Giving Back: TNCS Kids and Heifer International

As 2012 drew to a close, The New Century School students had the holidays on their minds. They played the dreidel game, trimmed trees, and put on a holiday show for parents. They ate latkes and applesauce and strung popcorn garlands.

today's snack is special---latkes and applesauce made by the kids right in their classroom

. . . Later, the fascinated kids got to sample homemade latkes garnished with applesauce—YUM!

holidays include Hanukkah latkes and other cultural customs at TNCS

A rapt TNCS audience listens to Mrs. Cooper-Danyali read about Hanukkah latkes . . .

student poses proudly with her holiday practical life work

I trimmed this little tree all by myself!

student works his way to the smallest doll, while strengthening hand muscles and learning persistence

Having multilayered holiday fun with a Matryoshka doll—S-RazhdestvOm!

these popcorn and cranberry garlands will decorate trees on TNCS grounds for natural ornamentation and snacks for visiting birds

A kindergartner strings popcorn to drape on a tree for birds visiting the school grounds. Cranberry garlands were also presented to the lucky birds!

playing with the dreidel is fun and educational

A spectator pops in to check on how the dreidel game is going. All clear!

But amidst all the festivities and the jolly atmosphere, they didn’t lose sight of core TNCS values. Environmental sustainability, social involvement from community through global levels, and human compassion informed their daily activities, giving a special resonance to their merry-making. With the help of their teachers, they collaborated on an important project to donate livestock to a family in need through Heifer International.

“Heifer International’s mission is to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth,” states the Heifer International website. But, “it all started with a cow.” In the 1930s, an American named Dan West volunteering in wartorn parts of Western Europe put the “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today; teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime” proverb to work in a new way. He saw that by giving people cows, they would have a replenishable milk source. Their nutrient requirements would be satisfied in both the short and the long terms. Thus, Heifer International was born.

Eighty years later, the development nonprofit organization has expanded to all reaches of the globe and continues to nourish the world. TNCS kids were thrilled to be part of this altruistic work and experience the joy of giving firsthand! In Operation Donate your Dimes, primary teachers (Mr. Sellers, Mrs. Lawson, Mr. Warren, and Ms. Lazarony) asked their students to collect dimes and bring them to class over a 2-week period in December. As the mountain of coins grew, rising K’s and kindergartners were assigned to estimating, then counting, then rolling them, and, finally, graphing progress toward the goal. Said teachers:

As we start to see how much money we can raise, the children are going to vote on what animals they want to buy. They will be doing projects and games to help them understand what the money is going for. We hope that you will be willing to help us with this project. The more dimes we collect, the more animals we can buy!

estimating number of dimes by weighing the sack to determine how much money TNCS primary students will donate to Heifer International

A student weighs the sack of dimes to estimate how many it contains. Laughter ensues as some pretty wild guesses are thrown out!

TNCS kindergartners get the mathematically challenging task of counting thousands of dimes to donate to Heifer International

Counting the dimes takes all hands on deck!

TNCS kindergartners all worked together to roll the thousands of dimes to donate to Heifer International

Rolling dimes is hard work—sheesh!

TNCS kindergartners have rolled and counted $385 worth of dimes to donate to Heifer International

So far we have raised $385!!!!! Fist pump!!!!

TNCS kindergartners proudly package their dimes to donate to Heifer International

The dimes keep on “rolling” in!

TNCS kindergartners collected $520 and were able to donate a cow and a flock of chickens to a family in need through Heifer International

Ultimately, the kids collected $520—enough for a cow and a flock of chickens!

It was an exciting way to get the kids involved in community service while honing math skills, working as a group, and exploring the deeper meaning of the holiday season. They can feel glad for the family they have helped, and they will not likely forget this experience. It was an important lesson for our budding philanthropists.

Whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year, may it bring you joy, warmth, and peace.

—Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle,
and the life of the candle will not be shortened.
Happiness never decreases by being shared.
Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha
Kindly let us know your thoughts in the comments section—we love to hear from you!

Elementary Program Merges Montessori and Progressive Education at The New Century School

Since its inception in 2007 (back then known as Patterson Park Montessori) as a preschool for kids ages 2–5 years, The New Century School has “grown up” right along with its student body. Adding a grade level each year to accommodate the earliest students and expand its scholastic reach, TNCS currently offers classes through 3rd grade. The 2013–2014 year will add 4th grade, and so on annually through grade 8. Watching this growth unfolding and the school really come into its own has been an exciting process for staff, students, and parents.

But what is elementary in a Montessori setting? Many find those concepts incompatible. In elementary school, after all, students are expected to achieve standardized goals, which, at its worst, can result in lecture after boring lecture masquerading as education. In the Montessori model, however, the classroom has much more relaxed parameters that allow room for voluntary exploration at an individual pace but that some say might not always be quite so academically rigorous. Let’s take a closer look at how TNCS has harmoniously merged these seemingly antithetical approaches to create an environment where real learning happens . . . and where kids want to be. They have choice, variety, and a say in their own education. Most importantly, they learn how to think.

First, it’s important to point out that for primary through elementary age groups, TNCS isn’t classically Montessori. Rather, they take the best of Montessori, such as fostering self-discipline and encouraging intellectual curiosity, and couple it with a profoundly progressive approach to education that includes a focus on foreign language acquisition, to forge something completely new. This unique blend grew out of a desire to provide the optimal learning environment. Alicia Cooper-Danyali, Head of School, says, “Our Lower Elementary program (grades 1–3)  focuses on the strength of meeting individual needs of mixed-age abilities, development of both Spanish and Mandarin, and true community building.”

Above all, learning should be an active process in which students are engaging with intriguing material, not a passive one in which they absorb factoids. TNCS is not education by osmosis; it’s a fruitful collaboration between student and teacher and among students themselves.

Here are some ways TNCS seeks to achieve this goal:

  • Small class size: The benefits to kids of individualized, differentiated instruction are innumerable. Kids are as different from one another as snowflakes, and their methods of learning are just as varied. Small class sizes allow teachers to customize each child’s education for the best, most effective fit.

    kids are hard at work together and independently, fully engaged in their reading, writing, and core math and science skills

    The smoothly functioning TNCS elementary classroom is a marvel of productive learning.

  • Enhanced learning via technology: Students in Lower Elementary use SuccessMaker and other state-of-the-art educational software daily to hone math and reading skills. They not only love this work, but the software programs are carefully aligned with national education standards, so the students are getting the foundational knowledge that secondary schools will require. Upper Elementary students will additionally learn basic computer programming.

    strengthening his core on a balance ball while honing his core curriculum skills

    Strengthening his core curriculum skills on the computer while strengthening his core on a balance ball!

  • Inquiry- and skill-based curriculum: A solid foundation in the core subjects allows teachers to develop science and global studies lessons based on student questions and interests. Being interested from the outset ensures students’ close attention and deepens their learning.
  • Mixed-age classrooms: Grouping students of various ages allows children to work at their skill level, not just their grade level. If they need more time with a particular concept, they get it. Likewise, when something clicks right away, they don’t need to wait for the rest of the class to catch up to them before moving ahead to the next wondrous topic of exploration. Mixing ages also continues the Montessori tradition of mentor–mentee relationships, which are mutually beneficial for social, intellectual, and emotional development.
  • Spanish and Mandarin classes: Where else are students given daily lessons in both of these languages critical to global citizenship? They learn conversation, reading, and writing at a time when their brains are elastic enough to achieve real fluency with relative ease.

    TNCS elementary student's Chinese workbook shows great progress

    Chinese characters practice–Hello Kitty and friends signal a job well done!

  • Music, art, and physical education classes: On staggered days, students get weekly or twice weekly instruction in these areas so important for encouraging creativity, self-expression, and overall physical and mental health. In an atmosphere of looming federal budget cuts—some of which will surely impact education—U.S. public schools may find that they lack the funds to keep the humanities in their curricula, sadly.
  • Field trips: The on-site greenhouse established by Master Gardener Emma Novashinksi affords plenty of opportunity for scientific investigation of all stripes. Lower Fell’s Point, TNCS’s “extended campus” additionally provides community involvement opportunities to broaden students’ social and environmental awareness.

    greenhouse visit is a chance to get hands dirty and explore caterpillar life

    In hot pursuit of a particularly interesting caterpillar!

  • Emphasis on values: Students at TNCS learn to treat themselves and others with respect. By the time they have reached the elementary level, this really shows. Peace, compassion, and kindness pervade the smoothly functioning elementary classroom.

Still have questions? Comments? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section—we value your participation in this discourse! By the way, are any of your TNCS elementary kids among the original students from 2007? Let us know!

Also, did you know? TNCS is hosting an Elementary Information Night on Thursday, January 17, 2013 from 6:00–7:30 p.m. for current and prospective families. This will be the ideal opportunity to familiarize yourself with TNCS’s elementary programs, to ask questions, and to hear other families’ experiences.

TNCS cofounder Roberta Faux will offer a brief keynote talk, and free childcare is available. Click the above link to find out more and to RSVP. You don’t want to miss it!

Top 10 Reasons to Attend Montessori Kindergarten

Editor’s Note: For the 2014–2015 school year, TNCS modified the kindergarten program to better accommodate the growing student body. While the primary program still comprises a 3-year cycle, kindergarteners now move up to the elementary floor for a mixed-age K/1st classroom instead of kindergarten taking place within the primary classroom. This adaptation has proven a marvelous success and provides another very important transition mark for students as they broach their elementary years. The gist of the post below, therefore, now applies to the students ages 4 and 5 years approaching kindergarten. Kindergarten itself still bears many of the hallmarks described below but is not classically Montessori.

A common misconception about Montessori education is that it’s meant only for the preschool years. This misconception goes hand-in-hand with other assumptions made about Montessori—that it’s neither intellectually nor academically rigorous and that it’s too antiquated to stay relevant in today’s world.

Recently, TNCS hosted a Kindergarten Information Night during which it became clear that none of these is close to true of The New Century School kindergarten classroom. Said Alicia Cooper-Danyali, Head of School, “I feel the school focuses on the individual needs of the students, and the kindergarten children exit our primary group well equipped to segue into our elementary program that is mixed ages as well.” 

So, let’s turn those misconceptions on their heads and explore why instead of curtailing kids’ Montessori experience at or just after age 5 years, we might actually give students enormous advantages by sticking with Montessori into kindergarten (and beyond—but that’s another post)*.

Top 10 List of Reasons Kids Benefit from TNCS Kindergarten (in no special order)

1. Builds self-confidence. TNCS kindergarten class is a mixed-age classroom, in which the Ks are the role models. They have developed a sense of community with their classmates (many of whom have been together for 2 or 3 years) and relish their role as “community leaders” as they nurture and coach their younger classmates. Having themselves learned from older children, they now share with their peers as well as replicate the mentor role. Research has demonstrated the benefits of this mutually enriching dynamic.

kindergartners collaborate on a math project for donating dimes to Heifer International

This group of Ks is collaborating on a very special (but still secret) project. The multistep project draws on several disciplines and clearly has the kids’ full attention!

2. Features a sophisticated curriculum. Because of its inherently experiential nature, TNCS kindergarten offers students more “advanced” lessons than what they are likely to be exposed to in a traditional kindergarten. For example, math is not deconstructed into dry, application-less chunks fed through workbooks, but taught as a unified whole through observation and manipulation. This hands-on, “sensorial” learning opportunity is ideal for kids, because that’s how they learn (the research is unequivocal here). Their hands are direct conduits to their brains! Montessori materials optimize this trait of 3–6 year olds, and the resulting mathematical and intellectual sophistication they frequently exhibit is nothing short of amazing.

boy shows excitement and pride for his work with the moveable alphabet

Mastering the moveable alphabet really is exciting!

3. Teaches students how to learn. TNCS focuses on teaching for understanding. More and more evidence is coming to light that conventional classrooms yield students who can get the correct answer on a test, but come away from school lacking the ability to apply their knowledge in a different context. They have remembered, but they have not understood, and, therefore, they haven’t actually learned anything. In the progressive, Montessori-inspired TNCS class, by contrast, children’s natural inclinations to explore and inquire are encouraged. They build on each phase of their educational experience because they want to, and the lessons stay with them to be further built upon. They are not asked to regurgitate; instead, they are inspired to investigate.

4. Concepts are “clicking.” Because the Montessori curriculum is cumulative, what a child learns in the kindergarten year depends somewhat on what he or she has learned so far in Montessori. Kindergarten is part of a 3-year primary cycle, so maximizing the intellectual, physical, and social skills developed so far means completing the cycle. The first 2 years are all about concrete materials with which they use their senses to form impressions—to perceive. In the third primary year, the children begin to make mental abstractions from those concrete, sensory experiences. They transition from tracing sandpaper numbers with their fingertips or stacking rods in various hierarchical systems to performing mathematical operations based on these early explorations with numerical concepts in object form. Says kindergarten teacher Angela Lazarony, “This is the most exciting year for me. I get to see the culmination of our past 2 years together and watch the children really blossom.”

boy works diligently at lacing a card

This student works diligently to complete the project he initiated (and later put away without being prompted).

5. Lessons are tailored to the child, not the age. In TNCS classroom, each child progresses at his or her own rate because the class comprises individual and group work in addition to recognizing that children learn through a variety of methods. This eliminates the pressures to “catch up” or “slow down” to the level of the class as might be seen in traditional kindergarten classrooms. Working at their own rates and in what style best suits them allows kids to develop good work habits, such as initiative, the ability to process information, and the persistence to complete tasks (see Getting the Education Nitty Gritty and Inside the Montessori Classroom). Giving each child the room to develop self-confidence, to feel competent in his or her own abilities and to be interested in learning for its own sake, is the aim, not adhering to age-based sets of standards that are disconnected from the child’s experience.

6. Instills respect. Montessori is fundamentally about respecting each child as a unique individual who has worlds to offer. The natural extension of having been treated respectfully is that TNCS students in turn conduct themselves peacefully and compassionately, out of respect for their classmates and teachers (see Kindness Counts!). From self-respect to respect for others, the principle spreads outward to encompass the physical world. In the Montessori classroom, kids clean up after themselves and handle their materials carefully and appropriately. They learn the importance of caring for the environment (see Blown Away with Wind Energy) and gain social awareness (see The Baltimore Love Project).

primary teacher loves working with her kindergartners

Kindergarten teacher Catherine Lawson says, “This is my third year here, so I saw the kids come in at age 3, and now to see them succeeding as kindergartners is just so exciting!”

7. Environment is familiar and supportive. The kindergarten year marks a huge transition in the life of a child. Ks are poised to make giant emotional, social, physical, and intellectual leaps. We ask of them that they begin to read and write at school, for example, and to groom themselves at home. These changes are colossal in and of themselves, but just imagine how much bigger they must seem to a child also coping with unfamiliar (and quite possibly less supportive) surroundings! At TNCS, students feel safe and secure in the company of very special teachers who have known them for years . . . and understand them. In addition, the student-to-teacher ratio is lower than in most traditional school classes. Eliminating the extra stress derived from exposure to a completely different environment leaves more energy for TNCS kindergarteners to devote to cognitive development.

8. The Garden Tuck Shop Program. An all-natural, homemade lunch of wholesome, locally sourced foods (some even grown on-premises) is available for TNCS kids. Visit the website and Like Garden Tuck Shop on Facebook to view photos (warning: not while you’re hungry!) and to receive updates. Also see the interview with Chef Emma Novashinski in two parts in Sustainable School Lunch: Garden Tuck Shop Program Part 1 and Part 2.

9. The Lingo Leap. New in 2012, the Lingo Leap gym fulfills the dual purpose of exercising minds and bodies simultaneously, by conducting movement classes in foreign languages. Not only do TNCS students get access to state-of-the-art Gerstung gym equipment, they also get to practice and reinforce their language acquisition. This revolutionary approach to phys ed synergizes beautifully with TNCS’s progressive curriculum. See Exercising that Mind–Body Connection.

10. The “specials.” TNCS believes in developing the whole child, in cultivating those aspects that keep us humans humane. Kids receive special, separate instruction in art (post coming!), music (post coming!), and Mandarin and Spanish (posts coming!). It’s no secret that art, music, and language are key to personhood, but conventional kindergarten classes do not place the same premium on these areas of development. They give them a nod, certainly, but not typically as separate, dedicated subjects of study. TNCS Ks are given the educational breadth to flourish intellectually and artistically.

Let’s Hear it From the Kids!

Here are some responses to, “What do you like about kindergarten?”

What I like about Montessori kindergarten at TNCS is sharing and playing together.

I like sharing and playing together.

What I like about Montessori kindergarten at TNCS is doing the language drawers.

I like doing the language drawers!

What I like about Montessori kindergarten at TNCS are the words and numbers.

I like the words and numbers.

What I like about Montessori kindergarten at TNCS is also doing the language drawers.

I like doing the drawers, too!

*Note: Benefits of Montessori education aside, TNCS recognizes and respects that each family has a unique situation, and the decision to continue (or start new) at TNCS for kindergarten and beyond must be weighed very carefully for each family and for each child. The list above is meant to help parents in their search for the right fit by getting the information out there and dispelling some myths. Also, please forgive generalizations; this post does not have the scope to compare individual schools.

Please let us know your thoughts—we truly welcome your comments and feedback to keep education discourse fresh!

Inside the Montessori Classroom

Many of us have at least a vague idea of what Montessori education is about and that Maria Montessori was an expert in child development and education, but some of us—even parents of Montessori-educated kids—still have questions. Or, maybe you have tried to explain Montessori education to curious friends and family members and have been met with blank stares or frank puzzlement in return.

colorful materials and inviting tableaux comprise a TNCS class layout

The Montessori classroom invites and inspires

In this post, we’ll compare a Montessori classroom to a traditional one to characterize The New Century School educational experience and gain some insight into how the classroom works, why Montessori students love learning, and why the Montessori method is so wonderful for our kids. In fact, despite obstacles (e.g., budgetary, legislative), the U.S. public educational system has begun to show the Montessori influence here and there, as educators wake up to the fact that students graduate from school and are at loose ends for how to live enriched, fulfilling lives. The traditional model has certain shortcomings that the Montessori education inherently prevents. (However, this discussion is not intended to belittle traditional education, only to investigate how Montessori can enhance learning for many by virtue of a radically different approach.)

children work independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning primary Montessori classroom

Children working independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning Montessori classroom

At TNCS, pre-primary classes (ages 2–3 years) follow the classic Montessori model; primary and elementary classrooms (ages 3–5 years and 5 years and up, respectively) use a Montessori-based approach. Classes comprise mixed age groups quite deliberately, and this is the first big difference between Montessori and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in Montessori education is that older children assist younger ones and that younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element in Montessori education is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for 3 years, developing trusting, long-term bonds. The teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

practical life materials teach kids everything from proper handwashing to garment buttoning

Practical Life materials

Another difference an observer would note immediately on entering a Montessori classroom is the room itself. Students are not seated in rows facing a teacher who is lecturing at a chalkboard as in a traditional classroom. Rather, individuals or small groups either completely independently or with the aid of the teacher are each engaged in separate activities that they have voluntarily chosen. They might be seated at small work tables or kneeling on rugs as they go about their tasks, which vary from sensorial (such as tracing sandpaper letters with their fingers) and practical-life activities (such as practicing folding towels) in the pre-primary and primary classrooms to working at computer stations at the elementary level. The point here is that students be inspired to learn by engaging in what draws them instead of required to sit passively and be lectured to. Not only will the consequent learning be deeper and richer, but the student will look forward to learning as the natural extension of his or her innate curiosity. School should not be something our kids dread, after all!

having completed work with the number rods, this child surveys his work before putting away the materials

A child in the Primary classroom works intently on the number rods

More importantly, this room for individual concentration and focus is the hallmark of Montessori education. It fulfills the child and allows him or her to become the person who intrinsically wants to help others and to make a difference in the world. Although it’s easy to imagine that a classroom full of kids each doing what he or she individually wants would be chaotic and noisy (a very common misconception), the complete opposite is true. TNCS classrooms are warm and peaceful places. The children are engaged in their work, and the atmosphere is one of pleasant, purposeful exploration. It goes without saying that passive, rote memorization–based learning has no place here. Learning is a dynamic, absorbing experience. It’s truly a marvel to see the self-discipline TNCS kids exhibit as they go about their daily work.

Yet another difference is the breadth of the classroom. TNCS extends the classroom to encompass the surrounding neighborhoods, fostering a sense of community and instilling the importance of community involvement—“our extended campus is the city.” And, for that matter, the world. TNCS has a very diverse student body, and students are encouraged to share their culture, promoting mutual respect and a broad, global perspective. Getting outside and seeing what’s going on around the school is a regular part of TNCS curriculum.

A final difference to be discussed here (though there are many more) is in the approach to “success.” AT TNCS, the product of the work done is not the focus; rather, the doing of the work is what’s important. Making mistakes and having another try is all part of the process. Students learn to relish the endeavor, of trying over and over, instead of being afraid to make those mistakes: “They welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again.” (This hearkens back to an earlier post on “grit”; see “Getting the Education Nitty Gritty” in Recent Posts, top right.) This also touches on another concept fundamental to the Montessori classroom—work cycles. Although Montessori methods are often criticized for not allowing imaginative “play” and focusing all on “work,” children do not make this distinction. If they are doing what they themselves have chosen to be doing, it follows that they will be enjoying it. The work cycle, though, by having a beginning (choose work), a middle (do the work), and an end (put away the work), additionally teaches them commitment, focus, and persistence. The rhythm of the work cycle has applications in all areas of daily life, not just in the classroom.

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” And this sums up the difference between a Montessori and a traditional classroom best. All too commonly, the traditional classroom, even at its pinnacle, can do no better than produce test-takers, albeit skillful ones; the Montessori classroom, by contrast, yields happy, inquisitive, well-rounded citizens of humanity.*

playing on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall day

For more information, including articles and videos, visit The Montessori Foundation’s website. And, find some hard data on the learning experience delivered by traditional versus Montessori approaches here.

*You want proof, you say? Consider this illustrious list of well-known folks, from silicon valley entrepreneurs to great chefs to princes, who were either Montessori educated or educators, and see for yourself!