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My Time with Dr. G and His overwhelming flow of creativity

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The following is extracted from the book 'The Gattegno Effect' Published 2011, ISBN 978-0-87825-344-9 Copyright © 2011 Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

My Time with Dr. G and his overwhelming flow of creativity

by Michael J. Hollyfield (1935-2017)

I first met Dr. Gattegno in June 1961, when I was 26 years old. The following year I attended a five- day course he gave, and shortly after that he invited me to join his expanding company. I was offered a job as a demonstrator, with my territory being the South East of England. At that time the company was overwhelmed with requests from schools for instruction using the Cuisenaire Rods.

Organising and giving courses was my initial function. Soon after, my family and I moved to Reading (Reading was the original home of the Cuisenaire Company), which enabled me to take on additional work in the office. I also became Dr. G’s chauffeur, driving him to the numerous meetings and courses he was giving. On the way back to Reading it was feedback; me giving feedback on what I had learned at the course, and Dr. G giving his response by discreetly falling asleep after my first few minutes. However, as I came to appreciate, I was exceptionally privileged to have spent so much time with this remarkable man during the years he lived in Reading.

He came across as a mild and gentle person with an old fashioned courtesy about him. He did not accept unjustified familiarity – he declined first name terms unless he knew one well enough. The question “Am I welcome?” was his way of inviting himself to a discussion or other activity that happened to be ongoing. He publicly asserted, “Humility is my strongest suit,” but his presence exuded something intangible yet unmistakable. He fiercely contested pre-conceived ideas and fought courageously for what he knew to be valid. In fact, his forthright and challenging outspokenness was frequently confused for rudeness by those who made the error of imagining themselves to be personally attacked when their counter arguments were analyzed and dismissed.

Looking back – which I haven’t done until embarking on writing this – I remember what a full and busy time it was. The shabby building at 11 Crown Street that housed the still small company was in fact buzzing with activity, and the influence of Gattegno, the benefits of his writings, and the materials he published were already making their impact in classrooms and amongst teachers in many countries.

The first years of the ‘60s were amazing. The publishing company Educational Explorers Ltd. was formed, and a group of new people joined, some fresh from university, who were to be involved in great new projects. First, Words in Color in two versions – British English and American English; then the Silent Way for both versions of English, followed by the French and Spanish versions. Next, a new career series of books My Life and My Work launched. Soon after began a project of new animated mathematics films designed by Dr. G and created under his supervision. The overwhelming flow of creativity from him was staggering. Just as impressive was the thoroughness and the critical examination he brought to all these projects. We were all at different times and according to our different abilities, invited to contribute. Whilst all this was going on, Dr. G was at the same time working with colleagues in California for the U.S. editions. Remembering those years reminds me of how committed we all were. We worked weekends and evenings and I believe all, like me, loved every minute of it.

Dr. G had traveled widely and worked in numerous countries introducing the Cuisenaire-Gattegno method of teaching mathematics. His work established the Cuisenaire Rods as the most widely known of the new materials for teaching mathematics appearing in schools during the ‘50s and ‘60s. He also established agents and sister companies in the countries he visited.

Those of us who were already visiting schools and meeting teachers were expected to add Words in Colour (published 1962) to our portfolios. Our involvement in the creation of the literacy materials was an education in the technical and philosophical aspects of his work, but we had little first-hand experience of how these projects would actually be received or used in classrooms. To remedy this, we knew we had to educate ourselves in the practical use of Words in Color in order to have valid experience to offer when assisting others. We established the Reading reading clinic and invited parents to let us help their children who were having problems with reading. This was an excellent way to observe what happens for learners when Words in Color is the activity. We mostly worked one-to-one, it not being practical at this stage to arrange classes.

One of our students was a 13 year-old, brought to us by his probation officer, who believed that learning to read would help the boy in question – Robert – overcome his behavior problems. Robert’s time with us was memorable for me not only because of his progress, nor only because after a while he brought a friend, another non-reader, and instilled in him the ‘rules of the game’ that he had learned to abide by: no helping – let him do it himself, don’t ask if you are right – make sure, and so on. It was great to see. However, it was neither of these outcomes that impressed me most. It was what happened after the pupils returned to school. That first day of the new term I received a call from the deputy head of Robert’s school asking, “What have you done with Robert?” Robert had scored 100% in a spelling test, having refused to attempt any spelling tests until that day. Sadly, the school did not seek to have us help them to adopt Words in Color for their non-readers. The school’s request was only, “Can we send our non- readers to you?”

But Robert taught me how to appreciate what Dr. G had built into Words in Color. I learned how accessible Words in Color was to a learner reader. I began to understand how not to interfere whilst he did his work; that waiting quietly and not impatiently does help; that very soon your student just does not want your help, only the necessary ‘teacher inputs’ at each new stage of the task. Through this activity I came to appreciate Words in Color as a scientifically co-ordinated ‘program’ of materials and activities designed perfectly for the task. Word charts, Fidels, primer books, the Word Building Book and the worksheets each link to one another as progress is made, each new word chart being the key mover in this progress; the supporting materials widening the area of the study and building reading confidence in the learners.

Working with Words in Color led me to recognise what I think is key in Gattegno’s work. His study of how children learn and his appreciation of their will and capacity to overcome the most demanding of tasks is implicit in these materials. Learners are invited to engage in games which make no unreasonable demands on memory, do not encourage guessing, and which free learners from their teachers.

No matter how profound and philosophical the ideas behind the materials are, it is in their apparent simplicity that his genius is evident. In creating what he once described as “the whole of English in one panoramic view,” the English Fidel was a mammoth undertaking. Each phoneme and grapheme of the language analyzed, and organized into colored columns. The English Fidel is uncluttered and uncomplicated. A tool that learner readers have easy access to, and which serves them well in their getting to know thoroughly the written form of their language.

I remember Dr. G with great affection. He was always generous and he gave much of himself to those who worked with him, to all who attended his seminars, and especially to the children he worked with when teaching. His energy was infectious. Years later as he neared the end of his life, he continued working at the same pace. He was writing, addressing meetings of teachers, and leading seminars up until a few days before his death. I don’t feel he has received the recognition his contributions deserve, but I believe that as time goes by, his work will continue to influence what goes on in classrooms around the world and in this way enhance the lives of learners lucky enough to be exposed to his work. He would not have sought more than this.


If you want to know more about Dr Caleb Gattegno, please check out our short biography and the academic paper by A.B Powell on our website

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