Honoring the Legacy of Geoffrey J. Comber

Last November, Touchstones received the very sad news that one of the founders of the Touchstones Discussion Project had passed away. Geoffrey J. Comber was one of three men who laid the foundation for this organization. In 1984, Geoff and two other professors (tutors) from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD worked on understanding the benefits and barriers encountered in discussion-based learning. Their inquiries led to the formation of the Touchstones Discussion Project. In their examination of why discussion-based learning does or doesn’t succeed in different groups, Geoff, along with Howard Zeiderman and Nicholas Maistrellis, intensively and thoroughly investigated the socio-behavioral and cultural habits that influence how people see themselves as viable and legitimate voices in discussion. They explored the particular impediments that typically hinder authentic engagement and shared inquiry as attempted in other seminar type programs.

As the first president of Touchstones, Geoff brought tremendous energy and enthusiasm to his work in building and growing our role in public education. His unwavering advocacy and fervent belief in discussion-based education continued long after his retirement from Touchstones, and he remained active in supporting Touchstones throughout his later years. Geoff was a visionary and his leadership always looked to the larger world and actual classroom teachers and their responsibilities. He wanted Touchstones to enable educators everywhere and at all stages of education to achieve the goals they had when they choose to become teachers.

Since 2011, Touchstones has recognized an exemplary Touchstones educator with the Teacher of the Year award. Thanks to Cynthia M. Barry, who first sponsored the award and who is herself a long-time Touchstones teacher, the intent is to celebrate others advancing our work in the classroom and beyond. Now, with Geoff’s family’s blessing and Cindy’s heartfelt approval, we have renamed the award to the Geoffrey J. Comber Touchstones Teacher of the Year Award and created the Touchstones Educator Scholarship Program. By recognizing an educator whose values and efforts echo those at the core of Geoff’s leadership and vision, this award commemorates Geoff’s dedication to Touchstones and his many, many contributions over the years.

In honor of Geoff’s memory and the legacy he helped shape through his work at Touchstones, Jill Wilkinson—a founding member of the Touchstones Board of Directors— along with the current Board members have launched a special challenge match. Contributions made to Touchstones until May 31, 2020 support the newly named Geoffrey J. Comber Touchstones Teacher of the Year Award, and our Educator Scholarship Program which provides free training and materials to teachers who have no other funding. All gifts received—up to a combined total of $10,000—will be matched dollar for dollar by both the Wilkinson Challenge and by the Touchstones Board Challenge, tripling the funds received by Touchstones. For example, a gift of $250 becomes $750 with the two matches. So far, we’ve received gifts and pledges from 37 individuals. Thank you to all who have already participated in the challenge match and thanks in advance to those who will now make sure we reach our $30,000 goal!

Many of the contributions have come from former students and colleagues of Geoff’s. One former student wrote how Geoff had been instrumental in her receiving a scholarship for graduate school. Another former student wrote, “Geoff had a profound impact on me to think both critically, clearly and calmly so it is an honor to support this project in his name.”

He was always looking out towards the growth of students, teachers, and administrators, who in turn trusted Geoff for his integrity and candor. His passion for education and teacher development was unrivaled. Geoff was originally from Erith, Kent, England and served in the bomb disposal unit in the British army during WWII. He graduated from the Royal College of Music, London, and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to attend Ohio State University where he received graduate and post-graduate degrees in music and philosophy. He began his teaching career at Huron University College, Ontario and later joined the faculty of St. John’s College in Annapolis where he taught for 25 years and was the first director of the Annapolis Graduate Institute. Geoff co-founded the Touchstones Discussion Project in 1984, and 36 years later our partnerships with thousands of educators and millions of students who have participated in Touchstones programs around the world stand as proof that Geoff was not only wise but also a true visionary. Geoff will be missed by all who knew and loved him, but his memory and life’s work will be carried on through the programs, curriculum, and materials of the Touchstones Discussion Project.

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