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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

GORDON VARS (from Middle School Journal, January 1993

An article I wrote about Dr. Vars nearly twenty years ago ... the photo was published with the piece ...  Apologies for the formatting--I had to convert from a .pdf to a Word file ... so it goes ...

Gordon F. Vars:

The heart and soul of core curriculum

Daniel Dyer 

"Holy smoke!" cries the teacher. "Let's  get ou tta here!"

Ninth  grade heads swing toward the ventilation grate where smoke is, indeed, billowing  through the duct-work-thick  acrid clouds surging into the ninth  grade science classroom  of Henry Frazer, a teacher whose wit under  fire has impressed one young scholar  in the room as he joins his classmates in an orderly evacuation  of the building.

Fire that day guts  the school where  Henry Frazer teaches and where Gcrdon Vars is making his way through that stage of life which would one day be his specialty. It would not be the last school fire Gordon would  experience.

I have  known  Gordon Vars for more  than twenty  years.  Although I first met him on the printed   page  (Modern Education   for  the Junior High School  Years was  a  volume  I cherished before I knew him), it was not until I became his graduate assistant  and doctoral student at Kent State University in the early 1970s that I grew to appreciate him as a person and to admire how he was able at all times to employ his scholarship in the  service  of  humanity. He  seemed  always more eager  to learn than to teach.

Like   most graduate  students,  I  was impecunious. Proud  of what I knew, disdainful of what  I did  not. One  afternoon I  remember commenting to Gordon in an offhand  way that the  local PBS station was  broadcasting Eisenstein's classic film Ivan the Terrible Part I (a film I longed  to see); I complained mildly  that my poor,  not-goad-enough-for-Goodwill set made every PBS program look as if it had been photographed through a dandruff-encrusted lens. Gordon had  a few questions about Eisenstein-eagerly mining  my brain for what little ore it possessed. Then the conversation moved  elsewhere.

I promptly forgot  the entire  conversation. Gordon did not.  Later that afternoon the phone rang. Gordon. Would my wife and I join him at home  to see Ivan? Would  we!

When we arrived, we were greeted  with Gordon's usual good cheer-and with bowls brimming with  popcorn.  I was stunned by his thoughtfulness, charmed by his goodness.  It would  not be the last time.

The best and worst of public  education
Born  on  February 10, 1923, in  Erie, Pennsylvania, son  of  Mildred and  Ethan  W. Vars  (a tool  designer and  engineer), Gordon soon moved  to Bellefonte, a small community in the Allegheny Mountains and  seat  of a county aptly named Centre  (it occupies  the heart of the KeystoneState). "Limestone dust from the nearby kilns powdered the town,"  recalls Gordon.
In  the   Bellefonte High School Gordon experienced the best and the worst of American public education. He remembers Alberta Krader, a "marvelous teacher" of sixth grade music who revealed to him the wonders of classical music. She took him to his first symphonic performance, at nearby Penn State, where he heard the National Symphony, under the baton  of Hans  Kindler, play Beethoven's Overture to  Egmont, an experience which Gordon recalls "swept me off my feet." Although Gordon's mother probably initiated his life-long love of music, Gordon credits  Ms. Krader  with introducing him to the power  and  passion of it.

In this same school, however, Gordon was to witness events which alarmed and frightened him. One day an eighth grade English teacher­ patrolling the aisles like a prison guard-detected a young man in the surreptitious (and seditious!) act  of  reading a  novel.  Gordon recalls  with horror how she grabbed the book away from the offender  and  slammed him in the face with  it. One can only wonder what she intended to teach that  day; we do not have  to imagine what  the students learned.

In ninth  grade, the school  burned, and  the entire student population moved into an abandoned academy building where  Gordon completed  the  year  in  dark   classrooms and narrow hallways haunted by the spirits  of long­ departed scholars from  the nineteenth century.
An aeronautical  engineer  becomes an educator
Gordon's high school graduation present was an automobile excursion to the West coast with  his father  in their 1939 DeSoto. Along  the way,  they stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio  to look at the campus of Antioch College, a school whose innovative curriculum had  already attracted Gordon, who now was resolved to be an aeronautical engineer. "Itwas the combination of a liberal arts education with  practical  pre­ engineering experiences," says Gordon, explaining his decision to matriculate at Antioch.
The school's"co-op plan" permitted students to  combine classroom  and  workplace  in alternating blocks of time.   Students would attend classes on campus for a period  of time, then  leave  campus to serve  apprenticeships in their areas of interest. The plan enabled Gordon to work as a machinist for Allison Motors, which manufactured engines for P-38 aircraft, and as a draftsman for Schweitzer Aircraft, an Elmira, New  York company specializing in  training gliders.
1941. World events caught up with Gordon, and  Uncle Sam sent  him  to Alabama  for basic training, then to Germany where he fought the Nazis on their own soil. In a variety  of infantry units, Gordon served in several different capacities: as a BAR man, a radio operator, and, during the  days  following V.E. Day,  a clerk­ typist in Nuremberg for military courts martial. While inNuremberg, he was able to attend in his off-duty hours some  of the sessions  of the War Crimes Trials and to see those horrible  Nazi executioners he now calls "lunatics."
"In the foxholes I had time to think. And it was then that I decided I'd rather  work  with people and  ideas  than  with  things."
And  so the world would lose another aeronautical engineer ("I wasn't much good at it anyway," Gordon laughs)   but  would gain  an educator whose  contributions to the profession would be immeasurable.
Back in Yellow Springs, Gordon enrolled  in education courses and recalls with great fondness and  admiration Hilda  Wallace  Hughes ("She was very influential in my career," he says), who insisted that  her students design  the course (which covered  all the traditional topics of first­ year education: principles of teaching, educational  psychology, and   the  role  of  the school  in society).  Gordon believes  Hughes' approach was the"first step" in his development as an  advocate of "core" and  other inter­ disciplinary approaches to the curriculum.

Gordon also continued his long involvement with Boy Scouts while in Yellow Springs. He had been a Scout himself and now lent his considerable experience and  talents  to these southern Ohio youngsters.

Student teaching in  the  Yellow Springs schools  (ninth  grade  general  science).  A day of observation. Gordon's college  supervisor and cooperating teacher, pens busy writing comments, sit in the rear of the room. Things are going well. Better than well, actually. Gordon is delivering a virtuoso classroom performance!
The period  ends,  and  Gordon, whose  eyes have been affixed to his lesson plan the past half hour,  finally  glances  up  to see  his  classroom laced with string!  Earlier in the period, one waggish student  had  slipped a  ball  of twine from Gordon's wastebasket and passed it behind him. All the students took the twine, wrapped it around some accommodating protuberance on their desk, and passed  it on. By period's end the room  resembles a web  worthy of Shelob,  the giant spider in The Lord of the Rings.
As  the  delighted students exit  the  room, each receives a souvenir of the day: a detention slip, courtesy of the unamused cooperating teacher.
One  of the  activities Gordon and  his classmates planned with Hilda Wallace Hughes was a visit to the University School of Ohio State University in  nearby  Columbus, Ohio,  and  it was there that Gordon grew  to appreciate even more  the  possibilities of the  core  curriculum. "The core program at the University School was one  of  the  best  in  the  nation," Gordon says today.
In  1946,   Gordon  would  become more f amiliar with the school as he took advantage of Antioch  College's fifth  year  by submitting an independent study proposal which took him on a journey-by-thumb, the results of which would be sort  of a hitchhiker's guide  to some  of the thirty  schools  which   had  participated in  the Eight-Year Study  (1933-1941) sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.  Gordon was  disappointed to see  that  there  was  "very little left"  of the  innovative curricula   and  the fiery  enthusiasm which  had  characterized the early  years  of the  experiment.   But Gordon's own fervor had been ignited  by his reading and observation, and  his enduring love affair  with the core curriculum had  begun.

Genesis of a core teacher
Following graduation from Antioch in 1948, Gordon worked as a counselor (responsible primarily for nature and handicrafts) at Gaysville Campers, a camp run by Wanda Greineisen and Letty Johnson, who also administered the Farm School north  of Chicago.   He had spent  several previous summers in  the  same  position   and greatly enjoyed working with the young campers age 7-12); he saw at Gaysville even more clearly the rich possibilities of outdoor education.
In the fall he enrolled  in a master's program in science  education at  Ohio  State  University and there fell under  the beneficent thrall of HaroldAlberty,authorofanumberofinfluential journal articles and of Reorganizing the High SchoolCurriculum,alandmarkvolume. Alberty's course  on how  to be a core teacher,  says  Vars, was another foundation stone  in the edifice  of his career.
Summer, 1949. Gordon has  completed his master's degree and  is on  his  way  to  Bel Air Junior-Senior High  School in Harford County, Maryland, just  northwest of  the  Chesapeake Bay. Newly-wed to Annis, Gordon would begin his classroom career as a teacher of eighth grade core (English, social studies, science) and  ninth grade  general  science.

"I made a big mistake," Gordon remembers.  "The mistake  many  beginning teachers  make. I let the kids get away from me. Many days when I went  to school  there was a real question as to who  was  in  charge.   Finally,  over  Christmas break, I thought it over, and when  I returned, I instituted a dictatorship. Nobody moved  in my room."
After that decision Gordon's classroom was not one that would have brought a smile of admiration to the lips of Alberty  back at Ohio State,  but  Gordon "managed to survive" that first  year,  and  two  more,  gradually assuming the  post  of  A-V  Coordinator along  with  his heavy  teaching  load.
By the spring of 1952 Gordon's reputation and  classroom expertise had  attracted the attention of the directors of the Demonstration School at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee, and, following a classroom visitation by the school's director, Gordon was  hired  to  teach  eighth grade  core (English,  social studies, science, math).

At   Peabody,  Gordon's   belief  in   the "tremendous potential" of outdoor education was re-affirmed. Camping was an important feature of the  curriculum, and Gordon participated enthusiastically, eventually becoming director of the program.
William Van Til was Chairman of the DivisionofCurriculumand Teaching at Peabody when Gordon arrived. Van Til's son Jon would be in Gordon's first class, his daughter Barbara would follow in subsequent years.   After three years  at the Demonstration School,  Gordon became  Van Til's  graduate assistant and  thus began  what  Van Til later  characterized as "an enduring close   professional relationship." Gordon today  refers to Van Til as "my  mentor, my supporter, the one who  pushes me."

With his dissertation begun  ("Methods and Materials in the  Core Curriculum: Some Suggestions for Teachers") Gordon and  his family  headed for  New  York,  where   he  had found  at   the   State  University  College at
Plattsburgh a job suited to his increasingly diverse professional interests: He  would teach ninth grade core (English, social studies, science) at the Campus School  as well as undergraduate education courses. It would be a combination of teaching assignments he  would endeavor to maintain for  the rest  of his career.

With  major  funding  from  the    Ford Foundation, Cornell University was  initiating its famed "Junior High School  Project" in 1959, and  Gordon was  quick to realize the  potential value of this  pioneering effort.

Having completed his dissertation in 1958, Gordon joined  the  faculty of the  Project  as an associate professor-the  "curriculum person" on  the team, with  additional responsibilities to teach  courses in  English methods, junior  high school curriculum,  and supervise student teachers.

The unique  program at Cornell  was a fifth year of study and  preparation for  liberal  arts majors  who   were   given   intensive study  of ed uca tional issues and practices and experience  working  with  junior  high  school students.   At year's end, the interns were certified 7-12 in their discipline; they were  ready to begin  careers  in the junior high school.

Gordon looks back with justifiable pride on the accomplishments of the Junior  High School Project. "We turned out some excellent teachers," he commented recently, "most notably  Eliot Wigginton, compiler   of  the  Foxfire volumes." But he was also pleased that his academic schedule at Cornell permitted him and the others (includingMauritzJohnson,Jr., William T. Lowe, and  Oscar Mink)  the time  to reflect and  write.

Gordon believes  that  one of the pamphlets he w·rote for the Project (Teaching in Teams) remains one of  his best works.
It was during Gordon's six years at Cornell tha t the first edition of Modern Education for the runior High School Years appeared (Bobbs-Merrill, 1961). Van Til, principal editor of the first edition, recalls that the book"sold well" (a second edition carne out in 1967) and "established Vars and Lounsbury (the co-authors) as outstanding leaders of their generation of writers about  the middle years."
Unfortunately, Ford  Foundation funding ran dry; the president of Cornell eliminated the School of Education; and  Gordon moved  on­ not all that unwillingly. "I had not been in the classroom for six years," he says,  "and my anecdotes were  growing stale!"  Recalling  his happy  days  in  Plattsburgh,  Gordon  sought  a position which would permit him, once again, to ombine his interest in working with youngsters as well as undergraduate and graduate students. In 1966, he found the right combination at Kent State  University where  he  taught  eighth grade core (English, social studies, and guidance) at   the  University School in  the  morning, Principles of Teaching" to undergraduates in the afternoon, and assorted curriculum courses and seminars to graduates in the evening.

To Gordon's great dismay, Kent State phased outt  its  University School   ("a  disaster," he maintains)--pruning itsstructure like a diseased tree: first the high school, then the ninth  grade, then seventh and eighth, finally the elementary­ and  Gordon lost the opportunity to work  with youngsters in a classroom setting, a loss he feels dearly, for he had sought throughout his career enliven  his  professional education courses with  news  from  the  front  lines.  Although he ontin ues  to  teach  Sunday school  classes  of young adolescents, he is quick to observe that "it isn't the same."

Middle schools emerge
By the mid-1960s, a new wave of interest  in mtermediate education was  washing over  the ountry. The "middle school"  began  to replace the "junior high school" as the phrase of favor.  Gordon believes that a speech  delivered at Cornell  by William  Alexander in 1963 was the Mopening round" fired in the war to revise and reform  America's junior  high schools.   In that speech, Alexander urged  intermediate schools to return the ninth  grade  to the high school, to include the sixth grade, and  to make  the curriculum fit the clientele.

Gordon and many of the other leaders in the junior high school movement saw the emergence of the middle school  as a chance  to "revitalize what we'd  always been talking about." Gordon recognized that in many  places the junior high had become in practice little more than a "little high  school" with  programs and  curricula indistinguishable from  the upper secondary school levels. Such practices were an anathema to Gordon, who  knew  through long study and experience with  youngsters that they needed programs designed specifically for their unique needs.
Yet Gordon was  disdainful of those ahistorical (or antihistorical) voices in the new movement who failed to realize that most if not all the principles and philosophies espoused by middle school advocates had in fact been created and cherished by the pioneers of the junior high school movement a half century earlier.
Throughout the sixties, seventies, eighties, and on into the nineties, Gordon Vars has become one  of  the  most  respected leaders in  middle school  education. With  his  former   graduate student  colleague, John   Lounsbury, he  has published one of the germinal documents of the movement, A Curriculum for the Middle School Years (Harper & Row, 1978). He was editor  of Common Learnings: Core and Interdisciplinary Team Approaches (International Textbook  Company, 1969). He has published scores of articles in professional journals, encyclopedias, and assorted reference books. He participated in the writing of what  many  middle school educators today consider a vital document: This We Believe (National Middle School Association, 1982). He regularly serves as a consultant to state departments of education, school systems, and individual  middle schools  on  topics  ranging from curriculum to guidance to discipline to questions of professional ethics. He appears on the programs of local, regional, and  national meetings and has been honored as "Ohio Middle School Educator of the Year" (1980) by the Ohio Middle School Association and in 1986 received the "John H. Lounsbury Award for Excellence in Middle  School  Education" from  the  National Middle School  Association. He  continues  to train middle school teachers in  their  own buildings through  the  Junior High/Middle School Staff Development Program he developed at Kent State University. He and his second wife, Alice McVetty Vars, have even renovated their garage, transforming it into "The School House," a teaching  center  where  they offer workshops, in-service sessions, and "personalized assistance according  to your  group or individual needs." Throughout his  long   and   distinguished career, Gordon Vars has demonstrated a fierce loyalty  to colleagues and  causes.   William  Van Til says Gordon has been a man who has "lived by [his] principles."
Nowhere is this virtue  more apparent than in his devotion to the core curriculum movement. In  1953, Gordon attended  a  meeting in Morgantown, West  Virginia,  where   many  of core's most prominent adherents discussed the possibility  of creating  a national  association of coreeducators.Justovera year later, the National Association for Core Curriculum was formed. It holds local  and  national conventions and publishes a quarterly newsletter (The Core Teacher) which Gordon has edited  since 1961.
On a recent sticky Ohio summer afternoon, Gordon and I sat under  a sheltering tree beside his house and talked for several hours about his career. When I asked him why he has maintained his intransigent allegiance  to core,  he  replied quite simply:  "It's a good concept." This short sentence  speaks volumes about  Gordon Vars. He continues to embrace those principles he developed in childhood, refined  in college and graduate school, and grew to love in adulthood.
Gordon is not sanguine about  the future of core-nor about   public  education in  general these days.  "I am forecasting a dark age in American  education," he says.  He  views with alarm  the current fatuous infatuation with "competency tests" and "minimalist approaches."
"I''m all for accountability," he is quick  to point   out,  "but  when accountability means 'testability,' then  I fear that tests will drive  the curriculum, just as they did in New  York with the Regents' Exam. I am  afraid  we're  moving toward a national, uniform curriculum. Blaming the  schools for poor performances on standardized tests is pure  poppycock. How can you  condemn the schools for  a cultural phenomenon? Parents who permit their children unlimited hours in front of the television  are to blame. Kids don't read today because they don't see anyone  reading at home."
Gordon does not view television  as evil electrified,  however. "We've got  to make  our literacy more visual and auditory," he maintains. "In its power to communicate, television surpasses every  medium in history; it's  time," he thinks, "to quit treating it as a thieving servant and  instead  to unleash  its awesome educative potential."

"I have never been a charismatic leader," he says. "I've  been a worker.  I would like," he sa ys finally,  "to  be  remembered for  putting kids first-and for practicing  what  I preached."

It is late winter. 1972. Gordon and several of his doctoral students are observing a one-room schoolhouse in rural Holmes County, Ohio. The teacher,  a  young  girl  no  more  than  eighteen years  of  age  and  a  "graduate" of  the  eighth grade, moves nervously through her lessons. A dozen  or so youngsters comprise the school, grades  one through eight. There is one row per grade  level. (There are no second  graders and only  three  fifth  graders: a set of triplets.)  The scene is a nineteenth century daguerreotype come to life.
Seated in the rear of the room are several hirsute  Amish elders. It is their school; they are present to welcome us as visitors-and, no doubt, to make certain  nothing untoward occurs.
Ramrod straight he sits, eyes glistening with curiosity. He belongs here, in this setting,  with these children. Like the one-room schoolhouse itself, Gordon Vars is an American  archetype. 
Daniel Dyer teaches at Harmon Middle  School, Aurora, Ohio.

January  1993

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