system at home? Is your family an economic system? [More silence.]

Brendan: Yeah, I think so.

Calfee: Say more. [Silence.] How do you handle money? Do you guys have anything do with money at home? [Someone mumbles about money and “decision-makers.”]

Calfee: Who decides?

Ngo: Parents.

Calfee: Do you have a job?

Ngo: No.

Calfee: Ever had a job?

Ngo: No.

Calfee: You get an allowance?

Ngo: No. I just ask.

Calfee: Tell me a little more about how that happens.

Ngo: If I need money for lunch or for other things that I want, I just go ask them.

Calfee: Why don’t you act it out with someone else – I’ll play your father, Sam. [Laughter.]

Ngo: [Taking up the challenge] Dad, I’m going on a field trip to Berkeley. I need $100 for lunch for a few days.

Calfee: [Acting the father] A hundred dollars for lunch? That seems like a lot. Tell me why you need so much money.

Ngo: [Hedging] OK, I’ll take $50.

Calfee: How about I give you $5?

Ngo: I’ll be staying for three days. Three meals a day … [Said with little conviction.

Calfee: Let’s see. Nine meals. How much does a meal cost?

Ngo: Ten dollars a day – just to be on the safe side … [More laughter.]

Calfee: If we negotiate this and agree, three days, $30, I can afford that. You’ve got $30!

Calfee: [To students] Can you deal with that? Have we got scarcity now? Could someone live off $30 for three days?

Students: [With little conviction] Maybe.

Calfee: You’d have to make tough choices. But you can take the same language and apply it to big businesses – which is what the chapter is about

The discussion continued, students drawing from their own experience to define the words. They found within their own families examples of joint proprietorships and other abstractions buried within the textbook. A young Hispanic student, silent during the early discussion, raised her hand during the discussion of partnerships. “I think my parents are a partnership. They have this restaurant. They work together there for lunch and dinner, and they get home late every night. They don’t really own it yet, and on weekends my sister and me help them. But I think that it’s a partnership. Is that what they mean in the book?” Her example resonated with both students and teachers, who knew little about the strivings of this young woman’s parents, recently arrived from Mexico, to establish a new life in the United States. Calfee led the way in creating a matrix to compare and contrast the three organizational types that were the academic focus of the chapter. The textbook defined the columns; the students selected the row categories. The lunch hour flew by. “Is he coming back?” a student asked on the way back to class.

 


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