Category Archives: Teenagers

Maker Faire: Westport’s Greatest Collection Of Nerds, Geeks, And Way Cool People

Westport’s 4th annual Mini Maker Faire is in full swing today. Up to 6,000 creative, inventive folks of all ages are expected to flood Jesup Green and the library. They’ll spend the day building, designing, creating, hacking, learning, connecting, eating, drinking, listening and playing.

And that’s just at one of the hundreds of interactive, interdisciplinary, interesting exhibits.

The Maker Faire runs till 4 p.m. today (Saturday, April 25). The inspiration will last forever.

“The Great Fredini” is constructing an entire scale model of Coney Island, with a 3D printer. Faire-goers could have their own body scanned — and printed — to be included.

Anyone can play regular foosball. It takes a certain type of person to be part of a human foosball game.

Anyone can play regular foosball. It takes a certain type of person to be part of a human foosball game.

Getting set for the Nerdy Derby: a Pinewood Derby with no rules.

Getting set for the Nerdy Derby: a Pinewood Derby with no rules.

A scavenger hunt includes -- naturally -- QR codes. As noted, this event was developed by the Kids' Committee.

A scavenger hunt includes — naturally — QR codes. As noted, this event was developed by kids. Participants earned a free download of digital goodies; the randomly selected 1st prize was a gift certificate to robotics camp.

Where can you find a real live violin-maker? At the Maker Faire, of course.

Where can you find a real live cello-maker? At the Maker Faire, of course.

But sometimes it was fun just to play with a low-tech toy: the sculpture outside the library.

Sometimes it was fun just to play with a low-tech toy: the sculpture outside the library.

Play Ball!

Normally, the news that 2 Westport Wreckers 13-and-Under teams — Blue and White — competed in a New Haven tournament would not be “06880”-worthy. This is a blog, not a sports section.*

But last weekend’s championship game is of interest for another reason: It was not played.

The fact that Westport fields 2 teams in the same age group has caused “issues” in the past. Parents in particular have sometimes been caught up in the competition between the 2 squads.

Yet when it became clear that both the White and Blue teams would be playing for the championship, the coaches saw a chance to put the entire program first.

Jeb Backus and Sal Latella announced that the final game would not be played. Both teams would be co-champs.

Westport's Blue and White 13-and-Under baseball team: New Haven tournament co-champs.

Westport’s Blue and White 13-and-Under baseball team: New Haven tournament co-champs.

In years to come they’ll have plenty of opportunities to play together, for more important prizes. They’re great athletes, and “06880” will follow their progress with interest.

Even if we don’t post the results of every game.

*No offense to every other baseball, softball, football, lacrosse, soccer, hockey (ice and field), gymnastics, tennis, golf, swim and other parent who contacts me about every other championship, meet, match, game and practice.

Robot World

Westport robots may soon take over the world.

Or at least the Robot World Championships.

A local team — i²robotics — has qualified for that prestigious event. The 25-team event will be held April 22-26 in St. Louis. i² — comprised of 9 Staples High School students — is the only Connecticut high school-aged team there. (It is not, however, an official Staples organization.)

But they won’t even be the only Westport robotics squad in St. Louis. Team SNAP — Coleytown Middle School 8th graders Theo Davis, Nick Durkin, John McNab and Daniel Westphal — will be there too. They’re part of the FIRST Lego League World Festival for younger students, held at the same time.

Team members include co-captains Alex Davis and Peter Sauer, plus Ken Asada, Ben Davis, Julian Garrison, Kiran Nandagopal, Luke Sauer, Julia Schorr and Alex Somlo. The coach is Terry Sauer.

Team members include co-captains Alex Davis and Peter Sauer, plus Ken Asada, Ben Davis, Julian Garrison, Kiran Nandagopal, Luke Sauer, Julia Schorr and Alex Somlo. The coach is Terry Sauer.

The tournaments are sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit that uses a sports model to inspire students about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).

It also teaches marketing, collaboration, public speaking, writing, videography, public relations and business skills (like budgeting, fundraising and pitching sponsors).

For this year’s tournament, the high school i² team had to build a robot that could fill “goals” with Wiffle- and golf-sized balls, ascend a ramp, and perform other tasks. At times the robot is autonomous; at other times it is driver-controlled.

At one point this season, i²’s robot held the world record for the most amount of points in a match.

i² has reached out to the local community for funds — and given back too. They raised $2,000 for FIRST in Haiti. They also developed a Mars Rover simulator for Bridgeport’s Discovery Museum, which will be brought to local schools.

Now they’re seeking more funds, to pay for World Championship registration fees, travel and robot parts. Their Indiegogo page is here. It’s run by humans.

Leaving Childhood Behind

Among his many gifts, Staples High School principal John Dodig has mastered the art of communicating important truths with simplicity and grace.

Recently, he sent a note to parents of graduating seniors. But its message is far broader. It should be read by anyone with children, of any age — and anyone who ever was a child. Dodig wrote:

Each year at this time I send a message to senior parents warning them to be ready for the feelings of loss as graduation day nears. This year, you and I are in the same boat. Both of us will face the end of our involvement in our child’s/student’s school life. Whether you have only one child or several, you will be hit with this intense sense of “the end” at some point between now and graduation day.

Graduation is a time for looking ahead -- and back.

Graduation is a time for looking ahead — and back.

What makes the American high school experience unique in the world is that high school is so much more than simply a place to go each day to learn. In most of the rest of the world, if you want to learn to play the cello, learn to draw or cook, or be competitive at a sport, you do so on your own time on weekends.

In America, all of these experiences are wrapped up in the same package. Our children leave home each morning and return sometimes late at night having studied French and calculus and then done something after school.

Chances are, you and I were on the sidelines to watch the team, or in the audience to hear the concert and to support our child/student. We become so much a part of their lives that facing the end of this experience is difficult to imagine.

Parents support many activities -- including the annual pops concert in the Staples courtyard.

Parents support many activities — including the annual pops concert in the Staples courtyard.

Think back, for a moment, on the 1st day of school for your child. Try to imagine holding his little hand as you walked him to the bus or to school or even to the classroom.

You might remember your child not wanting to let go of you, maybe even crying. You knew you had to let go and allow her to begin the 12-year journey through public school.

That journey was sometimes difficult and sometimes easy. Those little hands got bigger and, at some point, didn’t want to be held in public any more.

Growing up

Once in high school, these little boys and girls began changing into young men and women. Their bodies changed, their minds changed, their emotions changed, and they began to become somewhat independent people.

You still fed them. You still washed their clothes. You still paid for everything, but you sensed that they were beginning to separate from you and to prepare for a life apart from you and family.

On graduation day you will share in an emotional experience with your son or daughter. You will hug, get photos taken, have a party with family and then face a long summer where they will start preparing for what will come after high school.

They will always be your children, but you will never again be a part of their lives in the way you have been for the past twelve years. That will come to an end.

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Among the “graduates” this year: principal John Dodig (right).

I will share your sense of loss, because I have watched thousands of young kids walk into our high school and begin to grow into competent, well-educated young adults only to leave us on graduation day. This will be the last graduation day for me, and I am grateful to share it with your child.

Use the next few months to revel in your beautiful creation. Your son/daughter will take a part of you into the future and perhaps create a new generation. Make that last hug in school at graduation tighter and stronger than normal, so that the feeling of that hug will last forever.

Birthday Ball

Today is opening day for the Staples baseball team.

Who better to sing the national anthem than senior pitcher Jack Baylis?

Jack Baylis

Jack Baylis

It’s quite a day for him. After the game, he’ll hustle over to Southport’s Trinity Episcopal Church, to sing with Orphenians.

Plus, it’s Jack’s 18th birthday.

Play ball!

1st inning action: Newtown (at bat) against Staples.

1st inning action: Newtown (at bat) against Staples.

Jane Yolen Tackles Cinderella

The other day, US News & World Report ran a story on “Cinderella.” Bottom line: the new Disney film perpetuates the wrong image of the famous fairy tale character. She’s not the “sweet, accommodating and passive heroine” we’ve been led to believe; in earlier versions of the tale, Cinderella was really a brave, clever, assertive, savvy and ambitious princess.

Jane Yolen today...

Jane Yolen today…

The story quotes Jane Yolen, “one of America’s best-known storytellers.” As far back as 1977, she warned that the 1950 Disney version of “Cinderella” sends kids the wrong message.

Instead of learning that a wish and action can make dreams come true, children learn “only to wait for something or someone to save them.”

It’s not enough today, Yolen says, to rely solely on niceness.

She should know. A child of the 1950s — a time when gender roles were far more rigidly enforced than today — she carved an exciting path for herself.

And she did it in Westport.

...and Jane Yolen, 1955-56 Staples basketball captain.

…and Jane Yolen, 1955-56 Staples basketball captain.

The author or editor of more than 280 books — including Holocaust novella The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight — she was a dynamo at Staples. Before graduating in 1956 she was news editor of the school paper Inklings, captain of the girls basketball team, and vice president of the Spanish and Latin Clubs.

She also sang in the choir, served on the yearbook and Soundings literary magazine staffs, won 2 “Voice of Democracy” contests, and worked as a Westport Library page and Sunday school teacher.

Yolen went on to Smith College, and published her 1st book at 22. She also raised 3 children.

Far fewer doors were open to young women 60 years ago than today. But Jane Yolen walked (or, more likely, ran) through the ones that were — and probably pushed a few stuck ones open herself.

Sounds as if young girls (and boys) in 2015 should be watching a movie about her.

Not Cinderella.

(To learn more about Jane Yolen’s life, click on www.janeyolen.com)

Orphenians: One More From The Road

Staples’ Orphenians fly home tonight from San Francisco.

They don’t even need a plane.

Last night, Staples’ elite a cappella group joined 9 other high school choirs, in a spectacular performance at sold-out Davies Symphony Hall.

Orphenians combined with other choruses from California, Arizona, Illinois and Tennesse — the culmination of 4 days of intense vocal workshops with internationally known Chanticleer.

Yesterday featured Chanticleer and the choirs in a day-long residency. Each performed individually on the stage, and attended master classes led by world-renowned operatic mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick.

At night, 300 singers joined with instrumentalists from the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, in a program featuring the West Coast premiere of Lars-Erik Larsson’s “God in Disguise,” and the world premiere of “Birdsong” by Zajick (composed for the occasion).

The Orphenians, in the after-concert glow of Davies Symphony Hall.

The Orphenians, in the after-concert glow of Davies Symphony Hall.

Rondi Charleston — whose daughter Emma Ruchefsky is an Orphenian — was awed by “these glorious voices blending together in beautiful harmony, floating over the full house. Our Orphs rose to the occasion, and achieved a new level of artistry. It was a magical evening full of hope for the future — of music, and humanity.”

Of course, as a parent she’s biased. Doug Bond — a 1980 1981 Staples grad (and former Orphenian, who traveled to Europe with director George Weigle) — might be biased toward the old days.

But Doug — who now lives in San Francisco — says: “Amazing voices! Amazing talent! A unique moment! Congratulations Orphenians and director Luke Rosenberg — you made an Orph alumnus proud!”

He adds that Chanticleer encouraged cell phone use during the concert, and gave directions on how to post videos to Vine.

To see all the Vines from last night, click here.

To view just the Orphenian videos from the 5-day adventure, click here.

(Be sure to right-click “Unmute” to hear these great voices!)

Orphenian Jacob Leaf posted this Vine video.

Orphenian Jacob Leaf posted this Vine video.

Orphenians Prepare For San Francisco Stage

Yesterday morning, Luke Rosenberg led the Orphenians on stage at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.

They were there as part of the National Youth Choral Festival — and an evening performance, with 300 singers.

Here’s how they sounded, solo:

(Hat tip: Mark Mathias)

Luis Cruz Dreams Big — And Makes Us All Proud

Every March, the A Better Chance “Dream Event” is one of the greatest feel-good galas of the year.

Each time, the graduating seniors’ speeches are the highlights of the entire evening.

But Luis Cruz’s speech Saturday night to an overflow crowd ranks among the best ever.

The only senior among this year’s 8 ABC scholars, he wowed the crowd with his insights, passion and compassion. Here is an edited version of his remarks:

This program has meant a lot to me and my family. It is because of people like you that I was given this opportunity — to live in one of the best communities in the entire country.

The 2014-15 A Better Chance scholars. Luis Cruz is 2nd from right.

The 2014-15 A Better Chance scholars. Luis Cruz is 2nd from right.

Leaving Newark to see the A Better Chance program for the 1st time, I was filled with mixed emotions. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to leave the life I knew — the ice cream trucks marking the rhythm of the day as they repeatedly passed my apartment; seeing and hearing kids playing in the open fire hydrants, and watching the sea of kids riding their bicycles toward the park, which I used to do every Friday with my friends, until my mom took away my bike because she didn’t want me to get hit by a car.

Pulling into Westport I saw big homes, with big yards, with big cars, parked in front of their big homes. There was grass everywhere — green and perfectly trimmed. Instead of crowds of people, there was a parade of SUVs. Joggers and deer shared the roads.

I remembered my middle school, with its security guards in every hallway. In Newark there were fist fights, food fights and paper fights. My classmates cared only about their reputation and looking fresh. No one really cared about school.

In Westport, it’s pretty funny to me that the richest kids come to school looking so ruffled. Kids in Newark wouldn’t be caught dead looking that poor.

When the principal visited a class in Newark, that meant another lecture. In Westport, it means that Mr. Dodig wants to know how I’m fitting in and what I did last weekend.

A Better ChanceThe A Better Chance program has allowed me to take advantage of many opportunities in Westport. I have grown a lot from all of these experiences, especially from joining the great athletic programs at Staples.

Luis explained how — although he was “a bad soccer player and a terrible runner,” and had a very difficult time with the fitness demands — freshman coach Chris O’Dell took him aside.

He asked me the most important question of my teen life: “Do you want to keep going? It won’t get any easier from here.”

I hesitated, as I was in such pain and agony.

I just went with my gut.

“Yes, Coach O’Dell. I’ll take that challenge.” From that day on, I never looked back.

Luis fell in love with running. He joined the indoor and outdoor track teams. He worked hard, and improved steadily. The next fall he ran cross country. To laughter, he said, “I didn’t even know that was a sport.”

Luis Cruz: cross country star.

Luis Cruz: cross country star.

At the New England Outdoor Championship, in spring of sophomore year, Luis earned  All-New England status.

I was so proud of myself. I wanted to tell everyone what I had just accomplished. The only sad part was that my parents weren’t there to see it. All I could do was send them a video and show them my medal. But what really counted is that they knew I had worked hard for this.

That day marked my growth as a runner, from the slowest to the fastest. That is the physical evidence of the powerful impact of A Better Chance. I learned something these past 4 years: “If no one else sees it for you, you must see it for yourself.”

Luis Cruz at the A Better Chance Dream Event, flanked by his teammate and great friend Oliver Hickson, and his track coach Laddie Lawrence.

Luis Cruz at the A Better Chance Dream Event, flanked by his teammate and great friend Oliver Hickson, and his track coach Laddie Lawrence. (Photo/Jessica Sochol)

Luis traveled to Costa Rica, for a summer program. It opened his eyes to even more possibilities.

I realized that humans have the power to make a difference. This is why I am considering becoming an engineer. Solving real-world problems, using my talents in mathematics, is how I want to effect positive change in the world.

On the surface, it was an easy decision to join A Better Chance, to go to a school with all the resources a student could possibly need. My mother and father were proud of me for making the decision to explore a different way of life, yet they were silent on the car ride to Connecticut. We all knew that the next 4 years were ones we wouldn’t get back in terms of being a family.

My parents never got to see me pick my first pumpkin. They missed the chance to see me break the 5-minute-mile barrier. They never got to see me play soccer on a team with uniforms and real cleats. They weren’t there to comfort me when I lost a race for my team because I dropped the baton.

But they will be there when I graduate high school. And I know they will be there when I graduate college!

A proud Luis Cruz, and his equally proud family.

A proud Luis Cruz, and his equally proud family. (Photo/Jessica Sochol)

It has been difficult at times, living between 2 very different communities and cultures. But the sacrifice has paid off in my achievements, both academically and socially.

I will have more choices than my parents had. I marvel now that my parents have survived in a country where they barely speak the languages. I am also amazed and thankful that they realized that education is the key to a better life.

After thanking his parents emotionally — “Te amo Mami y Papi. Gracias para todo” — Luis concluded:

My parents and I talk nearly every day. They are nothing like typical teen conversations. I have so much to say to them, because all of my experiences are new to all of us. I remember buying my 1st pair of Sperry Topsiders. While that is not an event worth discussing for some, for me it was a milestone. My parents and I talked about it forever — once I told them that they were shoes.

Now, in less than 3 months I will become the 1st person in my immediate family to go to college. Just like Forrest Gump, I went from being average to being a winner.

I am Luis Cruz, aka Papi, your friend. Thank you!

(To learn more about A Better Chance, click here.)

Frank Bruni: “A Generation Of High School Kids Throws Darts At The College Dartboard”

An overflow crowd filled the Westport Library yesterday, to hear Frank Bruni talk about college admissions.

Go figure.

The award-winning New York Times journalist — who has covered presidents and popes, served as chief restaurant critic, and now writes a wildly popular Sunday column — was here to talk about his new book.

Frank Bruni bookIt’s called Where You’ll Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote To The College Admissions Mania. On this topic, of course, Westport is one of the most manic places on the planet.

Bruni, who is 50, grew up in an area similar to Westport — a place that could give us a run for our (college-leads-to-Wall Street) money.

But even though there was an implied competition back then, based on college stickers on the backs of cars — and even though Bruni joked about going to a school (the University of North Carolina) supposedly less prestigious than those of his siblings — he said things today are far, far worse.

Which is why he wrote his book.

Bruni said that as he realized he knew so many contented and accomplished people — and that they’d gone to an enormous range of colleges — he understood that all the admissions talk has been focused on the wrong thing.

“We should focus much more on how students choose and use college, than on how to get in,” he said. “‘Success’ comes not from where you go, but from figuring out a school’s landscape, and how to till it.”

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni

Citing examples from his book, Bruni talked about schools like Rhode Island School of Design (where the founders of Airbnb went), and the University of Waterloo (which produced the most number of graduates with successful Y Combinator venture capital pitches).

Last year, Bruni taught a course at Princeton. Though he was “in some way in awe” of the school, he realized that many students were tone deaf about their place in it, and the world.

One eating club tradition is “State Night.” Students dress, and act, “as if they went to a state school,” he said.

Part of the reason is that high school students in places like Westport hear messages about the perceived differences between private and state schools (and see “rankings” of every private school too).

College pennantsPart of the reason too is that some students spend so much time trying to “get in” that they don’t care much about what happens once they do.

“We have a generation of kids applying to 18 or 20 different college. They’re throwing darts at a dartboard. They can’t understand what all those schools offer. So once they get there, they don’t know what to do,” Bruni said.

Audience members had plenty of questions.

They wanted to know what Bruni thought about the importance of “making connections” at highly competitive schools. (He thinks that students at those college are already on the path to success. “If you’re someone who reaches far, it doesn’t matter which school gave you its imprimatur. You’ll get there.”)

There are plenty of reasons for this admissions mania, Bruni noted — and it’s not only parents who share the blame. Colleges “cynically” take measures to drive down their acceptance rates — like not requiring SATs, or sending information to students who are clearly not qualified — so their yields will look more impressive in the US News & World Report rankings.

The overflow audience at the Westport Library.

The overflow audience at the Westport Library.

Bruni says it’s important for “influencers” — teachers, counselors, anyone talking with students — to change the tone of conversations.

Of course, those conversations often begin at home. “Kids should not feel that where they go to college is a validation — or repudiation — of their parents.”

The crowd was large and appreciative. Bruni’s message was especially important for teenagers to hear. But there were very few of them in the audience.

I guess the sophomores and juniors were at SAT courses.

And the seniors were home, waiting to hear from 18 or 20 colleges.