Student Spotlight: Matthew Smith

A photo of violinists.

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Matthew Smith is 11-years-old. And he’s an 11-year-old with aspirations. The British schoolchild from Carlton, Nottingham is an accomplished violinist who also dabbles in viola, piano, and percussion, and now is adding another feather to his musical cap: conductor.

On April 2nd, he’s set to become the world’s youngest orchestra conductor, leading the Nottingham Symphony Orchestra in their performance of Die Fledermaus at the Royal Concert Hall.  The previous holder of the title was a 14-year-old boy from Venezuela.

He fell in love with Strauss’s operetta when he was only seven, when he first heard a recording of it.

“I’d seen a video of a young child conducting the nine-minute piece and really wanted to give it a go. I managed to conduct the whole thing a few weeks later,” Smith said in an interview with the Daily Mail. Now, he’ll be conducting the piece for the 75-seat orchestra entirely from memory.

Neil Bennison, who is the music program manager for the Royal Concert Hall in charge of the concert at which Smith will feature, is outspokenly impressed by the young man.

“Successful conductors have to be team managers, leaders, motivators, and diplomats, and these people skills take time to develop and require a level of maturity that only comes with years of experience,” said Bennison. It was his decision to include Smith in Nottingham Symphony Orchestra’s “Animal Magic!” show. (Other featured pieces in the theme will include Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf).

Nottingham Symphony Orchestra’s regular conductor, Derek Williams, is Matthew’s violin teacher. The two have worked together since Andrew was six years old, a talent worthy of the name “prodigy.”

“There aren’t many children who have the ability to conduct a 75-strong orchestra from memory and it’s a really incredible thing to witness,” said Williams.

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5-Year-Old Girl Could Win the Scripps National Spelling Bee

An advertisement for a spelling bee, geared towards children.

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Panglossian. Picaresque. Zephyr. Perestroika. Baedeker. Sarsaparilla. Pernicious. A list of words most adults would have trouble defining, let alone spelling.

But Edith Fuller, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, got all of them right. And she’s only five years old.

Fuller is, as of the weekend of March 4th, the youngest ever qualifier for the famous Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her winning word in the Green Country Regional? “Jnana.” A loan-word from Sanskrit meaning “knowledge” (specifically, philosophy or religious knowledge).

The home-schooled first-grader beat more than 50 other students in the regional spelling bee, some as old as fourteen. She credits her morning routine with her parents, which includes daily word games and study.

“Mommy asked me the words,” Fuller said in an interview with the local news. “And every time I missed one, I would look at it.” But she’s not a spell-bot. She also spoke about loving to play outside and learning about animals. Her parents also spoke about being grateful that they had the time and freedom to pursue this with her.

The final level of the spelling competition will be held near Washington D.C. later this year, between May 30th and June 1st, for a grand prize of a $40,000 cash prize. Winners also take home a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, and a library-worth of university-quality research books.

If Fuller wins, she will unseat the previous record for youngest winner by over a year. Statistically, most competitors are 13.

The Scripps Spelling Bee has been run nearly continuously (they missed three years in WWII) on an annual basis since 1995. Originally called the Courier-Journal Spelling Bee, Scripps Howard Broadcasting Company took over sponsorship of the competition in the early 40s. Unlike many educational competitions, the victors in the competition have remained nearly equal between girls and boys since the Bee’s inception.

Education Startup Provides Mobile Text-Based Tutoring

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It’s not easy to be Baha’i in Iran, even though they are the country’s largest religious minority. Over 300,000 members in the Muslim-majority nation are banned from higher education, and therefore from holding high-tier jobs or working with people from other countries. An informal, underground university, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, regularly gets raided and its staff and students jailed.

That’s the life and prospects that drove Shakib Zabihian, an Iranian Baha’i, to seek asylum in the United States. It is that background that drove him to create Toot, a mobile text-based tutoring service that he developed with cofounder Sophia Parsa.

Their startup has caught some attention, receiving nearly half a million dollars from investors like the Getty Family, actor Tobey Maguire, and Kim Salzer. With that money, they’ve contracted over 2,000 tutors in the fields of statistics, physics, math, and the sciences. Eventually, their educational bubble should expand into languages, arts, and the humanities as well.

To sign up, interested students (or their parents) text (424) 292-TOOT and answer several automatically generated questions. A bot then places them with the appropriate tutor, who will walk students through their individual problems with the material, not provide answers. Many of Toot’s tutors are teachers and college professors, with years of experience in their fields.

“We’re in this digital age when students prefer to talk over text than in real life,” said CEO Parsa. “We are recognizing the way that students are learning.”

Zabihian and Parsa hope to eventually be able to work directly with school districts, textbook publishers, and teacher’s colleges, providing a loop of feedback to them about the types of questions their students are struggling with, questions they don’t always share with their teachers.

Currently, Toot costs $40 a month for regular use or $.50 a minute if you just need it now and then. Rates are expected to rise in the future as the service expands.

How Do We Combat “Alternative Facts” When People Won’t Listen to Real Facts?

A picture of a female teacher with her grade school students.

Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono at Flickr Creative Commons

Educators, more than anyone else, have a keen interest in tackling the issue of “alternative facts.” But it’s a tough issue to fix when it’s the U.S. government that is perpetuating it. Most of us are aware that study after study, fact after fact, have proven that many of the claims made by the current administration are blatantly false, and yet people are still buying into them.

And it seems like all the facts in the world don’t make a difference, as people carry on believing what they want instead of what is true. According to sociologists, this is steeped in a problem of which most of us are unaware. It turns out that exposing misinformed people to facts not only doesn’t usually get them to change their mind, but actually makes them reinforce their wrong beliefs.

Nobody is quite sure why this happens, though. And it’s possible, likely even, for some educators to question whether or not they and their peers might be to blame. Were these people failed by the educational system? What can we do moving forward to try and prevent such attitudes from arising in current and future students? Is there anything that can be done? Are these attitudes hard-wired or learned at home?

None of these questions have easy answers. The nature of the problem is one that will take a while to find an answer to. But researchers aren’t giving up; they are determined now more than ever to find the answers we’ve all been waiting for.

In the meantime though, perhaps the best that educators can do is continue to teach still-impressionable students the truth. A reliance on facts and critical thinking now, when kids are still learning, might be the greatest tool we have to keep people willing and able to learn in the future.