With this final post of 2021, Immersed returns to an idea from Gab Sussman, English Language Arts (ELA) teacher for upper elementary and middle school students at The New Century School. Ms. Sussman thought it would be nice to feature stand-out book reviews by her students, both to recognize their hard work as well as to encourage others to give these worthy assignments their all.
Immersed sees yet another advantage to this scheme: highlighting the exemplary ELA program at TNCS. Ms. Sussman has worked hand in hand with TNCS school counselor Daphnee Hope and TNCS Dean of Students Adriana DuPrau to integrate her core class subject with the important social and emotional learning that has been emphasized this year. Reading books and writing about them is a way to connect to our inner selves as well as to the world outside, a truth Ms. Sussman holds dear. And this book? It’s tailor-made for teens in tough situations.
A Book Review of Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes: By Dez Horvath
Bronx Masquerade is written by Nikki Grimes, and was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award, which is awarded annually by the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table, and is only awarded for “the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children or teens.” Nikki Grimes was also awarded the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. Ms. Grimes also has published other books, such as What is Goodbye?, Garvey’s Choice, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Talkin’ About Bessie, Jazmin’s Notebook,The Road to Paris, Words with Wings, and Dark Sons. Ms. Grimes is also the author of Meet Danitra Brown, and lives in Corona, California. Fun fact, Ms. Grimes had the idea for this book for 5 years before starting to write it down, and it’s a good thing they did because this book had such an impact. It has such an impact, schools started their own “Open Mike Fridays.” With all these awards Ms. Grimes has gotten, Bronx Masquerade has GOT to be good.
All of Ms. Grimes awards are amazing, but the only way to get awards is to have a good story. Bronx Masquerade’s partly main character is Tyrone Bittings, and I say “partly” because they are the only one that speaks after everyone else’s chapters, and they are the character that introduces you to the story. Tyrone is currently in high school, along with pretty much all the other characters introduced in the story. Wesley Boone, Chankara Troupe, Raul Ramirez, Diondra Jordan, Devon Hope, Lupe Algarin, Gloria Martinez, Janelle Battle, Leslie Lucas, Julianne Alexander, Tanisha Scott, Sterling S. Hughes, Amy Moscowitz, Sheila Gamberoni, Steve Ericson, Raynard Patterson, and Porscha Johnson. All these characters are important because they all interact and impact each other’s lives, there is also one or more chapters written from their perspective. All these characters are in an English class together, and their teacher, Mr. Ward, starts an exercise called Open Mike Friday where students read their poems aloud to the class. At the start, everyone thought of everyone a certain way, that didn’t fit who they actually are and everyone started as not caring about everyone else, but then over time, all the poetry encouraged people to open up, show who they really are, and bring everyone together. Everyone respected each other and grew afterwards. Then came the end of the school year, and the book, and an assembly was organized, and it would be the final Open Mike Friday. Tyrone got up on stage and shared how Open Mike Friday made them feel, and what it resulted in. “I just wanted to say I’m really glad I got to do this poetry thing because I feel like, even though the people in our class are all different colors and some of you speak different language and everything, I feel like we connected.” Then some final poems were shared, and the book came to a close.
The two themes I have found in Bronx Masquerade are “courage” and “growth.” The reason I have found “courage” is because at the end of every single chapter, there was a poem. In the book, the students had to go up in front of the whole class, and read their poem, in high school. That takes some courage. And a lot of the characters’ chapters showing their perspective stated they were nervous (I would give an example, but I don’t remember the people that said they were nervous, and I don’t want to have to read through the whole book). The reason I found “growth” is because at the beginning of the book, people thought school was dumb, some people were bullies, etc. and then grew and matured from the Open Mike Fridays. An example is on page 160, “The first time he got up there, I rolled my eyes like half the sisters in class, certain he was going to spout something lame or nasty about girls and sex, or gangsters. I mean, that’s all we ever heard him talk about, right? But there was nothing lame about this poem, and none of it was about sex. It was about what’s going on in the world, and about trying to make sense of it. It was a poem by somebody who really thinks about things, and that somebody turned out to be Tyrone.” Open Mike Friday really had an impact on all the students.
The events of the book really had an impact on the characters, but what about the impact it had on readers? The point of Bronx Masquerade is to, “ignite dialogue and facilitate discussion in the classroom on a wide array of topics concerning, and affecting, teens.” When writing this book, Ms. Grimes wanted schools to think about what might be going on with a teenager, and take action. You never know what could be going on in someone’s life, especially a teen’s. Ms. Grimes doesn’t mean just sit down, and have a small discussion. They aren’t even just saying to ONLY discuss it. There are many ways to facilitate discussion concerning teens, like “Open Mike Friday.” Nikki Grimes’ hope to impact schools in the way they wanted worked amazingly, and I bet if certain readers read the book, they might realize what a teen could be going through, and do something.
Only some people can be impacted by Bronx Masquerade, knowing its message, and do something. A kind of reader I would recommend this book to is some sort of school staff so they could help Nikki Grimes’ hope of getting schools concerned about teens. An employee of a school could orchestrate something with staff higher in ability, and help any teens in their school. Another kind of reader I would recommend this book to is someone who likes poetry, drama, and school settings in books because Bronx Masquerade has all of that. Whoever enjoyed the things I listed would love Bronx Masquerade. What a person would need to know to enjoy this book is that people can change in general, but also for the better. They would need to know that people aren’t perfect. People can be good, they just need a certain push to do so. Everyone in Bronx Masquerade start off in the book with some kind of flaw about them. At the end, they’ve all grown, and realized their past ways were wrong, or they can do something about what happened to them in the past, and move on. Bronx Masquerade is a great book, the goal it was written for was accomplished very well, and you should go read it (there’s a reason it has a big award).
Courage: A TNCS Core Value!
If this rings a bell, it’s because courage was also a primary theme of TNCS student Shonbeck Glazer’s book report. Let’s find out why Ms. Sussman chose this review as the next to spotlight:
Dez’s book review stood out to me immediately. His appreciation for Bronx Masquerade is crystal clear, and it was wonderful to hear him share his reflections, both in class with his reading buddy, and through his writing. I know that this book provided many windows for Dez, and he highlighted so many important nuances of Bronx Masquerade. I’m excited for his hard work to be featured in Immersed, and in turn, be celebrated by the TNCS community. We’re so proud of you, Dez, and are grateful for your insight!
And we are grateful to you, Ms. Sussman, for helping TNCS students find their own courage and growth and ending the year on such a high note. Here’s to an even better 2022 at TNCS . . . one that includes in-class poetry slams, perhaps? (Hint, hint.)
TNCS School Counselor Daphnee Hope felt that TNCS students needed to end the year on a very positive note so she found the nonprofit group who brings therapy dogs to people in need of a cuddle. For her Cuddles and Crafts event, students engaged in a mindfulness craft for 45 minutes and then got to pet and hug the dogs.
“Cuddles & Crafts was a huge hit this morning! We had 3 beautiful therapy dogs visit our K-8 classrooms while students completed mindfulness crafts that included coloring mandalas, creating coffee filter butterflies, and designing a chain of calm. Students were so excited to see these furry friends and give them hugs,” said Mrs. Hope.
And that’s really all that needs to be said: in this post, the photos tell the story (you can even see the smiles behind the masks!). Fur real.
At The New Century School, the whole child is important, and this is not just lip service. Not just students’ academic selves, but their psychological, social, emotional, and artistic sides are cared for and cultivated. So, although the 2021–2021 school year has been particularly challenging for students who are still coping with the fallout from the pandemic, TNCS students are fortunate to have a very important addition to faculty this year to help: Daphnee Hope, TNCS School Counselor. Mrs. Hope began counseling during the last school year in a limited capacity but has now made it official, and TNCS students are flourishing under her guidance. Together, her and TNCS Dean of Students Adriana DuPrau have joined forces to ensure their health and happiness.
Mrs. Hope has been meeting with TNCS students through whole group lessons, targeted small groups, and one-on-one counseling. Counseling has been really fun this year,” said Mrs. Hope. She feels she can really blossom in this role, and with no existing curriculum to draw on, she has been developing her own. This has given her the freedom to move in the directions she feels most necessary and that will yield the most fruit. At the same time, she says, “there’s a big learning curve, and I am still finding my voice as a counselor. There’s a lot of wonderful things, but it’s also challenging, so I’ve been making connections with other school counselors in the area and asking questions about general policy and what resources they use.”
She is on campus Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and sees each classroom (elementary and up) twice a month. Character-building lessons differ and are based on developmental age.
Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade
For this age group, Mrs. Hope does a 45-minute character-building lesson based on the Positive Action curriculum, whose premise is that positive actions make us feel better about ourselves and brighten our lives, which leads to making more positive choices. “It’s all about how positive actions make you feel better as a person. When you feel better, you radiate goodness, and then you’re making other things better—a ripple effect,” she said. She uses puppet animals with the kindergarten students, and a system of adding the names of students spotted making positive actions on a special elephant hanging on the wall for all to see for the second- and third-grade students. She says this is helping all students notice more and more good things happening around them.
“For K through 3, the whole month of November was about communication,” she explained. “We started with nonverbal communication and body language. We practiced how it’s important to look in the eyes of the person you’re talking to, and we also talked about active listening versus passive listening. When somebody asks you something, you don’t immediately change the subject to talk about yourself; you listen and then you make a follow-up comment.”
4th Through 6th Grades
Although Mrs. Hope started this group out with Positive Actions, she found the need to adapt and adjust for this spectrum of ages. So she polled them on what kinds of things they might enjoy exploring. Relationships and other social aspects are historically challenging areas for this age group, so Mrs. Hope has been talking with them about peer influences and otherwise tailoring her monthly themes to what their needs are.
“They need a lot of support with self-control, so I’m trying to work in partnership with the teachers to make plans for individual students,” she said.
7th and 8th Grades
For middle schoolers, Mrs. Hope is using the Habitudes® curriculum that the counselor at Friends School recommended. “It involves lessons centered around the core values of self-discipline, motivation, and responsibility,” she explained, to cultivate leaders and “[equip] them to navigate through life’s challenges and opportunities”. Mrs. Hope says TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders are loving it!
“Habitudes has challenged our middle schoolers to slow down and think about the qualities that make great leaders. Last month we focused on perspective taking,” she said. This month, we are jumping into responding with empathy, both with ourselves and others.”
Advisory has a place here, too.
In between classroom-session weeks during the first two school quarters, Mrs. Hope also holds small-group sessions during lunch for 4th- through 8th-graders. Students join these groups based on their individual needs, such as managing anxiety, building self-esteem, or managing grief and loss.
Every other week we do a ‘lunch bunch’ depending on their needs, so I surveyed students about what areas they feel they need support in and how they rank their mental health. That’s a big focus right now, just giving them the space to work on their mental health because I think a lot of them are struggling with it. So, for example, in the managing anxiety group, we talk about irrational thoughts and how they snowball. We think our thoughts are reality, but I’m trying to work with them on just because you think something, doesn’t mean that’s what is true.
In quarters three and four, she’ll hold small-group sessions for the younger TNCS students in building north. Their needs are much different, given their developmental stage.
As her time spent with students is fairly intensive, Mrs. Hope has picked up on some issues. “I have become aware that many of our middle schoolers are struggling with their mental health,” she said. Mental health issues are all-too common in this age group, but the last 2 years have only increased the incidence:
Poor mental health impacts all areas of a child’s life, ranging from academic success to feelings of self-worth to healthy peer interactions. The last two years have been particularly hard on our children as they journey through adolescence. Scary statistics show that between February and March 2021 alone, the number of emergency room visits increased by 50.6% for presumed suicide attempts among youth in comparison to 2019. At the moment, I am working on improving the mental health of our students.
In addition to having one-on-one conversations with students, Mrs. Hope might also make health referrals to outside therapists for those who could benefit.
Social and Emotional Learning
The structure Mrs. Hope has created for reaching all TNCS students in various ways is very well thought out and executed, but how is she putting all of this into practice?
Suffice to say, she has been busy. She created a social-emotional learning (SEL) calendar for every grade level with monthly themed topics, for example. This month, because it’s a short one, we are doing gratitude across the board,” she explained. “It’s going to look different in each classroom. For 7th and 8th grade, it’s looking at the physical, mental, social, and spiritual effects of gratitude on the body (see the slide show they’ve been studying from here). With younger kids, it’s exploring the power of saying, ‘thank you’. Teachers are implementing these conversations in their morning circle time, core classes, hallway transitions, lunch, and so on, all across the board.” Mrs. Hope is trying to make it easy for teachers to implement and reinforce these mini-lessons anywhere. “The message that I’m conveying twice a month has to be reiterated by teachers, who are with their students 85% of the time, or else it’s not going to stick.” Younger students work on things like respecting physical space.
In the 7th- and 8th-grade classroom, discussions about social media have been foremost. “As you may know,” wrote Mrs. Hope in an email to parents, “there is a worrying correlation between screen time and depressive symptoms, particularly amongst teens. Ms. Sussman and I are spending the month of November discussing all things social media with your children—the pros, the cons, and the in betweens. We would love your partnership in this conversation and in your attention to your child’s weekly screen time.”
After watching a TEDx talk by a social media expert, Bailey Parnell, students shared that they appreciated how honest and realistic she was, particularly about how important social media is many peoples’ lives and how it all comes down to how it’s used. “Learning about and talking about these topics allows us to make informed and intentional decisions. Parnell called this, ‘practicing safe social,’ which, yes, a few students chuckled at,” said Mrs. Hope.
After they took the ISEE exam in mid November, middle schoolers watched The Social Dilemma, a “documentary that explores the relationship between technology and human behavior and will prompt more discussion and reflection about student usage,” said Mrs. Hope. (You can read more here about the film.)
So, they have been talking about the effects of addictive behaviors and how unplugging from time to time is so important. Homeroom teacher Gab Sussman has been all for it, saying, “Mrs. Hope has assigned our class to learn more about and discuss the roles of social media in our lives. This week, we watched some videos that touched upon a few important topics, such as how social media affects our friendships, both positively and negatively, and how social media can portray and influence falsehoods about our lives. I appreciate the opportunity to be having these important conversations within our Homeroom!”
To demonstrate the rewards of de-screening, Mrs. Hope came up with the idea of monthly nature days; read about the very first below.
As TNCS has aged up and developed a true middle school, the needs of these older students have also grown. Even so, TNCS has always fostered an environment of inclusivity. “TNCS students embrace this inclusivity, especially around the evolving topic of gender identity,” said Head of School Tad Jacks in a letter* to parents.
In a separate email to parents, Mrs. Hope wrote:
In my role as the school counselor, I will be delivering developmentally appropriate health lessons that are inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Research notes that there is a direct correlation between a student’s sense of belonging and their academic achievement. In fact, ‘many students may be more likely to prosper academically in settings with more collaborative modes of learning that acknowledge students’ personal experiences’ (Kaplan and Miller 2007). As a result, it is vital for educators to carve out spaces where students feel seen and supported as their most authentic selves.
So, when she’s not with students, she has been working on writing TNCS’s gender-inclusive policies for the last 3 months. “We’ve been talking to other schools and looking at research and trying to develop policies that are very supportive of all of our students and also respecting their privacy. The 7th and 8th grade are definitely keeping me on my toes!”
The first gender-identity lesson for middle schoolers took place in November. “We explored how gender exists on a spectrum, clarified terms such as ‘gender expression’ and ‘gender identity’ and unpacked how to support each other by using correct pronouns. Many students were already educated and comfortable with this topic,” she said. Students were very engaged, respectful and asked supportive questions. I am very proud of the dialogue that emerged from this discussion.”
At the end of the lesson, they could complete a form for their teachers that shared more about their gender identity and pronouns if they chose.
The resources they used to launch their gender identity and gender inclusive discussions were amaze.org, GLSEN, and the Genderbread Person v4.0, “a teaching tool for breaking the big concept of gender down into bite-sized, digestible pieces.”
The 3rd- through 5th-grade groups are partnering with the United states Postal Service to do a pen pal project. “They place you with classrooms in different regions of America, and you get a pen pal for the rest of the year. Then they actually coordinate a zoom visit with the homeroom classes so everyone can see what their pen pals look like,” said Mrs. Hope.
Students will write four total letters beginning in January. The idea is to learn about a child who has grown up in a different area of the country and build rapport, which is why it falls under SEL, but this neat project also weaves in academics by honing letter-writing skills and how to have a conversation and ask interesting questions.
Schoolwide SEL Initiatives
As mentioned in the introduction, Mrs. Hope and Mrs. DuPrau have partnered on several initiatives to increase students’ day-to-day happiness. They held the Blue Out anti-bullying awareness day, for example, for which the entire school dressed head to toe in blue. A spirit award was handed out to the “bluest” class, which was Ms. Weiskopf’s 2nd- and 3rd-graders, and they were treated to ice cream. A subsequent spirit week took place during American Education Week during which classes again competed for who could show the most school spirit.
The dynamic duo will also be working with the TNCS Parent Council on recognizing our teachers and all-around making it fun to be at school.
Cuddles and Crafts
And now, you get a sneak peek into an upcoming SEL initiative that TNCS students will be absolutely bananas over. Mrs. Hope found Pets on Wheels, a nonprofit that brings therapy dogs to folks in need of a little cuddle, and came up with the idea of Cuddles and Crafts for TNCS students. “We’ll do a mindfulness craft for 45 minutes or so and then we’ll have the dogs come through the classrooms for a little bit of self-care, mental health positivity . . . just taking a breather and having some fun,” she said.
TNCS students always beg for projects that involve animals, so this should be quite the hit. Pictures to come!
Unplugging and Getting Out and About
You might be noticing the emphasis on fun, and there’s good reason for that. As Mrs. Hope puts it, “This is our first smooth full year back, and I’m seeing a lot of SEL issues popping up like at recess—simple communication and relationship issues. So to wind out quarter 2, she is developing ways “to focus on reconnecting with ourselves.” This means getting off campus and getting off screens!
As a way of reconnecting with themselves and improving their mental health, middle schoolers participated in the first-ever Reflection Day as a homeroom. This involved spending the day on a local hiking trail, relaxing in nature, and carving out time for self care.
Mrs. Hope had been talking to students about putting phones away and the healing power of nature—how good it is for our bodies and our minds. She hopes for this to be a quarterly event, and the first one was a huge hit. Students throughly enjoyed their hike to Annapolis Rock. “It was a bit chilly,” said Mrs. Hope, “but students said multiple times how nice it was to unplug and talk to each other. They appreciated having the face masks off, too. It’s so nice to see someone’s whole face and expression.”
They hiked 5.87 miles, and students were utterly in awe of the views. “We got to make some wonderful memories together as a class,” said Mrs. Hope. “They are already keeping me on my toes and asking what hike we are doing next!”
What was Ms. Sussman’s take? “Our unplugged hike along the Appalachian Trail on Monday was absolutely amazing! A major shoutout to Mrs. Hope for dreaming up and organizing this trip for us. It felt so special to be out in nature for the day together as a homeroom. We certainly missed the students who couldn’t make it, and look forward to future opportunities to spend quality time outside of the classroom with each other.”
She plans a smaller hike in Patapsco State Park with the 4th- through 6th-graders and is hoping to partner with Living Classrooms to implement an off-campus day for the K through 3rd-graders.
Mini Trips off Campus
To keep spirits up, Mrs. Hope and TNCS teachers are finding all kinds of ways to insert rewarding mini excursions throughout the school day. As a reward for taking the grueling ISEE exam, for example, middle schoolers walked to BOP Pizza for a class field trip and some lunch. Mrs, Hope said they displayed hard work and determination throughout this tough test.
Mrs. Hope’s advisory group asked about grabbing a bagel and cup of cocoa for breakfast. They decided to make it a regular thing and will visit a neighboring shop like Pitango or the Daily Grind each first Thursday of the month.
The K through 3rd group will take a walking trip to Kilwins for a treat next week. “We’re working really closely to create opportunities for the kids to just get out of classroom and build community,” said Mrs. Hope.
Edit 12/7/21: Photos from the Kilwins trip!
And the older kids!
Girls on the Run
From the beginning of the school year, female TNCS students had the option of participating in Girls on the Run (3rd through 5th grades) or Hearts and Soles (6th through 8th grades), a twice weekly running program that culminated on Sunday, December 5th with a 5K race. According to their website, GOTR’s mission is “to inspire all girls to build confidence and make intentional decisions, while fostering care and compassion for self and others. Trained coaches use physical activity and dynamic discussions to build social, emotional and physical skills in every girl while encouraging healthy habits for life.”
TNCS students fell in love with the program, which Mrs. Hope credits their amazing coaches for—huge thanks to TNCS mom Debbie Casanova for coaching the younger girls and Gab Sussman and Nameeta Sharma for coaching the older ones! Although it’s sad to see the end of this truly inspirational program, you can bet it’ll be back next year!
It’s clear that Mrs. Hope is energized and committed to optimizing the mental health of TNCS students. “My philosophy with our counseling program is to focus on the mental health of our children and to put a big emphasis on positivity and gratitude and things that lift them up, because there’s so much that’s happening right now in the world,” she said.