Tag Archives: Staples High School English department

Remembering Kathryn Blumhardt

Kathryn “Kay” Blumhardt — a highly demanding but extremely well respected Staples High School English teacher from 1967 to 1995 — died last week, of ovarian cancer. She was 83 years old.

Tributes poured in on Facebook. Erin Buff Madden Collins — who was inspired to become an English teacher by her Staples instructors — calls her “tough as nails, very challenging, (and) a gift to all her students.”

Ann Belser says she became an English major because of Blumhardt, and an English teacher because of her colleague Joy Walker. And Audrey Wauchope became a writer thanks to Blumhardt, and the rest of the Staples English department.

Steven Uydess became a teacher too. He says:

Her office was in the book surplus closet, and she met with every student to talk about the kinds of books they enjoyed. After a few minutes of thoughtful listening, she pulled from the myriad boxes a half dozen books that she thought we might enjoy and gave them to us. I got “The Maltese Falcon,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “Catch-22,” among others.

I recall finding her so odd in some ways: her dramatic affect, her love for Walt Whitman (true love!), the way she could cut you down to size with but a meaningful stare. But she also taught me that to be an effective teacher you need passion, and that being your authentic self is how you connect with your students. Rest In Peace, and say hi to Walt for us!

Michelangelo Sosnowitz notes, “She scared the hell out of me. She was a tough and strict teacher but she was great. She also loved Marlon Brando, so I have to give her extra credit there.”

Kay Blumhardt, in the 1977 Staples High School yearbook …

Ian Atlas says, “We butted heads, memorably over whether I could sell chocolates for band before class (I may have been sent to the office over that one), but I learned to love Shakespeare in her classroom.”

Scott Cussimano calls her “tough but passionate.” He remembers a favorite saying of hers: “I’ll do anything for my students.”

Beth Wilson Matteson echoes those thoughts. She writes: “I loved her. I did my junior research paper on JS Bach. When I told her my church choir would be singing a Bach anthem, she drove to my church to hear me sing.”

Ursa Heilbron Mooney says, “She was tough, but we bonded over a mutual love for Sherlock Holmes (both the stories and the BBC production with Jeremy Brett). I had her freshman year, and her in-depth coverage of ‘The Odyssey’ was spectacular. And the eyebrows – the legendary eyebrows. She was great.”

… and in 1989.

Peter Danbury writes, “her enthusiasm for her subject could be intense. I loved the TV schedules she passed out every week, noting all the interesting things we might avail ourselves of amidst all the trash. She was so keen on us honoring with our attention what was valuable in the culture at large, and not wasting our time on the insipid and it was kind of wonderful. I‘m glad I ran into her in the late ’90s and could tell her how much I loved her Myth & Bible class.”

Ted Howes adds, “She was instrumental in my care for words. She loved Melville. She was tough, but I appreciate her a lot more now.”

Susan Huppi praises, “She definitely prepared us for college. I respect the work she put in. She helped me understand that teaching students is a tough but wonderful job. She expected we would always do our best.”

Former teacher Tod Kalif writes, “Kay Blumhardt was the ultimate old school English teacher. She earned the respect of every one of her colleagues, and demanded excellence from every one of her students.”

Jason Tillotson remembers her “clear as day: tough in class, a mysteriously stern exterior which kept you on your toes. But one-on-one in her cozy office closet she was warm, connective, and inspired curiosity by asking just the right questions. She introduced me to George Bernard Shaw beyond his work as a playwright, and into his life as a whole. It was a learning experience I won’t forget. I even saved the paper!”

And — in honor of one of the habits her teacher imparted — Mary Palmieri Gai says she read the Facebook post twice.

Food For Thought

At Staples High School, students choose English electives like “Myth and Bible,” “Rhetoric and Persuasion,” and “Shakespeare.”

They can also take “Food in Literature.”

Sounds like a gut.

In fact, it’s one of the toughest courses in the entire school.

Also the tastiest.

The semester class — which meets back-to-back, for 2 periods — includes reading a smorgasbord of activities. There’s reading, writing, even community service (volunteering at the Westport Farmers’ Market).

A Food in Literature demonstration at the first Farmers’ Market of the season last month.

And of course, cooking.

It’s intense. It’s demanding. It takes students who love to write out of their comfort zone and into the kitchen — and those who love to cook, out of their comfort zone and into the classroom.

The class is a collaboration between English instructor Kim Herzog and culinary teacher/chef Cecily Gans. They developed the curriculum together, balancing the twin ingredients of food and literature, adding a dash of whatever is needed to keep every day fresh and challenging.

It’s a master class in all the skills of cooking (following instructions, flexibility, time management) and all those of reading and writing (critical thinking, analysis, synthesis).

The heart of the course is a theme. Each student chooses something that appeals to him or her.

Many selected foods based on their heritage: Italian, Greek, Pakistani, Mexican. Others selected vegan or paleo diets. One focused on desserts.

Pakistani food. The course even includes tips on food photography.

A boy chose “college cuisine” — dishes that college students can make — after he learned that his older sister was eating cereal for dinner.

Another boy — whose kitchen skills were limited to “eggs and ramen” — said he needed an English credit to graduate. “Accidentally,” he learned to cook.

The core text this semester was “Like Water for Chocolate.” After reading and discussing that food-based novel, students had to compose an ode to an ingredient. The ideas ranged from coffee and coffee cake to jalapeño.

They read food memoirs, then wrote about their own memories and associations. They followed that up by cooking those dishes.

Summer home fries look great!

Other writing assignments include research and interviews that lead to profiles of noted area chefs like Bill Taibe, Anthony Kostelis, Chris Scott, and Staples graduates Becca Nissim and Matt Storch. In the kitchen, they created something inspired by the chef they interviewed.

They study restaurant reviews, and learn to write their own. (They’re far more in-depth, insightful and objective than anything on Yelp — or the local media.)

One student’s notes on how to write a strong chef profile.

All along, students document their progress on personal blogs.

The highlight of the semester is Menu Wars. Using craft and creativity — while linking to their themes — students cook and create cohesive 3-course meals. They also have to write clearly and coherently about it.

Just before seniors left for their internships, the class headed to the Farmers’ Market. In teams of 4 they demonstrated recipes, based on local and seasonal foods. They spoke about what they were doing — because presentation skills are equally important in English and culinary class.

The course is as exciting for the teachers as the students. “I love working with such a wide range of experiences,” says Gans, who often teaches advanced classes.

“Two kids are going on to culinary college next year. But seeing the growth of those with no cooking background at all made me so excited.”

This English course will make you very hungry.

One of those boys wanted to drop out early. He felt out of his depth.

Gans asked him what food inspired him. “He realized he had a story to tell,” she says. “He ended up making chocolate croissants from scratch. That’s so much work!”

Gans also appreciates spending time in Herzog’s classroom. “It’s awe-inspiring what goes on there,” she says.

Kim Herzog (left) and Cecily Gans, with chef Chris Scott. The “Top Chef” finalist — who recently opened Birdman Juke Joint in Bridgeport — spoke to their class.

Herzog, meanwhile, loves collaborating with Gans. “Seeing students in a different, unique, powerful way — and how she gets so much out of them — is invigorating,” the English instructor says.

The course is now a mainstay of the curriculum. But — because every class is  filled with students with different backgrounds and interests — each semester has a different flavor.

Talk about a recipe for success!

(Click here for the Food in Literature class website. It includes links to each student’s personal page, plus all the chef interviews and restaurant reviews. And click below for a couple of bonus videos from the class. These kids do it all.)

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!

Ann Neary: Staples Teacher Earns Profession’s Top Honor

For more than 2 decades, Ann Neary traveled the world. She was a top fashion marketer, working with the biggest names in the industry.

Then came 9/11.

For 9 months, Neary volunteered at St. Paul’s Chapel. During those long 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts, she had plenty of time to think.

“If I sold a beautiful shirt and it made someone look great, that made no difference in the world,” she recalls thinking.

“But kids make a difference.”

Every day, letters arrived at the makeshift rescue site. Many were from children. Strangers around the globe, they thanked the people working in the pit where the World Trade Center once stood.

Neary wanted to give back to her native city — and work with kids. She earned a master’s degree in education from Manhattanville College. For the next 11 years, she taught English and journalism at DeWitt Clinton High School.

She was fully invested in the Bronx school — with 5,000 students, the largest in New York. She organized playwriting workshops, and brought in big names to work with students.

But the school downsized. Though she’d been there nearly a dozen years, Neary was out of a job.

She went through the rigorous hiring process in Westport. For the past 3 years, she’s taught Advanced Placement Literature and sophomore English at Staples High School. This year, she spends mornings at the school’s innovative Pathways Academy, handling all English instruction.

Ann Neary works with student Hannah Strauss. (Photo/Camryn Zukowski)

Neary’s story is like many Westport educators’: intriguing, involved and important.

But there’s one more unique feature: In December, Neary earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Awarded only after a rigorous, performance-based peer-review process, it’s considered the gold standard — and the highest mark of achievement, in the teaching profession.

In fact, Neary was the only teacher in the entire state of Connecticut to earn National Board Certification this year.

But she joins 2 others in the Westport Public Schools who have also achieved that distinction: Kristina Rodriguez (Bedford Middle School) and Paul Zajac (Staples). District grade 6-12 English coordinator Julie Heller is a former National Board Certified teacher.

Neary began thinking about the National Board process 5 years ago, after meeting an impressive group of teachers at a US Department of Education summit in Boston.

When she learned that Mt. Holyoke College offered a certification component, she applied.

It normally takes 3 years to complete the program. Neary did it in just 1. She graduated last spring with her 2nd master’s. She was officially certified in December.

The certification process is very challenging. “You have to reflect on every move you make as a teacher,” Neary says. “Teachers are naturally busy — there’s not a lot of time for reflection. This forces you to do that.”

She spent much of her time figuring out ways to truly know her students as individuals, then turn that knowledge into curriculum work. That’s been especially important at Pathways, Staples’ flexible, multidisciplinary academy for students who need a different approach to education.

Neary’s certification is a major accomplishment. Fifty percent of educators do not pass on their first try.

And despite Connecticut’s reputation as an education leader, it does not offer much support for National Certification. Many states provide financial incentives, and/or mentors. Connecticut does not.

Still, Neary persevered — and succeeded. The self-reflective process was important, she says.

And it all began in those dark days after 9/11, when Ann Neary first reflected on what was truly important in the world, and answered her own question: kids.

Senior Citizens And Staples Teens Share Stories. And Lunch.

Besides their grandparents, most Staples High School students have little contact with older Westporters.

Some grandparents live far away. And others are no longer living.

But senior citizens and Staples seniors (and  juniors) share more than this town. They all eat.

So food in its many forms — cooking, meals, restaurants — was on the menu last week. The Senior Center hosted its 2nd annual Intergenerational Writing Workshop.

Teenagers and men and women 4 and 5 times their age sat down together. They read what they’d written. They commented on each other’s memoirs and fiction. Then they dug into lunch — and kept talking.

One view of collaboration during the “Shared Voices” event …

The project is a collaboration between the Senior Center’s Writing Workshop and Staples’ English elective, “Reading and Writing Fiction.” Both are immensely popular — and both are well known for turning people who think they can’t write into agile, insightful writers.

David Stockwell teaches 2 sections of the class. To prepare for the day at the Senior Center, the high schoolers wrote about food. Writing Workshop instructor Jan Bassin’s students did the same.

“It’s universal,” Stockwell explains. “There are so many topics: food at the holidays. Families and food. Cooking. Restaurants.”

Whatever trepidation the teenagers and senior citizens may have had melted away as soon as they sat together, at small tables. They read, commented, laughed, told stories, then rotated to another group.

For more than 2 hours — without a cellphone in sight — the writers read.

One man wrote about tinned pineapple rations during the Korean War. They did not look appetizing. But an Army buddy told him to eat; pineapple is good for you. He did — and remembers that day more than half a century later.

Another Senior Center writer described a traditional English breakfast: pudding, bangers, ham, and 2 cups of tea. “Even the terminology made it come alive,” Stockwell says.

… and another. (Photos/David Stockwell)

An English breakfast was the same topic chosen by a Staples senior. His perspective was different — but equally intriguing.

And so it went: stories about eating watermelon. Descriptions of chocolate. Thanksgiving dinner. Anyone can write about food — and everyone did.

But food was just a starting point. As they chatted, a student asked an older woman if she had known what she wanted to do with her life when she was in high school.

No, the woman said. But she described how her life unfolded, and advised the teenager to pay attention to what she loved most from an early age on.

Another Workshop participant realized that she had worked for the father of one of the students for nearly 10 years.

All that reading and talking made them hungry, of course. Lunch — pizza, veggies, hummus, chips and dips — was welcome. It was also a chance to get to know each other even better.

Pizza also helps bring the generations together. (Photo/Alison Wachstein)

“In today’s world, there is little opportunity for seniors to share fascinating and valuable life experiences with these emerging adults, or for the younger generation to ask questions and seek perspective and guidance from those who have lived long and varied lives,” Bassin explains.

At the same time, she says, the topic she and Stockwell picked “de-emphasizes the age gap. We can all relate to food.”

The Senior Center Workshop writers were impressed with the Staples students’ writing and demeanor. The teens were awed by the seniors’ sometimes humorous, sometimes tearful stories of war, loss, hardships and lessons learned.

And the pizza was just topping for the day.

Staples Students Help Haiti

There are 17 English department electives at Staples High School.

Caribbean Literature is one. It might not seem like a likely choice in a suburban district. But the curriculum introduces students to the memoirs and novels — and art and culture — of islands they might otherwise know only as resorts.

It gets them thinking.

And acting.

In partnership with the Vassar Haiti Project, 6 students in Ann Neary’s class  organized a show featuring Haitian artists and craftspeople.

Haitian art will be on sale at this Saturday’s fundraiser.

It’s a fundraiser to buy medical supplies and hot food for Chermaitre — a city where some youngsters walk 2 hours to school.

The event is set for this Saturday (January 6), from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. outside the Staples auditorium.

Matilda Ardisson, Liv Ekholdt, Brian Katz, Dylan Middlebrook, Amanda Neckritz and Jake Phillips hope you’ll come. And while you’re there, they’ll be happy to tell you about Caribbean literature too.

Seniors And Teens Share Stories — And Lunch

One of the Senior Center’s most popular activities is a Writing Workshop. Jan Bassin guides men and women — many of whom have never written for pleasure — through the transformative process of turning their long lives and powerful insights into words that will live forever.

One of Staples High School’s most popular electives is Reading and Writing Fiction. Kim Herzog and David Stockwell help teenagers — many of whom don’t think of themselves as writers — turn their creative ideas into words they can be proud of.

Last spring, Bassin invited Julie Heller — the Westport school district’s grade 6-12 English coordinator — to her group’s final workshop. Heller was awed by the senior citizens’ eloquence and honesty. When Bassin asked if the Center could collaborate with Staples on a writing project, Heller immediately thought of Herzog and Stockwell.

Joining forces was easy. Figuring out what to write about together was not.

Eventually, the instructors settled on food. Senior citizens and high school seniors have something in common: “We all eat, smell and experience food,” Herzog says.

Earlier this month, both groups gathered at the Senior Center. They divided up, a few per table. They introduced themselves, then read their works.

Talking together …

Many older writers told personal stories. Many teenagers chose fiction. But all wrote powerfully, and well.

One woman described growing up in Europe, during World War II. An American soldier gave her a wonderful drink. Years later — now in the U.S. — she tasted it again.

Amazed, she asked its name.

“Coca-Cola,” she was told.

… reading …

Another woman related her first experience with oysters. They were not, she said, as fantastic as she’d heard.

The Staples students “couldn’t believe how honest” the Senior Center writers were, Herzog syas.

As for the younger writers: Their creativity and emotion stunned the older men and women.

It was the first time some of the Stapleites had sat down with senior citizens who were not their grandparents.

“It was great to watch,” Stockwell says. “The kids couldn’t stop talking about their experiences. And the seniors raved about the students.”

“Their collective writing skills were surpassed only by their good manners, self-confidence and the ease with which they made conversation,” one Senior Center member wrote afterward.

… and listening. (Photos courtesy of wanderinginwestport Instagram)

“The shortest distance between two people is a story,” Herzog notes.

And the quickest way to share experiences is through food.

So — naturally — both groups ate together too.

Westport Pizzeria, Trader Joe’s and Stew Leonard’s all donated lunch.

That’s something else to write home about.