Spelling bees and big questions

photo courtesy of RVNA

Can I have the definition? Can I have the language or origin? Are there any alternate pronunciations?

I love spelling, and I promise that it has nothing to do with my recent brush with spelling fame and… well, spelling fame. Spelling has always struck me as the most typical “old school” school thing: useful, easy to measure, and repetitive. Still, I’m always surprised when I hear an adult say “I’m a terrible speller” – practice makes perfect, and we’re writing and spelling all the time!

I don’t know if you follow spelling bees, but there was high drama at the Scripps National Spelling Bee the other week. Eight children – the octo-champs – won this year’s bee, and after that happened, some are forecasting the demise of the spelling bee. It’s not just because there were multiple winners, as the rules were changed a couple of years ago to allow for that. What is prompting the predictions are acknowledgments that most competitive spellers have dedicated coaches (with two of this year’s winners sharing the same coach) and six of the eight training with software called SpellPundit. What does it say about the competition when success can be attributed to access to outside help?

I think a part of the problem is that spelling is a simple task. I’m NOT suggesting that the specific words that the contestants are asked to spell are easy. I don’t even know what most of them mean! But the reading lists, memorization, repetition, etc., are typical of lower order thinking skills. What if spellers needed to know the language of origin, the definition, and how to use it in a sentence, piecing together the context around the words they had to spell. Would you agree that that would be a more complex task that activated slightly higher order thinking? Do more challenging questions help us think “better?”

We think so. When the Center was started four years ago, one of the first things that we worked on with the RA faculty was to look at the existing curriculum and reframe each unit around an essential question – a question that is timeless, open-ended, requires support and justification, and encourages further questioning. By starting each bit of curriculum with an essential question, we are asking students to think about something that can’t be Googled, something that no computer program can answer for them. A good question often leads to further questions, so we are inviting them to wonder on their own and not race to a “right” answer. A great example of this is happening in second grade, where Ms. Spiro has taken a professional growth and development course that has her challenging students to apply math and research to open-ended questions.

We are already hard at work on exciting curricular developments that students will see next year, the year after, and even after that. While we’re not ready to share all the details just yet, we can tell you that there will be no question that a software package can train us to answer, nothing that a quick Google search can turn up. 

S-U-M-M-E-R. I hope your family enjoys a hard-earned summer vacation and we look forward to asking many more questions in the fall.

an image shared by many educators on social media

We RA Learning Community – Season 2, Episode 1: Alumni Profile, Ryan Heaton ’17

Welcome to the second season of We RA Learning Community below, which will (hopefully) focus on recent alumni, what they’re up to in high school, and how RA prepared them life after Grade 8. Our first episode of the season is a spotlight on Ryan Heaton of the RA Class of 2017.

Click here to subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive new episodes of as they are published. You can also find an archive of the podcast here.

We RA Learning Community – Episode 3: Do the Robot

Welcome to episode 3 of We RA Learning Community, our podcast that gives listeners a peek into our classrooms from the perspective of our students.

In this episode, I talk to the three sixth graders that were the anchors of Ridgefield Academy’s first competitive robotics team. In their first competition in November, the team turned in an incredible showing for their first competition. They’re ready for more and are already thinking about next year!

Listen to the third episode of We RA Learning Community below and click here to subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive new episodes of as they are published. You can also find an archive of the podcast here.

We RA Learning Community – Episode 2: Geometry, Logic, and Harkness Tables

TWelcome to episode 2 of We RA Learning Community, our podcast that gives listeners a peek into our classrooms from the perspective of our students.

In this episode, I started talking to our eighth graders about learning logic in their geometry class, but ended up talking about much more than math class.

Listen to the second episode of We RA Learning Community below and click here to subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive new episodes of as they are published. You can also find an archive of the podcast here.

Let’s go, Patriots!

The Ridgefield Academy Patriots are competing for the first time in a new area – the robotics field mat! Our new robotics team will be competing in a First Lego League competition at St. Mary School in Ridgefield tomorrow – wish them luck!

Here’s an example of the great work that one of our team members did his first time ever programming a robot. Mission accomplished!

Good luck tomorrow, Patriots!

We RA Learning Community – Episode 1: The Colony Fair

Welcome to We RA Learning Community, a new podcast featuring Ridgefield Academy students sharing what is happening in their classes. In this episode, some of our seventh graders share a preview of their colony fair, which culminated in an exhibition designed to convince people leaving England to choose their colony as a destination.

Listen to the first episode of We RA Learning Community below and click here to subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive new episodes iof as they are published.

Is your child a digital native?

In 2001, Marc Prensky, a speaker and author in the field of education, published a paper called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants that had a profound impact on how we came to view children, adults, and technology. His theory was that people born in the digital age are digital natives, born into a kind of digital fluency; everyone else is a digital immigrant, and the immigrants’ adaptability would determine how well they worked with technology. The cut-off date is disputed, but generally, either 1980 or 1984 is used as the year after which everyone born is automatically a digital native. From his paper:

Kids born into any new culture learn the new language easily,, and forcefully resist using the old.. Smart adult immigrants accept that they don’t know about their new world and take advantage of their kids to help them learn and integrate. Not-so-smart (or not-so-flexible) immigrants spend most of their time grousing about how good things were in the “old country.”

In the last 16 years, this split between digital natives and immigrants has been used to explain why kids just “get” technology in a way that adults never could, and having a digital native handy became a good crutch for not learning a piece of technology. In the almost 20 years I’ve spent in schools, most of them have been spent with a tacit acceptance that the students were always digital immigrants and teachers were digital immigrants, but this always seemed off to me. It’s easy enough to use a digital device to consume information – really, anyone can do that – but students still need to be guided towards using the powerful technology many have access to as a means to create new information.

In the October 2017 volume of Teaching and Teacher Education, Paul Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere published an article that debunks not only the idea of digital natives but also the idea that anyone can truly multitask.

Kirschner concluded that a true “digital native,” who was inherently better with technology simply by virtue of their age, was a myth: about as real as “a yeti with a smartphone.”

From the article’s abstract:

This article presents scientific evidence showing that there is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital. It then proceeds to present evidence that one of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning.

Children aren’t digital immigrants… and if you were born after 1984, you aren’t one either. But by encouraging our children and students to use technology to create with technology – photos, video games, screenplays, poetry, computer programs, art) rather than using it to simply consume information, we can better help them utilize the power at their fingertips and learn alongside them at the same time. Use Scratch to learn how to code, build and program a Lego robot, build a Kano computer kit, curate a collection of photographs on Flickr, blog on WordPress, learn to program real applications on an iPad – there is so much that we can do with our children (inside and outside of school) to better use digital tools all around them, whether they were born into that mindset or not.

Join the Center for Summer at the Academy

This summer, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning is sponsoring two weeks of camps or rising K-8 students as part of the Ridgefield Academy’s Patriot Camp.

From June 19-23, Ridgefield Academy is hosting Camp Invention, a nationally-recognized program that features fun, hands-on challenges that encourage creative problem solving, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and innovation. We hope your rising K-6 student will join us for Camp Invention.

Older children are encouraged to join us for Innovation Center, an afternoons-only offering from June 19-23. Create a new product and shoot a commercial for it! Develop the next big video game! Work on something that no one else has ever dreamed of – because the idea is all yours! Our afternoon Innovation Center will immerse children in Grades 5-8 in creating with technology: programming, video game design, robotics, 3D design and printing, and movie creation. Projects will be based on personal interest, so children could use a second week of Innovation Center to continue an existing project or dive into something new.

Find out more about the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning’s and Ridgefield Academy’s summer programs here:
http://ridgefieldacademy.org/summerprograms . We hope to see you this summer!

Ridgefield Academy’s First Interdisciplinary Week

We tried something new last week.

Since the inception of the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Ridgefield Academy faculty have had great discussions about interdisciplinary connections between classes – opportunities to connect different subjects by studying a single topic through multiple lenses. In smaller conversations, we began to wonder what would happen if we devoted a significant chunk of time to truly interdisciplinary work, a single-topic course taught through multiple subject areas in more time than the traditional school schedule allows for. The result was Ridgefield Academy’s first Interdisciplinary Week, held the week before spring break.

Through a very collaborative process that lasted the better part of two months, faculty had proposed four courses of study: the civil rights movement, culture, the space race, and New York City. Upper school students in grades seven and eight self-selected into one of the four courses and, together with their teachers, jumped into a week of learning that had more in common with the structure of a lower school week than a traditional upper school one. Extended periods of time; multiple ways of studying the same topic; a focus on assessments using different kinds of media; and no graded work were hallmarks of the week.

Here were the first courses for our first Interdisciplinary Week:

The Race to Space
In The Race to Space, we will try to study the history of space flight, from early 20th century film that predicted what it might be like to the current plans for travel to the Moon and Mars. We’ll watch films; read graphic novels; study history, math, and physics; and then make movies, create news, and build launchable models that predict the future of human space flight.

The Civil Rights Movement
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus.  She was neither the first, nor the last to reject segregation laws in the southern United States, but her decision that day launched a 381-day nonviolent protest that evolved into the Civil Rights Movement.  Using readings, research, photography, video, and primary source documents, we will unpack the Movement, focusing on the history of slavery in America, the Jim Crow South, school desegregation, voting rights, and the Movement’s most influential leaders.  We will also take a close looks at the music, poetry, and art of the time period, and we will be creating our own representations of the important themes we study.      

METROPOLIS- Explore the Greatest City in the World: New York City
We will explore the true meaning behind the motto of the United States of America- E Pluribus Unum (Latin for Out of many, one) by examining the most diverse city in the world- New York City.

Located on one of the world’s largest natural harbors, New York City has grown to be the largest city in the United States with almost 9 million people today. Just to put that in perspective, the entire state of Connecticut has a population of less than 4 million people. What drew so many people from around the world to help create this one city? What drew a record of nearly 60 million tourists to visit NYC last year- the same number of people who live in Italy today?

Our class is going to examine and celebrate many of the amazing things that NYC has achieved throughout its history. Today, the city has a significant impact upon commerce, finance, media, art, technology, food and music.

How would you like to:

    • Live the life of an Italian immigrant?
    • Become a Wall Street broker for a day?
    • Learn how to get to Sesame Street?
    • Be a graffiti artist?
    • Sing along with Jay Z and Lin Manuel Miranda?
    • Eat a real NY bagel?

We will do all that and more!

So join us to learn about NYC- not only a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” but “the greatest city in the world (the greatest city in the world”).

What’s in a Culture, anyway?
Ever wonder what we mean when we talk about ‘culture’ or ‘cultural influences?  How do we define culture: What does it look like?  What is its purpose? Throughout the week, we will work towards defining what culture means to us as we examine how it plays out in the following ways:

  • Family
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Food
  • Music
  • Art
  • Fashion
  • Movies and TV

Each day will bring new questions, challenges and adventures as students work both independently and cooperatively to conduct research, create art, watch movies, cook food, listen to music and contemplate and come to terms with how ‘traditional beliefs and values’ blend with current ‘popular’ norms to shape our cultural identity.   

During this week, I taught The Race to Space, a course that, for me, was an opportunity to return to childhood dreams of being an astronaut. We started the week by watching George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans La Lune, one of the first motion pictures made, and one that predicted what a trip to the moon might be like. Madame Desmons joined the class to talk to us about turn-of-the-century France and why that might have been a particular fascination of the time and place.

After watching the movie, we spent time over the next two days filming short films inspired by Méliès and space travel.

As the images above show, we also found time to take a field trip to the Danbury Municipal Airport, which provided an opportunity to talk about flight and the first steps that the United States’s first astronauts had to master. Each student had the chance to visit the air control tower at the airport, which is the Northeast’s biggest commercial airport, and also booked time in a real flight simulator used for pilot training.

Before a snow day took away our last day, we spent a lot of time examining the historical context of the space race, how the United States space program has evolved and what its future plans are, the impact of private companies on space travel and transportation, debating whether the Moon or Mars would make the best next step for future missions, and building our own rockets that predicted what future space travel might use.

We’re looking forward to regrouping after the break to wrap up the course (and to launch our rockets!).

I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity to run a similar week and hope to bring it to more students in other grades.