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Molding Tomorrow's Visionaries Today

By Karen Shore, Stacy Calfo and Kevin Flinn | Back to Table of Contents

In 2018, Ravenscroft commissioned the Innovation Task Force — a forward-thinking group of faculty, staff and school leaders — and charged them with developing a comprehensive vision for innovation in teaching and learning that will guide the school for the next five years.

As they explored curricula, pedagogical methods and learning outcomes that best prepare students for the future, they identified three key educational strategies for creating innovative thinkers: giving students opportunities to customize their own learning pathways, empowering them to take more active roles in their education, and connecting their classroom experiences to the real world.

As the task force moves to implement its plan — identifying the programming, spaces and people that will propel Ravenscroft students into a world continuously transformed by the “information revolution” — many classrooms are already embracing those strategies.

Here, we share just a few of the innovative programs and projects Ravenscroft faculty and staff have implemented as they mold the visionaries of tomorrow.

Fourth-grader Wyatt Kenady adjusts the wiring of the remote-controlled car he built for his Genius Hour project.

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Genius Hour: Customizing their research projects increases curiosity and engagement in Lower Schoolers

Nothing says innovation quite like an educational movement built around the creative work habits of Google engineers.

The result, Genius Hour — recently introduced in several Ravenscroft third- and fourth-grade classrooms — provides students with time and support to investigate topics of their own choosing. From baking to musicians’ inspiration to historical figures, students are exploring an impressive array of subjects as they plan and implement an independent research project, then analyze, organize and present what they have found.

The program’s goal is to capitalize on the power of choice. Each child is engaged, challenged and motivated because the spark of interest is their own.

As Ruth Thomas, the Lower School’s curriculum and instruction specialist, noted, “Students feel greater joy in learning when they have choices. That sense of ownership shifts the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student.”



Teachers lay the groundwork for the program through discussions about what it means to be passionate and curious. “This conversation helps students craft research questions that will guide them throughout the entire process,” said teacher Nicole Willis, whose third-graders have eagerly embraced Genius Hour this year.

Students keep track of their progress with a research log, which helps them build accountability and time management. Teachers cover presentation skills, body language, voice projection and tone, and audience engagement as they get students prepared to share what they’ve learned with classmates.

Willis said she provides her young researchers with a lot of support as they work, dedicating an hour each week to the projects. As third-graders, they’re already familiar with the “Super3” research model — which guides students in developing three research questions to identify their topics of interest — and they lean on and refine those skills as they’re exploring their passions. As the projects wrap up, Willis’ students have a fixed presentation date, with all of the class sharing on the same day.

Third-grader Zahra Cheatham chose the topic of pop music because of her interest in where songwriters get their inspiration for lyrics. “I wanted to know how they thought of their songs,” she explained. “It really got me interested in them, and now when I listen to them I actually get [the meaning].”



Fourth-grade students go even deeper. They use the “Big6” research model (named for the number of steps in the process), which includes crafting proposals for their teacher’s approval. After completing at least nine research sessions — adding more specialization to their topic if they choose — Crystal Keefe’s fourth-graders have a rolling presentation schedule that is guided by each student’s own determination of when their research is complete.

Fourth-grader Wyatt Kenady, for example, built a working remote-controlled car. He said,

“What sparked my interest was my first RC car that went 45 miles an hour. I didn’t really understand how it worked, so I figured out how to make it and built one,” he said. “The battery powers the motor, which runs the gears that make the wheels turn. Learning that [information] made it make more sense.”

With a whole world of topics to consider, it’s no wonder that, as Willis said, “no two students’ projects are identical.” Digging into one project each quarter gives them plenty of opportunities to flex their own curiosity.

“This process allows them to fully dive into whatever specific piece drives their passion,” Keefe said. “Students really learn how to differentiate between something they like and something that ignites fire within them.”


Genius Hour Presentations

A compilation video of some of Crystal Keefe’s fourth-graders presenting their Genius Hour projects

From the Archives

Ravenscroft Magazine, Spring 2014

Stellar Learning

Engaged learning taking place across our campus and beyond

Washington, D.C., Museum Project: Playing a more active role helps eighth-graders find their voices

Reflecting another key element of the task force’s vision for innovation — empowering students to take active roles in their education — Ravenscroft’s eight-grade teachers have reimagined their approach to a longstanding tradition for Middle Schoolers: the annual class trip to Washington, D.C, and its many monuments and museums.

“We took a theme approach to the trip this year,” language arts teacher Sarah Baker said. Ahead of the visit, “students chose a Holocaust-focused novel and picked out significant themes that resonated with them. When they arrived in Washington, D.C., their goal was to find reflections of their chosen themes in every museum we visited. It gave them a focus for the trip.”

“We spent significant time before the trip discussing how the Holocaust came to be,” Josh Gallagher, who teaches history, added. “It was truly a collaborative effort to ensure our students were thinking about this experience from every angle.”



To extend their learning from their classwork and trip, students were challenged to develop a new exhibit for the Holocaust Museum and give a presentation on why it should be added. Part of their preparation for that project was to keep a journal of observations and reflections about their experiences during the trip.

“We visited the Holocaust Museum, the Newseum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Air and Space Museum,” Alexa Gillon ’24 said. “They were all so insightful and interesting.”

“When we visited the museums, we had to look at the exhibits and think about how we could incorporate some of the elements into our own exhibit,” such as artifacts and other visuals, narration and tone, and interactive features, Jackson Rein ’24 said. “Teachers also stressed the importance of being respectful because of the sensitive material that we were going to observe.”

“We weren’t asking them to do separate things in different museums. It wasn’t just a scavenger hunt for facts,” Baker said. “We wanted them to see themes that were consistent. The lessons were so fresh in their mind, it was easier for them to focus on and integrate what they were seeing.”



Students agreed that having a theme to focus on gave shape to their overall experience in Washington, D.C., and made them more engaged in what they were seeing.

“The book I read was ‘The Winter Horses,’ and the theme I derived was that those who are mentally and physically strong can fight through adversity,” Jackson said. “I proposed an exhibit that would enhance the existing stories of three Holocaust survivors, Jakob Blankitny, Rosa Marie Burger and Irene Csillag.”

“I read ‘Milkweed’ by Jerry Spinelli and chose to explore how survival is dependent on selflessness,” Alexa added. “I created my exhibit based on the smugglers of the Warsaw Ghetto and the caretakers of orphans because I was struck by how truly selfless people were during such dire and dark circumstances. Without identifying this theme, I’m not sure I would have realized the sacrifice so many private citizens made to help the victims of the Holocaust.”

“This is really a student-driven piece,” Gallagher said. “We do what we can to build the historical background, but we want them to be able to place themselves in this place and time.”

“Student interest is allowed to shine through this model,” Baker concluded. “They are reading a book independently of others in class, so this enables them to take their own direction. It’s their interpretation of the author’s work. They have a voice.”



Alexa Gillon ’24’s and Jackson Rein ’24’s presentations on their Holocaust Museum exhibit proposals

From the Archives

Ravenscroft Magazine, Winter 2017

Think It! Design It! Make It!

Middle School's design thinking approach acts as a catalyst in the STEM+ era

The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Solving real-world business problems offers Upper Schoolers an authentic experience

Particularly for Upper School students feeling the pull of life after high school, courses designed with real-world connections are in high demand. A new course offered this fall, The Entrepreneurial Mindset, provided six students the opportunity to collaborate with Triangle-area businesses to develop solutions to challenges the companies were facing.

In developing the course, Latin teacher Jim Martin and IT specialist Chris Michael adapted the framework of North Carolina-based nonprofit District C, which matches teams of forward-thinking high school students with local organizations looking for help addressing a problem.

Martin and Michael designed the course with an eye toward the practical application of student ideas. In this way, the students’ feedback to the businesses would be treated the same as input from any other consulting firm.

“We coach the business partners ahead of time that we require honest feedback based on expectations they would have with working with other consultants,” Martin said. “That means students are engaging with the company to solve the problem and not just follow the steps to get an A.”



Over the course of the semester, students worked with three Triangle-based companies that were eager for ideas from growth-minded students.

For each one, the students conducted up to two weeks of intensive research before devising strategies appropriate for their particular needs. The three businesses — Two Dots, a marketing company; Skema, a business school; and the developers of Silbo, an app that connects referees to leagues — all “had basically the same problems and questions: they wanted to expand their customer base,” Tommy Reynolds ’20 said.

Realizing that approaching a real-world business problem might seem daunting for high school students, Martin and Michael began the course by introducing the tools — such as questioning and mind-mapping, all stemming from design thinking — students would use throughout the semester.

“That puts students in a position to work through the business problem, dissect it, generate a true problem statement and begin consulting on possible solutions from there,” Michael said.

Most students took the course with the future in mind. “I was interested in getting any kind of business experience, and this class fit that goal perfectly,” Griffin Dillo ’20 said.

Lea Lambert ’21 agreed. “I am interested in a lot of different fields, and even though I may not major in business, I wanted the experience to see if I could see myself doing it in the future,” she said.


One of the course’s major goals was that the group’s work together be authentic. As such, students expanded their knowledge about collaboration, communication, public speaking and giving effective presentations.

“It was unlike the group projects they may see in other courses, where they each do a portion and then stitch the final product together,” Martin explained. “In this process, the students work together at nearly every step. When they present their recommendations to the businesses, the idea is that each student could make the pitch entirely by themselves.”

“Each time we came away with different lessons,” Cole Phillips ’21 said.

“We figured out how to work together,” Tommy added. “By our second business partner we all knew how to work as a group. A lot of it was just figuring it out.”

It’s that “figuring it out” that Martin and Michael hope will be the biggest takeaway from the course.

“The skills and mindsets that are instilled will continue to benefit our students well beyond their time on our campus,” Michael concluded.



How Endowments Support Teachers’ Innovation 
As Ravenscroft faculty and staff work to mold the visionaries of tomorrow, the generous financial support of our many families and friends has been instrumental in helping them translate innovative ideas into new or updated courses and lessons, interdisciplinary collaboration, applications for cutting-edge technology and development of real-world skills.

Endowment funds designated for faculty professional development and enrichment — including the Connie M. Maynard Faculty Enrichment Fund, Lichtin Family Professional Growth Fund, Lichtin Family Leadership Fund and Board of Directors Endowment — provide instructional staff with summer grants for professional development opportunities and intensive curricular work. In 2019 alone, these four funds provided nearly 70 summer grants totaling more than $50,000. 

Here are just a few highlighted by Colleen Ramsden, Associate Head of School for Academics and Student Life.

Fourth-Grade Team and Winston Library Team
For the fourth-grade team, planning for the “Big6” research model used in their Genius Hour projects has meant working in close partnership with the staff in Winston Library. Their summer work allowed them to explore the curriculum and identify areas of collaboration, with the ultimate goal of building in students a “firm foundation of research and information literacy skills. Our Lower School librarians did grants with many grade levels this past summer,” Ramsden noted. “The librarians provide a goldmine of resources for teachers and students.”

Middle School Humanities 6
Following up on their Summer 2018 grant that provided funding for the creation of Humanities 6 — an interdisciplinary approach to language arts, history and geography — members of the team spent some time evaluating and refining the curriculum to provide what Ramsden called “an even richer experience” for students. One goal in particular was to provide more opportunities for differentiation in coursework. “Differentiated instruction is a student-focused way of thinking about teaching and learning, in which educators actively plan their curriculum (what students learn) and instruction (how students learn) to maximize the learning of all students,” she said. 

Upper School Calculus and Physics Collaboration
With the move to a calculus-based AP Physics course, physics teacher Lorre Gifford and math teacher Ann Carroll saw an opportunity to enhance students’ learning by reordering topics in both classes and using data from students’ work in physics in the calculus class, providing what they called a “seamless transition” between topics and making both “more accessible and relevant” to the students. “This work was innovative because it broke down the silos between subject areas and created better alignment and support for students,” Ramsden said.

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

"The research and effort of the students was impressive. They proposed very clear and well thought-out ideas, specifically in regard to how to attract more young people to the gig opportunities of sports officiating. Their presentations were professional and a great opportunity for the students to present on a real-world business case. It was a pleasure to work with Ravenscroft and District C."

— Developers of Silbo, a Raleigh, NC, venture-backed start-up company that uses technology to connect amateur sports officials to youth sports leagues


2019 report on the Innovation Task Force's work so far

Read it here

History of Innovation

Early innovation at Tucker Street
When the Tucker Street campus opened in 1937, its new leaders brought a wealth of experience and insights into the learning needs of primary-grade children. Nancy Lee (“Miss Nannie”), who was one of the first women to enroll at NC State and gain admission into their chapter of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society, had taught for more than 20 years in schools in Raleigh when she was tapped to lead the school. She was joined by another seasoned teacher, Annie Hardy Tongue, who had set up a thriving private school in her home that was known for its progressive approach to education.

According to “The Story of a Southern School,” Ravenscroft’s official history, students at Tucker Street enjoyed these classroom innovations:

  • A nine-month school year (compared to eight months for local public schools)
  • A warm and caring atmosphere with small classes
  • Regular art and music classes and, later, private lessons
  • Hands-on learning and field trips (including overnight trips to Williamsburg, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.)
  • Foreign language instruction
  • Support for teachers' professional growth and development

In the years since, Ravenscroft has continued to build on that tradition of innovation — including our most recent transition to virtual teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read about how our teachers are leading students into this new frontier in our Ravenscroft Reports story from March 25, 2020.


Tucker Street seventh-graders at a field trip to Fallons Nursery in 1953


Teacher Doris White, who came to the Tucker Street school in 1953, with her students