Elementary Math and Reading Skills: Important Predictors of Successful Adulthood

As July winds down and the start of the 2013–2014 school-year looms, our thoughts turn back to academics. A recent study puts new importance on the early elementary years, a growing cohort at The New Century School. This year, TNCS will expand to fourth grade, in fact.

The study, published in Psychological Science by researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, demonstrates that math and reading ability at age 7 years are linked with socioeconomic status (SES) in adulthood. Interestingly, although math and reading ability was also significantly associated with intelligence scores, academic motivation, and education duration, the association with later SES was independent of the family’s SES during childhood. Moreover, the researchers were not expecting to find that specifically math and reading ability were more important than general intelligence in determining SES. In other words, what we’re born with and what we’re born into may not be as important as what we learn in second grade.

They say that their findings emphasize the importance of learned skills. What this boils down to is really good news for students—the return on improving these skills at all levels is huge, from remedial to the most gifted. “Math and reading are two of the most intervention-friendly topics,” they say. “Practice improves nearly all children.”

The media has reported these findings widely, but often with a distorted perspective. Many have equated SES with financial success, and that’s not the whole story here. SES correlates with many measures of happiness and societal functioning in addition to what let’s call economic efficacy, to distinguish it from the mercenary-sounding “financial success.”

In any case, this is reinforcement that the elementary years should provide a solid foundation in how to learn. As much of the TNCS student body approaches or progresses through these critical elementary years, we’ll see the fruits of those Montessori methods come to bear as the kids transition from number rods and bead cubes to conventional ciphering, from tracing letters and learning phonemes to reading and writing. We can feel secure that TNCS students are getting this essential math and reading practice and then some. Their futures look very promising indeed.

Hard at work with the hundreds board rapt boy writing

Bagging Bagged Lettuce

The perils of bagged lettuce have been all over the media this year; in 2012, a debate raged on whether to rewash or not to rewash bagged lettuce. Now, some recent NPR coverage has brought this issue back to the forefront. So with lettuce season upon us, this seems like a good time to show some gratitude for the fresh produce that The New Century School community has access to, both from One Straw Farm’s CSA for families at home and from Chef Emma Novashinki’s Garden Tuck Shop Program for school lunch. “Lettuce rejoice!”

Salad washed & ready to eat . . . 2 weeks ago!

Salad washed & ready to eat . . . 2 weeks ago!

You might be thinking, “Pshaw. Prepackaged lettuce is so convenient—it’s already washed and ready to go! I have a full time job, already!” But if you’ve ever opened that Mixed Herb Salad with a use-by date several days in the future only to be choked by the smell of decomposing greenstuff, then you know that those bagged or boxed greens were actually harvested a good 2 weeks or more prior to your purchase. The waste of money aside, rotting lettuce tastes terrible and robs you of the significant health benefits you’d be reaping from fresh produce. So, really, what’s the point? The would-be convenience is negated by the glaring disadvantages. And, if you bother returning your rotten package to the grocery store, you haven’t even actually saved any time by not having to wash your lettuce yourself. However, the real shocker is, the triple-washing that prepackaged lettuce companies conscientiously implemented (to their credit) after the 2006 Escherichia coli outbreak probably doesn’t remove those intractable pathogens trapped just below the leaf’s surface that can make us really sick. Then there are the pesticides in nonorganic varieties. Although triple-washing probably removes the majority of chemicals, considering that lettuce is one of the most chemical-intensive crops, there’s likely some residue left behind (your chances of achieving cleaner lettuce are better at home, leaf by closely scrutinized leaf). To boot, triple-washing is enormously costly and a considerable drain on already scarce water resources in the nation’s biggest lettuce-producing areas like southern California.

Cleaner, healthier, tastier---no contest.

Cleaner, healthier, tastier—no contest.

Let’s get back to the health benefits of fresh lettuce. Buying a head whole and washing and prepping it yourself at home halts the nutrient-loss process. Turns out, lettuce and spinach are among those superfoods we should all be consuming in vast quantities but that almost immediately on picking begin to lose antioxidant content. According to Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health author Jo Robinson, they should be on your refrigerator’s “Eat Me First” list. Moreover, doing the prep work yourself actually makes your lettuce healthier! “If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it and then, if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it, you’re going to increase the antioxidant activity … fourfold. The next time you eat it, it’s going to have four times as many antioxidants.” Ms. Robinson recently appeared on Fresh Air; read more of the transcript here.

So, thank you, thank you, thank you TNCS for providing access to fresh, local produce both in school and at home. Now where did that darn salad spinner get to?

Unrelated, but definitely summery!

Unrelated, but definitely summery!

Check out this clever (okay strange) way to preserve fresh greens longer here.

Meet Dave, the friendly Bag O’Lettuce frog here (not joking).

Summertime Theatrics: Drama Camp at TNCS

The lovely and talented drama camp instructor, Alex Hewett.

The lovely and talented drama camp instructor, Alex Hewett.

“All the world’s a stage . . .” observed Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and The New Century School students are proving it so this summer in drama camp! First- and second-graders from several different city schools joined TNCS elementary kids to learn the art of theater July 8th through 12th from the lovely and talented Alex Hewett. Ms. Hewett also instructed pre-primary campers during the prior week. Though currently a Greater Baltimore resident, she grew up in New Jersey and started going to see Broadway plays at a very young age. She says she always knew she “wanted to be on the other side” and began her acting career at the tender age of 5. She now acts in plays, television shows, and commercials; writes; narrates digital books for the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; is a licensed psychotherapist; does yoga daily; and is a mother of two boys. With such a busy schedule, sounds like TNCS was lucky to get her!

“Theater is fun,” she says, “I want the kids to have fun while teaching them how to be relaxed yet confident on stage.” Acting both requires and builds confidence, a skill that the kids will use in all areas of their lives. Safety, respect, and collaboration are also important, adds Ms. Hewett. So, drama camp students got to learn the fundamentals of acting and theater, starting with the many varieties of performances, including staged readings, improvisation, and more traditional plays.

After some free time on the playground, a typical morning’s exercises began with a staged reading of Shel Silverstein’s poem “Sick” (see below). Ms. Hewett sets the tone for the performance, explaining to her students that the character in the poem, Peggy Ann McKay, is exaggerating her imagined ailments to be able to stay home from school. “Everything seems bigger than it really is,” she says, “so Peggy can convince her parents. You have to be really convincing.” Creativity comes into play here as well; the kids are encouraged to find their own means of expression. One student read the poem on stage wrapped in a “blanket” for effect. “Think about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it,” coaxed Ms. Hewett.

“I cannot go to school today,”

Said little Peggy Ann McKay.

“I have the measles and the mumps,

A gash, a rash and purple bumps.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,

I’m going blind in my right eye.

My tonsils are as big as rocks,

I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox

And there’s one more–that’s seventeen,

And don’t you think my face looks green?

My leg is cut–my eyes are blue–

It might be instamatic flu.

I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,

I’m sure that my left leg is broke–

My hip hurts when I move my chin,

My belly button’s caving in,

My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,

My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.

My nose is cold, my toes are numb.

I have a sliver in my thumb.

My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,

I hardly whisper when I speak.

My tongue is filling up my mouth,

I think my hair is falling out.

My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,

My temperature is one-o-eight.

My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,

There is a hole inside my ear.

I have a hangnail, and my heart is–what?

What’s that? What’s that you say?

You say today is. . .Saturday?

G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

After the reading, Ms. Hewett provided a few pointers. “What does the director do after a performance?” she asked her class. “Gives notes!” they chorus in unison (this is a well-trained troupe). Next, drawing on that confidence and creativity that Ms. Hewett believes theater inspires and develops, another student performed an improvisational version of the poem and did a fantastic job of coming up with his funny ailments—such as mud in his eye—on the spot.

These exercises were warm-ups for the biggie—the students next acted out Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. They will perform it for the younger students in other camps on the last day of drama camp, using the Imagination Playground equipment for props in addition to some costumes and props of their own devising. By Thursday, they already knew their lines quite well, but Ms. Hewett as narrator is ready with prompts as needed. “What’s the narrator?” she asks her players. “Someone who tells the story,” they dutifully answer back. In this way, Ms. Hewett teaches them the vocabulary of the theater. By integrating these terms within their “playing,” she keeps camp fun yet informative.

She has them repeat and refine each scene a few times and says to them encouragingly, “it might seem boring to keep doing it over and over, but what are we doing?” “Rehearsing!” they proudly reply. They didn’t seem bored in the slightest—quite the contrary. They eagerly incorporated her suggestions for improvement and worked well together. Though work was undeniably being done, the atmosphere in class was fun.

In fact, another skill Ms. Hewett has is finding ways to use the kids’ high energy instead of suppressing it. High energy was one reason she chose The Cat in the Hat as their culminating performance. “There’s a lot going on in that story,” she says, “so I can channel the kids’ energy to convey it on the stage.” “It’s also a story that everybody knows, she continues, “and one that we could bring to life in a different way.” Getting 6- and going-on-8-years-olds to keep still in the background while another actor is center stage probably isn’t going to happen, so when the “Cat” was pirouetting around the stage waiting for her next line, Ms. Hewett praised her for staying in character (you may recall that the original book Cat was also prone to fidgeting, often with stacks of dishes balanced on his head, even). When another student hammed it up with a fake voice in her role as the Fish, Ms. Hewett’s gentle response was, “I like that you are using a different voice, just make sure each word is clear.” Still another student wandered off the stage altogether. “Where are you going? You have fallen into the orchestra pit,” Ms. Hewett teases.

Thus, with patience and good humor, she keeps them on task, and the play starts to look pretty good. The kids remember to face out because the audience won’t enjoy watching the backs of their heads, they remember to speak loudly and clearly, and they remember their stage directions—with a little help from some masking tape on the floor to show them their stage positions. They also learn how to exhibit their characters’ emotions quite convincingly. The Fish learns to convey fear by widening her eyes, for example, and Sally does disbelief with her mouth slightly agape. They even learned the concept of the “fourth wall,” that imaginary line between stage and audience.

After rehearsal, we chatted. When asked why they decided to take drama camp, they all said innocently that Mommy and Daddy had decided for them. “But I am a little bit of a drama queen,” said one girl, completely oblivious to her comedic charm. Next we talked about whether they wanted to be actors and actresses when they grow up. Only one student replied in the affirmative, but with the fundamentals of drama under their belts, these kids have a host of future career possibilities. “Saving tigers,” for instance, is one girl’s dream, so remembering to always face her audience will certainly come in handy in that particular job!

And the Winner Is . . .

Dear readers, you spoke, and we listened. Earning 28% of total votes, the clear winner for this blog’s new name is—dun duh nuh nah—Immersed. Not only is that the name preferred by a majority of readers, but it also reflects The New Century School‘s purpose and values very appropriately. The 2013–2014 school year will renew focus on language learning, as TNCS returns to the immersion model that has served so well in the pre-primary classrooms. Thus, the name accurately conveys that students will be “immersed” in Spanish and Mandarin throughout the school day. Immersed also describes the kids’ full engagement with their scholastic activities. They are fully and enjoyably absorbed by what they are doing and learning, spellbound by the daily quest for new discoveries. As you knew, immersed fits in a number of ways.

Voting results. Thank for your participation :)!

Voting results. Thank you for your participation :)!

New Century News came in second place, by the way, which is also a good name. Many of you came up with your own names, and there were several nice suggestions including The Centurion, The Love of Learning News, and more. This was an altogether delightful exercise for our little community!

Look for the new, enhanced blog to be unveiled next month, just in time to start the school year off on the right note. Until then, blog posts will continue to be on the lighter side as we enjoy summer’s festivities. Also, remember to check the CSA recipes page for weekly additions!

Because it's cute.

Because it’s cute.