Lessons from the Sandlot: TNCS Middle Schoolers Unplug and Connect!

The month of March is often the busiest at The New Century School—absolutely tons happens. We’re happy to report that this year, despite circumstances, was no different!

A large part of the excitement was the return of Daphnée Hope after maternity leave that began late last fall. Ms. Hope had been the 5th- through 8th-grade English Language Arts and Global Studies teacher, and her students initially had bit of a hard time grasping that she was returning in a whole new role.

TNCS’s First School Counselor

That new role is TNCS School Counselor. While finishing up her graduate degree (with a new baby, no less), she is doing her mandatory internship at TNCS. From now until the end of the school year, she’ll be on campus twice weekly to counsel students, create character-building lessons, and connecting students with resources.

Why counseling? “Since my very first year of teaching, I knew right away that I wanted to be a school counselor because my favorite part of teaching is not actually curriculum—it’s building relationships with students,” she explains.

Being able to help them work through any problems that they’re having having, to think deeper and connect with their feelings, is so important. Especially in middle school, they need to understand how to identify their emotions and connect with them. I was talking to a student yesterday who has been really struggling, and just being able to say, ‘you’re a teenager; everything you’re feeling is very normal,’ and seeing the relief on their face that there’s not something wrong and it’s okay to have strong feelings, was great. I especially love middle school because at that age, everything they feel is felt so deeply, and counselors and teachers have a big hand in shaping how they get through.

Ms. Hope says that she put off her dream for a while to get a few more years of teaching experience under her belt and then realized last year that it was time to go for that degree.

“I’ll be meeting with each level monthly and do a series of counseling lessons dependent on the needs of each group,” said Ms. Hope. “For example, today is 1st-grade’s first lesson, and the teacher shared that they’ve been having some issues with bullying. It’s part of a school counselor’s job to create responsive services, and so I’m going to create lessons for them about bullying—what it looks like at this age. It can be as simple as excluding someone from playground games over and over. So, with that age group, I’m going to be using picture books and drawings to make it clear and age appropriate for them.” She explains that kids often don’t realize that their behaviors rise to the level of bullying and sometimes just need to understand that those behaviors are hurting another in some way. We humans don’t come by our social skills naturally; we have to be taught. Although parents certainly provide a lot of this kind of teaching, school is were students spend most of their time and is also where they most need to apply these skills. “It’s equally our to educate them on how to communicate with each other, such as looking into each other’s eyes when they’re talking, and, if someone is talking to you, turn your body toward them to convey better positive body language,” said Ms. Hope.

For many of the older students, teachers have reported common themes, like needing social and emotional connection. “Some of our students are withdrawing and showing signs of depression,” she said. This is not surprising given that they crave connection and have been largely denied it for the past year. Also, especially in middle school, students’ emotional lives expand, and they have questions and may struggle to deal with all the new “feels,” as Ms. Hope described Fortunately, TNCS now has a dedicated staff member to address some of these normal but important challenges. “My goal for the older students is to give them opportunities to see each other, to get them playing with each other and having fun games and competitions. Finding ways to allow them to connect with each other outside of the classroom is so important.”

And on that note, to The Sandlot we go!

Heads Out of, Feet in the Sand

The Sandlot, also known as “Baltimore’s Beach,” is a 10-minute walk from TNCS and empty this time of year. Earlier this month, on a beautiful sunny day, TNCS middle schoolers headed over with Ms. Hope for some of that social interaction she describes as so important. Even some students who still attend school virtually were able to join, and Ms. Hope was pleased with the turnout. “The goal of the event was to interact in a positive way before we even talked about feelings or anything. Also, I wanted to start off with something fun and lighthearted to get them used to seeing me in my new role.”

She divided them into partners based on people they wouldn’t naturally gravitate to, to build camaraderie. They did an egg race over an obstacle course with one partner carrying an egg on a spoon blindfolded, and the other calling out directions. They had to trust each other as well as communicate effectively to make it through the obstacle course. They also played handball with girls against boys, and the girls were pleased to learn that they could hold their own.

“We concluded with a lesson about relationships and how it’s different now after a year of everything being closed. How have our relationships with friends changed? Some of the kids said that their relationships actually improved and got stronger, and then a lot of them said they really struggle with their friendships. I asked them to think about how they can continue to build trust. The whole theme of it was trust and communication—ways you can lose trust with your friends and then also ways that you can continue building it.” She pointed out the irony of being “connected” yet so alienated. “It’s just so strange—they’re connected to each other in a way they probably never were before virtually, but at the same time it’s the loneliest time ever, which is why I want to get them in person and seeing each other and putting away the technology,” she said.

Ms. Hope thoroughly enjoyed the day, as did students, who begged to know when they’d be able to do it again. She says she will definitely continue planning such activities, even though this one was not without it’s challenges. “They hated my music choices,” she laughed. “They’re pretty hard to impress.” Then, too, it’s hard to find relationship-building exercises that allow for social distancing. In years past, TNCS students took various trips that were designed to develop their relationships with each other. There was Echo Hill Outdoor School starting in 5th grade and the capstone international service-learning trips for outgoing graduates. Ms. Hope chaperoned one of those trips and saw for herself how deep of an impact they had on students’ lives. She will continue to search for meaningful ways to engage and connect them.

“Let’s have fun and do things that make you laugh, because when you laugh, your stress level goes down, and your neurons are firing. Then you’re having positive experiences with other people. That’s my goal with them.”

Hope springs eternal, thank goodness.

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