Charmed by TNCS’s Year of the Snake Performance

February 10th, 2013 marked the beginning of The Year of the Snake (蛇 Shé) in the Chinese Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival.  Although in Chinese lore the snake year is commonly considered less propitious than its predecessor (Year of the Dragon), The New Century School rang in the new year in high style. The meteor strikes, nightmare cruises, and olympic athlete scandals that the lunar year commenced with notwithstanding, TNCS honored the snake with weeklong festivities (such as making and eating dumplings, or 饺 jiǎo), culminating with a special performance at Port Discovery on Saturday, February 16th.

This was TNCS’s second annual Port Discovery performance in honor of Chinese New Year, and the primary and elementary students just loved it! The Chinese teachers spent weeks teaching them the songs and poems that made up the program. Chen Laoshi (a.k.a. Charlotte) and Xue Laoshi (a.k.a Cici, or 薛雪) presided over the actual performance, keeping their little red-and-gold-garbed snakes, mice, roosters, dragons, etc. on task. Xue Laoshi  says, “I am so proud of all the students. They all did a good job.”

The performance comprised two songs and a poem. Xue Laoshi explains that the first song was the Happy New Year song, sung by the primary students. Next, the primary and elementary students together sang the Chinese Zodiac Song and acted out the characters they were describing. Lastly, the elementary students recited a famous Chinese poem about a snowy landscape. Because the poem is quite long, they read in unison from placards printed with both English phonetic and Chinese characters. The students are clearly making remarkable progress—not only can they speak Mandarin beautifully, but they can also read and write it!

Xue Laoshi isn’t prepared to stop there, however. She says, “For the Year of Snake, I plan to help the students make even more progress. Maybe they will even tell you a story in Chinese not just read it!”

Sounds like this Year of the Snake might not be so bad after all!

Green Neighborhood Energy Challenge: TNCS Update

It’s a good week for clean energy. It started off with President Obama pledging renewed attention to clean energy in his State of the Union address:

“Today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy. After years of talking about it, we’re finally poised to control our own energy future . . . We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar — with tens of thousands of good American jobs to show for it . . . And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.”

Then we heard that the ozone hole has shrunk to a record low. And, the week is closing with The New Century School’s own continued commitment a little closer to home. In TNCS Launches Green Neighborhood Energy Challenge, we detailed Clean Currents’ initiative to spread the green with GNEC. Having switched both TNCS and The Lingo Leap to 100% wind and solar power, they are now helping local families also switch over. GNEC 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 initiative of their choice and, with just 20 enrollments, Clean Currents will donate an additional $500 to TNCS!

What is that school initiative? Alicia Cooper-Danyali, TNCS Head of School, says, “The donation from Clean Currents for each family that signs up for Wind Power will be used toward a sound and lighting system for Building North.” Exciting news indeed!

So, How Are We Doing???

Well, today, February 15th is the exact midpoint of the GNEC, which began January 15th and runs through March 15th. So far, 5 households have made the switch. That’s great progress, but we can do better—for our families, our school, and our environment.

To make this process even easier, Clean Currents’ representative Emily Conrad is attending TNCS’s potluck tonight, where you can sign up on the spot. “There are only 4 weeks left in TNCS’s Green Neighborhood Challenge!” says Mrs. Cooper-Danyali. “Clean Currents will be at the potluck to answer any questions you might have and help you sign up for wind power at home. Please remember to bring your electricity bill or BGE Electric Choice ID (10 digit # on the top left of the 2nd page of your bill).”
Did you know that you can calculate your household’s carbon footprint with this online tool? You might be surprised by the amount of greenhouse gases you generate. One big step you can take to reduce this footprint is by converting your household to clean, renewable energy.

Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education

Despite the relative prevalence of Montessori education in the United States, surprisingly little research has examined its efficacy. In the more than 4,000 U.S. schools (including private, public, and charter) having implemented Montessori curricula since 1907, the studies that do exist have demonstrated inconsistent findings.

A new study by Angeline Lillard from the University of Virginia published last year in the Journal of School Psychology finally provides some definitive feedback. These results are also pretty provocative. As one parenting advice journalist reads them, maybe preschool doesn’t really matter so much—or, to be more precise, what preschool a parent chooses doesn’t matter so much. In a regular feature called The Kids on, Melinda Moyer wrote, “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” In other words, worrying about where to preschool your kids pretty well implies that you are providing a caring, hands-on, and stimulating environment for them to grow up in. The rest takes care of itself at ages younger than 5 or 6 years in such an environment. (Click here for Moyer’s entertaining article in full.)

The Real Deal

That was actually a fairly incidental point of Dr. Lillard’s study, however. The real thrust of her investigation was whether Montessori preschool in particular produced any difference in cognitive outcome compared to conventional preschool. So, for current and prospective families of The New Century School, the tagline might be more like, “If you are reading this article, good job in choosing a Montessori program for your kid!” Because, in fact, Dr. Lillard’s research shows that after a Montessori schoolyear, study participants (numbering 172 and ranging in age from 33–76 months), measured higher in executive function (also defined as “self-regulation”), theory of mind, reading, math, vocabulary, and social competence than their counterparts in any other type of conventional school program.

Researchers measured these areas with a set of tasks each focusing on a particular skill and then compared end-of-year scores to beginning-of-year scores to see point gains. The results are:

Executive function: the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders task—kids are required to perform the opposite of a response to four different oral commands (for example, being asked to touch their toes if told to touch their head, and vice versa). Montessori, +13.72; conventional, +7.34

Theory of mind: the False Belief test (and others)—kids are shown a box (e.g., a crayon box) and asked to guess what is inside. Once they are shown that the box contains something unexpected (i.e., not crayons), they are then asked to predict what someone else’s guess will be about the contents. Click here for a video demonstration. Montessori, +0.39; conventional, +0.12

Reading: the Letter-Word Identification task—kids are required to correctly identify letters in words of increasing difficulty.  Montessori, +11.28; conventional, +5.9

Math: the Applied Problems subtest—kids are required to demonstrate simple counting, addition, and subtraction, skills as well as reading clock faces and identifying coin values. Montessori, +4.58; conventional, +3.53

Vocabulary: the Picture Vocabulary task—kids are required to correctly identify the picture that illustrates a given word. Montessori, +2.92; conventional, +1.08

Social competence: the Social Problem-solving task—kids are given a fictional problematic scenario and asked to present solutions (for example, how to share a book between two children). Montessori, +0.33; conventional, –0.07

Classic Montessori’s Lasting Benefits

Thus, the Montessori students made considerably higher gains in each area. Also note where the biggest gains (and differences) were seen—that is, in executive function and social competence. These skills are not only important predictors of school readiness, but also of later academic performance and much later life satisfaction. Dr. Lillard attributes the significant differences in outcomes to the consistent use of in-class Montessori materials and techniques. (See the gallery below for TNCS’s primary students happily engaged with the Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math materials.)

Another interesting note is that Montessori preschool is also often credited for producing “sleeper effects” in secondary school, in which novel social and cognitive benefits emerge well after the student has left the Montessori curriculum.

A final note is that Dr. Lillard’s study also compared “classic Montessori” programs with what she designated “supplemented Montessori.” For the purposes of this post, TNCS fits the “classic” category, which is defined by 3-hour work periods, 3-year age groupings, one Montessori-trained teacher, and use of traditional Montessori materials. In Dr. Lillard’s study, supplemented Montessori in general fared no better or worse than conventional preschool curricula.

Interested in reading more of Dr. Lillard’s work? Her website,, provides access to a host of related articles.

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


Language Curriculum Specialist Joins TNCS

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Piggybacking on a post (Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function) from earlier this year, this discussion profiles Lisa Warren, on-staff language curriculum specialist at The New Century School. Ms. Warren came on board in October 2012 to organize and standardize the existing language education at the school. With a Master’s Degree in linguistics from Georgetown University that combined research into how kids acquire second language with curriculum design as well as previous experience teaching Spanish, French, and English, she is well qualified for this new role.

Her role, she says, is primarily to integrate language education throughout TNCS’s progressive, Montessori-inspired curriculum. The primary components of language education are already firmly in place—the teachers, the native speakers, the classes, and (in some cases) the immersion—but Ms. Warren has erected a framework on which these pieces can connect, be reproduced in successive classes annually as well as across the same level (i.e., all primary classes are focusing on the same lessons), and meet national standards. As she puts it, “There was a lot happening in language education around the school.”

She came to TNCS as the result of Head of School Alicia Cooper-Danyali’s active search for such a specialist. Mrs. Cooper-Danyali herself brings a wealth of language-immersion experience to her position and saw the need for the dedicated staff member who could connect all the language dots at TNCS in addition to crafting “plans that document the school’s long-term goals, which include a language curriculum both reproducible and adjustable.”

The Curriculum Map

Key to this exciting new TNCS initiative is a rubric called the curriculum map*. This level-specific document serves two purposes: 1) it provides a comprehensive overview of what is being taught in a given language (i.e., Spanish or Mandarin) and 2) it allows Ms. Warren to identify gaps and fill those in. Aspects of language education like culture and how well a particular class matches up with current themes guide her assessments. She is passionate about her work.

“Being able to talk about something in a lot of different ways is very important for cognitive development,” she says, drawing on her impressive research background. Indeed, the benefits of learning another language have been touched on in earlier blog posts, but Ms. Warren adds to the growing list. Wider cultural understanding, the ability to communicate with multiple populations, and keener analytic skills are among her special foci in what advantages speaking more than one language affords. Multilinguals have an “expanded view,” she says, “which makes them more creative and better problem-solvers.” She cites a study in which a cohort of bilingual kids and another of monolingual kids were asked to list alternative uses for a plastic water bottle. The monolinguals averaged only a couple; the bilinguals’ list stretched to 10 or more. This ingenuity translated to better Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in a related study. It’s a known, but unfortunate fact that kids from lower socioeconomic groups tend to fare worse on standardized tests. Speaking more than one language abolishes this demographic disadvantage—bilinguals, no matter what their socioeconomic stratum, score higher in both math and verbal sections as well as overall. Click here for a comprehensive, annotated bibliography on this critical research.

Perhaps the best part of the curriculum map is that it allows teachers to target their teaching to students in the same class according to their individual levels. This means that students can enter TNCS at any age and have their learning needs met. This “differentiated instruction” is also rounded out by groupwork, such that, for example, elementary students are currently working on sustainable environment projects (sponsored by Clean Currents) for the Science Fair, part of which they are required to do in Spanish. Because they are working as a group, all levels support and help each other with the result that they learn the scientific method in two languages!

In the Classroom

Ms. Warren’s work is not all behind the scenes. She likes to spend time in the classroom, getting to know the kids and working with the teachers to have a very clear sense of the application of her work. She provides a library of resources for teachers to draw from, for example, that includes books, puppets, costumes, flashcards, music, and more. She also offers professional development. For the latter, she might model certain behaviors to show a teacher how to maintain a focus on language while redirecting a disruptive student. Or, she might serve as her own “lab rat” in language class: if she is able to follow an activity in Mandarin, which she doesn’t currently speak, she knows it’s an appropriate activity for the students. If she gets lost, she helps the teacher reshape the activity to the students’ level.

Part of this is ensuring that activities/lessons meet The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL)’s  “5 Cs”: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities, each of which is subdivided into series of standards. (Click here to read the standards.) It’s reassuring to know that TNCS students are organically acquiring other languages via their interactions with native speakers around the school, but that there is also a sound pedagogic infrastructure supporting that process. Again, though, this kind of balance is what TNCS is all about.

Spanish gym class

Senora Casado plays a game with primary students during gym class. “Encouraging the children to speak and communicate in Spanish is the goal in our weekly gym lessons,” she says.

To play, students must understand and respond to commands given solely in Spanish. They learn lots of action verbs this way!

Students play Rolling the Ball (“Rueda la bola”), in which they roll the ball to a friend while reciting a Spanish chant. To play, students must also understand and respond to commands given solely in Spanish. They learn lots of action verbs this way!

At Home

A final piece that Ms. Warren is locking into place is with parents. Regardless of whether parents are themselves multilingual or not, TNCS is exploring ways to encourage and support language acquisition at home. You can learn along with your kid(s), or you can print and post the Word of the Week around the house. Ms. Warren can usually be found in attendance at TNCS Info Nights, and she is even considering holding an Info Night dedicated to language strategies parents can use at home.

Welcome to TNCS, Lisa Warren!

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

*Note: Mrs. Cooper-Danyali plans to implement curriculum maps for all other disciplines as well.