Middleburg Academy Forging a Collaborative Curriculum

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By Leonard Shapiro, Middleburg Life
Earlier this fall, Middleburg Academy Head of School Colley Bell wanted to see for himself exactly what all the student buzz was about when he decided to walk over to the cam­pus's latest innovative "classroom." 
He'd heard many of them anima­tedly chattering about the experience they'd had working with art instructor Stephen Rueckert on one of two forges set up in a large converted storage area. 

Rueckert was teaching his charges how to manipulate a glowing hunk of metal that had been heated to 1,500 red--hot degrees on one of two forges-one coal-fired, the other fu­eled by propane. The students would learn how to bend it, twist it and eventually shape it into something that might even be used on another building project at the school. 

"The kids were all talking about it," Bell said. "And after I tried it my­self, I knew why. When you feel that metal bend, something really hap­pens to you. It's quite amazing. Now all the students want to try it. They want to start a forge club." 

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Rueckert, now in his second year on the Middleburg Academy faculty, learned how to use a forge many years ago when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He spent his first 20 years after college as a full-time artist living in Brooklyn before he went back to school at age 40 to earn a Masters of Fine Arts de­gree from Brooklyn College. 

A widely-acclaimed sculptor, his work can be found in the permanent collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Brook­lyn Museum and has been featured in publications such as Art Forum, the New York Times, Washington Post and The New Scientist. 

New York City school system before moving south, where he taught at St. Albans in Washington before chang­ing venues to Middleburg Academy. He was brought on board to help Bell and other faculty members figure out a way to boost the school's STEM programs (science, technology, engi­neering and math) with a healthy infusion of the arts and humanities. Make that STEAM, with an equal emphasis on the A, as in arts. 

The school also is implementing another acronym - MOCHA - which stands for Make One Con­nection Happen-Arts, Academics, and Athletics. The primary goal, ac­cording to the school's description of the program, "is to encourage every teacher to reach out across the cur­riculum to partner, collaborate and make at last one teaching connection happen every semester." 

Rueckert is heavily involved in helping to coordinate that effort, and he's also a firm believer in employ­ing a hands-on approach to his own teaching. 

"If you're going to be an engineer," Rueckert said, "you should know what it takes to bend a piece of steel. It helps you understand how things get made. Many engineering schools are getting the bright kids., but many of them don't have that hands-on ex­perience, which to me would seem to be so important." 

There's also another useful benefit to the forge work, along with other practical skills Smith is teaching his students, including welding and glass making. 

Middleburg Academy is embark­ing on a project to restore a stable complex built in 1910 that hasn't been used in years and nearly had its roof collapse in a major hail storm in May, 2016. Students will be using the forg­es to make replicas of original handles on the stable doors, and they're learn­ing basic woodworking and how to etch glass windows that also will be used in the stable renovation. 
The stable's eventual residents­horses-will also be part of the first S in STEAM, as in the science cur­riculum. 

"To me, it's all about the balance between science and the humani­ties," he said. "It's a collaboration across the whole curriculum-Latin and and science, math and science, art and engineering. There are just so many possibilities. You want to show them how to use the tools and use their imaginations. 'Il1at's my joy-getting them to use their cre­ativity and their imagination."