Cultural Diversity at TNCS: Insiders’ Perspectives

At The New Century School, cultural diversity is an inherent part of the establishment. Academically, world cultures are explored, celebrated, and honored. More to the point, though, is that the school population itself is remarkably diverse. Students and families hail from all over the world, and instructors have joined us from several Asian and Latin countries. Multiple languages are spoken and taught: English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. TNCS sits at the center of a nest of community-based concentric circles: school, neighborhood, city, and on up through the global community. A key principle is to be part of these communities rather than disparate; thus, cultural diversity is woven into the school’s fabric, a vibrant and exotic patchwork quilt.

Parents and staff certainly appreciate this gift to TNCS students, who get to experience this wonderful diversity as it should be experienced—not as an obstacle to overcome but as the natural way of the world. But what about from the inside? How do the Spanish and Chinese instructors themselves “cross the cultural divide,” such as it may or may not exist here? They may face what could amount to a double culture shock: Some not only must acclimate to the United States, but also adapt to a work environment in which yet a third culture is prominent—either Chinese or Spanish. Others may be experiencing the Montessori approach for the first time, which likewise requires some professional recalibrating. We spoke to assistant teachers Jennifer Hodapp and Wen Weisi, both new for the 2013–2014 school year, to find out how they are responding to “life in a melting pot.”

Spanish assistant teacher in Ms. Lazarony's classroom, Jennifer Hodapp has a Masters of Arts in Counseling Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Psychology. She loves working with children and has a strong desire to help students with their academic, personal, and social needs.

Spanish assistant teacher in Ms. Lazarony’s classroom, Jennifer Hodapp has a Masters of Arts in Counseling Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Psychology. She loves working with children and has a strong desire to help students with their academic, personal, and social needs.

Ms. Hodapp is the assistant teacher in Ms. Lazarony’s primary classroom, where she speaks only Spanish to the kids, and forays into other classrooms to give 45-minute Spanish lessons as well. She is from Massachusetts, about an hour from Boston, but her parents are from Puerto Rico, and she grew up speaking Spanish in her household. Although Ms. Hodapp was born here, she knows from her parents that school life was very different in Puerto Rico than it is here. “It was very traditional,” she said. “Students wore uniforms, and the atmosphere was strict. Students were expected to sit still and attend to the teacher’s lectures.” Her own school experience was similar insofar as it followed the conventional classroom approach.

Was adapting to a more relaxed, more student-centered approach challenging for Ms. Hodapp? Not in the slightest. She is considering pursuing Montessori certification, in fact, because she feels that the work-at-your-own-pace model is exceptionally effective for young learners. She came to Baltimore 2 years ago and worked (and continues to work) with adolescents with emotional difficulties. “I always wanted to work with younger kids, too,” she said, “and I find this job very peaceful by comparison to my work with older kids!” Ms. Hodapp has a gentle nature and a very ready smile, so it’s no surprise that she would adapt to TNCS so well. “I love circle-time,” she said, “and working in small groups in which I instruct in Spanish.” She also gets to work one-on-one with the students: “They will ask me for help with a task, and I guide them in Spanish. It’s amazing how they absorb the language!” At the very start of the school year, for example, she had to act out what she was saying, whereas now she no longer has to “model” for them because they have picked up so much Spanish.

Speaking only in their native language is a requirement for the assistant teachers in order to immerse the children in that language and allow them to develop not just the vocabulary and the cadence but also to really get to know the teacher very naturally, on his or her linguistic turf. Says Head of School Alicia Danyali: “The interaction with the child is the most important thing, not the number of foreign words acquired.” Preserving this model is paramount for Ms. Danyali, whose experience is in immersion settings. She knows firsthand how language is organically acquired from these special relationships.

Peace is the same in all languages.

Wen Weisi, a volunteer from Confucius Institutes of China, has joined TNCS as a Chinese “floating” assistant teacher. Teaching comes naturally to Wen Laoshi, whose mother and older sister also both teach. She loves children and helping them learn Mandarin.

Wen Weisi, a “floating” Chinese assistant arrived in the United States in August and got immediately to work at TNCS, where she spends time teaching Mandarin and teaching in Mandarin to several classes daily. She studied at the Confucius Institute, a program “committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide; it goes all out in meeting the demands of foreign Chinese learners and contributing to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.”

From Hunan Province in southern China, Wen Laoshi says she she feels lucky to be here at TNCS. “Everything is going well, and everyone is so friendly!” she reported. She also says that it’s very different here, especially scholastically, but the differences do not pose a problem for her; in fact, she seems to relish the progressive education environment. “Kids here are open and brave. They  face difficulties independently,” she said. This description serves well. Much of what TNCS hopes to cultivate in a child is his or her natural curiosity as well as the problem-solving ability to follow the adventure where it might lead. Another name for this process is learning. Given the freedom to pursue what interests them, the students enjoy learning; it isn’t a chore. Curriculum-wise, Wen Laoshi prefers a balance of core disciplines with the finer subjects such as art. “Chinese students are good at studying,” she explained, “but not so good at sports and arts. At this school, all of these things are being well developed.” This is exactly the “whole-child” education that TNCS strives to provide.

She hopes to learn more about the Montessori approach while she is here and bring some of the ideology back home to China. She recognizes its distinctiveness in terms of materials and the special ways of interacting with the students and is learning from the Montessori-trained teachers and from books. Staff development days are also helpful for this and for generally getting to know each other better, as Ms. Hodapp agrees. Wen Laoshi is here for a total of 10 months and plans to “focus on work” during that time to make the most of it. As for teaching Mandarin, she is duly impressed with her students. She finds the elementary students especially keen and notices that they seem to really enjoy learning the language. She says that in a very short time, she saw big improvements in their writing and speaking and attributes this rapid progress to Elementary Chinese Immersion Lead Teacher Xie Laoshi (a.k.a., Jewel), whose teaching ability she greatly esteems. In her capacity as Chinese Language Coordinator, Xie Laoshi also provides teaching resources to the other instructors.

That our two newest assistants, both who love children and love teaching, would adapt so beautifully to their new positions doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. (Let’s face it, those kids are terrific!) But did that “double culture shock” pose any particular challenges for Ms. Hodapp and Wen Laoshi? Evidently not. Wen Laoshi described how the assistants “take care of each other.” More seasoned teachers mentor the newer arrivals, for example, more or less taking them under their wings. Additionally, TNCS families may host an assistant in certain circumstances, which also helps with general acclimatization. But even across cultures, a lot of sharing takes place. The Spanish and Mandarin assistant teachers greet each other in their respective languages, such that Ms. Hodapp will speak to Wen Laoshi in Mandarin as they pass in the hallways, and vice versa. They also translate for each other. In this way, they, too, are absorbing new language and culture right alongside their students.

The roster of assistant teachers might change from time to time as one completes a pre-arranged term of employment and returns to his or her native country, but the language and culture curriculum developed and overseen by Xie Laoshi stays in place. New arrivals are set up with everything they need to become effective language teachers in their new home.

Ms. Hodapp said it best. “This is a really great school,” she stated with conviction. “The Montessori approach for the primary kids is great, but it’s really the Spanish and Mandarin language and culture that set it apart.”

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