TNCS Middle School: Opening the Window of Awakening

As we approach the end of 2015, our thoughts naturally turn to what lies ahead in the coming year. For The New Century School, one thrilling near-future event looms very large: the opening of the TNCS middle school in fall 2016.

One of the more unfortunate American societal trends is that middle school–age kids are in a slump. Forgotten in the interstices between elementary school and high school, these kids are victims of what has been termed the “lost years.” Multiple factors contribute to this problem, but a key issue is that kids are still maturing yet are confronted with the many pressures and challenges of young adulthood. Many do not yet have the tools they need to face down these challenges and become confused and overwhelmed, which all too often leads to poor decision-making with potentially life-altering consequences, such as teen pregnancy or drug abuse. Another unfortunate consequence is that kids show less interest in learning, with correspondingly lower academic performance.

The good news is, these problems are preventable, and TNCS is leading the charge to revolutionize middle school education. Rather than view the middle school years as inevitably unproductive, TNCS sees them as a Window of Awakening—flipping the entrenched notion that kids at this age are a lost cause on its head. Middle school becomes an opportunity, not a wasteland. A juncture, not a dead zone.

So how will TNCS make middle school a positive experience for students? Of course, the scholastic piece will maintain continuity with TNCS’s core identity as a progressive, inquiry-based learning institution that emphasizes global citizenship and community spirit. TNCS administration is in talks with a middle school curriculum expert to ensure that the curriculum will be rigorous and engaging, meets or exceeds state standards, and is relevant and therefore meaningful for students ages 10–14 years. Mixed-age classrooms, individualized instruction, and language acquisition will remain vital components in effecting this specialized middle school curriculum.

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The real difference will be in embracing the oft-squandered opportunity that these years present to keep them invested in their learning. It’s an opportunity to really set them up for success in high school and beyond with the explicit practical skills they will need. These include physical and mental organizational skills (e.g., keeping track of materials; time management) and developing the habits of successful students (to study smarter, not harder). And, more than that, it’s an opportunity to guide them in their search for their identity to who they really are—to help them actualize their innate potential and goodness.

Akin to the preschool years in some ways, during the middle school years, kids need parents more, not less. Despite their kids’ outward physical growth and the biological changes that seem to propel them to adulthood, parents retain more influence over kids at this age than they might realize. Although kids test out rebellion and throw up opposition every chance they get, these might be requests for attention and help. They are navigating a huge new world, and sometimes they want their hands held along the way.

TNCS is a small, close-knit school. Many among the student body have known each other since toddlerhood. While many preteens and teens are crumbling under peer pressure, pressure to conform, and the pressure to make good choices about huge decisions with their as-yet limited knowledge and experience, TNCS middle school students will benefit from being a part of this protective community where they will be free take things at their own pace.

At the same time, an integral school value is the courage to take risks—not to be confused with condoning risky behavior. This risk-taking is about creativity. Problem-solving, conflict resolution, trying new things, innovating . . . all of these are hallmarks of happy, successful, self-possessed individuals. TNCS middle school will create frameworks for possibility, in the words of The Art of Possibility, a groundbreaking book comprising 12 practices for bringing creativity into any endeavor.

True to TNCS’s mission, fostering compassion and its logical consequence, altruism, the middle school will broaden and deepen the mentorships begun in the younger divisions such as elementary students reading to the pre-primary and primary students. Here, these mentorships might take the form of actual instruction, which will benefit both groups, the younger  kids by the content of the instruction and the older kids by the act of instructing. The “Learning Pyramid” posits that we retain 90% of what we learn when we teach it to someone else. Leadership skills will be further cultivated through proposed formation of a student government.

They will reach out to the larger community as well with targeted “service learning.” In the words of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The possibilities for specific programs are endless, but partnering with Habitat for Humanity is one example of ways TNCS middle school students might participate. Maryland, by the way, was the first state to require service-learning hours as a condition of graduation from high school. (Click here to read some of the many academic, personal, and social student benefits of community engagement.)

Field trips will also take on a service-oriented hue. The upper elementary students are already taking excursions with teachers Kiley Stasch and Dan McGonigal that are connected to their in-class study. By applying what they have learned to the real world, they are then invited to reflect on their experience to reinforce the link between their service and their learning. Given their status as ever-maturing young people, these trips may take them farther afield than where they have so far gone, in keeping with TNCS’s global vision.

Why a middle school? TNCS Co-Founder/Executive Director said it best: “At the end of the day, what we want for our kids is for them to be happy with who they are and what they are doing.” And that’s what TNCS middle school will be all about.

Happy Holidays, TNCS Community! See you next year!

 

TNCS Elementary Saves the Holidays!

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You know “Dash-er”. . . But Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, et al. are still out playing reindeer games. 

It’s true, folks . . . Santa very nearly was not going to be coming to town in 2015 due to the weather-related transportation problems that tend to befall him in el niño years. When this has happened before, Rudolph always swooped in just in time. But this year, Santa has grounded Rudolph until that stubborn reindeer obeys orders to switch his nose to an energy-efficient lightbulb (he’s been asked yearly since 2012, for goodness sake). So, with the programming aid of The New Century School elementary students, here comes “Dash-er” to the rescue, less furry than traditional reindeer, but much more compliant when clear commands are issued.

This all started back in the fall when TNCS dad David Broiles approached TNCS Stem Teacher Dan McGonigal with the idea to celebrate Computer Science Education Week (December 7th–13th) by participating in the Global Hour Of Code project. “We started talking about coding and robotics,” said Mr. Broiles, “and [Mr. McGonigal] was receptive and willing to test out some different robots that were kid friendly and supported block programming utilizing mobile apps that connected to the robots over bluetooth.”

After narrowing the field to a robot named “Dash,” explained Mr. Broiles, Mr. McGonigal developed a curriculum for the kids, which became the “Dash-ing All the Way” challenge. Said Mr. Broiles: “He did an amazing job. Prior to the challenge, Mr. McGonigal expertly framed/briefed the challenge to the kids and they had a great time with the challenge and were really engaged the whole time. It was a big success!”

TNCS elementary students began practice programming during Computer Science Education Week in preparation for the big challenge to occur on December 17th, just before the Holiday Break. Their mission was to save the holidays by measuring out a route and programming their robot to extricate Santa from a massive blizzard. “Dash-er,” as the robot aptly became known for this challenge, responds to basic verbal commands but must be custom-programmed to execute anything more complex. TNCS students used apps like “Wonder” and “Blockly” to provide their robo-reindeer with step-by-step instructions to plot his course.

tncs-elementary-hour-of-code-week-challengeBut first they had to map it out themselves, using precise measurements, as well as test the accuracy of their commands on each other by physically navigating the course and making necessary adjustments to and adding or omitting codes accordingly.

Said Mr. McGonigal: “It was an amazing project for the kids. I think they really showed perseverance and cooperation when working through this challenge among other important 21st-century skills, like solving problems. They had to consider a lot of programming commands as well as some math concepts, such as metric measurement (because programming requires universal language), division and multiplication (because Dash-er had to cover a certain distance but could only proceed in small increments at a time), and geometry (e.g., angles), in order to be successful completing this challenge. They also had to continuously make improvements to their programs.”

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David Broiles, TNCS Dad and IT Security Manager for the Army Research Laboratory, helps students adjust their programs to get Dash-er up to speed.

Mr. McGonigal credits Mr. Broiles for initiating this fantastic project that his students so clearly enjoyed as well as for providing the Dash-ers and other equipment for the students’ use in addition to hands-on assistance and advice the day of the challenge.

In the end, all teams successfully completed or came very close to completing the challenge by getting Dash-er all the way through the course shown below. Team Elves and Team Kitty were the first to prevail. Earlier that day, Team Dashing through the Snow in a Camaro Chevrolet (great name, kids) and Team Ravens were on the cusp of breakthrough before time ran short.

Amidst a happy background din of toddler gym-time and the odd philosophical debate about Santa’s authenticity, see their truly amazing progress in more or less sequential fashion in the short clips below.

Why code? The language of computers is arguably the world language. In the near future, not knowing it will be akin to being illiterate. Moreover, so-called “computational thinking” is truly a 21st-century skill in that it not only combines mathematics and logic, but it also potentially open ups a new way of thinking. Approaching a large, complex problem (e.g., extricate Santa from a blizzard) by chunking it into stepwise smaller problems (e.g., commands such as “move forward 80 cm and repeat × 3”) allows efficient problem-solving that can be abstracted into models and then applied back out to the real world. Both multilingualism and creative problem-solving are skills that TNCS strives to instill in students to give them solid footing in the world.

You saved the 2015 holidays, TNCS elementary students, now it’s on to saving the world!

Courtesy of Mr. Broiles, here are two more videos for your viewing pleasure! The first shows Mr. McGonigal explaining the challenge and demonstrating just how students executed it. The second shows a beautifully programmed Dash-er completing the course and saving Santa! 

Right From The Start: Talking with Elementary Age Children about Sexuality

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“The Sex Lady” and proud Baltimorean Debbie Roffman.

On November 17th, The New Century School continued its important and informative speaker series for the community with a presentation by renowned author and nationally certified Sexuality and Family Life Educator Deborah Roffman.

Ms. Roffman believes strongly that parents should be their kids’ primary source of information about sex. Although many parents consider talking to young children and even teenagers about sex to be one of the most difficult challenges they face, Ms. Roffman brings her more than 30 years’ experience to bear in de-mythologizing this critical topic.

It comes down to opening the dialogue. Kids are exposed to sex-related information and images through media and other outlets no matter the measures parents might take to limit age-inappropriate material. Becoming the reliable source to help them navigate these often confusing and contradictory messages will get kids off on the right track to a healthy, age-appropriate relationship with sexuality.

Ms. Roffman began her talk with child developmental stages and showed how naturally kids evolve from realizing they are individual selves in toddlerhood to wondering, “How did I get here?” as young children, and ultimately to the logical next question once they can articulate it: “Where do babies come from?” She even provided suggested scripts for how to respond to the inevitable embarrassing questions or to gently correct the misinformation kids might be thinking. With graciousness and many amusing anecdotes, she helped the audience see that we can relate to our kids about sexuality on their level. Again, the emphasis is on keeping the lines of communication open. “Connectedness with parents,” she said, “is the number one factor in avoiding risky behavior.”

Ms. Roffman is a Baltimore native, teaching sexuality education to 4th- through 12th-graders. She has published three books—Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense about Sex; But How Did I Get in There in the First Place?: Talking to Your Young Children about Sex; and most recently, Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ Go-To Person about Sex. Her articles have appeared in countless major journals and newspapers, and she makes regular television appearances to spread the word about how to guide kids through healthy sexual development. My dream, she said, “is that one day in the United States, families and schools will be kids’ primary reference point for sex, gender, and reproduction so that everything they hear subsequently will be filtered through our lens and our voice.”

Her talk at TNCS focused on Talk to Me First. TNCS mom Amy Menzer was on hand and found the presentation “refreshing and very helpful.”

As the parent of an almost 6-year-old, I have been worried about what to say when my daughter asks about whether she and her best friend can have babies, or about what is sex (hasn’t come up yet!). I’ve wondered about what’s developmentally appropriate, and how do I respond in a sex-positive way that is factual, doesn’t convey that this is something shameful, but that also avoids prematurely encouraging her sexualization any sooner than our culture will allow.

Ms. Roffman began by pointing out that our broader culture pressures us to “say nothing,” because we fear something bad will happen, an attitude about sexuality that dates back to the Puritans. But nothing bad is going to happen because we talked about sex and sexuality! In fact, talking about it and being open and honest will encourage your child to see you as a go-to person on these issues as their interests and concerns evolve. Most refreshing I think was her point that we have the opportunity to shape our children’s attitudes about their sexuality and intimate relationships and convey our values. So rather than dreading “the talk,” or fearing that we may say something damaging or that our kids’ friends’ parents will be upset with us, we should see this as part of an ongoing conversation over the years in which different information will need to be discussed at different ages. The danger of avoiding the subject is that our children will learn from popular culture and the playground alone. She brought up some euphemisms many of us may have learned while growing up including “first base, second base….” as an example of how the “knowledge” kids gather from their peers may NOT be how we’d like them to be thinking about gender roles, their bodies, their sexuality, or their relationships with others.

Amy Menzer, TNCS mom

For those of you who were not able to attend the presentation at TNCS, Ms. Roffman’s website SexandSensibility.net (which name says it all) offers an abundance of resources to help you get your conversation started as well as links to order your own copy of Talk to Me First. “I am reading her book Talk to Me First now, and am so grateful to have had this introduction,” said Ms. Menzer.

Thank you, Ms. Menzer, for sharing your invaluable firsthand perspective with Immersed, and thanks also to TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali for continuing to bring thoughtful, insightful speakers to enrich our community.

Meet the Teacher: Manuel Caceres

By now, we are well into the 2015–2016 school year at The New Century School, a period that has been brimming with exciting education-related events so far and has kept the TNCS community very busy, to say the least. But let’s take a moment to catch up with a new-for-this-year educator, who, it’s fair to say, has reinvigorated TNCS’s Spanish-language program and achieved new levels of student engagement. Meet K/1st teacher Manuel E. Caceres—or, as the kids know him, Profesor Manuel.

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K/1st teacher Profesor Manuel in his classroom.

A native of El Salvador, Central America, Profesor Manuel moved to the United States in March 2004. With a degree in education at the primary and secondary levels, he went on to study education and theology at Pan-American University. He is married with three children, an 8-year-old daughter and boy/girl twins born in spring 2015.

Education is vitally important to him; he believes that “we can accomplish much in this world through educating children as global citizens; citizens who are humane, caring, thinking, and effective.” He strongly believes in “you can do if you really want to.”

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Profesor Manuel donned a Dia de los Muertos costume for Book Character Dress-Up Day on October 31st to go with the K/1st viewing of “The Book of Life” in Spanish.

Up to now he had worked in public schools, including most recently at Baltimore International Academy, an immersion-style International Baccalaureate school, where he taught a variety of subjects. At TNCS, he teaches global studies in the target language of Spanish and is committed to his career in education, to his students, their parents, and TNCS. “I’m very glad to be at this school,” he said, “because private school is very different from what I’m used to. I will use this first year to learn—learn from other teachers, from parents, and from the children.” He values the degree if parent involvement here, especially. Some of his past students have not had the benefit of continual parental interaction, likely due to their life circumstances. In such cases, says Profesor Manuel, the teacher has to become part-time parent, psychologist, etc., leaving insufficient time to teach. “[At TNCS], I can see that children get a lot of support, and it makes an important difference.”

If you are wondering why suddenly your children are speaking more Spanish than ever before, look no further. Although Profesor Manuel might consider himself to be in an adjustment phase, his students would never know it, given the measurable strides they have made already this year in Spanish from his teaching. His deep engagement with his students is at the root. He asks them to set and be ever mindful of their personal goals. He demands—and receives—respect in and for the classroom. Once these important messages have been understood, it’s time to have a little fun while learning.

He also has an innate gift for tapping into kids’ natural proclivities. They like to move around. A lot. So, on field trips, he has been known to take turns sitting with each and every child on the bus and playing piedrapapelo tijera, which you probably know as the game “rock, paper, scissors.” Not only did keeping them occupied this way reduce the fever-pitch levels of noise and intensity on the bus (by a hair, anyway—any reader who has served as chaperone can relate 😉 ), but it’s also a brilliant method for enhancing language-learning. The actions reinforce the meaning of the Spanish words, and the rhythm aids pronunciation. (By the way, this is the basis of Total Physical Response, a core TNCS teaching approach that “uses physical movement to react to verbal input in order to reduce student inhibitions and lower their affective filter. It allows students to react to language without thinking too much, facilitates long-term retention, and reduces student anxiety and stress.” We’ll explore this fascinating concept further in a future post!)

“I integrate all sorts of things when I teach, like singing, playing, smiling . . . I always try to make connections,” he said. He also makes sure that every child knows that he or she is the “favorite”—in other words, there are no favorites. Each child is special in Profesor Manuel’s class and knows it. They feel secure, and when kids are confident, they are primed for learning.

Watch this video to see him keep a normally pretty rowdy crowd of K/1st students in check as they wait to begin work on a division-wide art project. Some minor delays in getting art materials ready would have otherwise severely taxed the kids’ reserves of patience, but Profesor Manuel and his skeletal assistant came to the rescue, with “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Spanish!

“Let them be,” he said, “teach them the rules, but then let them play.” This approach is clearly working and fits in beautifully at TNCS. We’re glad to have you on board, Profesor! Bienvenida!