Innovative learning

How we teach is just as important as what we teach!

kids at the Ridge Creative Center

Photo: Melody Chan/The Brooklyn Reporter
At The Ridge Creative Center in Brooklyn, N.Y, students are actively immersed in cultural activities.

LORI ANN REINHALL
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

VICTORIA HOFMO
Brooklyn, N.Y.

How we teach is just as important as what we teach! Most of us know this from our own experience, and for our education issue, we are exploring an interesting method used by The Ridge Creative Center (TRCC), directed and founded by Victoria Hofmo, one of The Norwegian American’s freelance journalists. TRCC has an innovative approach. I recently spoke to her about her program and philosophy. The interview follows.

Lori Ann Reinhall: When did you begin your method of teaching?

Victoria Hofmo: I began organizing my lessons by themes and using project-based integrated learning about 20 years ago. Our projects are derived from student exploration in a variety of subjects, such as culture, language, history, and science. We articulate all of our studies through the arts. It just felt natural to teach in a context with hands-on projects. It wasn’t something that I’d been taught.

LAR: Why did you take this approach?

VH: I believe that every child needs and deserves time to explore, innovate, and create. Learning becomes more dynamic when it is connected. The theme is the fabric, and the components or activities are the thread. The students stitch the parts together, and I believe as they synthesize the lessons through hands-on participatory activities, there is more retention and discovery. Of course, every learner is different in what they discover and retain.

LAR: When did you start TRCC?

VH: The Ridge Creative Center is about 10 years old, but I had been using the same techniques when I first began running out-of-school programs at Lutheran Elementary School (my alma mater) about 20 years ago. I left to start this business.

LAR: Do you reuse the same curriculum each year?

VH: No. First of all, I live in New York City, and at TRCC, we consider the city our lab, forest, jungle, ocean, and galaxy—a place to explore. Some places and cultural and art offerings are relatively permanent, but we do not want to dismiss the plethora of ever-changing opportunities. This does not mean that I don’t recycle ideas, activities, and themes. I just like to keep it fresh.

I only occasionally look for ideas on the internet; I am not a snob about this. I find developing the curriculum and projects, making the connections, and tying them all together a completely satisfying creative experience, second only to working one-on-one with the kids.

LAR: How have you fared during the pandemic?

VH: One day I was open, and the next day shut down without any warning. It was unsettling, and I quickly felt stagnant. I missed working in person with the children, something that had become impossible. So, I began focusing on my other love, designing creative curriculums. I called it “Kids Corner.” I shared this online and with those on my email list, for those at home. 

One of these lessons was “Scat and All That.” It was inspired by a simple handout I found on The Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s site. The exercise was to connect the animal to its scat. I went on to discuss homophones and the other meaning of scat found in jazz music. Students were encouraged to listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s “One Note Samba” and try to scat themselves. This led to listening to a Louis Armstrong piece and encouraging families to visit his home museum in Queens. It ended with watching and replicating movements from Alvin Ailey’s dance piece “Ella.”

Other lessons included “Witches at Easter” (sharing the Swedish tradition), “Mbira: Zimbabwean Music & Culture,” (inspired by a Google doodle video about this instrument), “Norwus—Persian Spring,” and “St. Joseph’s Day.” Another one, “Amazing Animals,” focused on what children could see from their windows, as so many families were confined to their homes during quarantine.

LAR: When were you able to reopen your business?

VH: I tried to open for a few weeks last summer, after reinstating my insurance and waiting for the COVID-19 protocols from New York state. Unfortunately, it did not work out, as my space was no longer available. I then tried to form a cohort for those in remote learning, but it did not transpire.

I was successful in opening up for a handful of vacation days and simultaneously ran a part-time after-school program for pre-K students. Finally, in July 2021, I was working full time running my summer program at a new location. I am so grateful but also weary. It’s like starting from scratch.

LAR: Have you seen your method used elsewhere?

VH: Yes, in an abbreviated but valuable way. My daughter went to Midwood High School in Brooklyn, and I was so pleased at how they were integrating the art and social studies classes. This method can be done simply between two subjects and still be effective.

In the last decade, I have seen more museums organizing exhibitions through cross-cultural connections, allowing audiences to see what was happening across the world at a specific time or in comparing artifacts of the same type.

LAR: Are there any downsides to teaching this way?

VH: Yes, it is time-consuming to plan; I think that is why others only use it in a limited manner, if at all. But, of course, lessons can be recycled in the same form or modified and enhanced as current events and cultural offerings become available.

LAR: You were born and bred in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn, with Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish roots. Do you have any Scandinavian cultural lessons?

VH: Besides the one already mentioned, we also host an annual Santa Lucia program, where students learn about the tradition, including the songs, while participating in our Lucia procession. Beforehand, each participant gets to make a krumkake on the iron and roll it with the wooden form. They also create a whimsical Christmas gnome, a nisse or tomte. I’ve also done programming around the Norwegian folktale The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

LAR: Don’t you also curate student exhibitions?

VH: Yes. We hold student exhibits about every three months, which include a performance component. We want to encourage students to be comfortable when speaking about their own work, vision, and process.

We also expose our kids to contemporary artists and work in partnership whenever possible. In 2016, Indian-based ceramic artist Rutvij Mistry held two classes for our students, and his work was included in our annual exhibit.

LAR: How is the new school year shaping up for your business? 

VH: I am planning to run an after-school program and vacation days when schools are closed. Of course, the increase in the Delta variant is more than concerning. I have already notified our families that we want to provide the service(s) they need. We are prepared to pivot and offer full-day services if students have to return to hybrid or remote learning.

LAR: Do you have any new ideas for the upcoming school term?

VH: Yes, we have a large focus on studying diverse cultures, both contemporary and those that no longer exist. It is one of our students’ favorite areas of study. So, this autumn we are beginning a drop-in class weekly called “Global Citizens.” Four weeks will be devoted to a specific culture. Each week will focus on music, dance, visual arts, or food. Let’s face it, when we share music, food, dance, and art, there is nothing to argue about: they are great connectors. It only generates celebration.

You can learn more about The Ridge Creative Center on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheRidgeCreativeCenter. 

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.

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