Category Archives: Education

Unsung Hero #44

When the 7th annual Maker Faire takes over Westport this Saturday (April 21), there will be something for everyone.

A record 12,000+ attendees — tech lovers, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science geeks, artists, authors, students and exhibitors — will share what they’ve made, see what others have created, teach, learn, be inspired, and inspire others.

And have tons of fun.

It’s a massive undertaking. Planning began the moment last year’s Maker Faire — which drew “only” 10,500 people — ended.

Hundreds of volunteers make it happen. But none of it would be possible without Mark Mathias.

Mark Mathias

Westport’s event– part of a worldwide movement (and of all 772 Maker Faires in 44 countries, among the top 5% in attendance) — was his brainchild.

In September 2011, his kids were fascinated by the New York Maker Faire.

Seven months later — thanks to Mathias’ work with the Westport Library, Sunrise Rotary and Downtown Merchants Association — we had our own “Mini Maker Faire.”

The “mini” is long gone. Now — with activities spread across the Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green — it’s as maxi as it gets.

But the Maker Faire is not Mathias’ only local contribution. He’s in his 15th year on the Board of Education; is an active member of Saugatuck Congregational Church (with a particular interest in their mission trips), and when his daughter Nicole was at Staples High School, he was an avid supporter of the music department.

Mathias — whose professional background is in IT — is president of Remarkable Steam. The non-profit promotes innovation and creativity in the areas of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

This is Mark Mathias’ busiest time of year. Hopefully, he’ll take a few moments out of his hectic day to accept our thanks, as this week’s Unsung Hero.

Robots galore at last year’s Maker Faire.

(For more information on Westport’s Maker Faire, click here. To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Maker Faire: Facts And Figures

This Saturday’s Maker Faire promises to be the biggest yet.

It’s also one of the biggest in the world. Last year, Westport drew 10,500 attendees. That made the top 5% of all 772 Maker Faires on the planet.

This year’s attendance could break 12,000.

A few other facts:

  • The physical footprint has tripled. Events and attractions are scheduled for the Westport Library, Jesup Green, Taylor parking lot, Bedford Square, Town Hall and Veterans Green.
  • There are nearly 200 “makers” — double the previous number.
  • 6 stages — up from only 1 in the past — will showcase talented people and organizations in the arts, sciences, music and politics.

Large attractions include:

  • Truckers Alley: a collection of large vehicles with large ideas
  • Tiny Homes Hamlet: a collection of tiny homes
  • Tiny Farmers’ Market: a taste of upcoming farmers’ markets
  • Medieval Village and Tavern: entertainment and local brews
  • PlasmaBot: the world’s largest glass and plasma marionette
  • Aviation: a half-sized model of Gustave Whitehead’s plane, plus drones and a panel
  • Air Rocket Challenge: build cardboard rockets — and launch them
  • CTNext Entrepreneurial Innovation Awards: for emerging businesses
  • Game of Drones: an exhibition of drone skills in tight spaces
  • Nerdy Derby: build, decorate and race cars
  • Musicians: an orchestra, steel band, and Israeli music
  • Artists: working in textiles, paint, recycled materials, even bones.

There’s much, much, much more, too. For details, click here.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Staples Students Learn Mindfulness

As mental health issues arise frequently in the news — through stories on gun violence, homelessness, incarceration and more — there’s been a new emphasis on education.

Dr. Alec Miller spoke recently in Westport. He’s a leading expert on dialectical behavior therapy for adolescents — an increasingly popular treatment for people with significant difficulty regulating emotions and behaviors.

Because DBT skills are applicable to everyone, it’s being used more and more in school settings.

Westport, it turns out, piloted a mental health therapeutic curriculum 4 years ago.

Wellness Seminar is a half-credit class at Staples High School. And it may be the first anywhere in Fairfield County.

It’s not therapy or counseling, says Thomas Viviano, one of Staples’ 4 school psychologists. It is a skills group, with an emphasis on mindfulness.

The idea, he explains, is to “move from assumptions and judgments, to observe and describe what you’re seeing and feeling. It’s the difference between saying ‘that person’s yelling at me’ to ‘wow, his voice is very loud.'”

Students learn stress tolerance: practical skills to help them cope with negative emotions. For example, when you’re angry you can do an activity you enjoy, or help someone else, rather than focusing on that feeling.

Students also learn interpersonal skills, like developing healthy relationships, maintaining self-respect, and skillfully dealing with peers, teachers and parents.

Parents meet monthly, to learn the same skills as their youngsters. That helps reinforce DBT at home.

Each class includes 15 or so students, and is co-taught by a social worker and psychologist.

The class, Viviano emphasizes, is applicable to everyone. The skills prepare students for college, including dealing with roommates and professors, and help them with problem-solving and decision-making, and for general problem-solving and decision-making.

Students say say they used “pleasant imagery” to ease stress before a test; employed the “cope ahead skill” to feel calm during a presentation, and do coloring at night to fall asleep more easily.

Maintaining good mental health is a complex issue. At Staples, Wellness Seminar is an important first step.

[OPINION] Some Kids Need Lessons In Kindness

An alert “06880” reader — and disappointed middle school parent — writes:

I am grateful every day to raise my children in our wonderful town. They go to public schools staffed by caring, enthusiastic teachers.

Yet something happened this past Saturday at Bedford Middle School that made me ask myself, “What can we do to make our town even better?” I’m asking “06880” readers that question too.

During the 7 p.m. performance of “Alice in Wonderland,” several 6th grade students in the audience heckled the actors. They gave them the L “loser” sign, the middle finger, and booed.

Several actors were in tears. One would not get back on stage. Another missed his lines.

I hope the heckling students get more than a central detention. I would like to see them get a lesson in kindness, and make amends.

As with other school performances in town, the students and teachers of BMS spent months working on and rehearsing “Alice in Wonderland.” Teachers Karen McCormick and Lynne Karmen, assistant stage director Ryan Smith and parent volunteers spent days, nights and weekends coordinating the many aspects of the show: teaching students the fine points of acting, creating  and setting the stage.

In addition, 8th grade actors and stage crew dedicated up to 60 hours of their time, helping younger students learn about lighting and sound, memorize lines and gather the courage to get on stage.

They deserved applause and support, not heckling.

Bedford Middle School used 8 Alices, to include as many 6th graders as possible in the show. (Photo/January Stewart)

I hope there will be a truly sincere apology directed to the actors and teachers. Each heckler could write a letter to an actor, and read it on stage as actors and teachers sit in the seats.

Or perhaps those apology letters could be printed out and posted on the auditorium doors.

Hecklers could also pick up trash for a few days in the school cafeteria after lunch, or after the next school performance.

No one is looking for harsh punishment for those hecklers. Kids make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

We as a community need to build up our children when they make mistakes, not break them down. We as a community need to help each other find solutions that help our youth adopt kinder behavior, make proper amends and learn from their mistakes.

To BMS actors: You had the courage to be on stage. You did a great job at the show. Don’t let detractors get you down. We hope to see you at the next performances!

To BMS teachers, parent volunteers and 7th and 8th grade volunteers: Thank you for giving our 6th graders a chance to grow and shine, each in their own way. Thank you for your dedication!

To Westport: What can we do better to teach our kids and our friends to be kinder to one another?

Any suggestions?

Michael Martins’ College: The Last Frontier

Parents, teachers and counselors always tell teenagers: “Don’t worry. There’s a college for everyone. You’ll do fine.”

It’s true. Just ask Michael Martins.

You can find him at the University of Alaska.

At Staples High School, he served on the WWPT-FM board. For his Eagle Scout project he worked with alumni, bands and DJs to make the radio station’s 40th anniversary fundraiser a success.

But during his college search — ranging from upstate New York to the far west — there was no place he truly wanted to go.

“I love learning,” Michael says. ” I wanted to do college the right way.”

After graduating in 2016, he did not go directly to school. He kept searching, and found the Fairbanks campus online.

He’d never been to Alaska. He knew no one in the entire vast state. It was isolated, different and a challenge. Michael liked that.

The nation’s “northernmost land, sea and space grant university and international research center” is a global leader in studying climate change. Michael could use his math skills in Arctic research — in the Arctic itself.

And because his mother is a veteran, tuition in that military-friendly state is less than what he’d pay at the University of Connecticut, Michael says.

He’d seen photos of UAF online. But when he stepped off the plane, it finally hit him. “I’m in Alaska!” Michael thought.

Friends and family members have many misperceptions. They picture tundra and igloos. They ask if he has Wi-Fi.

Sure, the temperature reaches 40 below. But in many ways, UAF is a normal college campus.

Michael Martins on campus. “If it’s snowing, it can’t be that cold,” he says.

It has normal college problems. Like not enough pianos.

Michael has played for 3 years. He doesn’t take music courses — he’s a math major, and French minor — so he couldn’t just play whenever he wanted to.

He picked his residence — Bartlett Hall — because it was the only one with a piano. But the instrument was in an out-of-the-way place, and not well tuned.

So one of the first things Michael did after arriving was organize a piano fundraiser. He brought the piano into a common area. He asked musicians to play for an hour each night — with a tip jar. He set up online donations too.

Michael Martins, at the Bartlett Hall piano.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner picked up the story. Immediately, 6 people in Fairbanks — a city of 32,000 — called to donate pianos to residence halls.

The goal was $300. Michael raised twice that amount. The extra funds will go toward appraising, tuning and transporting the pianos.

But that’s not the only way Michael has reached out to others. For spring break he decided to help people he didn’t know, in (another) place he didn’t know.

So he spent a week in Houston, helping victims of Hurricane Harvey rebuild their lives. It was far from Alaska — and far from the wild spring break experiences of some college students.

Michael Martins doing mold prevention work in Houston.

Michael loved Houston. He was also glad to get back to Fairbanks.

“I’m thriving here,” he reports. “There’s a great attitude of ‘let’s make it happen.’ And tons of support.”

He calls himself lucky: to have gone to Staples, to have had the idea to apply to the University of Alaska, and now to go there. “I love where I am,” he says.

He has a message to Staples students: “There are a lot of places where you can feel important, and make a difference.”

It’s something parents, teachers and counselors say all the time here to teenagers.

Perhaps it will have impact coming from someone else who knows Westport well, now thriving thousands of miles away.

Michael Martins, in front of typical Inuit art. Over 20% of the more than 8,000 graduates are of Alaska Native or American Indian descent.

Meet Westport’s Newest National Hockey Champ

Syracuse’s NCAA basketball tournament run is over. Paschal Chukwu will not win a national title this year.

But Westport is home to someone who did just win a championship. And — like the 7-2 Orange star — this athlete also flies under Westport’s sports radar.

Rebecca Russo is a member of the Metropolitan Riveters. Yesterday the Newark-based team edged the Buffalo Beauts 1-0. The shutout — over the defending champions — earns the Riveters the Isobel Cup.

Which, as the sold-out crowd at the Barnabas Health Hockey House knows, is the National Women’s Hockey League equivalent of the Stanley Cup.

Rebecca Russo

Growing up in Westport, Russo played boys youth hockey in the Mid-Fairfield program until she was 14.

She went to Bedford Middle School, then headed to Berkshire School. The private school just over the Massachusetts border has something Staples does not: 2 on-campus rinks, and a history of sending female players to college programs.

But that wasn’t good enough. She transferred to Shattuck-Saint Mary’s School in Minnesota, one of the top prep hockey programs in the country, for her junior and senior years.

That first year, she won a national championship. Her 2nd season, she led the team in goals.

At Boston University, her D-I team won 3 national titles. She majored in communications, concentrating in media studies. Her goal was — and still is — to become a sports broadcaster.

Russo joined the NWHL last season, and was selected for the All-Star game. At that event in Pittsburgh, she won the Fastest Skater competition.

Now she’s got a league championship.

Rebecca Russo celebrates with the crowd after yesterday’s NWHL championship win. (Photo/Matthew Raney for the New York Times)

Of course, the NWHL is not the NHL. Players need day jobs. Russo — now 23 years old — works for MLB/NHL Network, in media and productions.

And — also unlike the NHL — players don’t get to bring the champion cup to their hometowns.

So you won’t see the Isobel Cup in Westport.

But if you see Rebecca Russo, tell her she made us all proud.

(Hat tip: Russell Sherman)

Staples Tuition Grants: 75 Years In 8 Minutes

Staples Tuition Grants turns 75 years old this year.

To celebrate, the organization — which last year provided over $300,000 in scholarships to 115 Staples High School seniors and graduates with financial need — threw a fundraising party this month.

The event met its goal: over $75,000 in donations. (For 75 years — get it?).

One of the night’s highlights was a video. Produced by talented Westport filmmaker (and Staples grad) Doug Tirola, it featured well-known residents and SHS alums like Christopher Jones, Justin Paul, Ned Batlin, Linda Bruce, Jessica Branson, Miggs Burroughs, Anne Hardy, Dan Donovan and Maggie Mudd. They offered insights into their own scholarships and those named for loved ones, plus thoughts on the importance of college and life.

The video — filled joy and heartache, humor and love — is well worth the 8 minutes. Enjoy!

(For more information on Staples Tuition Grants, or to donate, click here.)

[OPINION] Don Bergmann: “Police In Schools Is A Mistake”

Alert “06880” reader Don Bergmann writes:

Following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook School Elementary School, Westport undertook and paid for many school security actions.

One first step was to hire the Kroll security firm to generate a school security report. No member of the public, no members of the RTM and, I believe, no member of the Board of Finance was permitted to read the Kroll report.

Well in advance of the report, the issue of police in our schools was raised and discussed.  Then-superintendent of schools Elliott Landon made it clear that he did not support police in our schools.

I believe that judgment was supported by the then-Board of Education, and most in Westport. I believe that judgment evidenced a conclusion that the presence of police in our schools sent the wrong message, and was inconsistent with the function and spirit of education. My recollection is that the idea of police in our schools was viewed as something that had no home in places of learning, youthful interaction and openness.

Our present superintendent of schools, Dr. Colleen Palmer, may be proposing to assign, possibly even hire, 5 police to protect, may I say “guard,” our students while in school. I believe the Board of Education may support Dr. Palmer.

I believe this proposal is an unfortunate reaction to contemporary events. It comes about in part, if not primarily, because of the assertions of parents of students that “we must do something,” and the willingness of the school administration to respond to such cries for action by introducing a police presence into our schools.

I believe an ongoing police presence in our schools is a mistake. I believe it conveys a new and troubling feel to our schools, to education and to the interactions of all who are present in our schools: students, teachers, administrators, nurses,  cafeteria workers, and all others who contribute to the effective and joyous functioning of our schools.

Dr. Landon concluded that there should be no police patrolling our schools. Dr. Palmer appears to have concluded otherwise. The Board of Ed will have to make the initial decision, though roles for the Board of Finance, the RTM and maybe the Board of Selectmen are almost certain.

It is also important that the Kroll report be re-read. It would also seem sensible for the RTM and other elected officials to have access to the report, at least as to the issue of police in our schools. That particular aspect of the Kroll Report should probably also be available to the public.

In making a decision, I believe the input of our nearly 1,000 school employees is relevant. I also believe the voices of our students should be heard. In all cases, those voices must not be allowed to be pressured into silence by the actions and words of those who are so fearful for their children they do not welcome dialogue.

My concern is not cost, even though the cost for 5 police in our schools is significant. Even without new hires, but rather redeployments, the cost is significant since officers will be taken from present areas of responsibility.

The present thinking  appears not to include the cost of 5 police in the proposed school budget for 2018-19. I believe that approach would be wrong.

This letter (somewhat longer) was addressed to the school administration and the Board of Education. However, I ask others to weigh in. The views of the RTM, Board of Finance — indeed, of all elected officials and citizens — are important.

Bedford Musicians, Sean O’Loughlin: An Innovative Collaboration

At a time when arts education is under siege nationally — forget the frills! teach engineering and coding! — Westport is offering its students something else.

A chance to compose music with Sean O’Loughlin.

Sean O’Loughlin

The award-winning composer/arranger/conductor — he’s got over 200 compositions to his credit, and has collaborated with Adele, Josh Groban, Itzhak Perlman, Pentatonix, Kelly Clarkson and others — is in the midst of a unique project. His collaborators: 6th, 7th and 8th orchestra students at Bedford Middle School.

A Westport Public Schools Innovation Grant funds the effort. The grants give students and staff the chance to think outside the box, using creative new ideas.

The relationship began last year, when the 6th grade orchestra Skyped with O’Loughlin during rehearsals of one of his pieces.

Last summer, BMS music teachers Michele Anderson and Anthony Granata asked the composer to continue the connection. He was happy to oblige.

This past November, string students explored the music-writing process. They looked at tempo, mood, style, even titles for future pieces.

Next — via multiple Skype sessions — they offered O’Loughlin suggestions for key and time signatures, bowing styles and advanced techniques. Afterwards, students discussed and wrote about those interactions.

Michele Anderson rehearses her Bedford students. Composer Sean O’Loughlin watches in the background, via Skype.

Based on their input, O’Laughlin then created 3 unique pieces.

In early January, he sent his original compositions to the very excited Bedford students.

Since then — again by Skype — the youngsters and O’Loughlin rehearsed together. As they did, they asked questions and shared ideas.

On Monday, the musicians met O’Loughlin in real time. He came to Bedford from California, as a composer/conductor in residence. He rehearsed the students, and gave a presentation.

After an exciting day, all orchestra students gathered for a performance conducted by O’Loughlin. Music educators were invited to watch the creative process in action.

Sean O’Loughlin conducts the Bedford orchestra.

“Because these pieces are brand new, our BMS orchestra students were the first ones to interpret the music in their very own way,” Anderson notes.

“There was no recording to listen to. The music came from them.”

The process is working well. And in May, the middle schoolers will share their work with the public.

The prestigious Carl Fischer music company will publish the compositions. They’ll be available to schools across the globe.

Bedford’s spring concerts — when they’ll debut the O’Laughlin pieces — are set for May 1 (grade 6), May 3 (grade 7) and May 14 (grade 8). They begin at 7 p.m. in the school auditorium, and are free.

If You Didn’t Have A March Madness Team Before, You Do Now

It’s pretty hard for a 7-2 guy to fly under the radar.

But — at least around here — Paschal Chukwu has.

The Syracuse University junior — ranked 14th in the nation in blocks per game — is apparently from Westport.

His bio on the Syracuse website lists this as his hometown, and his parents as John and Sheila Featherston.

Chukwu did not — very unfortunately — play for Staples.

He spent 2 years at Trinity Catholic High School. (Where he played soccer — a sport he loved in his native Nigeria — and scored his team’s only goal in a 7-1 loss to the Wreckers.) He then transferred to Fairfield Prep.

Chukwu played one year at Providence College, before transferring to Syracuse.

You can watch him at 9:40 tonight (CBS-TV). The Orange take on Texas Christian.

TALL BASKETBALL PLAYER FUN FACT: I once saw Manute Bol on Main Street in Westport. He and Chukwu are 2 guys I really look up to.

(Click here for Paschal Chukwu’s full bio. Hat tip: Bill Ryan)