September 21, 2014
“Imua!”…Hawaiian for “Forward!”…is the sign-off of Bob Kupa’a Smith, an octogenarian educator who lives in the woods near Happy Camp, CA—and, no, we didn’t make up any of this. Mr. Smith started out as a teacher of the English language who provided on-air talent for instructional television shows produced by KQED in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. His “word-cell” approach to teaching writing skills to kids has stood the test of time, as teachers still use the Wordsmith videos now included in the AIT Classics collection. While Bob’s career path was unconventional, it always led to learning situations, whether in the classroom, on TV, in videos, or more recently via teleconference. But he’s never so happy as when he’s back in the classroom, volunteering in third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade situations to help kids learn to write and in the process feel better about themselves. They, in turn, have dubbed him “Groovy” Bob, the host of those Wordsmith videos who wears funny glasses and weird costumes that illustrate the etymology of words. We were interested in Bob’s story and in his philosophy of teaching and learning, so we “talked” to him via email recently. Here’s what he had to tell us.
Technos: We hear you’re the original Bob Smith, host of the language-arts Wordsmith videos. How did you become involved with the production of that series?
Bob K. Smith: Yes, I can lay claim to the title of “original television Wordsmith.” When I was teaching English at Santa Clara University in 1961, a woman friend named Win kept asking me to “do something on TV.” She was a producer-director at KQED in San Francisco. I was teaching vocabulary development through etymology in my English classes and had already done the same thing at Brophy Prep in Phoenix and at the University of Portland (OR). I auditioned for a new vocabulary show, got it, and started doing “What’s in a Word?” on tape, a half-hour per week. I created both name and content. It was picked up by a mini-network out of WNET New York and then by others around the country, including the consortium that broadcast from a plane which circled endlessly over the Midwest. A distant cousin of mine, an excellent cartoonist working for Esquire magazine, saw one show and sent me a cartoon of myself holding forth very professorially, with a caption: “Perfesser Wordsmith hits the screen.” Win recommended that I adapt my content for grade school and take it to the “School” production office at KQED, which had some money to spend. Director Larry Smith liked the idea and picked it up immediately, under the name “The WordSmith,” and we produced a year’s worth of tapes from 1964–65, aimed at fifth-grade students.
The name was so new, at least to me, that I opened the first show with this line: “You can look in any dictionary you want, and you will not find the word ‘wordsmith.’” One sentence, one error. Several months later a student wrote to me: “If you look in such-and-such dictionary (the TNI) on page…” I did, and there was “wordsmith.” But it was not at all common at the time, and I thought, in fact, that my cousin had coined the term.
Win Schmale (later Murphy) was producer-director of my original “What’s in a Word?” series. Joanne Mock did the same for “The WordSmith.” Both shows were shot entirely in black and white, totally ad-libbed from notes I stashed around the set, and recorded (on two-inch tape, I think) by machines which had been worn out by commercial channels before they donated them to KQED, which had been in existence for maybe six or eight years by then.
I think that AIT (then the National Center for School and College Television) picked up “The WordSmith” for distribution midway through its ten-year run. At that time, Gordon Hughan was the sales rep for AIT. He told me that wherever he went, the question was not whether they would purchase “The WordSmith”; it was whether they wanted any other series in addition to it. He referred to the series as the “cash cow” for AIT. Later he told me that at the end of the ten years, he had approached me to redo the series “because the iron oxide was falling right off the overused tapes.” He then became the executive producer for the new color version (still currently in use) and did a superb job of seeing the series through a difficult production/budget process. He also hired the extraordinary talents of Glenn Johnson as producer-director and Karen Hamamura Nelson as his assistant. We couldn’t have had a better team.
What is your background? Are you an educator? An instructional designer? A PBS/ITV producer?
Yes, I am an educator. I was born a teacher, but I didn’t know it for a long time. I am a maverick, a learner, a lover, a creative person, an instructional designer by nature and somewhat by training, a lover of language, a trained linguist, a philosopher, a psychologist (trained in academia and by half a dozen psychiatrists—who never figured out anything very interesting), A LOVER OF CHILDREN (and of my own children, Greg, 44, and Heidi, 43), terminally ironic with a huge funny bone, an alcoholic who does not drink, a smoker who has not smoked since ’64, a hugely happy person who claims that all of life before age 60 was questions and all of life since 60 has been answers. I am a terrific hermit when I am at home in my trailer out in the woods, and I am an extrovert in town. My social life is all at the post office and in the produce aisle of the local market. My very satisfying life is founded on the fact that my life and my spiritual life are pretty much the same thing. (I am not talking about religion here.) You could find out an awful lot about that from anything that Eckhart Tolle has said or written. We’re on the same page.
What is a “word cell”? How does this element of language help kids to learn to read?
I invented the term “word cell” in the 1960s when I wanted to use a more friendly phrase than “segmental morpheme” or some-such. I also wanted a blanket term for “prefix,” “word-root,” and “suffix.” It has worked even better than I anticipated, and I think it has gotten into some general usage. So…any part of a word with a meaning of its own (independent of the meaning of the whole word) would be a word cell. The most pedagogically interesting word cells in English are those which we borrowed from Latin and Greek.
I think that word-cell knowledge forms a sort of second stage in the learning-to-read process. In third and fourth and (especially) in fifth grade, the children get used to the fact that the (now longer) words can have pieces, which are important cues to understanding. Words like BEDROOM and LIPSTICK are self-explanatory because the word cells are native English. IMPORT and EXPORT are not, because the word cells are borrowed from Latin (in + carry, out + carry). A series like “Wordsmith” can provide children with tools to use in approaching lots of words which they have never seen before. If they had continuous training of this kind (which I would have been very glad to provide, back in the day, but the budgets did not allow it), it would help enormously on the SATs and other tests where traditionally vocabulary has been of great importance. It would also matter in the pursuit of college courses where (especially in introductory courses, which are often the most intimidating) pure vocabulary can count for half the course content, and more. Check out first-year biology, for example.
I have always wanted to make it easy for the children—to take the pain out of learning. “Wordsmith” does that, especially in the hands of experts like the gifted teachers in the Kyrene School District in Phoenix. Just last March, I was invited to visit the 19 schools of the Kyrene elementary school district for three days and was treated like royalty by teachers, students, parents, former students, and administrators in many class visits and a huge evening reception in the school district headquarters. It gave me enormous satisfaction to know that I had made a difference to so many children, and that I was still in action because the content is unchanging from year to year. The series I made in 1975 is as valid right now as it was then. (Only the clothing styles have changed!)
I also wanted to do the same thing—make it fun!—when I created my JOTTERS writing curriculum for use in the fourth-grade classes in our school in Happy Camp, CA. The single-page JOTTERS lessons teach the absolute core of expository writing, which the students will find unchanging all the way through college, unless they encounter a writer who does not know or cannot say what he/she wants to say. That’s instructive, too.
Tell us about the series of letters you’ve written to the school kids in Phoenix…How did that project get started? Is it the sort of thing that can be duplicated in other schools?
This is not a project! It is a celebration of having fun—instructional fun—with the delightful young people who already know me in the persona of “Groovy Bob,” thanks to the careful preparation by their teachers. I write to them quite simply because I love them and I have no trouble whatsoever communicating on their wavelength. They love irony, wit, self-deprecation, puzzles, and questions of all kinds, even guessing games—and they know that I love to be with them and to tease them with matter which is inherently instructional all the time. I catch their teachers up in this, too.
Do you think technology helps or hinders the writing process these days?
I’m sure that this process could easily be turned into a continuing online newsletter project which would engage the children forever. But it would have to be done by someone really interesting and humorous and “into” kids, someone who really understood the series in question, whether it be “Wordsmith” or some other. That kind of partnership with the Internet is going to become a larger and larger part of the educational process and should contribute enormously to making a lot of pedagogy more interesting, more fun, and more effective. I love to see the paradigm shifts now taking place almost daily in the ways that young people of all ages realign their ways of thinking about communication—or rather, feeling about it—and automatically responding to whatever works for them. Educators must keep up with that, constantly. It has already reached the stage where the teacher who brags, “I don’t really care about FaceBook or YouTube or MySpace, or text-messaging” is in some way suspect. And we are only at the beginning of an endless process, a constant revolution, really, that will work for education or against it at every level.
Since language will be forever a crucial part of the learning process, a new program much like “Wordsmith” in many ways could be a continuing part of that process. I have such a series in mind, but I honestly don’t know who would do it. Yes, they are out there, but where? I have never met anyone whose background, formal education, love of children (and respect for them), lack of academic stuffiness, perfectionism, commitment to the children and to the final product matched my own to any significant degree. The people who could do it want to be college professors and mostly they’re rigid, pretentious, and stuffy—and they’re about as much fun as an old instructional movie. But the good teachers are out there, and the fun and puzzlement of “Wordsmith,” bolstered by the best of today’s technology, should be at least a teacher’s option in every year from fourth grade to eleventh or twelfth grade. The series I have in mind (only in a vision, not in a plan) is already called “ROTTEN POT.” How does that grab you? Well, it might grab them. And no, I’m not bucking for a job. I haven’t the energy, and it would rob me of my peace.
Have the Kyrene teachers noticed any change in the kids, academically or socially?
Actually, I don’t get much feedback on this—the teachers have been much too busy—but the response was very clear when I was down there, and I’ll bet the kids have loved every moment since, as I have myself. There is nothing, essentially, that I would rather do than hang out in a classroom of happy, engaged, 8- 9- and 10-year-old kids. I can only describe it with a coined word: they BURBLE!
A teacher did tell me about one shy and withdrawn young boy who jumped to his feet and danced around the room when he heard that I was coming to visit. That’s just one story, but it moved me deeply.
How have your visit and correspondence with the Phoenix students, using Wordsmith, changed their lives?
On the anecdotal level, I certainly heard story after story from teachers and parents and former students about the really exciting difference that the series made to the children. To put it bluntly, I think that the turnout at the big reception in Phoenix and the exhilaration and excitement of the whole three-day celebration was its own answer to the question. Hope Massar, the fourth-grade teacher in Phoenix, later told me: “Even on the last day of class when they were headed for summer vacation, they were talking about your visit.” This does not feed my ego. It feeds my joy…and brings tears to my eyes.
What is the educational benefit of such continuing correspondence with school kids?
Oh, my! You mean: What might happen if real people started paying attention to elementary school children in large numbers and sharing their expertise and actually being present with them, looking into their eyes, and hearing them? What if we extended our belief in the most basic statement of what America is—“All persons are created equal”—to include everyone at all times and everywhere, so that children especially were always included? Hey, we’re talking revolution here. Or maybe we’re already in that revolution and don’t know it. What do you think that might do in the inner cities? I know I get on a soapbox here, but to me that single declarative sentence is what America means. We got the statement (but not the fulfillment) right in the Declaration of Independence and at Seneca Falls in 1848 and at Gettysburg and in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Bill and with the beautiful man who said, “I have a dream.” And finally we laid claim to the whole damn thing on 11-04-08 when America grew up and told us: “Yes, we can hope. Now America can be America.” If education is not the very heart and soul of this, then what is?
Again and again I pointed out to the children during my visit, “This is not a celebration of me. It is for you! Who do you think the ‘Wordsmith’ series is for? Who are the tapes for? Who is this school for? Why do the teachers study so hard and work so hard? It is all for you, and not for anyone else.” They looked awestruck. And as I finished saying that one day, a fourth-grade girl stuck her thumb in her chest and declared: “Well, then I must be pretty important!” She wasn’t kidding.
If you could give teachers any advice about teaching language arts (or any other subject) to young kids, what would you tell them?
I guess I’ve already given a lot of advice here. One thing I learned while going through a very rough adolescence with my own two kids is that it came down finally to two rules: love them, and don’t stop communicating even when they do. I’m envious of today’s teachers because they’re still young enough to have the energy to keep up with the kids and keep up with the best in theory and content and delivery systems. (Of course, even the teachers past 50 look like kids to me now. I’m 80.)
The definition of an adventure is that it’s worth it, it’s exciting, and you don’t know the outcome. Education is more like that every day. Sure, it will be hard to keep up with the daily advances in technology, but lots of help is available there, and there will be more and better help along the way (and it will be offered by yet more technology). It’s going to get tricky, of course, when technology follows trendy but useless techniques for the sake of success in the marketplace. That has already happened. All the more reason for critical thinking all through the hierarchy and especially at the classroom level. Respect the students. And respect the teachers.
To teachers of language arts, I would say…make it simple. Make it fun. Make it funny. Use the constant give and take which is known to be so crucial back in the toddler years. They never really outgrow that. If you don’t love kids, get out of the business, because a business is all that it is on that level. If you do love kids, don’t ever lie to them, about anything. And remember to look into their eyes, sometimes in a gentle silence. They learn a lot from that…and so do we. Someone said, “If you want to know what God looks like, look into the eyes of a child.” I suggest that he meant especially a third, fourth, or fifth grader.
Where do your passion and commitment to children and education come from? Where have they taken you throughout your life? And where do you still want to go with them?
I resist the word “passion” as too trendy and flavor-of-the-month, and I find the question hard to answer. Someone who watched me be with fourth graders for a long time said, “You seem to have an idealized opinion of each kid.” He taught me something. I immediately told him, “Yes, you’re right. I see them as much better than they are because I somehow know that they are much better than what we think we see.” I later realized that I’m that way about other folks too, and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed or confused about that. I find that both the children and their elders regularly rise to the level at which I perceive them—because that’s who we are. They tell me that the greeting “Namaste” means something like, “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.” I like that, except that “divine” conjures up images of religion and doctrine and churches. I was raised fiercely Catholic and have spent a long time recovering. Now every moment of my life is a spiritual (not religious) experience, and most consciously so when I am in a soul-to-soul conversation with a friend…or when I am with my (may I say, beloved) children.
The chronology of that educational focus in my life is another matter. I came from a family of teachers. My great-grandfather was superintendent of schools in San Francisco in 1883 (and starving to death trying to feed 14 kids on his salary). He was invited to open the first public school in the Kingdom of Hawaii to be conducted in English. I was raised to be proud of that fact until I discovered in my later years what a devastating effect it had on the Hawaiians themselves. (Happily, they are now recovering.) My mother was the power in my family, and she was the teacher. All four of her birth children became teachers, and one of my two adopted sisters as well. But most of my early teaching experience was almost under duress because of my mother’s great influence and, through her, the influence of the church and the familial effort to climb the social ladder. I learned a lot academically in my earlier years, but my joy in teaching—like my joy in living—came to fruition only after I moved alone to Happy Camp when I was 60, let go of pretension, and learned to “let it be.” The children (and the economically depressed community) taught me to give without expectation of return, to be grateful for small favors, to be simple in expression (I don’t use big words here; I don’t feel the need), and to be just as ordinary as everyone else.
And yet all the education, the reading, the intellectual challenges of a lifetime are with me as companions. I’m very lucky—although I don’t even believe in luck. I have myself for company all the time and I am never lonely. I am using everything I ever learned in my life to figure out the things I want to know about now. One result: things keep popping into my consciousness all the time, things I never knew before—and yet, there they are. Maybe that’s what they call wisdom. Another result: When they ask me what is my legacy, I laugh and tell them I’m taking it all with me. I am my legacy. This is what I want to be, and that legacy is going along for the most exciting trip of all.
I have always known that I would rather talk than eat. When I eat with others, my food is still heaped up on my plate when they are finishing theirs. But my problem is even worse than that. Last week I explained to my cardiologist that I do okay rising quickly from a chair without getting dizzy. But when I do that after talking with very close friends, I get dizzy every time. I finally figured out that in order to finish my sentences, and sometimes paragraphs, I often resort to diaphragmatic breathing to push out more air instead of taking another breath (someone else might squeeze a word in!). As a result, I’m always oxygen-deprived by the time I stand up, and I get dizzy. I would literally rather talk than breathe! The doctor dismissed me without comment while he broke up laughing.
And there you have it. My love and Imua!! to all of you, and best wishes and support to all of us in what we are doing.
Bob Kupa’a Smith may be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org