Archive for December 12th, 2014

Bob Calfee: remembering each kid is a miracle, every minute

Friday, December 12th, 2014
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“Big picture” kind of guy

I arrived a half-hour late to master-educator’s Robert Calfee‘s memorial service on Dec. 6, thanks to a perennially confused sense of direction (I wrote about the Stanford professor who died in October here). As I entered, Prof. Roger Bruning of University of Nebraska was just beginning his eulogy. I pulled out my notebook and began scribbling – although it was somewhat distracting to see familiar School of Education faces from, in some cases, three decades ago. Educators from all over the country sat in the pews, many of them trained by Bob.

“Bob was always ahead of his time,” Roger said, and praised his “humility and respect for what other people knew.” I can certainly testify to the latter; I wish I had Bob’s ability to listen.

“Bob knew an awfully lot about a very large number of things. His career began in experimental psychology, and the first page of his vita shows publication of sophisticated studies of animal learning, mathematical learning models, and methods for analyzing research data,” said Roger. “Bob didn’t lack for understanding of the craft of psychological research. Very soon, though, Bob’s vita shows his true loves emerging—language, literacy, teaching, learning—topics that would engage him throughout his career.”

Here’s what I didn’t know … or didn’t remember: Stanford psychologist Gordon Bower described how Bob loved fixing stuff – he had repaired jet engines in the air force. Apparently, he had rewired a number of Stanford offices.

The Presbyterian minister who presided over the memorial, Mark Goodman-Morris spoke of the miracle of giving baptisms, looking down at each infant he held (even the weeping ones), and sensing a whole undiscovered world glowing in each of the new faces, and the sense of lightness and profundity that realization gave him. “Bob understood the blessing that comes with children,” he said, and Bob certainly seemed to keep the sense of wonder. I remember that, too. He always seemed thrilled to be around schoolkids. All of them.

Here are a few of Roger’s remarks:

“Bob never lost sight of his mission—making classrooms and schools better. Bob once told me that a quick check of whether things were going well in a classroom is to walk up to any student and ask a couple of questions— one, ‘what are you working on?’ and two, ‘why are you learning that?’ If the student could tell you both of these, Bob said, that was a good sign. It meant that they not only understood what they were learning but what it was for.”

“From Bob’s perspective, effective classrooms students are using their thinking and language skills to do meaningful work. They will be talking, reading, writing, discussing, changing their minds, creating new products, revising them. Bob worried a lot about our current emphasis on narrow-gauge testing, seeing it potentially damaging to these kinds of productive classroom processes.”

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Never lost the wonder. (Photo: Ed Souza)

“Bob’s professional life clearly was a labor of love, leading him to delve very deeply into things. Many folks are interested in phonics instruction and so was he, but Bob could get excited and love to share intricacies of what he knew about things like the Great Vowel Shift in English that started around 1400 and which is why we now say ‘boat’ instead of ‘boot’ and ‘foot’ instead of ‘foose.’”

“Bob also understood that alphabets like the Roman one couldn’t be neatly pasted on another language like English, which make some pine for a more ‘regular’ alphabet. He understood how successions of rulers, clans, clergy, and civil administrators all left their mark on the English we speak today. He knew that languages and things having to do with them were…well… complicated. But he also knew that complicated things can be understood. It’s like carving a turkey, he said, in one of his favorite illustrations. If you just start carving, you’ll end up with hash. But if you know where the joints are—if you can see the hidden framework, the big picture—you can do a beautiful job.”

teach“Bob did ‘big picture’ work and the world is the better for it. He didn’t need to ask us what to do. He just did what he knew needed to be done—using his understanding of language, literacy, teaching, and learning to create schools and classrooms where students love learning.”

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Oh, and here’s one of the best parts: one of the professors attending the event said the book I coauthored with Bob, Teach Our Children Well (Portable Stanford, 1995), is “a classic.” That’s it. “A classic.”