A Teacher of Teachers Laura Zirbes:
By: Paul R. Klohr From Teachers and Mentors, Edited by Craig Kridel No reflection on Laura Zirbes turns out right without first casting her professional life into the lived context at Ohio State University during those years of her long tenure there. Her career is especially significant in the history of elementary education, for it documents the continuing struggle of that field of study to achieve recognition and professional status. Reid (1993) ably describes Zirbes in his biography, Towards Creative Teaching: The Life and Career of Laura Zirbes. He refers to her as one of the "Dauntless Women": a second generation of women leaders in education following several such greats as Patty Smith Hill, the prime mover of kindergarten. No epitaph more readily fits Zirbes. And as Reid asserts, "The ultimate reason for studying any person is to learn how he or she was important in her own times." I want to extend that to say, "And also, now."My memory of Zirbes as a significant influence in my own professional life fully supports both Reid's thesis and my own conviction of her contemporary value as a theoretical-historical bridge between then and now. I sense that such relationships between historically significant work and what we see as currently promising ideas tend not to be recognized. My first encounter with Laura Zirbes (I use "encounter," for that is the way one typically came to know her) was on a cold January morning in 1946. A large woman with her arms loaded with several big mailing tubes and other packaged materials, she was fumbling to open the heavy doors of Arps Hall, the College of Education building at Ohio State University. Here I digress to point out that this building was named after a former dean, George Arps, who had studied in Germany with Wundt, the father of scientific measurement of behavior. Some of us graduate students were almost certain that his ghost still lingered on the top floor, which then housed one of the nation's largest psychology departments, yearly turning out many of the professors of psychology who were staffing departments throughout the country in post-World War II America. Moreover, the building also housed a major research bureau headed by W. W. Charters with his activity analysis approach to curriculum development. On hand, too, were Edgar Dale and his associates with lists of words that children at different grade levels were able to recognize. This "word list" was the "scientific" basis eagerly sought by publishers of graded basic reading materials. Much of this Arps Hall aura was anathema to Zirbes. When I knew her, she had learned to live with the tensions of two worlds -- the so-called "scientific" world where she was officed and her own world which was, at that time, an alternative one which she was convinced was more fully scientific in the Deweyian sense of that term. Despite the tensions of these polarized views within the college, there was during the years of Zirbes' tenure a "civility" about the discourse among her colleagues. This contributed to a collegiality often rare in higher education in the 1990s. My offer to help Laura that January day was quickly taken in a transfer of part of her load to my arms as we moved into the Elementary Education Center, a ground-level space she had wrangled from the male-dominated administration in a time of a great shortage of classrooms on campus. "You are Klohr, aren't you?" she said, peering through the steamed-up, heavy lenses of her glasses. "[Harold] Alberty said you might come by." My hesitancy in meeting up with Zirbes and my initial awkward response to this chance encounter had roots in the myth, then widespread among the local graduate students, that there was a deep chasm between the two strong departments of elementary and secondary education. In pursuing doctoral work one must, if he or she were wise, pursue one or the other. To the contrary, my experience as a classroom teacher had suggested a doctoral program in curriculum should be both elementary and secondary. This proposed direction was strengthened by my observations
in the experimental University School on campus which had a K-12 curriculum with planned continuity between what were traditionally viewed as elementary and secondary levels. A beginning graduate student with only a bachelor's degree, I responded rather awkwardly: "When can I schedule an appointment?" She gave a quick, "Why not now?" Shedding her coat and indicating a seat at one of the tables that were a part of the informal setting she had created for the Center, she began. "I understand from Alberty that you have got hold of a tough problem -- one that also worries me. What ought to be the relationship between elementary and secondary curriculum? Now, let's face what we can do about it." This, I discovered, proved to be a typical Zirbes response to most professional issue both theoretical and practical. Before I could respond, she continued: "I have a class here in a few minutes. Why doffs you sit in on it and see if you think I can bring anything useful to your graduate work. Now, help me put up some of these pictures I got in New York over the Christmas break." Zirbes often brought back from her trips carefully selected reproductions of artwork. These she shared with the University School elementary grades, sitting with groups of children to get them to understand why they liked one picture over another. With the teacher education class that followed our initial conversation, she developed that day the concept of how the visual arts might be integrated into the curriculum. At that time, art in most schools was largely a matter of coloring or filling in mimeographed outlines on small sheets of paper. I came to know that, for Zirbes, the arts should be a major core running throughout the curriculum. She developed a sound rationale for such a curriculum design. Her arts involved a wide range of activities with all kinds of visual experiences as well as activities in dance, music, and drama. On campus, the University School, which had been established in 1932 and had become one of the most experimental schools in the Eight Year Study, included a four-to-five-year-old kindergarten as well as elementary, middle school, and secondary school levels. The curriculum design of those early years in the K-12 sequence had evolved to a great degree from Zirbes' work with her summer demonstration schools. These schools were her pioneer effort at demonstrating the larger role of the related arts. This early work merged with Harold Alberty's efforts to help the secondary school faculty plan and demonstrate a philosophical/theoretical rationale for its experimental K-12 curriculum. Zirbes agreed to "take me on" as a student along with Alberty, who chaired my doctoral committee. In the several years that followed this eventful encounter with Zirbes, I came to understand how she functioned as a teacher. Foremost was her effort to involve students in a problem-solving approach. Her illustrations, anecdotes, demonstrations, discussions of readings, and reflections on classroom observations were all open ended. What are we seeing here? Can you see yourself in this situation? What would you bring to this problem? Where can we get some resources that would throw light on this? Her classes ended with students left discussing and thinking further about these matters. She insisted that we keep journals to jot down throughout the days and weeks our first-hand, unedited thoughts-- not only about education, but also about our own life as we lived it from day to day. She worked hard to get students to know themselves as a first step to becoming effective teachers. Some of the early dissertations she guided were written in first person--a breakthrough from the traditional so-called "objective" third person style of professional writing.
Years later, whenever I associated with classroom teachers, both locally and in other settings, I could invariably "spot" those who had worked with Zirbes. They pursued this kind of problem-solving attack that was her professional trademark. And equally significant, they tended to have a solid, reliable philosophical perspective on the values that they were convinced should undergird all of education. Zirbes was an extraordinary, powerful teacher. She challenged students and her professional colleagues to rethink, revision, and reimagine their professional goals and to design methods for achieving them As I have indicated, she did this in a setting dominated by an almost totally male faculty caught up in a larger professional world centered on instruction. She could not have taken this pioneering role without the full support of several of her colleagues --
individuals like Boyd Bode, Harold Alberty, and H. Gordon Hullfish, who were on hand pursuing an extension of Dewey's thinking to provide a strong philosophical base. Fortunately for her work and that of these colleagues, the University School had the freedom by its charter to be an island protected from the dominant ethos of the College and the University, free to generate its own philosophy and to demonstrate an elementary and secondary program in the light of that philosophy. Zirbes played a significant role in that laboratory setting. I recognize the possibility that a memoir of a favorite teacher runs the risk of being loaded with unintentional hyperbole -- a look back through rose-colored glasses. I want, therefore, to turn this essay into an identification of some of the concepts that clearly were intellectual themes in Zirbes' professional career. To check myself in this effort, I reread her written work, observed again her audio-visual materials, and recalled anew my convictions about her influence on my own thinking from earlier discussions of what she stood for with two of her many doctoral advisees who later achieved national recognition -- Harold Shane and Leland Jacobs - Shane at Indiana University and Jacobs at Teachers College. As a result of this checking, I believe the themes I identify here do illustrate what Zirbes stood for. Moreover, I believe that they illustrate my thesis that her thinking was a significant historical bridge between cutting-edge ideas in her post-World War II world and some of the most exciting breakthroughs now beginning to receive attention in the best reform efforts of the 1990s. These four statements of themes follow in no special sequence and are clearly without a fully-fleshed out philosophical/theoretical discussion -- perhaps the kind of notes Zirbes might have made for herself on cards when she addressed groups of educators, as she did throughout her career, at a state Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference or a national assembly audience of ACEI (Association for Childhood Education International). Her world with a national audience was not much different from her home environment with a group of elementary teachers in Elementary Center of Arps Hall. In Kipling's phrase, she "walked with kings" but did not "lose the common touch." Effective curriculum planning and implementation require a democratic school setting. Zirbes' efforts, along with those of Harold Alberty, are clearly reflected in the University School's philosophy and purposes which they helped to create with the faculty of the school. "Democracy as a way of life" was the driving force of the school throughout its existence. This value position was also the basis for Zirbes' own university teaching. It involves a basic reconceptualization of relationships between teacher and student and among teachers and administrators, and indeed, between the school and a larger community. New goals and purposes not foreseen at the outset evolve as the curriculum planning process moves ahead. Throughout her career, Zirbes warned against the linearity of curriculum planning with a technological rationale. For her, the detailed initial statements of countless specific goals, intended finally to produce specific outcomes, were bound to submerge critical new goals that would emerge in the planning process involving teachers working with students. She found support from her colleagues, Bode and Alberty, as they extended Dewey's philosophical position. She also drew on emerging conceptions of humanistic psychology and thinking that were defining new frontiers in sociology and anthropology. If you wanted to find the newest publications in these fields, Zirbes would have them before the library or any other faculty member. She would hand such books to students and always ask: "What do you think?" Her probing questions would leave no doubt but that she had thoroughly read each publication and had projected its implications for the study of education. In problem-solving no sharp divisions exist between the cognitive and the creative. Curriculum experiences for Zirbes drew heavily on the arts -- art, music, dance, and drama. She worked closely with her friend and colleague, Ross Mooney, in his research into the nature of creativity. Her leadership in the 1952 national Granville Conference on Creativity perhaps best illustrated this persistent interest in the arts. Too, this interest is reflected in the design of the University School curriculum which she influenced. It had a central core of related arts from kindergarten through grade 12. For Zirbes all good thinking was, in itself, a creative act. Curriculum planning and design must attend to the developmental tasks of children and youth. Zirbes was always sensitive to the need to recognize developmental tasks of children and youth. The University School, early after its establishment, had Robert Havighurst as a faculty member, the individual who later proposed the concept of " developmental tasks. " Willard Olson's work on the longitudinal studies of the "organismic age" of children also
provided theoretical support for Zirbes' conviction that a teacher should "move" with a group of children over a longer period of time than one school year. Otherwise, she knew, teachers could not really begin to observe and guide effectively growth and development which did not normally take place at an even, specified rate. This position also raised serious questions about clearly defined grade levels and encouraged interage grouping within the school. There were other themes that ran through Zirbes' work, but these four give something of the flavor of her professional views as I reflect on them some 30 years after her death as an emerita professor. In 1948 when President Truman gave her the National Woman of the Year Award, he called her a "teacher of teachers." She liked that! I also think that she would have liked to be remembered in May Sarton's words. Sarton spoke of herself as a person who had "given herself away like a tree that sows seeds every spring" as a "tree's way of being -- to spill out its treasure on the wind." Biographical: Laura Zirbes [bore: April 26, 1884, Buffalo, NY; died: June 9, 1967, Columbus, OH] served as professor of education at Ohio State University from 1928-1954. She was graduated from Columbia University in 1925 with a B.S., in 1926 with an A.M., and the Ph.D. in 1928. Other professional roles included serving as an elementary teacher in the Cleveland public schools from 1903-1919 and as a researcher and lecturer at the Lincoln School, Teachers College. Zirbes' publications include Spurs to Creative Teaching (1959), Focus on Values in Elementary Education (1960), and Guidelines to Developmental Teaching (1961). Professor Zirbes served in a number of leadership roles including terms as chair of the National Education Commission of the American Association of University Women, secretary treasurer of the American Educational Research Association, and as a member of the executive committee of the Educational Policies Commission.
Published on Oct 27, 2011