The Importance of Being Artistic

In a scholastic environment increasingly focused on science, math, and technology, the arts can get short shrift. This issue is not a new one, and yet, despite empirical data, loud protests from the vox populi, and common sense, the arts are always first on the chopping block. According to The Impact of Arts Education on Learning study, “The arts enhance the process of learning. The systems they nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities, are, in fact, the driving forces behind all other learning.” But education policymakers seem to persist in the belief that art is less important than the scientific disciplines.

Process-oriented Art

Not so at The New Century School, fortunately, where balance in all subjects is a primary goal, and the arts are as highly valued as anything else. Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia, with a B.F.A. from The Maryland Institute College of Art supplemented by classical art study at The Schuler School of Fine Art in Baltimore, originally began teaching at TNCS in their first year as Patterson Park Montessori and has been affiliated with the school ever since. The 2012–2013 schoolyear is her first year teaching dedicated art classes to all levels, pre-primary through elementary. She tailors classes to each level, so that no matter what their ages, kids are making the most of art class (see Art for All Levels below).

Jenny Raccuglia

Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia believes that art education is essential to human development

Mrs. Raccuglia’s approach to teaching art meshes very well with TNCS’s progressive, Montessori-inspired approach. Instead of perpetuating the dichotomy that traditional education is a teacher-led series of instructions to follow and Montessori is a student-centric and completely volitional (i.e., kids do what they want when they want, within reason), art class (and TNCS in general) merges the two. This union produces what Mrs. Raccuglia calls “process-oriented art” in which students are taught certain steps to create a project, but the spaces between those steps, says Mrs. Raccuglia, “leave a lot of room for individual interpretation.” The results are not only technically sound, but individual pieces show a broad spectrum of style, creativity, and  innovation. They’re really wonderful, in short.

Art for All Levels

Says Mrs. Raccuglia, “I approach each of the four groups [pre-primary through elementary levels] differently, but always with the goal of priming them for the next step.” Each group is assessed on age-appropriate manual dexterity and expression of creativity.

• Hands-on skills: In pre-primary (ages 2–3 years) classes, kids are taught the basics, like color-mixing. They learn what the materials are and how to use them appropriately (i.e., not to eat them, joked Mrs. Raccuglia). A typical pre-primary project is painting a paper mouse. Kids are given pre-cut mouse shapes to paint with a blotter, using their choice of color(s). This project gives them plenty of creative space and also takes into consideration that their manual dexterity is still developing. Grasping a blotter in their fists comes much more easily to them than holding a paintbrush. Thus, they build confidence by seeing the results of their handiwork while learning technique and effective material use. “Kids learn with their hands,” says Mrs. Raccuglia, “that’s how they explore the world. As long as they are confident in using the materials, I give them the opportunity to practice doing what they want with them.”


Primary art class

Primary students hard at work snipping, gluing, and arranging their own Snowy Days

• Creative autonomy: In primary (ages 3–5 years) classes, kids continue to develop their new skills and are encouraged to try new ways of approaching tasks. Assignments vary, but skills such as gluing, painting, cleaning brushes, and cutting are reinforced periodically throughout the term. Classes begin with what Mrs. Raccuglia calls an “imagination sparker,” which is a storybook that inspires the class project. Beginning class with a story also helps kids at this age transition to a new work cycle; it helps them shift their focus. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, is a recent example of this project structure. After hearing the story, kids were asked to design their own interpretations, using paper cutouts similar to the book illustrations. Mrs. Raccuglia stresses that the students should approach the project in new ways, rather than simply reproducing the original artwork, to gain confidence in their ideas. This approach drove another recent art project, in which kids designed owls to roost in a tree hanging in the TNCS all-purpose room. Parents might have noticed quite a bit of variance in each owl, even though kids drew from the same sets of materials. Says Mrs. Raccuglia, “the eyes shouldn’t always have to go on the face.” That’s one good way of making an owl, she concedes, but it isn’t the only way, and those other ways can spark tremendous creativity in children.

Note the variety of materials and media this primary student used to interpret the assignment

Note the variety of materials and media this primary student used to interpret the assignment

Art room

A variety of materials at the ready, placed Montessori-style within kids’ reach

• Command of ideas: In kindergarten (approximately ages 5–6 years) classes, kids are further encouraged to explore. They have some technical fluency; now it’s time to really put it to use. Younger kids are willing to explore, according to Mrs. Raccuglia, but by this age they tend to think there’s only one right way to approach a project. We talked about why that is. By age 5 years or so, kids have begun to develop self-consciousness, to see themselves outside of themselves. This is a natural part of human development, but the initial reaction to this new awareness of self can be self-doubt and a tendency to retreat. So, Mrs. Raccuglia counters that with encouragement to trust themselves. “I don’t necessarily set out materials and say, ‘have at it,’ ” she says, “but I do introduce the project, set boundaries, and then leave plenty of room for experimentation.” It’s clearly working. In a project inspired by The Littlest Matryoshka (pictured at bottom), by Corrine Demas Bliss, kids designed their own matryoshka. Given just the basic outline of the doll, kids then had free range to design their doll however they chose. Other than their graduated sizes, sets of nesting dolls don’t vary, so this was a real test of kids’ ability to produce something according to their own lights. Just see how well they rose to the challenge!

This student brings a bit of masculine perspective to his doll---isn't it amazing how differently the individual kids see the same assignment?

This student brings a bit of masculine perspective to his doll—isn’t it amazing how differently the individual kids see the same assignment?

Although the doll in the story was a brunette, the student who created this lovely rendition chose to give her version more familiar coloring

Although the doll in the story was a brunette, the student who created this lovely rendition chose to give her version more familiar coloring

• Being artists: In elementary (ages 6 years and up) classes, kids have mastered basic techniques and are ready for new aspects of art to explore. They learn about artists, for example, and art history. More importantly, they learn how to think like artists. “The big secret of being an artist is not being afraid to make mistakes to get to something you like. Being an artist is fearlessly making mistakes,” says Mrs. Raccuglia. One way she fosters this receptivity to the experience of making art is by giving the elementary students “free days,” during which they present an idea to her, and she makes it happen by supplying materials and advice, if necessary. So, after a recent lesson about Da Vinci, the kids were naturally enthused about inventions and suggested building robots. “The main thing is to capture that idea,” says Mrs. Raccuglia, “and then we work out the how.” If the robots (pictured) are any indication, those kids feel incredibly empowered by this kind of trust and collaboration. The students also keep portfolios at this level, which they are encouraged to go back through periodically to finish up or revise individual pieces.

This robot likes to look her best

This robot likes to look her best

Elementary kids "invented" these robots after a lesson on Leonardo Da Vinci

Elementary kids “invented” these robots after a lesson on Leonardo Da Vinci

Postscript: Why Art?

It may be safe to assume that anyone reading this post has already answered that question for him or herself, but a new book on the subject could offer some new twists. In The Artistic Edge, author Lisa Phillips suggests that art is critical to teaching the life skills that kids will need to navigate adulthood. Phillips also lists the Top 10 skills children learn from the arts, a list that promotes qualities like perseverance, similar to those gaining currency by education researchers like Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed and profiled in Getting the Education Nitty Gritty in this blog last November.

Mrs. Raccuglia says that Phillips’ list aligns closely with her own goals, and that’s easy to see. Creativity, Confidence, and Problem-solving (also a recurrent theme of this blog), are the top three on the list, and those themes cropped up again and again during our discussion (which, by the way, preceded publication of Phillips’ list). “If there’s one thing I want to successfully teach the kids, it’s how to build skills but stay open,” she says. Expanding on that thought, she says she often asks herself, “What is my role?” as she designs a particular project or lesson. “Not all of these kids will become artists, so what can I teach them that will help them through life? The ability to trust in their imagination and their own ideas,” she finishes emphatically.

What better qualities to instill in kids facing a very new and different world?

A lesson that incorporates an artist, a style, spatial perspective, and multiple media

A lesson that incorporates an artist, a style, spatial perspective, and multiple media

Projects start with the "imagination sparker"

Primary and kindergarten projects start with the “imagination sparker”

Have an anecdote, question, or comment to share? Your participation in this important discussion is welcome!

Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function

Mandarin class

Combining games with Mandarin instruction. Hmmm—what does that carpet say?

There’s a lot of buzz currently circulating about bi- and multilingualism—people who speak more than one language are smarter, they tend to earn higher wages, and they have clear communication advantages amid increasing globalization, according to a recent NY Times article. Learning second and third (and beyond) languages is becoming an educational priority; in fact, the language instruction at The New Century School is a big factor in why some parents choose TNCS for their kids.

Those parents are even more on target with that choice than they might have initially known, as multiplying evidence shows. Turns out, how you acquire new languages is also important, according to preliminary research sponsored by the American Councils for International Education. Initial findings suggest that the more language kids get, the bigger their improvements in all sorts of metrics, from literacy to math to creativity to executive function . . .  and the list goes on.

Why Learning Another Language Matters: The Benefits

But before we get deeper into the how, let’s look more closely at the whys and wherefores of multilingualism. Learning a foreign language is not easy for most adults, if the proliferation of Rosetta Stone–type products is any indication. For kids (the younger the better), it’s a heck of a lot easier, which begs the question, why do public school systems generally wait until high school to offer foreign language instruction? Experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages agree that starting a second language early in childhood has many benefits, including increased competence in that language. More importantly, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not.” Furthermore, they argue that language acquisition is fundamentally a cognitive, rather than a linguistic exercise. In other words, learning a new language requires and hones problem-solving skills, which children are actively developing. Their flexible brains are ideal for the mental calisthenics language acquisition demands.

There are other ways in which “the earlier the better” comes into play—increased fluency in both the foreign and the native languages, for instance, as well as more accurate pronunciation and intonation are more easily achieved by young learners. By no means does this suggest that older learners, including adults, should give up trying to learn a new language; it just means that gains will likely be more modest. The point is, the optimal window for language acquisition is during early childhood.

Not only are kids’ brains better suited to the mental workout, but the workout itself—just as physical exercise does to the body—actually reshapes their brains to function even better. Bilingual kids’ brains always have both languages active internally even when they are only speaking one at a time. This forces their brains to be constantly monitoring their surroundings for what utterance is appropriate in the given context, sort of like being continuously presented with a minor problem to solve (or, to continue the exercise metaphor, posing low-level chronic resistance to muscles). Far from confusing kids, as once thought, the internal conflict makes their brains more nimble; they think more clearly, not less. To test this, in one experiment, scientists presented a group of kids ages 4 and 5 years with the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task, which required them to sort the cards first by color, then by shape, even when the color didn’t match (this video shows how difficult this task is for preschoolers). To perform the task, the child needs to be able to manage conflicting stimuli, a marker of executive function (for which we’ll borrow this definition: “a set of processes that are responsible for the conscious control of thought and action”). The bilingual children consistently outperformed the monolinguals.

Merging Practical Life skills with immersion in Spanish in a Primary classroom.

The student carries out instructions given in Spanish, successfully coordinating a progression of cognitive functions in order to assist the teacher with cleaning the chalkboard.

With evidence that bilingualism leads to “cognitive flexibility” accumulating in several studies in the early 2000s, researchers next investigated at what age the advantages begin to manifest and found through meta-analysis of existing studies that at age 2 years and even earlier, bilinguals exhibit better cognitive function than their single- language counterparts.

And, although it’s easier to learn other languages at younger ages, the benefits are lifelong. Bilingual patients stave off dementia in older adulthood better and longer, for example. (See below for links to the original research papers with loads more information and data.)

TNCS’s Approach

Now back to the “how,” for the latest development in this ongoing inquiry, it seems that immersion in another language facilitates its acquisition. So, with language, it’s not just the earlier the better, but also the deeper the better. Language immersion is just what it sounds like, except with an additional nuance in the scholastic environment: the student learns the language and is also learning other subjects in that second language. Thus, math, phys ed, or art instructions are presented in, for example, Spanish to native English speakers. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is currently funding research on the efficacy of the immersion approach, with all indices pointing to favorable results. As stated above, the preliminary findings show better academic performance.

So, to wrap up, what does all this have to do with TNCS? Well, in several important ways, TNCS is getting it right.

  • First, TNCS provides both Spanish and Mandarin language instruction, arguably the two most relevant non-English languages in the changing U.S. demography.
  • Second, language instruction begins as early as possible—as soon as the student matriculates. For pre-primary–enrolled students, this is age 2 years.
  • Third, immersion is central to TNCS philosophy. Pre-primary students are fully immersed in either a Spanish or Mandarin classroom. Primary and elementary students get both formal instruction in Mandarin and Spanish and partial immersion in Spanish (e.g., phys ed at The Lingo Leap might be taught in Spanish, etc.).
  • Fourth, TNCS encourages parent participation in this important process. Print and post the Word of the Week in Spanish and Mandarin featured on TNCS’s website. Parents can learn right along with their kids!
  • Fifth, Montessori education inherently cultivates executive function; therefore, the pairing of Montessori-inspired and language curricula is synergistic—each component enhances the other.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Hello Kitty signifies a job well done!

Elementary students even learn Mandarin characters, recording them in practice books!

For more information:

  • Read the seminal 2004 article from Developmental Science here.
  • Read the 2009 article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America here.
  • Read the 2010 article from Journal of Experimental Child Psychology here.

Ciao! ¡Adiós! Auf Wiedersehen! Au revoir! Zàijiàn! Ilalliqa! Shalom! Sayonara!

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.

TNCS Launches Green Neighborhood Energy Challenge

Exciting events are already afoot at The New Century School in 2013, a mere 2 weeks into the year! As reported last November, it’s time to kick off TNCS’s Green Neighborhood Energy Challenge (GNEC), sponsored by TNCS’s new green energy supplier, Clean Currents. By the way, Clean Currents was the December 2012 recipient of the Green America’s People & Planet award for their clean energy innovations and community-minded business operations—Congratulations Clean Currents!

yard sign proclaiming sustainable energy use

Join the Green Energy Neighborhood Challenge and clean up your home’s energy source!

Profiled in this blog in Blown Away with Wind Energy, Clean Currents is a local, independent green energy company, supplying TNCS and other commercial customers with wind and solar power options. In fact, TNCS and the Lingo Leap have been running on 100% wind power since October. Now, it’s time to bring it on home. Starting Monday, January 14th and running through Friday, March 15th, TNCS is partnering with Clean Currents during the Green Neighborhood Challenge to bring clean energy to you.

What is the Green Neighborhood Energy Challenge?

GNEC is Clean Current’s community engagement program. Since 2008, more than 150 Maryland and D.C. communities, schools, groups, and environmental non-profits have participated in GNEC, and, in 2013, Clean Currents is expanding into PA. The program provides both education about why sustainable energy is so important and the support for actually switching to wind power, all while raising money for local green projects. In other words, it brings 100% renewable, sustainable energy into your home. Plus, for every family who makes the switch, Clean Currents donates $30 to TNCS for their use in a school environmental initiative of their choice.

Benefits Galore

Sounds too good to be true, right? It isn’t. Sounds like a lot of effort, expensive, and time-consuming? It’s none of those either. By enrolling in TNCS’s GNEC online, families will see a line item on the power bill they are already accustomed to receiving each month. This line item is not an additional charge, it just means that the money you are putting toward energy suppy is going exclusively to fund wind power production (not power sourced from dirty and carbon-intensive fossil fuels). The charge is right around the same cost (give or take a few tenths of a cent, depending on the particular service) as, for instance, Baltimore Gas & Electric’s current charges. Even better, while BGE and other power companies’ rates fluctuate with the market and also throughout the day (i.e., peak-hour usage costs more than off–peak-hour usage), Clean Currents’ energy rates are fixed; rates are quoted in 12- and 24-month increments. The online enrollment process takes no more than a few minutes, and, once that’s complete, Clean Currents takes over. Your energy bill will reflect the changes within one or two meter readings. There’s nothing to install, and there are no hidden or additional fees.

And, again, TNCS gets $30 for every household who makes the switch! Note: this opportunity is not limited to TNCS-enrolled families. Anyone who wants clean, green energy can join the GNEC . . . but do please mention TNCS on the enrollment form!

Says Emily Conrad, Clean Currents Community Outreach Coordinator, “Our hope is that the Green Neighborhood Challenge will provide an excellent platform to bring The New Century School community together and empower both the students and their families to positively and quantifiably contribute to the school and the planet.”

Emily Conrad Community Outreach Coordinator for Clean Currents

Emily Conrad, Clean Currents’ Community Outreach Coordinator

5 Quick, Easy Steps to Joining the GNEC

Having trouble believing that such dramatic benefits can come from next to no effort? Read on.

Step 1: Go to (or click here).

Step 2: Click the orange circle on the right of the page that says, “sign up NOW”.

Step 3: Enter your zip code and click “VIEW RATES”.

wind turbines at Pennsylvania wind far,

This Pennsylvania wind farm is Clean Currents’ supplier.

Step 4: Choose from one of five listed plans that include 1) 12-month or 24-month options, 2) neighborhood or national (via Renewable Energy Certificates—RECs; watch the video) wind suppliers (see map of Clean Currents’ wind farms) that are both Green e-Energy Certified, and 3) 50% or 100% wind power and then click “Enroll now”.

Step 5: Complete the very brief electronic form, accept the terms, click “Submit”, and congratulate yourself for reducing your family’s carbon footprint in an immediate and quantifiable way!

Seriously—it’s that simple!

Do note that on the form you will be asked to “Please provide further details and your Green Neighborhood Challenge name, if applicable”; this is where you fill in “The New Century School” so TNCS gets credit for participating in GNEC. Another field on the form asks for your Electronic I.D., which is not the same as your account number, and can be found at the top left on the second page of your bill. A final note about the form concerns whether you are currently under contract with another supplier. Unless you have voluntarily opted for a supplier other than the utility company (in Baltimore City’s case, BGE), you are not currently under contract (BGE doesn’t count). If you are under separate contract, however, you may want to wait until your renewable window comes around before signing up with Clean Currents to avoid an early termination fee.

So come on everybody, make the choice between 1/14/13 and 3/15/13 to GO GREEN by accepting the Green Neighborhood Energy Challenge! You won’t regret it, and . . . it’s a “breeze.”

As always, kindly let us know your thoughts about this post in the comments section—we love to hear from you! Plus, stay tuned to see TNCS’s measurable process in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Baltimore!

Achieving Balance in Education at TNCS

With 2013’s New Year’s resolutions newly minted (and some as yet unbroken, even), it’s a good time to turn our attention to physical fitness. And don’t worry—no guilt trips or discount gym membership pitches! This discussion is about balance balls (for kids).

At The New Century School, elementary students (currently including grades 1–3) have the option of sitting on balance balls instead of chairs as they work. Elementary teacher Adriana DuPrau says, “the children love the balls while working on certain activities. It seems that being in motion allows their brains to be engaged.” Initially, students used them at the computer station, but, says Mrs. DuPrau, “we are slowly beginning to incorporate them more in the class area as well. For example, they like to bounce when reading a book or working on math.”

strengthening core muscles while honing core academic skills

Students have the option of sitting on a chair or balancing on a stability ball at the computer station.

Chairs Are So “Old School” (Not in a Good Way)

Also known as stability balls, these large inflatables are more traditionally used for pilates-type exercise, but they are rolling into more and more classrooms as seating, particularly for elementary kids with all that energy to burn. They are considered effective for strengthening core muscles and improving spinal alignment. In the classroom, they additionally help students sit up straight, reduce their distractibility, and keep them aroused.

Classroom balance balls were originally used in an occupational therapy context. They improved focus in kids with attention deficit hyperactivity and sensory processing disorders, presumably by giving an outlet to their “wiggles.” Think of it as channeling all that excess energy for positive use. Then researchers noticed other incidental improvements, in obesity and classroom productivity, for instance. Regarding obesity, scientist have long known that even the smallest additional daily movement reaps disproportionately large physiologic rewards. So, the balance ball, by requiring continuous core muscle engagement to remain seated on it, is eliciting constant movement, thereby enhancing health and fitness.

stability balls are perfect for computer work

Note this student’s posture as he balances fitness with his Daily 5.

But better academic performance? Though sounding far-fetched to some, this makes sense given that the brain’s vestibular system, which regulates balance, also plays a key role in our alertness levels. Thus, movement, by stimulating the brain, sharpens focus. (See Exercising that Mind–Body Connection for more on the related science.) Better focus translates very readily to increased learning, and TNCS elementary students are really getting on the ball. (Oops—there goes Resolution #457, no more bad puns. . .)

You’re Invited!

By the way, you can learn more about the balance balls firsthand at the TNCS 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 (expanding to include through grade 4 in the Fall of 2013), to ask questions, and to hear other families’ experiences. Free childcare is also available. Click the above link to find out more and to RSVP. You don’t want to miss it!

Kindly let us know your thoughts about this post in the comments section—we love to hear from you!

Also, did you know? Any green text within the body of a post is a clickable link that takes you to related online content. There’s a lot of good information to be explored this way!