Meet the Teacher: Megan Dematteo Joins TNCS Lower Elementary!

Now in its 10th year, The New Century School continues to grow up, with a new grade added each year and an expanding student body. With greater numbers of students comes the need for additional teachers, especially in the elementary division. This year, TNCS welcomed Megan Dematteo to teach one of the four lower elementary classes.

Ms. Dematteo is one of those perfect fits that the school seems to attract, with her varied background, progressive approach to education, and her love of language and culture.

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Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and growing up in nearby Harford County, Ms. Dematteo majored in Spanish at the University of Tennessee, with an additional focus on Journalism. On graduating with her undergraduate degree, she sought some real-world experience and joined AmeriCorps. “I volunteered for a year in Southeast Utah, primarily working for a non-profit that mostly served the Mexican community there,” she recounts. “We called ourselves the multicultural center and were open to serving any population, but we did have the only Spanish translation services in town. That’s where I began using Spanish on a daily basis.”

That experience made an impression on her that still informs her approach to education and life today. “I loved that community, and I felt like that was my first opportunity to see how language can open you up to meeting a whole new group of people and learning about them. A different perspective and a broadening world view comes with that,” she said.

After completing her volunteer service with AmeriCorps, she returned to the Southeast in 2015 and pursued a master’s degree in Creative Writing. During this process, she also took up teaching. “I got a job offer teaching part-time to K through 2nd-grade students at a Title 1 public school in Asheville, North Carolina doing literacy in small groups, which was was a skill set I had acquired. That was a lot of fun. I loved teaching and opening kids up to reading and writing,” she said.

The school where she taught had an incredibly diverse community, representing 32 countries ranging from Central and South America to Eastern Europe to the Pacific Islands. She enjoyed both the school and its students and the community surrounding it. She also found the experience to be “eye-opening” insofar as Asheville draws a lot of affluent tourists who do not necessarily reflect the social fabric of the people living there full time. “It was a very interesting place to be a public school teacher,” she explained, “because the public school kids don’t represent the facade that you see.” She realized that being a full-time classroom teacher was going to be her next step.

Although she was originally accepted into TNTP, an alternative credentialing program for public schools that seeks to “reimagine teaching,” in order to teach in Baltimore City public schools, she found herself instead at The Nueva School’s Innovative Teacher Program. Thus, her step turned out to be another big one, taking her all the way to the West Coast to teach at an independent school for gifted and talented students in the San Francisco Bay area. “I wanted to diversify my training,” she said. “That school has a progressive approach to education that I found really exciting, and I loved working with the gifted population. It was just fun. You could throw anything at them, and they would typically rise to the occasion.”

At TNCS

Although that experience was fun, she always looked on it as temporary: “I knew ultimately that I wanted to be closer to my family and be in a place where I could see myself settling down for a while, so California was my last hurrah.” And that’s how she wound up in Baltimore, at TNCS. “I’m only in my 4th year as a teacher, but I’ve tasted every little sampling from the platter of environments to work in, and TNCS is kind of a hybrid of all the different experiences I’ve had,” she explained. “I feel like TNCS is all of those pieces of training put together in one program.”

Things are certainly coalescing—she brings bilingualism, a service orientation, and a focus on reading and writing to the classroom, which are key elements of the TNCS identity. As for ways she integrates her background of creative writing, journalism, and Spanish in the classroom, she says:

We do writing workshop a lot. I think the kids like the opportunity to be creative. We’re going to switch our focus to a little more reading this semester because we got really excited about a writing project toward the end of the year—the kids created their own book. They learned about character and plot, the beginning, middle, and end. The created their own original books, then dictated them to me, and then illustrated them. It really made them come alive. Kids that formerly weren’t super interested in the technical aspects of writing, all of a sudden found that they had a voice and became really excited and proud of the stories they were telling. It was wonderful to see that process.

To bring Spanish in, I read stories in the language, such as Mexican folk tales. I also have a couple of ‘Spanglish’ books that are written in English, but the characters might have Spanish names, for example. The students are sometimes surprised to hear me, an English native speaker, speak Spanish. I like being an example to them of somebody who is bilingual. So, I try to use Spanish in the classroom a little every day, but I am primarily an ELA teacher, and I can’t switch too much because I don’t want to confuse my students.

Ms. Dematteo is glad to see TNCS flourishing as a school and is especially appreciative of the Mandarin Chinese and Spanish language teaching. “They are doing something in Baltimore that’s never been done before, and I think it’s really commendable,” she said. “It’s also a big year as far as reaching a critical mass of students and being able to be fully operational as a pre-primary to middle school. That’s very exciting.”

She and Profesor Manuel share classes, each having 15 homeroom students. Ms. DeMatteo handles ELA and Math for the cohort of 30 total, and Prof. Manuel, Global Studies and Science. “I’m enjoying this,” she said. “It’s good to be back in Baltimore!”

TNCS Students Fill Up with Kindness!

As the third quarter of the 2017–2018 school year ramps up at The New Century School, Head of School Alicia Danyali is introducing a brand-new initiative in character development as part of her invisible curriculum that is one of the distinguishing features of TNCS. Although new, the latest initiative integrates well with other programs she has put in place over the years, especially last year’s four pillars of the TNCS learner profile, in which, schoolwide, students began exploring actively implementing Compassion, Courage, Respect, and Service into their daily school lives. Even as those concepts continue to define TNCS students and inform their academic pursuits, Mrs. Danyali seeks ways to make them more and more concrete as well as apply them in new and meaningful ways.

Grab Yourself a Bucket

So-called “bucket-filling” is conducting yourself in a positive manner with the ultimate outcome that you not only make others around you feel good, but you also feel good about yourself. Mrs. Danyali explains, “the premise is, what are you doing to influence a positive environment that ‘fills you up’? It doesn’t necessarily have to be something tangible like opening the door for somebody or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’—which should come naturally, of course—but we want to create a community that cares about each other.”

Maybe you’ve noticed some different behaviors at home and wondered what suddenly jumpstarted your child’s development . . . well, there’s a good chance it started in class at school. Mrs, Danyali has brought bucket-filling to each and every classroom at TNCS, sowing bucket-filling seeds among the 2-year-olds all the way up to the middle-schoolers.

“I feel like we’ve done a thorough discussion about character development,” she said, “and it’s time for putting words into practice. Bucket-filling looks different in different age groups, as it should, because I don’t have the same expectations of a toddler as I do of a 6th- or 7th-grader.” As such, she has distributed books and shared the concept in every class in varying length and depth. Younger classes were in a group setting and older classes in circles (see TNCS Brings It Full Circle with Restorative Practices! for her work with circles) that allowed individual student feedback. Overall, such student feedback has been very positive, and teachers are also getting into the spirit by regularly using the language of bucket-filling in their classrooms.

She gives examples during her discussions that they can relate to, to help them understand how they can shift their behaviors and reactions in a positive direction, such as, “Have you ever been at the lunch table and noticed some trash under it that isn’t yours, but instead of saying, ‘that’s not mine,” just going ahead and cleaning it up anyway? Wouldn’t that help make a nicer, cleaner community for everyone? Or, are you ever at the store with your parents and give someone a smile just to be nice?”

Bucket-Filling By the Numbers

For the 3rd- through 7th-graders, putting bucket-filling into practice involves reflecting and responding in journals. They were given notebooks with suggestions for each of 30 days on how to be a bucket-filler, or they could go off script and record their approach.  “It doesn’t mean to be a bucket-filler to everyone you meet,” explains Mrs. Danyali. “But it uses the same line of questioning every day and then asks the student to be reflective. In our follow-up, I’m curious to see how much they share or choose not to share, but they know that there is no specific expectation to be met through the journaling exercise.” In other words, they’ll get out of it what they put into it!

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In other divisions, bucket-filling will take different, age-appropriate forms. At the 2- and 3-year old level, for example, the discussion centers more on, “what would you do?” in a given situation. In one of the K–1st-grade classes, students put a pom-pom in a makeshift bucket each time they did or said something bucket-worthy. In this way, the teacher made the concept less abstract, and students were able to visualize how good deeds literally filled their class bucket. It also demonstrated the value of working together, and even the children who didn’t initially grasp the concept (getting a bit stuck on their beach shovels and pails) came away thinking, “Wow, what a nice class we have!” Others came to the “aha moment” by hearing fellow students share during circle time, such as one child’s story of her twice yearly closet clean-out to donate clothes she has outgrown to needier children.

For the whole school, art teacher Jenny Miller created a giant bucket for the multipurpose room wall so teachers can publicly recognize students who are exhibiting positive behaviors. Nevertheless, Mrs. Danyali is quick to note that acknowledgment is not what underpins bucket-filling: “What I really want them to take away from this is that you don’t always need recognition for doing something kind. Having more of a humble attitude and just knowing, ‘this is who I am and this is built into me’ and modeling positive behavior is the essence of bucket-filling, to my mind.” In fact, a newer concept to emerge from the bucket-filling juggernaut is “putting your lid on your bucket,” which basically means making sure that you are holding on to your positive energy and being sustained by it rather than going through the motions of bucket-filling just to impress somebody else.

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Filled with Implications

There are many facets to bucket-filling, and its implications are far-reaching. For example, another component to bucket-filling is taking responsibility for not-so-nice actions, which can also contribute to an affirmative environment and, in that sense, is reflective of restorative practice. Another aspect concerns the Dr. Jekyll of bucket-filling. For instance, if you’re not being an active bucket-filler, let’s hope you aren’t becoming the dreaded “bucket-dipper,” which is consciously subverting classroom rules or refusing to take accountability for a transgression and thereby depleting someone else’s bucket. You can also deplete your own bucket by such a negative attitude. Fortunately, trying to find ways and strategies to turn it around leads back to bucket-filling.

“I’m trying to make us more aware that it doesn’t take a lot to change how we feel,” said Mrs. Danyali. “For example, I said, ‘let me see your best smile,’ and followed up with, “how does that make you feel?’ If we work on self, then it can be better for everyone else.”

What do we want for our kids? We want them to be happy and healthy, and bucket-filling can contribute to those states. If that positive message is given to them and modeled for them consistently by the teachers they love and respect, then there’s a strong chance they’ll adopt the corresponding behaviors. “Sometimes adults need the message as much as students,” said Mrs. Danyali. I ask myself, ‘is what you’re doing today bettering you and benefiting everyone else around you?’ ”

She noted that, so far, bucket-filing seemed to resonate most with students who are already strongly connected to service, but she thinks it’s going to catch on more and more as TNCS students cultivate their character strengths and grow and develop.

Future Buckets

“I’m hoping these conversations are ongoing, and I’ll continue going into classrooms and facilitating,” said Mrs. Danyali. I feel that if a good portion of the kids walk away understanding the concept and implementing it in their community and in the classroom, then it’s made the difference.”

“Becoming a bucket-filling classroom” is a thing, but Mrs. Danyali is hesitant to invite too much fanfare. She prefers to keep it “organic and authentic” to TNCS, which means that it must be differentiated among levels and it will be implemented differently in each classroom. All of the materials are available in Spanish so there may be opportunity for some bilingual bucket-filling. Other schools even make bucket-filling into a competition, but that is something Mrs. Danyali will not bring to TNCS, as competing is diametrically opposed to what she feels is the point of this whole endeavor—which is more or less to become aware of our how our conduct affects our fellows and ourselves.

“This year will be sort of an experiment,” she says. “I’m hoping it creates conversations, and we’ll see where it goes. I can see building on it year after year, like with our core values.”

If you’d like to reinforce bucket-filling at home and elsewhere, resources abound. The website (www.bucketfillers101.com/) provides useful information as well as links to social media platforms including YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and more, showing everything from having a positive influence in how we talk, how we bucket-fill at home, and how it can be done in the community at large.

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Writer in Residence Joins TNCS: Meet Ilia Madrazo!

IMG_1209This past November, The New Century School embarked on a new approach to English Language Arts instruction. Welcoming Ilia Madrazo to the faculty, TNCS now features dedicated ELA teaching for 3rd-grade through middle-school students, which allows intensive focus in the all-important skills of enhanced reading comprehension and effective writing.

Although the elementary and middle school  teaching staff had already been established for the 2017–2018 academic year, when Ms. Madrazo became available, new opportunities that were too good to pass up likewise opened for TNCS’s academic offerings. Ms. Madrazo is a passionate educator with over 20 years’ experience teaching ELA, English as a Second Language, and Reading to school-aged students of all levels as well as at the university level. She earned her master’s degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Houston and pursued doctoral level studies in English Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico. She is a published researcher and has presented at various conferences. In addition to scoring such a credentialed instructor, bringing Ms. Madrazo on as “Writer in Residence” also allowed the other elementary and middle school teachers at TNCS to specialize in their preferred subjects, such as Jon Wallace now being science guru full time.

About Ilia Madrazo

Ms. Madrazo came to Baltimore last March via Houston, Texas but is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where much of her family including her son still resides. (Her son is currently studying Physics at the University of Puerto Rico with the goal of becoming a radiologist.) She decided to move from Houston (just in time to avoid Hurricane Harvey, she added) because, after 10 years there, she needed a change. Having a brother, sister-in-law, and a nephew here made Baltimore the logical choice. One day in the future, she hopes to move to Spain.

Once here, though, she jumped in with both feet, establishing clear rules and expectations from the outset. She jokes: “So far it’s going very well. I think the kids and I are in the honeymoon period because they are working really well for me.” She immediately implemented “literature circles,” which got students engaged in reading in new and deeper ways—a primary goal of Ms. Madrazo’s. She describes the literature circle as akin to a book club, with a facilitator (her) and a group of students discussing the book theme and associated topics. She also incorporates writing instruction in an innovative way here: “We approach the book not only as the reader, but also as the writer. Good books teach you how to write well. I’m big on non-fiction because it allows students to see the form of the writing, and that can be helpful. Writing is very hard to teach and learn, so starting from another perspective can reduce students’ anxiety about it.”

Despite being Spanish/English bilingual and having experience teaching ESOL, Ms. Madrazo’s preferred medium is definitely ELA. She discovered this while teaching adults during her doctoral studies in Puerto Rico. “Honing in and concentrating on English learners came naturally to me, and I just fell in love with it,” she explained. This came as somewhat of a surprise to her because she did not set out to pursue literature and writing in college. “My bachelor’s is in Psychology,” she explained. “I entered college as a premed, but I wanted to have a life outside of studying, so I thought I would be a child psychologist. I always knew I wanted to work with children, older children.” On graduating, she began pursuing a master’s in Education on her mother’s advice, as something to always be able to fall back on, but marriage and starting a family temporarily interrupted those plans. As mentioned above, however, she did get that master’s and has been a teacher ever since. Her whole family, in fact, even though they study very different disciplines, are all teachers.

Developing her writing skills is another story: “I was never trained to write. So when I got to college, I had to learn how to write a perfect story. I found that I had to do an outline to organize my thoughts and then add the meat to it.” She still uses this formula today to ensure that each piece of writing is coherent, measured, and makes a clear argument.

Writing Program at TNCS

With abundant expertise and experience, Ms. Madrazo has lots of ideas for expanding the writing program at TNCS. Writing is communication, and good communication is an absolutely essential 21st-century skill.  She says: “I want to move writing forward, not only writing a good story but writing a solid essay or opinion piece in which students must give me evidence to support what they’re saying. So, if they’re reading a book, I want them to be able to tell me not only that a character went through a change but also to be able to cite in what paragraph and on what page that change occurred. This practice will be very good preparation for high school and college.”

So far, she is using some of the same materials already in play in ELA, such as Wordly Wise for vocabulary expansion and the Lucy Calkins curriculum for elementary writers, and is also incorporating new ones, like the Just Write series and Words Their Way for 3rd and 4th grades. Middle school students will have an entirely separate curriculum using, for example, Empowering Writers. She will be refining the curricula throughout Quarters 3 and 4.

She is also finding ways to manage the different levels within each group by utilizing the Daily 5 classroom management rotation. This includes “Word Work” in the Wordly Wise website, or SuccessMaker, or Raz kids; a small group that works with her; writing or reading alone, and doing “Word Sorts”—a method of classifying words based on their spelling pattern and phonetics; among other writing and reading-related activities.

“I’m excited to be able to dedicate myself to ELA and really focus here,” said Ms. Madrazo.. “I fell in love when I came to TNCS the first time. Having a greenhouse, chickens, I loved it. The cafeteria is focused on healthy food. I like that the classes are small. I love Fells Point. I also want to thank the parents and administration for embracing me. It’s been lovely so far and I hope to have a great partnership with them.”

If you have not done so already, make time to meet Ms. Madrazo, such as during second-semester Parent–Teacher conferences. Besides being an excellent teacher and writer, in her free time, she enjoys traveling, listening to podcasts, playing board games, and hanging out with her Puggle, Jupiter.

It’s a New Dai for Extended Care at TNCS!

The New Century School is well known for its convenient before- and aftercare programs as well as its robust extracurricular programming. In October, TNCS welcomed Dehojeni “Dai” Cousins as Aftercare Director to oversee and expand on these popular offerings.

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Ms. Cousins came to Baltimore 3 years ago but is originally from San Diego, California.  She first came to the East Coast to attend college in Atlanta, where she earned a B.A. in Mathematics, although she originally majored in Biology with the intent to become a medical examiner. She soon realized that math was her passion, and, upon graduating, arrived in Baltimore to teach math at Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, a medical high school where students get certified to work in the nursing, pharmaceutical, or EMT fields.

While she was teaching, Ms. Cousins earned two master’s degrees, one in Special Education and another in Secondary Education, all by the time she was 23 years old. She explains why she decided to apply for the TNCS Aftercare Director position, despite having so much education experience: “Teaching was a big time commitment—I didn’t have time for anything else. So I thought I needed something different, but I knew I still wanted to work with children.”

Despite being so accustomed to working with high school–age children, she adjusted to the younger age groups at TNCS immediately. “Younger kids want you to help them, and they want you to talk to them, so it’s easier to try to get them to do something. They’re easier to engage, and they’re just so loving. High school students tend to have more ‘attitude’ and don’t always want outside input,” she said.

Although she came into a program that was already pretty well established, she knows what direction she’d like to take it in from here. Her main focus in the fall was to ensure that students enrolled in before and after care had plenty of opportunities to be creative and active and to basically enjoy being where they are. (Psst—she loves Pinterest!) “I want them to make stuff so they can take home something different. I definitely want to incorporate more activities and a little bit more structure with the students. Some students haven’t learned certain social skills, so I want to help them develop those behaviors,” she said.

As far as extracurricular activities, she says, “I’m still figuring that out. There are already a lot of choices now, so I just need to fill in some gaps. I also want to incorporate more extracurriculars for primary students.”

All in all, for being in a new environment both geographically and professionally, Ms. Cousins is adapting beautifully. San Diego and Baltimore are quite different, for example.  “At first it was an adjustment. The weather, the buildings, just everything about it was an adjustment, especially because San Diego is more of a calmer place, and it’s always sunny. It’s a little colder here,” she said. Back in San Diego, she frequented the beach, helped her younger sister with schoolwork—especially math—and did a lot of volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club. Here, she is developing friendships, loves to cook with her boyfriend, and plans to explore East Coast beaches to see how they measure up. Although all of her family is in California, she goes back at least once a year to visit them, and her mother loves to travel and comes here often. Her work, she says, is going very well. She finds it a fun challenge to design new activities for students in Extended Care to pursue.

Ms Cousins was adamant about one thing in particular: “Even though I’m young, I’m ready for this task.” You may have noticed—the kids adore her!