Making Summer Count—Weekly Camps at TNCS

No more pencils, no more books, no more . . . development?

Empty classroom, empty heads

This forlorn image is a disturbing visual metaphor for the blankness that can descend on kids’ brains without enriching activities to occupy them during extended school breaks.

Pop culture would have us believe that summer is a time of sanctioned hedonism—a 9-week-long cannonball into a pool of unrestricted play, unbroken by stints of focused study. A vacation for the brain. Such is how many of us grew up, in fact.

But before we let our kids’ hair completely down this coming summer, we’d do well to consider that more and more researchers agree that throwing academics to the wind for such an extended period is hurting kids’ cognitive development as well as reversing their academic progress. In fact, in Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap, a 2007 report, researchers not only categorically demonstrated that this regression was occurring, but also found that it’s cumulative, so that the time squandered during the elementary years shows up as marked deficits in the high school years:

We find that the . . . achievement gap at 9th grade mainly traces to differential summer learning over the elementary years.

This was the major finding from the Johns Hopkins University’s Beginning School Study (BSS), which launched in 1982 and tracked testing data, learning patterns, high school placement, high school completion, college attendance, and other indicators among a representative sample of Baltimore school children from first grade through age 22 years.

A related report from the National Summer Learning Association finds that “A conservative estimate of lost instructional time is approximately 2 months or roughly 22% of the school year . . . It’s common for teachers to spend at least a month re-teaching material that students have forgotten over the summer. That month of re-teaching eliminates a month that could have been spent on teaching new information and skills.”

Keep your kids off the summer slide!

On the heels of these sister benchmark studies, both President Obama and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell took up arms in the fight against “summer slide.” President Obama argues for education reform with a longer school year at the heart of this platform. Noting that U.S. students attend classes, on average, about a month less than children in most other advanced countries, he said in a 2010 interview, “That month makes a difference. It means students are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer . . . The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense!”

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell urges us to rethink our notion of what makes someone successful, because according to him, it isn’t usually the individual gifts a person is endowed with but rather some special opportunity that befell him or her at an optimal point. Wouldn’t it be great if such opportunities were more broadly available, such as, say, summer camp? (In point of fact, the BSS found that “unequal access to summer learning [italics mine] opportunities during the elementary school years” is responsible for most of the achievement gap. Scary.) Tying this to academic performance, Gladwell writes, the “only problem with school, for kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”

Inquiring minds

This inquisitive little girl is all set to explore some insect life!

If, as he believes, “It is not the brightest who succeed, nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. . .  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them,” then let’s seize back those June, July, and August weeks and help our kids make the most of them!

How to let them have fun while they learn: summer camp at TNCS

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

The New Century School Summer Camp Director Lisa Warren says, “Camp is still a ‘break’ from the school year, but it keeps bodies and minds engaged in a fun way.” (You might recognize Ms. Warren from “Language Curriculum Specialist Joins TNCS.” That’s right, she’s not only the TNCS Summer Camp Director, but also the Foreign Language Curriculum Specialist as well as the Lingo Leap Program Director. That’s one devoted educator!)

As camp director, Ms. Warren developed the themes each weekly camp will be based on, making sure to include a wide variety to appeal to many interests. “I’m especially excited about the construction theme,” she said. “That’s a unique one you don’t always see, but so many kids love it.” She also provides the educational resources and some activity ideas to the instructors who will be overseeing each camp. Most camp instructors are already part of TNCS staff, so they know the ropes.

Themes will vary among the preprimary, primary, and elementary camps, and instruction will also be differentiated within each of those three strata. No matter what level your child is working at, he or she will receive individualized and group learning support. And again, even though academic engagement is the camp’s foundation, fun is at the heart of each session. See the primary session schedule at right. Themes guaranteed to keep kids’ interested include everything from Cooking/Gardening and Mandarin Immersion to Under the Bigtop. Preprimary camp will be immersion-style, and parents can choose from either Spanish or Mandarin. All camps will feature an in-class language assistant, however, so kids at all levels will have the opportunity to practice the other languages they are learning.

Primary summer camp themes

An example of themes from TNCS’s primary summer camp itinerary. Gosh, can adults attend???

The elementary camp takes a slightly different tack, comprising “specialty sessions.” These are a bit more targeted as befits the older child. Kids here can start the summer with Camp Invention, of which TNCS is proud to be the exclusive downtown provider. In Camp Invention, the brainchild of a nonprofit organization, kids are challenged with a project that they must execute collaboratively. The project goal always centers around solving a particular, real-world problem. (Camp Invention will be profiled at length in these pages in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!) Toward the close of summer, kids ages 5–11 will move into “Launch Pad Academic Bridge” camp, which is just what it sounds like: “a means to recapture and reactivate knowledge learned during the previous school year to prepare for the coming year,” in the words of Ms. Warren.

Other important camp highlights—read on!

Chef Emma Novashinski will offer a Brown Bag lunch as the summertime extension of the Kitchen Garden Tuck Shop program, available for weekly sign-up. As always, her lunch will be healthy, locally sourced, and hand-prepared. Even this will have a fun summer twist; lunches come in paper bags for easy transport to an outdoor picnic spot!

Regular camp hours run from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (or to 12:30 p.m. for half days). Before-  and aftercare will also be available, starting as early as 7:30 a.m. and running through 6:00 p.m.

Just as in previous years, the camp week culminates with Fridays, better known to camp attendants as Water Playday. Sounds fun, right? Kids can run and jump through the spray from a sprinkler, and a water table will also be on hand to foster those skills that any budding civil engineers, marine biologists, and geophysicists might require. (And, of course, synchronized swimmers.)

Finally, if you have any questions, please visit the website or contact Lisa Warren at

Find additional reading, including more tips for academically enriching summer activities here:

Touch Screens and Your Child: To App or Not To App

This child is so immersed in the iPhone screen that he can't even participate in getting dressed for school. Hope he's learning something!

This child is so immersed in the iPhone screen that he can’t even participate in getting dressed for school. Hope he’s learning something!

Digital Natives

Called “digital natives,” because they have never known an existence without the internet, our kids navigate touch screens almost instinctively, with the same ease that a tadpole learns to swim. (What does that make those of us born after 1993, you ask? “Digital immigrants,” evidently trying our best to adapt to this strange new world.)

Let’s start right off the bat by saying that this is neither a diatribe for nor against toddler technology usage. There is still so much to be learned about this issue, but opening the conversation certainly seems worthwhile. Because, for many parents, besieged daily by work, laundry, phone calls, bills to pay—those bazillion myriad demands on our time and energy—the personal table or smart phone becomes almost a temporary surrogate, immediately appeasing a whining or misbehaving child when our attention has already been commanded. Or, how about the alluring possibility of grabbing 15 minutes’ more sleep on Saturday morning . . . Sure, honey, you can play with Mommy’s iPad! But once the tasks are seen to, or the coffee has kicked in, the guilt floods in, right? Are we turning their brains to mush? Shouldn’t they be outside, enjoying an idyllic, tech-free childhood (like Heidi)?

According to a new article by Hanna Rosin featured in April’s The Atlantic, we may be beating ourselves up unecessarily. Sure, using apps to babysit our kids probably isn’t the ideal to aspire to, but a little screen time, it turns out, is probably not only fine, but is maybe even good for them in moderation. One key is that iPads and the apps that we download onto them are interactive, and interactivity fosters deeper engagement and thereby faster learning. The difference in brain scans of a child watching a passive television show versus playing Toca Tea Party (a toddler-sized app), for example, is startling.

In “The Touch Screen Generation,” Rosin argues that, “if parents ‘treat screen time like junk food, or ‘like a magazine at the hair salon’ — good for passing the time in a frivolous way but nothing more, then the child will fully absorb that attitude, and the neurosis will be passed to the next generation.” In other words, if we consider it contraband, they will too. Her response was to see what would happen if she gave her 4-year-old son free access to the iPad. She found that he played with it obsessively for a few days, after which it lost that “forbidden fruit” appeal and was relegated to the rotation the rest of his toys cycled through. Rosin’s article is a great read—you can find her story as well as a video on how kids use iPads here. She also includes a list of apps that are “cool in toddler world.”

But in “Parents of the Touch-Screen Generation,’ Don’t Free Your iPad Yet,” KJ Dell’Antonia counters that Rosin is missing a key use of iPads for young kids—“a middle way between ‘neurosis’ and full-blown iPad freedom.” In the United States, she writes, we tend to see apps as either educational or entertaining (or both, at their best). Quoting Lisa Guernsey, author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child,” Dell’Antonia writes that in Europe, schools are “teaching the children to use the iPads to make them creators and documenters of their learning.” Instead of always drawing them in to that immersed, “zombie-like” state, the iPads are used to connect them to their world—surroundings, family, friends.

We started with the more positive perspective on this issue because the outcry against screen time for toddlers and kids is a bit more vociferous, and the point of view in favor of moderate, supervised usage can get drowned out. But let’s now take a look at the very real reasons we’re so emotional (guilty, afraid, angry, etc.) about our adorable little digital natives.

Well, for one thing, the screen’s going to get very sticky.

There’s one objection for you. On a more serious note, other objections range from zombie-ism to missing out on time spent outdoors to becoming socially dysfunctional. In a May 2012 broadcast of her NPR show, Diane Rehm asked, “What’s all this screen time doing to these young developing brains?” The jury is still very much out on that (the technology having existed for less time than it takes to conduct a viable study) although research is being done at a furious pace. (Even this becomes an objection for some—are we turning our kids into science experiments?) Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), who in 1999 strongly advised against television for kids under age 2 years, issued a 2011 update with even more stringent warnings. Now they say to restrict access to any screen for this age group. Seems a bit draconian, given that these same babies likely see their parents interacting with screens of all sizes, all the time, and their instinct is to mimic what they see their parents doing.

Draconian measures notwithstanding, the AAP’s stance certainly gives parents of toddlers pause. We might do best, along with KJ Dell’Antonia, not going all the way to unrestricted iPad use. All things in moderation, right?

Some advice from an Application Usability Specialist . . .

“As an Application Usability Specialist with two young children,” writes one parent very intimate with this issue, “my children have been immersed in technology since birth.” He says that as his “testers,” his kids have learned “math, resource management, flexible thinking, situation analysis, information analysis, goal-setting and sharing, yes sharing.”

His advice? Parents should:

  • Make sure apps are age appropriate!
  • Read the app reviews first!
  • The parents have to do the homework and play the game first.
  • Don’t purchase so-called educational games based upon a “commercial toy property” (i.e., Dora the Explorer) and expect that education will come first. My personal exception to this rule is Sesame Street and PBS properties, because education always comes first with PBS.
  • Play the games with your children.
  • Some of the best games are from independent designers and developers.
  • Size does not equal quality. Some of the best apps are the simplest.
  • The best touch-screen interface is a book! It never runs out of power and is usable with any sufficient light source. (Note: Hanna Rosin takes issue with the notion that books are inherently better than screens: “My daughter, after all, often uses books as a way to avoid social interaction, while my son uses the Wii to bond with friends.”)

And in the above-mentioned book, Lisa Guernsey says much the same thing with her “3 Cs” of media consumption: Content, Context, and your Child. Triangulating the 3Cs can guide app selection and usage under almost any circumstance.

Just for fun?

As a final word, the App That Shall Not Be Named has not yet been mentioned here, and, given its entrenchment in the hearts and minds of little kids, it should be. Of course we control what we download on the iPad, but let’s face it, parents, it’s not always that simple. Once kids see Angry Birds, which is everywhere, they want to play Angry Birds, not Montessori Letter Sounds. “You know those shoot -em up games?” asked one mother. “They’re kinda fun,” she said smiling a little sheepishly.

Apps are fun!

Enjoying the game he was playing so much, this child paused midway up the stairs, lost in the experience. Good? Bad? Probably here to stay.

For more on this issue:

Breaking Down the GMO Issue: Some Earth Day Musings

With Earth Day less than 2 weeks away, media coverage of all things environmental is really heating up. Among the widely covered controversies this past week is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). From the Washington Post to the New York Times, GMO foods and crops are the environmental topic du jour.


Scientists modify the genes of seeds, fruits, and vegetables to produce new strains.

Whether you are for or against GMOs (or are even blissfully unaware that a controversy rages about them), nearly everyone can agree that we need to know more about them. To date, research on their downstream effects on the environment—and on us!—has been sorely lacking. Claims on both sides of the debate abound. The proponents argue that GM corn, soy, rice, etc. can help end world hunger and are perfectly safe for consumption; the opponents rebut that those full bellies will come at the cost of mass infertility/sterility or who knows what reproductive, physiologic, or neurologic impairments. Scientists issue warnings, retract them, then retract the retractions. Meanwhile, as much as 70% of the food stocked on grocery store shelves already contains GMOs.

Because Earth Day is a very important day at environmentally conscious The New Century School, let’s look at some GMO-related current events as well as rationally view the issue from both sides of the corncob.

Why We Have GMOs in the First Place

The Monsanto stance (and that of other GMO-using companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, etc.) is that they are using biotechnology as well as sustainable agricultural practices to produce enough food for the globe. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates himself supports this practice.

Papaya superfood

With the help of genetic engineering, certain strains of papayas have become resistant to viruses that threaten their extinction.

Arguably one of the main goals of genetic modification is to produce disease-resistance traits. Some say that genetic engineering saved the papaya from possible global extinction due to the particularly virulent ringspot virus. Papaya is a superfood and a vitally important source of vitamins and nutrients for many tropics dwellers. Its loss would be catastrophic.

Others have argued that the environment and the economy also benefit. GMO crops can be engineered to reduce stress on the environment, and farmers can rest assured that the GMO crops they have grown will find a buyer in GMO companies (or even be subsidized by them).

Click here for a list of other potential GMO benefits.

Kernels of Truth

Thus, GMO food companies’ aims are, at least on the face of it, laudable. The issue gets stickier and the truth harder to zero in on, however, when we learn that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s approach with these companies so far has been seemingly laissez faire, leaving the onus of ensuring a food’s safety on the food producer, according to the FDA’s Statement of Policy on genetically modified and other new plant varieties.

And stickier still when we consider that genes operate far beyond our ken. They switch on and off, mutate, and behave in often confounding ways we are still uncovering. Only time will tell what implications the wiliness of genes (i.e., those that were lab derived instead of occurring naturally) has in and for our foods. So what’s the regulatory holdup?

First there was Big Tobacco, then there was Big Soda, now . . . Big Soy?

Or so say the members of the growing resistance movement to GMOs. They claim that food policy in the United States is plagued by croneyism—that it’s being underwritten by the Monsanto company, the very company that sells GMO foods and remains one of the biggest makers of genetically modified seeds. They say that Monsanto has such entrenched political muscle that passing any legislation that might in any way hurt the company bottom line (e.g., requiring that GMO food be labeled as containing GMOs) will be as uphill a battle as was the decades-long fight against tobacco companies like Phillip Morris to cease aggressive marketing even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that smoking kills. So, as federal and state governments work to establish policy on GMOs, GMO opponents say that Monsanto is actually controlling this policymaking by, among other things, removing “whistleblowers.” According to one California dietician working on such a policy panel for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when she pointed out in February that two other panelists had clear links with Monsanto, she was dismissed. Read the full New York Times story here.

Truth in Labeling

Sweet 'n Low

Chemicals such as saccharin that some studies have suggested cause cancer are labeled on this packet.

Back to labeling GMO foods—which the European Union has required for more than a decade—what’s the big objection, ask many? It’s as if GMO companies are afraid that if we know what’s in the foods made with GMOs, we’ll stop buying them. Or that naming the ingredients implies that they are potentially harmful. But whether it’s safe or unsafe, don’t we have the right to know what we’re eating? Shoppers know what’s in Sweet ‘N Low (another Monsanto product, incidentally) thanks to the label, and restaurants still stock it and consumers still use it aplenty. The point is that they can choose not to ingest it and perhaps opt for a more natural alternative or they can disregard all of the conflicting reports about saccharin and dump it in their coffee all day long because they are informed.

Occupy Monsanto is a group dedicated to raising awareness about GMOs. Although their ultimate goal is probably the complete eradication of GMOs, they have spawned other less radical movements as well such as the “eat-in” in front of the College Park, MD FDA offices earlier this week. Demonstrators gathered there to make their thoughts about GMOs known, encourage the FDA to require GMO labeling, and cook and eat a big pot of “stone soup” (just like what TNCS primary students collaboratively cooked up last November to celebrate Thanksgiving), each contributing an ingredient that was most certainly not genetically engineered. It was about as wholesome a protest as we’re likely ever to see, especially for such a polarizing issue. Read the full Washington Post story here.

Eat-in protestors gently demonstrated their disapproval of GMOs by cooking soup with homegrown ingredients. No tear gas required!

Eat-in protestors gently demonstrated their disapproval of GMOs by cooking soup with homegrown ingredients. No tear gas required!

For more about what GMO opponents say against GMOs, read this.

Bringing it Home

Not surprisingly, considering the ferocity of this battle, many of us are either hopelessly confused or just plain undecided which side of the issue we fall on due to the paucity of long-term empirical data. A couple of things still seem crystal clear, however, and those are that labeling GMO foods seems logical (not to mention ethical) because we have a right to know what we’re eating (whether we choose to pay attention or not) and that lots of full-scale studies on the effects of GMOs must be conducted.


This handsome young GMO protestor at the College Park “eat-in” urges us to eat more kale :).

In the meantime, TNCS families can keep well out of the fray if they so prefer. With the Garden Tuck Shop Program for student lunches, for example, kids eat locally sourced, largely organic fruits, veggies, and baked dishes from Chef Emma Novashinski’s thoughtfully and lovingly constructed menus. At home, parents can also avail themselves of locally grown, Food Alliance–certified produce by joining the One Straw Farm CSA. Weekly shares can be picked up right at TNCS with a total of 10 enrollees (we currently have 6!). Please join here!

Have a comment, correction, anecdote? Please let us know how you feel about this issue.

And, oh yeah! Happy Earth Day on April 22nd!

Spring Break—a Noteworthy Topic

Author E.M. Forster once said, ““How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” and explained the purpose of expository writing in that simple handful of words. Constructing a piece of writing is to develop a thought, give it structure, and send it off into the world to see if it flies. Writing is thinking.

Spring Break 2

Written in cursive, this paragraph details a Spring Break full of fun things!

This Spring at The New Century School, the elementary students are trying their own hands at writing. They were given the assignment to write a paragraph on their Spring Break plans. Says elementary teacher Adriana DuPrau, “We are working on well-organized paragraphs in which sentences are about the same topic and organizing our thoughts around that topic.”

Spring Break 6

Lots of family time makes for a great vacation!

Students learned paragraph basics including starting off with topic sentences, adding supporting detail, and closing with wrap-up sentences that reiterate the main point of the paragraph but using slightly different wording. “We also worked on indenting the first line—something so simple, yet we forget it so often,” added Mrs. DuPrau.

Spring Break 3

Cherry blossoms and roller blading . . . sounds like a dream!

See for yourselves what TNCS 6–8-year-olds will be up to this week and whether they fulfilled the assignment requirements.

“Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences.”

                                                                      —Sylvia Plath

Looks like TNCS kids did just that!