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    “Teaching is a service profession; we help students learn.  It was a wonderful life for me,” says Dr. John Earl Tarr, the much admired Lab School math teacher across 37 years.  

    Tarr followed the Laboratory School’s early Director, Dr. Cliff Stone, as an expert in mathematics testing—but enlarged this work to evaluation in other curricular arenas as well. 
Early Days

    Tarr was born in Winterset, Iowa on December 30, 1932.  The son of a pastor in the Evangelical Association, he moved to many communities across his early days.  First came Scarborough Village in Illinois where he lived across the street from a one-room school.  They moved to Naperville, Illinois, where he attended first grade, and then lived in Van Horne, Iowa for six years where he had just three teachers: one for grades 2 and 3; one for grades 4 and 5; and the last for grades 6 and 7.  He participated in track and field in grades 8 and 9 in Nevada, Iowa, before his final move to Fort Dodge, Iowa for his high school days where he developed an interest in math.

    “You might be interested in engineering,” one of his teachers said.

    He graduated from Fort Dodge High School in 1950 and entered the University of Iowa on a Nile Kinnick Scholarship.  At age 17, he took part in freshman football and freshman track at the University, but majored in business and graduated in 1954 with a BSC, a Bachelor of Science in Commerce.

    At graduation, Tarr was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force and served for what he describes as “a wonderful three years.”  He flew the C-119 flying boxcars, hauling cargo and giving airborne infantry their practice jumps.  While stationed in Germany, he met his future wife, Friederike.

   When Tarr left the Air Force in 1957, he was hired by R. R. Donnelley in Chicago, the largest

commercial printer then in the United States.  The company printed Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic magazine, the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs, phone books, and more.  “After a year in the company training program, I asked myself ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ‘What can you do, John?’,  ‘What are you good at?’  I remembered that I liked math and I liked helping other students.”

    His answer turned him from printing and a business career and, in 1958, he returned to Iowa and Iowa State Teachers College.  “I went back for two years as a math major and as a more serious student,” he says.  “My introduction to Malcolm Price Laboratory School came when I observed math classes at the school as part of my teacher-training courses.”  Tarr chose to student teach at the Lab School where he had three supervisors: Math Department Head, Ross Nielsen; Joseph Hohlfeld; and Donald Wiederanders, his primary supervisor.

    “Don Wiederanders brought out the best in all of us—creativity, sensitivity, productivity,” Tarr recalls.  “Like Ross Nielsen, he often worked behind the scene to make possibilities happen.  I learned from Joe Hohlfeld to put students first.  He was able to see good and potential in every student. These Lab School teachers made me think this was the right path.” 

    At graduation in 1960, Tarr was hired and taught at Franklin Junior High School in Cedar Rapids.


The Lab School Calls

    But Della McMahon left the Lab School Math Department in 1961, and the school reached out to Tarr.  “Ross Nielsen was on the Search Committee and he thought it would be good to hire me,” Tarr recalls of this man whom, he says, was “most instrumental in my development” throughout his career.

    Tarr started teaching Algebra I and Algebra II and admits that “Algebra was always a favorite of mine.” However, over the years he taught math at many levels, from first grade through college undergraduate and graduate students.  “My elementary school teaching was during summer programs,” he notes.  “I especially remember my first grade experience.  Fortunately for me, Judith Finkelstein was teaching another first-grade class in the adjoining classroom.  Together our two classes had an Olympic Games [using math] with every student winning a ribbon.”

    “I was delighted when Dr. Tarr told me he would be teaching the other section of our summer program for children who had completed kindergarten,” Dr. Finkelstein recalls.  “He always wanted to understand more about how children learn and was especially interested in this age group where it all begins.  It was a natural for us to have our own ‘Olympics’ and the playground area provided the space for all our various competitions.  The children were eager participants and loved getting the medals!”

    Finkelstein also recalls a unit they team-taught on Germany.  “This was complete with maps, music, stories, films and, of course, food,” she says.  “Dr. Tarr’s wife, Freddie, was from Germany and was a great resource.  A highlight was when she came and helped the children make pretzels.”

    Tarr recalls that when he first started, the Department did not use math textbooks.  “I developed my own lessons with spirit duplication exercises,” he recalls.  He also wished to further his education.  His practical 1962 Master’s Thesis from the newly named State College of Iowa (formerly the Iowa State Teachers College) was titled “An Experimental Unit on Exponential and Logarithmic Functions Designed to be Taught in Ninth Grade.”   His 1969 doctoral dissertation from the University of Iowa offered “An Analysis of Inservice Education Programs in Iowa Schools”—both works helpful for a Laboratory School teacher.

    In the mid-1960s, the Shell Oil Company offered Summer Fellowships to Stanford University for two math or science teachers from each state west of the Mississippi River.  In 1965, Tarr joined Lab School Math Department colleague Lynn Schwandt at Stanford as the Iowa Fellows studying computer-assisted math education.  


Texts and Tests

    Tarr early became part of the Lab School (and Math Department) collaborative culture.  In the early 1970s, he joined Math Department colleagues George Immerzeel and Don Wiederanders and Science Department colleague D. Louis Finsand as part of a national and international team creating a pioneering mathematics program for kindergarten through eighth grade.  “George Immerzeel was the most creative person I ever knew,” Tarr declares.  “He was a leader in the teaching of mathematics nationwide.  It was a privilege to work with him.”

    Published in January 1972 by Ginn and Company, one of the major publishers of elementary school materials, the series contained 9 textbooks, 9 teachers’ manuals, 9 teachers’ editions, 7 activity books, and 9 sets of pupil activity sheets.  The series took students through the “6 steps of knowing” theorized by Jean Piaget, the noted child psychologist.  These steps are: image building, symbolization, organization, generalization, practice, and application.

    Each day’s lesson was designed around a specific objective and used a specific teaching strategy such as collective thinking, plot, step by step, tell and show, or experience-is-the-best- teacher.  Progression through the steps was aided by “hardware” unique then to elementary schools.  A clear plastic device called a “trace-a-graph” enabled students to write over graphs and diagrams in their textbooks.  The plastic could be erased and used again.  A circular slide-rule was used in grades 6, 7, and 8 as an estimation and computation device.

    “Nonverbal would be a good way to describe the math series,” Immerzeel explained.  “Art is used to develop mathematical concepts and not just to make the textbooks beautiful.”  The teachers’ manuals were written as diaries describing how each new lesson was actually taught in the classroom.

   This 1972 series, an early foray into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), contained a science component that involved the students in applying mathematics to their own science experiments.  To develop computation and problem solving skills (two of the series’ primary objectives), the students made pendulums out of string and paper clips and then discovered what happened when they made the string longer or added more paper clips.

    Tarr’s key role was to design and implement the series’ testing and evaluation program.  The series “hardware” and lessons were field tested extensively at the Lab School—and also in classrooms from New York to Los Angeles.

    In the fall of 1972, when William Bader took a leave of absence from his Cedar Falls teaching assignment and served as an adjunct at the Lab School, Tarr worked with Bader to develop an extensive set of testing materials for another soon-to-be published Ginn and Company project titled the Individual Mathematics System.  With Lab School students in first to seventh grades, they field tested (and refined) 203 pre-tests and post-tests.  


Problem Solving    

    From 1976 to 1980, Tarr collaborated with Lab School teachers George Immerzeel, Joan Duea, and Earl Ockenga on a nationally-funded “Iowa Problem Solving Project” designed to develop, evaluate, and disseminate materials to improve the mathematical problem-solving abilities of students in grades 5, 6, 7, and 8.  A national examination had found that almost half of the 13-year-olds tested applied the wrong arithmetic process in their attempts to determine 70 per cent of 4,200 votes cast in an election.

    “Learning to solve problems is the principal reason for studying mathematics,” Immerzeel declared.  “Students must know when to multiply as well as how to multiply.  They must learn to apply their knowledge in new and unfamiliar situations.”

    Tarr and his fellow Team members developed 8 two-week teaching units in mathematical problem solving, this time using hand-held calculators.  The 4 units for fifth and six graders were:
       * Problem Solving Using the Calculator—Book 1;
       * Problem Solving Using Calculator Codes—Book 1;
       * Problem Solving Using Guesses; and
       * Problem Solving Using Tables:
Seventh and eighth grade students pursued their own 4 two-week units:
       * Problem Solving Using the Calculator—Book 2;
       * P
roblem Solving Using Calculator Codes—Book 2;
       * Problem Solving Using Resources; and
       * Problem Solving Using Special Computations.

    To accompany the units, the Team created a handbook for teachers and four instructional “modules” on different methods of problem solving, each module including a skills booklet and a deck of 150 problem cards.

    Tarr wrote many grants—“alone and with others,” he recalls.  “One of John’s largest grants was this Iowa Problem Solving Project,” team member Joan Duea explains.  “He was a member of the writing team as well as serving as the evaluator with an outside team.  John was frequently asked to serve as an evaluator (test generator) of projects.”

    In 1980, Professor Harold L. Schoen and Theresa Oehmke from the University of Iowa, with some assistance from Tarr, published a 36-page document titled “The Iowa Problem Solving Project: Development and Evaluation.”  Results of the evaluation attested “to the effectiveness of the IPSP approach, as measured by pretesting and attitude changes of students and teachers.”
Evaluating a Whole University


   Tarr contributed test items to the statewide Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the statewide Iowa Test of Educational Development.  His reputation in testing was so well known that in 1980 UNI Provost James Martin turned to Tarr to lead the crucial (and complex) preparation for the North Central Association accreditation evaluation of the entire University: “The self-study was well received by the NCA evaluation team,” Tarr recalls.  “Years later when the next evaluation was conducted, Martin again named me to head the self-study.”


Teaching, Research, & Service Entwined

    In the late 1980s, Tarr returned to Algebra, his long-time love, and served as one of the authors of the Heath Algebra I and Heath Algebra 2 with Trigonometry student textbooks, teachers’ editions, and Teacher’s Resource Binders.  The publications were field tested at the Lab School throughout their development.

   In 1990, Tarr wrote and received a U.S. Department of Education Dwight D. Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Grant for an innovative program in which sixth graders at seven Davenport, Iowa elementary schools taught second graders addition, subtraction, and problem solving skills.  Colleagues Joan Duea, Earl Ockenga, and Lab School Guidance Counselor Richard Strub teamed with Tarr for the project.  Beyond determining if such young peer teaching would be possible, the program was  designed to give the 80 sixth graders—some minority students—a feel for a possible teaching career.

   Every other Saturday in February, March, and April 1991, Duea and Ockenga met with the 80 sixth graders who learned how to make lesson plans, correct and score papers, and to make up their own math games to play with the younger students.  Then, at least once a week, the sixth graders taught their second grade partners.  The Davenport elementary teachers also were encouraged to share their math lesson plans with the sixth graders who were teaching.

   Diane Simons, the Minorities in Teaching coordinator at Davenport’s Lincoln Fundamental School, said:  “I’m impressed with the new teaching ideas the sixth graders tried.  They invented methods beyond those they learned in the Saturday meetings.  The second graders aren’t counting on their fingers as much, and the sixth graders now take a great interest in math.”  Simons reported that many of the sixth graders had tested low in mathematics on their state-wide tests and really didn’t like mathematics.  Then given the responsibility of a second grade learner, their scores improved, too.

   Tarr designed and conducted the evaluation of the project.  “At every school the students were teaching beyond our expectations,” he said.  “The sixth graders all developed good working relationships with the second graders and they had a lot of patience.  We saw many sixth graders had become strong role models for the younger students and for their other classmates.” A second grader described being scared on the playground of his 6th grade teacher.  However, the two of them started working together and formed a lasting friendship. The students’ parents proudly came to the last session.  

   In 1993, when Tarr became one of six UNI faculty chosen for the Iowa Board of Regents “Faculty Excellence Award,” the Regents noted that he had published more than 25 curricular books and monographs in the areas of algebra and problem solving for use in the schools.  

   Yet his career showcases a particularly interlocking model of a college teacher’s traditional mission of research, teaching, and service.  Colleagues from other disciplines sought him out, leading to fruitful collaborations.  Lab School science teacher D. Louis Finsand called on Tarr in support of a key grant to help the nation’s teachers convert to the metric system in their teaching.  Tarr taught teacher workshops with Finsand and supervised the methods’ field testing.  “I appreciated Lou’s organizational abilities,” Tarr notes.  “He made my task easier, and I probably learned more than my students.”

   Tarr wrote tests with Lab School elementary faculty member Lynn Nielsen for a new history textbook.  “Lynn had a strong background in history; I had experience in test writing.  It was a good collaborative effort,” Tarr states.  He worked as well with Lab School secondary social science teacher Leonard Scovel—all the while serving as the Research Coordinator for the Lab School Math Department, helping the new teachers research and succeed.

   And each day he was also helping Lab School students learn.  Asked if “math anxiety” really exists, Tarr confirms its presence.  “I don’t think you are born with math anxiety.  I think math should be enjoyable,” he says.  His method was “discovery teaching—as opposed to lecture and memorization.  We tried to let students discover for themselves.”  

   Lab School alum Paul Rider, now Dean of Humanities and Natural and Social Sciences at Grand View University, describes Tarr’s teaching style:

“I had Dr. Tarr for pre-calculus my senior year.  It goes without saying we received first-rate instruction from a first-rate teacher.  What I remembermost is his quiet manner and his sharp, subtle sense of humor.  The atmosphere in our class was highly conducive to learning.  It was student-centered at a time when ‘student-centeredness’ was a relatively new concept in high school/college education.  He understood our personalities and learning styles.  He allowed us to be ourselves.  He rolled with the punches and allowed us to be high school seniors, which I’m sure was not always easy.”



   Ross Nielsen retired in 1986 as the longtime Head of the Department of Teaching and Director of the Lab School.  In 1987, Tarr was named Acting Head of both entities.  During this year of wider leadership he says he was “never aware of a threat” to the Lab School’s existence.  Nevertheless, he says, “I felt the need to defend the Lab School.  I never missed a meeting.  I was the first to arrive and the last to leave.  I had a good relationship with Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost James Martin.  I also attended meetings with Superintendents.  I wanted us to be represented.”
   Gordon Rhum, Dean of the UNI Graduate College, encouraged Tarr to apply for a UNI deanship.  “I was honored to be asked,” Tarr recalls, “but said I thought I had found my niche as a teacher of mathematics.  I think the Lab School was a unique school nationwide.”


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