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Blog - Cuisenaire Company

Michael Hollyfield - an appreciation

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In memory of Michael John Hollyfield.

Mike Hollyfield

We would like to acknowledge the enormous contribution made by Mr Michael John Hollyfield to the company.

Michael passed away on the 12 th June 2017.

It is hard to overstate the impact of Michael's work with The Cuisenaire® Company throughout his time here, so we've written a brief appreciation that covers only a handful of his achievements.

Michael had committed a great deal of his life to the business; its pedagogy and its products.

Mr Hollyfield as he was lovingly known by members of staff at The Cuisenaire ®Company in Reading, or Dad to us, had been part of the business since the 1960’s.

Married to Caleb Gattegno’s daughter, Lola, and father to 6 children, 5 of which he had raised with Lola, Michael joined the company back at the time when we organised teachers’ conferences and training days for many schools interested in the Cuisenaire® - Gattegno approach to mathematics. His role took him all over the country not only with teacher training but also selling at conferences, and driving Dr Gattegno to seminars in the UK and Europe.

Michael also appeared on Pebble Mill on BBC 1 in the afternoon in the 1970’s, representing the business.

He ran a reading clinic hosted at our old premises on Silver Street (pictured below) in Reading, using Words in Colour with children who were not making any progress in school. He also used this method as devised by Gattegno to teach his own children to read.

The second premises at 11 Crown Street in Reading (pictured below) is where the business remained based until 2001. The building interestingly enough, had not been touched for redevelopment until the week of Michael’s death. 16 years after the business had left that premises. It was recognised by customers and friends of the family as the ‘Office’. We were sad to hear of its demolition but it seemed right that it should happen just after Michael passed away.

Throughout his time in the Company he rose up to become the Managing director.

Prior to that, he had been involved in many of the creative projects involved with the thriving new business, through which his passion for the pedagogy and the products always manifested itself.

He became the editor of the Cuisenaire® News Magazine in 1963.

He was also very involved with the artwork and ideas for some of our publicity.

It was Michael who introduced the Explorer Set and introduced truly modern attractive packing of any of the Cuisenaire materials.

The Explorer Set was intended as an introductory set of rods, showing them off at their colourful best.

A bright orange drawstring bag of rods was placed in a light transparent celluloid cylinder, and this was accompanied by a bright, simply written ‘Book of Ideas’ in full colour throughout, on glossy paper, an innovation for the Company at the time.

At the same time he superintended the development of high-quality designed coloured printed sleeve to slip on a newly designed plastic boxed full set of rods.

Ever sceptical of modern educational trends, Michael’s belief that Gattegno’s work and Cuisenaire®’s invention were the answer to so many educational problems faced in schools never faltered.

To see the huge re-emergence of the Cuisenaire® Gattegno approach to mathematics in the later years of his life was extremely rewarding for him. Particularly because he alone kept the Company going for many years when our materials were left gathering dust in the back of many a school storage cupboard.

Michael had endless time for our customers too. His customer service skills and ability to listen to parents’ concerns about their children’s difficulties in school were second to none.

His compassion for parents whose children were struggling and his belief that the methods introduced to the world by Cuisenaire® and Gattegno could help them was a great support and encouragement to many.

We are sad that we no longer hear his kind and reassuring voice when the phone rings; ‘Good afternoon, Cuisenaire….’, nor to have access to his extensive knowledge of every part of the business which he had been running for so many years.

However, we his children, continue to run the business in the spirit in which he taught us, and we feel that his dedication and commitment to this company and the work of Caleb Gattegno and Georges Cuisenaire® deserves acknowledging.

He is very much missed as a Father and also a boss.

Here are some words written by those who have worked with him:

"I am so sad to hear about Michael. He was always so helpful and supportive of the Gattegno work we are using at Bursted Wood. I hope that we can continue to do the work justice."

Jenny Cane – Bursted Wood Primary School.

"Michael, we're so grateful to you for all the support you have given us and others over so many years. We saw you during times when keeping the business and the pedagogy alive was clearly a struggle, but you were steadfast in your commitment. We'd like you to know how much we have appreciated this. We also both feel that our contact with you has always been at a very human level: a respectful meeting of minds that have a shared purpose. Thank you for this."

Piers Messum and Roslyn Young.

" I've just completed my memoirs of my 72 years and sent it to print. I mention my time with the Cuisenaire Company and the part Michael played introducing me to " Words in Colour" and increasing my understanding of the rods.

It was a very special year 1967/68 in which I grew up, leaving the security of a classroom.

I helped Michael run the reading clinic and gained so much experience from watching him teach. He also gave me confidence to lecture both in Words in Colour and the rods. I still passionately believe in both and soon I will introduce them to my granddaughters.

I'd like to say thank you Michael for being a special person in my life and what you taught me has gone with me always."

Jan Wright nee Miller.

"..The Cuisenaire rods, Dr Gattegno's teachings and your family's support have made a huge difference to my work…..Teachers and students watch the wonderful moment of understanding and excitement on my children's faces as they suddenly realise how equivalent fractions or powers work through a beautifully elegant arrangement of coloured rods - it's very powerful……

Please pass on my deep gratitude to Michael on behalf of myself, other teachers and the many children who have learnt to love maths through using the Cuisenaire Rods."

Caroline Ainsworth - Stocklands Primary School.

"For my part he was my first boss…… he gave me the confidence to do work for which I could be proud….he made me see that being kind to people usually produces results…

He loved you all so much and although he could talk Cuisenaire® till the legs were off the donkey and the cows were home, you all were the real stars in his firmament and I for one believe he’s up there, one of the brightest, loving you all to bits…"

Annabel Eatherly.

"I never thought of him as ‘Mike’, but as ‘Michael Hollyfield’ or ‘MJ Hollyfield’, young, dashing, full of vitality and clear thinking, committed to the Cuisenaire® materials and philosophy…. Another joint highlight was meeting Georges Cuisenaire® in Reading. I recall the humble former primary school teacher saying, standing outside the factory building in Silver Street, in tones of wonder and incredulity: ‘C’est la compagnie que porte mon nom’..."

Jeremy Steele.

"I first encountered Mike in the early-80s when I was looking for a way to equip myself to home study my children in preparation for secondary transfer. He supplied Numbers in Colour Volume 1, a box of wooden rods, a product table and some lotto cards. They did the trick and remained on my shelf for twenty years until Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education asked for advice in 2004 on how to get best value from the government's investment in ICT in schools. Mike was unstinting in his help to me in producing materials and in contacting Dr Gattegno’s collaborators so that we could brief the government on the history, both commercial and intellectual of Dr Gattegno’s innovation. On the strength of this briefing the Secretary of State initiated a project to re-evaluate the Cuisenaire-Gattegno materials with a network of schools in North West Leicestershire. Mike supplied the red boxes and family of text books. This re-evaluation gained momentum when the Williams committee reported in 2008 on its visit to one of the experimental schools, and further momentum in 2014 when the new national curriculum moved away from a model of mathematics education that saw the four operators, fractions and algebra studied in successive years. Instead the new curriculum mandates the study of all four operations, and fractions as operators, together in Year 1 as recommended by Dr Gattegno. The initiative that Mike helped to seed, hosted at Stanford University, has now grown to be the largest controlled trial of the Cuisenaire-Gattegno approach for 50 years."

Ian Benson - Sociality



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