Category Archives: Education

Jeffrey Pogue Picks Xis

Alert reader/nationally known tech guru/writer/TV star/proud Westport parent David Pogue writes:

Last year at this time, I wrote a guest post for “06880” about the Hasbro North American School Scrabble Tournament. The huge, 2-day event for kids was in its 16th year. First prize for the middle-school division: $10,000.

The reason: Last year, my son Jeffrey — then a Bedford Middle School 7th grader — and his partner Noah won it.

This weekend, they went back to defend their championship.

The North American School Scrabble Championship competition.

There were reasons for optimism: The boys had had another year to prepare, playing Scrabble online every day and studying lists of obscure words.

On the other hand, their team — the Rackmasters — caught everyone by surprise last year. “They kind of came out of nowhere,” said Kevin Belinkoff, a play-by-play commentator (it’s live-streamed, so far-flung family can watch). “They weren’t one of the favored teams coming in, and did a tremendous job.”

Great! But that meant another “out of nowhere” team could sweep the tournament this year.

And of course, luck is a factor. If you get terrible letters — all vowels, for example— it’s hard to win.

This year’s event was held in a Marriott ballroom in Philadelphia. It did not start well. Jeffrey’s partner, Noah Slatkoff, lives in Canada. Thunderstorms canceled his flight. So Noah and his dad drove through the night — 7 1/2 hours — to get there on time.

Nonetheless, the Rackmasters dominated the 6 games of Day One. They defeated their opponents by huge margins (like 603 to 271!). That’s important, because in the event of a tied record at the end, the total point “spread” determines who advances to the finals, for all the marbles.

Jeffrey Pogue (right) and Noah Slatkoff, in the zone.

There weren’t as many marbles this year. Hasbro had a tough 2018 — the demise of Toys R Us  hurt sales — and cost-cutting affected the Scrabble championship.

The top prize was $3,000, down from $10,000; the venue was an airport hotel instead of a sports stadium, and the opening party was a ghost of its traditional carnival-like self.

Nobody cared. A kids’ Scrabble tournament is a friendly affair, a chance to spend a weekend away from home, running around with fellow word nerds. It still felt thrilling and well-run.

Day Two did not begin well for our Rackmasters. They lost their first game by 7 points — their first championship loss in 2 years. Their opponents (the Scrabble All-Stars) drew some amazing tiles, including 3 incredibly useful “S”s, both of the blank tiles, and all of the high-point ones: J, X, Q, K, and Z.

The Rackmasters’ 1st loss in 2 years was livestreamed.

Our boys were no longer undefeated, nor in first place. Their spirits crashed.

When they won their next game though, their record was 7-1, tied with the All-Stars and another team. Who would advance to the final, against the sole 8–0 team?

Rackmasters! Their huge point spread from the previous day ensured them a place at the big table onstage.

Their opponents — the Dyslexic Manic Shop — weren’t strangers. One boy had been Jeffrey’s partner 2 years ago at this event.

The final game was brilliant. First one team pulled ahead, then the other, over and over again. Parents and players, sequestered in a different room and watching by video, shrieked and applauded each play.

As usual in high-level Scrabble, many of the plays were not common English words (oolite, scry, haj awa …).

As the letters ran out, Jeffrey and Noah faced a tough call. They could play “ixia” for 39 points (as everyone knows, that’s a South African plant of the iris family), or “xis” for 19 (the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet).

They played the lower-scoring word.

It was strategic. They figured on their next turn they could add an A, forming “axis,” thus harvesting all 8 points of that X tile a second time. That A could also be a part of a new word going down — and landing on the juicy Triple Word Score tile in the lower-left corner.

Ta-da!

That’s exactly what happened. The Rackmasters won — for the 2nd straight year.

It will be their last victory. Next month, Jeffrey graduates from Bedford. As a Staples freshman he’ll no longer be eligible for the middle school division. That’s the main event, with big cash prizes and the most participants. In the high school division, you play alone.

The winners: Jeffrey Pogue and Noah Slatkoff.

It’s time for the next generation of Westport Scrabble champions to emerge. Jeffrey got involved (and met his partner Noah) through Cornelia Guest, a national Scrabble figure. She runs a weekly club at the Ridgefield Library, where she teaches, coaches  and nurtures young players. (Email corneliasguest@gmail.com for details.)

Jeffrey also plays at weekly Scrabble Club meetings at the Pequot library in Southport, closer to home.

Jeffrey highly recommends Scrabble clubs to your kids (so does his dad). It’s a full-brain activity, requiring skills in language, math and strategy. It’s non-electronic and tactile. It’s social. And it’s every bit as exciting as any sporting event.

For Jeffrey there are benefits far beyond prizes, trophies and thrilling weekends in Philly. For the rest of his life, should the conversation ever turn to Greek letters or South African flowering plants, he’ll be ready.

Jeffrey Pogue with his proud father, David.

Westport: A “Best Community For Music Education”

The Westport Public Schools’ music department doesn’t toot its own horn.

So I will.

We’ve just been named one of the country’s Best Communities for Music Education. The award recognizes a town and school district’s “outstanding commitment to music education.”

And — drum roll, please! — this is the 7th straight year we’ve won it.

To qualify for the Best Communities designation — presented by the NAMM Foundation, which supports research, philanthropy and public service programs in the area of music education — school officials answered detailed questions about funding, graduation requirements, music class participation, instruction time, facilities, support for the music program, and community music-making programs.

Well played, Westport!

Encore! If you’ve never seen a Westport Schools’ Pops Concert at the Levitt Pavilion — or even if you have — click below. This year’s show is Friday, June 7. Tickets will be available soon.

As Graduation Nears, A Mother Reflects

The other day, Jerri Graham posted a heartfelt message on Facebook’s “Westport Front Porch” page.

“WFP” is a popular online community. But Jerri’s words deserve to reach far more people than those who are members of that group. I asked if I could repost her comments. Jerri graciously said yes.

She wrote:

This just came in the mail:

When I opened the envelope, tears flowed. My daughter will graduate from high school!

While it’s not a big deal for some, it means so much more to me.

We live in a town where we aren’t the norm. We are a minority on top of a minority on top of a minority. I’m a black woman raising a biracial daughter on an at-times stretched income of one.

I haven’t any family in sight. It has been just Cat and me for over a decade.

She’s been this solid child with a heart that is loving and giving. She’s never once complained when she’s had to go without.

Each week since she’s started working — whether at Sugar & Olives, the Y, babysitting or now at Westport Pizzeria — she gives me her pay. She knows that each dollar she gives makes up where her other parent failed her.

She’s been a great passenger in my sidecar during our life here in Westport.

Cat Graham

I came to this town to one day have this invitation in my hand. To raise a child in a clean environment, and where education matters.

I saw it in the faces of the kids around her who gobbled up chapter books, and inspired her to do the same.

I felt it in the parents who sat next to me year after year at school events when we didn’t always want to be there, but always were.

While I was forced to do it on my own, I do know that raising and educating my daughter here — where at least she had a good education, and friends — made it a lot easier.

I’m so proud of who she is, and who she will become. I’m thrilled that she knows herself well enough to forge her own path, regardless of what everyone else around her does.

Oh, the simple power of a card in the mail.

Congratulations, Staples High School Class of 2019!

And congratulations to two wonderful women: Jerri and Cat Graham!

Unsung Hero #95

The Westport school district is filled with fantastic administrators. To a man (and woman), they go far beyond their job descriptions to give personal, authentic, honest and loving devotion to everyone in their buildings.

Particularly kids.

“06880” hates to single out any one principal or vice principal for special mention. So, while we honor Kevin Cazzetta — because the Greens Farms School head has been named Elementary School Principal of the Year (and will be honored at a dinner on May 2) — he symbolizes so much that is good about our district. Today’s Unsung Hero award goes to Mr. Cazzetta, and all his fellow school building administrators.

Kevin Cazzetta

The GFS lauds him for his “even-handed approach to addressing difficult situations, and his balanced perspective in considering everyone’s near- and long-term needs, while always maintaining a focus on what is best for the students and his staff.”

He is accessible and responsive. He meets with parents on any topic. He knows each child’s needs, and works hard to figure out how best to support them.

One specific example of his hands-on approach: When a tree was planted as a memorial at GFS, the principal watered it, and tended diligently to it.

He’s also the elementary school representative on the Community Advisory Committee, representing all 5 schools in analyzing options for the coming year.

This has been a tough year for students, staff, parents and administrators. Congratulations to Kevin Cazzetta, and all his colleagues, for all they’ve done to keep all our schools on top of their game.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

“Fractured Fairy Tales”: The Story Behind The BMS Show

This has not been an easy year for middle schoolers.

Coleytown was closed in September due to mold; 6th and 7th graders have been at Bedford ever since. Every day, administrators, staff and students of 2 schools make compromises. Everyone involved has done a great — and often unheralded — job.

But it’s one thing to move classes, or share gym and cafeteria space. It’s another thing entirely to accommodate 2 different drama productions simultaneously.

Traditionally each spring, CMS stages an all-school musical. BMS puts on a 6th grade non-musical.

Both are fully staged, with professionally produced costumes and sets. Both involve scores of students.

Directors Ben Frimmer (CMS) and Karen McCormick (BMS) agreed to keep the schedule the same as in past years. They would share space during rehearsals, but — to provide stage time for actors and the technical staff — Bedford would push its opening back to April.

Bedford Middle School art teacher Lynn Karmen, with one of her set painters. (Photo/Melissa Fass)

Musicals require tons of space — for dancers, singers and scene work. Coleytown’s “42nd Street” was especially big. With only 3 weeks for Bedford to install their set, create costumes and the actors to transfer what they’d learned from such a small space to a big stage, the BMS show could not be technically complex.

Normally, Bedford’s non-musical is a version of a classic childen’s book like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Phantom Tollbooth.” But with such limited room for rehearsals, plus set and costume construction, McCormick and her staff decided on a series of short stories from the 1960s “Rocky & Bullwinkle” cartoon show, called “Fractured Fairy Tales.”

They crafted 15 stories, and added short “fairy tale” commercials.

That provided 70 actors with over 240 roles to share. There are 40 narrators, 15-plus kings, queens, princes and princesses, and dozens of goblins, beasts, chickens, ogres, court jesters and peasants. Each youngster is featured in at least 2 “plays.”

The Do It All Wand cast. (Photo/January Stewart)

They found space in hallways and classrooms. Combined with Coleytown’s set construction crews, tap dancers, costume people, there were some very noisy afternoons.

“The kids didn’t mind,” McCormick says. “They worked very well under the circumstances.”

With just 12 days of unfettered access to the stage, BMS got creative with their set. “Fractured Fairy Tales” uses a new 25-foot floor-to-ceiling movie screen as a backdrop. It features hundreds of colorful images, most from old cartoons. On stage, 20 colorful 18-inch cubes instantly turn into thrones, tables or mountains.

Transferring the off-stage rehearsals onto the large stage has taken some work. But, McCormick says, the actors are working hard on new blocking, and pumped-up motions.

“Fractured Fairy Tales” rehearsals are fun — and energetic. (Photo/Melissa Fass)

Costumes were done later than usual too. BMS actors received theirs only a few days ago. Each person has 2 to 4 costume changes — some with only minutes to spare. They’re working on that too.

But this is Bedford Middle School. Like their Coleytown counterparts, the young actors and their tech crew embrace the challenge.

When the curtain rises this Friday, audiences will not even realize what everyone went through to produce “Fractured Fairy Tales.” They’ll smile, laugh and applaud. Just like every other BMS show.

(“Fractured Fairy Tales” performances are this Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, April 27 at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 28 at 2 p.m. Click here for tickets.)

(NOTE: Coleytown’s show — “42nd Street” — overcame several obstacles too, beyond shared space. Click here for that “06880” story.)

Financial Reality Comes To Staples

A few years ago this month, I got a panicked text from a soccer player I’d coached at Staples High School.

He graduated from college the previous year. Now — less than a year into his first job — he said, “I owe thousands of dollars to the IRS. How come no one ever taught me about taxes at Staples??!!”

Sarah White

The chances I’ll receive a similar text are a lot lower today. Two-thirds of seniors take Personal Finance — a math department elective taught lovingly but toughly by Stacey Delmhorst, Jen Giudice, Lenny Klein and Sarah White.

And a couple of weeks ago, every senior took part in Staples’ first-ever Financial Reality Fair. They gave it high marks.

The event was part of a larger 4-hour “Real World” event. Students learned about substance abuse, sexual assault and reproductive health.

But the money shot involved money.

The idea came from the classes’ regular visits to Financial Reality Fairs at other schools. White and Klein asked each other, Why not do one at Staples?

White took the lead. Principal James D’Amico and the school’s Collaborative Team gave their blessings. But making it a reality took a ton of work.

Connecticut’s Credit Unions were the sponsors. They provided the curriculum, materials and a number of experts.

The Staples PTA provided a $4,000 Wrecker Mini-Grant. They also put out a call for (financially literate) volunteers. The response was tremendous — including members of Westport’s Board of Finance and Education. Students who had previously been to a Financial Reality Fair also volunteered.

Staples parent Margie Adler and senior Vaughan Picirillo-Sealey: volunteers at the Financial Reality Fair.

Students began the day by choosing a career. They could pick anything — business executive, doctor, lawyer, actor, financial analyst, pilot, military member, writer, teacher, whatever.

They were then given the starting salary (in Connecticut) for that job. Each student was also saddled with student loan debt. The amount owed depended on the years of education required for that profession. The longer they were in school, the higher their debt.

They were also assigned — randomly — a credit score.

Tables in the gym were marked with various real-life expenditures: Housing, Transportation, Food, Clothing.

Wait — food costs money?!

Those were mandatory. Others were optional: Nightlife, Fitness & Gym, Hair/Nails/Spa, Cell Phone, Cable/Internet, Pets, Travel.

By themselves, or — if they wished — with a “roommate,” students visited tables. There were many options. How often would they eat out? Did they want basic cable, or the platinum package? What kind of vacations would they take?

Staples seniors Ben Schwartz and Lefty Pendarakis discuss options with Financial Reality Fair volunteers.

They could choose one-off expenses too, like buying an Xbox. If they wanted to buy a car, fine — but they had to take out a credit union loan. (Hey, they were the sponsors!)

There was also a mandatory “wheel” to spin. It saddled them with unexpected costs (lost cell phone, broken leg) or extra funds (overtime pay, birthday gift).

The wheel of fortune. Or misfortune.

Each choice carried consequences. As the students quickly learned, each consequence led to others.

When they were done with their budget, each teenager met with a volunteer financial counselor. They had undergone training, to ask questions like, “Why did you make that decision?”

The final step: meeting with a financial counselor.

It was a very engaging — and educational — day.

The students were surprised at the effect of student debt on their budgets. They were even more amazed at the impact of credit scores.

“I had to pay more than my friend for the same truck!” one boy said, astonished.

Feedback was excellent. The soon-to-go-off-to-college-and-then-become-adults began seeing finances not as something provided by the Bank of Mom and Dad, but as actual living, changing realities.

It was a reality check for some. A wake-up call for others.

And for one — well, who knows?

“I realize I’m not ready for life,” the student said.

But he or she is a lot more ready than that former soccer player who texted me — panic-stricken — after his first encounter with the IRS.

Maker Faire Makes Its Mark Next Weekend

The 8th annual Maker Faire gallops into Westport this Saturday (April 27).

Part science fair, part country fair, part carnival, it’s an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, artists, students and commercial exhibitors.

They show off what they’ve made, share what they’ve learned, and geek out with a few thousand other like-minded folks.

Over 100 makers have signed up already. They include:

  • “Game of Drones” (sponsored by Sacred Heart University Engineering): flight simulators, plus drone building, training and programming
  • “The Future is Now” (David Adam Realty): home automation, electric vehicles (and a live band)
  • “STEM on Wheels” (University of Bridgeport): Connecticut’s first mobile laboratory bus, with robotics, coding, imaging systems and more
  • “The Great Duck Project” (Westport Sunrise Rotary): Help build the world’s largest 3D printed duck!
  • “Nerdy Derby” (Stanley Black & Decker): Build, decorate and race a custom car
  • “Sustainable Pathways”: Hands-on activities and exhibits, geared to making sustainability part of daily life.

Makers will be joined by artists, musicians, stage performers, speakers, entrepreneurs — and of course food trucks.

(The Maker Faire takes place this Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Veterans’ Green and in the Baldwin parking lot. Opening ceremonies take place at 10:45 a.m. Admission is free. For more information click here, email mark@remarkablesteam.org, or call 203-226-1791.)

The Maker Faire’s “Game of Drones”

Unsung Heroes #94

Earlier this month, the Learning Community celebrated the national Week of the Young Child.

On “Friendship Friday,” children at the Hillspoint Road preschool and kindergarten participated in activities with buddy classes. They also helped youngsters at Cesar Batalla School in Bridgeport.

Many children there depend on the school as their primary source of food. School breaks — like this one — mark a week of food insecurity.

So throughout the Week of the Young Child, Learning Community families donated healthy snacks and drinks. The children made signs, and helped organize the food into categories.

At the end, every boy and girl helped fill 131 huge bags with granola bars, applesauce, pretzels, crackers, milk and juice.

The bags were delivered to Cesar Batalla before the end of the school day. It was a true group activity.

Thanks to the Learning Community kids, for helping their less fortunate peers.

Congratulations too to the Learning Community staff and parents — led by kindergarten teacher Valerie Greenberg — for instilling the values of care and compassion, and emphasizing the importance of volunteerism, in Westport’s youngest citizens.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Mark Groth’s Amazing “Budy” Story

If you saw “Curtains” last month — or any other Staples Players production over the past 6 decades — you were awed by the acting, dancing, sets and lighting.

But back in the day, Staples Stage and Technical Staff was separate from Players’ actors. SSTS had their own director, officers, traditions — even their own t-shirts.

Mark Groth was a proud SSTS member. He was president in 1968, the culmination of a 3-year career in which he helped construct a set with moving turntables, another that jutted out into the audience, and multimedia projectors for the original show “War and Pieces,” which ended being part of a cultural exchange program with the USSR.

Staples Stage and Technical Staff member Al Frank working backstage, from the 1967 yearbook.

Groth had 2 wonderful mentors at Staples. Both were faculty directors of SSTS.

Steve Gilbert was “brilliant,” Groth says. “He led us places we’d never even thought of. He let us come up with ideas, and do lighting, sound and staging that was way beyond high school.”

When Gilbert was on sabbatical, Don Budy took over. He was a Staples art teacher — his first job after graduating from college in his native Colorado. He was quieter than Gilbert, but equally as talented and inspirational.

Groth learned well. He and fellow SSTS member Steve Katz did all the lighting for the legendary concerts — the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds, Animals — on the Staples stage.

Don Budy (1967 Staples High School yearbook photo)

Gilbert and Budy’s influences were profound. Groth headed to Rockford College in Illinois — attracted primarily by their state-of-their-art, $12 million theater.

He majored in technical theater (and in New York one Thanksgiving break, did the lights for a Hell’s Angels-sponsored Grateful Dead concert).

Groth spent 3 1/2 years with the Army’s 101st Airborne, and the next 40 at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry. Groth videotaped residents’ sessions through a one-way mirror, as part of their training. It was a fascinating career.

Meanwhile, when his son was in high school Groth attended their production of “West Side Story.”

“It was terrible,” he says. He offered to help the director.

For the next 10 years, he volunteered for 20 shows. Then, after he protested the administration’s censorship of one play, he was told the school’s drama program was “going in another direction.”

A month later, Kella Manfredi — whom Groth had worked with 10 years earlier — called. With a master’s in theater education, she was now the theater director at Bear Creek High School in Englewood. Would he be interested in helping?

Sure! So, for the past 10 years, Groth has worked with a high school theater program that sounds like “the Staples Players of Colorado.” They’ve done “Cabaret,” “26 Pebbles” (about the Sandy Hook massacre), and just closed “Be More Chill” (they got the license when it was still off-Broadway).

The great set for Bear Creek High School’s production of “Grease.”

Which brings us back to SSTS.

Thirty years ago, Groth’s grade-school daughter performed in a concert at Cherry Creek High School. As he set up his tripod to videotape, a staff member came over.

They looked at each other.

“Mark Groth?!” the man said.

“Don Budy?!” Groth replied.

They rekindled their friendship. Budy — now a professional sculptor, in addition to working with Cherry Creek — comes to as many of Groth’s shows as he can.

He was there a few days ago, at “Be More Chill.” More than 50 years after they first met, Budy still supports his old student.

Don Budy (left) and Mark Groth, after Bear Creek High School’s “Be More Chill.”

Groth enjoyed his academic job, and loves working with high school students. He started with a professional-type troupe at Staples, and he’s with a similar one now in Colorado.

There’s only one difference. At Bear Creek, his tech crew remains separate from the actors.

“We’re like Ninjas,” Groth says proudly. “I tell them: ‘Be swift. Be silent. Be invisible.'”

And — as Steve Gilbert and Don Budy taught Mark Groth all those years ago: Be great.

 

Staples Books Its Own March Madness

Last year, as Villanova battled its way through March Madness to the NCAA basketball championship, the Staples High School English department conducted its own bracket.

To Kill a Mockingbird beat out fellow Final 4 contenders Pride and Prejudice, The Diary of Anne Frank and 1984 to win the first-ever Favorite Book Ever tournament.

Mary Katherine Hocking

‘Nova did not repeat as 2019 champs. Nor did Harper Lee’s classic novel.

In the case of the Wildcats, they weren’t good enough. But for the books, they changed the rules.

This year’s contest — organized by teachers Mary Katherine Hocking and Rebecca Marsick, with help from Tausha Bridgeforth and the Staples library staff — was for Best Book to Movie Adaptation.

Thirty-two contenders were chosen. Voting was done online. Large bracket posters near the English department and library kept interest high.

As always, there were surprises. Some classic book/film combinations — like The Godfather — fell early. Others that Hocking expected to be less popular (Twilight, Little Women) battled hard.

The field ranged far and wide, from Romeo and Juliet and Gone With the Wind to Lord of the Flies and Frankenstein.

Hocking’s email updates to students and staff were fun to read. Before the final — after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone crushed The Hunger Games, and The Princess Bride edged The Help — she wrote: “The moment we’ve all been waiting for! Westley versus Weasley, Vizzini versus Voldemort, Humperdinck versus Hermione.”

We’ll let Hocking announce the winner.

She wrote:

The Princess Bride has taken a rogue bludger to the head, losing to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. With a final score of 94-49, this year’s House Cup, Quidditch World Cup, Triwizard Cup all go to Harry Potter and Queen JK.

Remember, one can never have enough socks, and one can never have enough books to fill the time.  Please check out any or all of these books from your local library as we head into spring break.

She and Marsick are already planning next year’s contest.

Wahoo!