Gratitude is woven into the fabric of The New Century School, a daily observance. On Thanksgiving Eve, Ann Marie Simonetti, TNCS’s Director of Admissions and Marketing and Montessori Programming Advisor, was inspired to share her deeper thoughts on gratitude and how it connects so beautifully with the Montessori ethos.
In addition to Admissions and Marketing, “Montessori Programming” has been added to my purview this year. This is a natural addition aligned with my Montessori teacher and administrator certifications.
As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, the Montessori lessons of Grace and Courtesy often come to my mind. One element that speaks to my heart is that of gratitude, and not just in the “thank you” we say throughout the day. We show gratitude when we give and receive a compliment and in the way we actively listen to one another. One benefit of the broad “Montessori-inspired” scope of curriculum here at TNCS is the way we draw awareness and foster appreciation for all that has come before us, and all that is to come. Revisiting these concepts as part of our spiral curriculum—revisiting topics/content previously experienced and building on prior knowledge to deepen/broaden understanding—helps children place themselves in context of time and cultivate a sense of belonging.
Part of awareness comes from mindfulness, which is holistically ingrained in our social emotional curriculum. There is an art to being present in the moment; and it is truly moments— not days or weeks—that make up our lives. In order for us to appreciate each moment, we must truly experience it. Being fully present is one of the unique qualities of children. They innately appreciate the joy of each moment and savor the most minute details.
If you’ve ever taken a walk with a young child, you know that a short distance can take a long time as they stop to notice every little thing along the path. Stopping every few steps to examine and exclaim their excitement over something you may not have even noticed. This savoring and sharing is intrinsically linked to the curious nature of children.
I’m reminded of a quote describing gratitude as bestowing reverence…
Allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life in the world.Sarah Ban Breathnach
This is just one of the countless examples of the knowledge children innately possess and opportunities to learn from them, if we are willing. Dr. Maria Montessori offered this advice: “In order to become great, the grownup must become humble and learn from the child.”
Seeing each experience as an opportunity fosters reflection in the same way gratitude does. Even when things don’t go the way we wanted, or the way we had planned:
During staff week, I talked about how giving ourselves grace during these times, and modeling it for children, demonstrates the value of failing forward. I shared one of my favorite anecdotes from my residential Montessori training, It is in this way that we model for children the full range of human imperfection and the assurance that they too will be greatly, if imperfectly, loved.
These types of authentic experiences not only serve as models for children, but also meet our needs, as adults, for love and acceptance. Much like the tiny leaf we walk right past, that enthralls the young child, these moments help us to slow down, be fully in the moment, and to acknowledge and appreciate. Ram Dass tells us that we are all just walking each other home. But when we are gifted the opportunity to walk hand-in-hand with a child, each step becomes more meaningful, purposeful, and joyful….and for that we must be grateful.
Dr. Montessori eloquently shared, “We shall walk together on this path called life. For all things are part of this universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”
Immersed and the TNCS Community are grateful to you, Ms. Simonetti, for sharing these truly beautiful thoughts at this very special time of year. Your inspiration is inspiring!
At The New Century School, STEM subjects are extremely important. Rob Brosius, who we all know as “Mr. B,” handles three of the four subjects that make up that acronym–science, engineering, and technology. In Mr. B’s first year at TNCS, he taught English Language Arts (ELA) and Global Studies to 3rd- and 4th-graders and Science to 3rd- through 8th-graders. He also had a homeroom. Since then, he has specialized and is now TNCS’s “Science Guy”! (Sorry, Bill Nuy.)
So let’s see what Mr B has been up to in his third year at TNCS!
TNCS Science Program Developments
Right off the bat, Mr. B points out that science is a hands-on subject. “Last year was nice because we had drifted away from the virtual model, and it allowed us to get back into the kind of hands-on centric nature of this program,” he explains. “Over this past year, I helped to amend some of the science curriculum to make sure that anything that I tried to add over the past 2 years was present in our curriculum.”
One big adjustment was to rework the Science Fair.
We’re now calling it the STEM Expo, which Jennifer Lawner helped a lot with—she has provided a great framework for us. This year, we hope that we can continue the trajectory that we started last year, where we encourage students to compete at the regional level at the Morgan State University STEM Fair through their Center for Excellence in Science and Math Education (CEMSE) that happens each March. We’re calling it a STEM Expo because we are trying to negate the competitive nature of it. If students have an interest or a specific desire to do a project that is a little more complicated, we want to make sure that they have the resources and the mentorship that they need to get to that level. Because the Science Fair has been done at school, it has focused my mind in terms of how to rework the other parts of the curriculum as well. Essentially, the first two quarters of the year are supposed to inspire students and build enthusiasm for the STEM Expo. Last year, we had engineering at the beginning of the year, and I encouraged students toward robotics types of projects that required wires, magnets, and an electricity source. This year, we have microbiology and physics, so I’m going to nudge students in those general directions. This way, they have the knowledge base to actually do the research and get the results they want.
Given the microbiology theme, expect some projects inspired by virology and immunology projects! In fact, microbiology projects have happened in the prior year as well, due to the overwhelming nature of the pandemic (see Science Fair 2021 and photos below). “This year, my goal is to make sure that students get a full understanding that there is a larger network outside of themselves. That’s why we really want students to explore the topics they want to know more about. I’ve found before with the Science Fair that students get into a project, and there’s not enough time to complete their project and get to the next level. So this time we want to start early and make sure they are successful,” he said.
As part of helping students understand the larger science community out there and that science really impacts all areas of life, Mr. B and students have been taking field trips to see it all in action. These include walking field trips around the neighborhoods near TNCS as well as bigger ones. Earlier this school year, 4th- and 5th-graders hopped on the water taxi and headed to the Under Armour headquarters. Tipped off by a TNCS parent who works there, Mr. B thought students would enjoy seeing the beehives there and their community garden. “With microbiology being so pervasive, it’s easy to connect this topic to things in nature even though the organisms are microscopic. So I wanted to take students somewhere that is an institution that is a huge part of Baltimore City. It’s not just a building, not just a company but part of the community.”
Middle schoolers also got their science-themed field trip late in October, taking a tour of several microbiology labs at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. At the Molecular Biology lab, University of Maryland students and postdoctoral fellows showed TNCS students the equipment and explained its use in Western Blots, DNA gels, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and so on. At the BSL2 Virus lab, they learned about equipment for working with biosafety level 2 viruses, such as tissue culture hoods, incubators, plaque assays, and microscopes. At the BSL3 Virus lab, looking through a hallway window for safety, students learned about working in the BSL3 lab with SARS-CoV2 and related viruses. Middle Schoolers also visited the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The whole idea is: hey kids, careers in science are not only possible, they’re exciting, engaging, and everywhere!
Mr. B has other plans in the works as well. In keeping with quarter 2’s physics unit, he wants to take students to see physics in action also. He’s considering both the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (Where do we sign up as chaperones?).
Third quarter is the STEM Expo, and geology will be the last quarter’s topic. Geology definitely invites being outdoors, so Mr. B is thinking about taking students to local parks in North East Baltimore to look at geological records, for example. “Baltimore has a very interesting geological history,” he said. “The soil is inundated with minerals.”
Another rationale behind expanding Science Fair to become the STEM Expo this school year is to allow students to pursue math-related projects, should they choose. Such projects present their own kinds of challenges, like not being as hands-on as more science-y projects would be and requiring no fun materials to work with—just good old pencil and paper. “But I’m trying to provide as many options as possible so students can do what they really want to do,” he said. “We want to both increase their science literacy and to keep their level of confidence high.”
What methodology students adopt to execute their projects will depend on what kind of topic they choose to explore: traditional experiments call for the scientific method, whereas other projects might need an engineering design process approach.
“The science curriculum is very well developed. Since I’ve been at TNCS, I’ve been able to tweak it so that it really works for us,” he said. “I have the ability to adapt the program as I need to meet the students where they are within the parameters we’ve established.”
“When you really start to get into science, you realize, a lot of the things you’re taught are from the past. When you’re learning science, you want to understand what discoveries allowed us to arrive at what is currently cutting edge. You can’t jump into quantum mechanics without first learning basic physics. You can’t understand the true nature of an atom and probability fields without first seeing the simple orbital models. You don’t get the full picture because your mind isn’t ready for it. Cycling back to topics, you can really see what kids gravitated toward and help them really dig into that as well as see what was successful during the 3-year cycle we use at TNCS.”
The 3-year cycle, by the way, goes like this: 1st year: Q1, (macro)biology and genetics; Q2, engineering; Q3, STEM Expo; Q4, astronomy. Year 2 is where we are now, with microbiology, physics, STEM Expo, and geology. Year 3 is, electricity and magnetism, chemistry, STEM Expo, and oceanography. And there’s always room to add additional topics, he explained, as students show interest.
Thank you for helping our students understand that science reaches every corner of our lives, Mr. B!
Since its inception 10 years ago, The New Century School has certainly grown into more than a preschool, having expanded to comprise both Lower and Upper School divisions. But in many ways, TNCS’s youngest students are still at its heart, and the lower school requires specialized guidance.
Meet Stephen Billhardt!
That’s why Stephen Billhardt has become TNCS’s new Interim Director of Preschool. He came to TNCS in sort of a roundabout fashion . . . but you’ll soon see how clear the path actually was! He and his wife were living and working outside of Boston when, in early 2021, she took a job with Baltimore City public schools. They did what Mr. Billhardt calls a “commuter marriage” for a year while he stayed in Massachusetts temporarily to complete his commitment working at an integrated preschool and kindergarten (and, over the summer, help his elderly father recover from a recent health incident). With both their son and daughter in their respective colleges, and the now 28-year married couple missing each other, he says it was the right move to also relocate to Baltimore. He joined his wife in mid-September and remembered TNCS from previous visits to Baltimore on walkabouts with his wife through Fell’s Point. “Any small school is of interest to me, so I had researched it to find out more about it. After 2 weeks of settling in, I reached out.” After speaking with both Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux and Head of School Erika Johnson, he was hooked. Part of the appeal, he says, was the Montessori primary program, which he was familiar with because his own children went to Montessori school through 3rd and 4th grades.
Although—spoiler alert—Mr. Billhardt has been in education for more than 30 years, that’s not how his professional life began. “I didn’t know I was going to be an educator,” he recounts, “I thought I was going into business. My dad was in business, my brother was in business, so I just thought that’s what I would do. I actually sold car phones, fax machines, and antitheft devices for a summer.”
Originally from southern Connecticut, he attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, earning an undergraduate degree in Economics and Political Science. “My first experience working with children was as a Big Brother in college. I had the same little brother for 3 years, and that got me interested in early childhood education.” He then ended up in Boston, where a couple of his friends were living who thought he’d make a great teacher and suggested he give it a try. While student teaching, he got a Master’s in Education, then a second Master’s in Educational Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was there that he met his wife, joking that that was the “best part of the program.”
After Boston, he moved to Vermont for his first full-time teaching job. “I just love Vermont. I taught at a small elementary school called Moretown Elementary—it’s just a great little school, and it’s right on the river.” What drew him to early childhood education? “It’s a great age. Early childhood is a wonderful learning opportunity for the children, for the teachers, for the parents. (As parents, we’re all still learning.) The developmental stage is so great—I appreciate all the smiles and the ready-to-learn attitudes,” he said.
And that sealed the deal! Since then, he has always worked in elementary school or preschool divisions. Next, he and his wife relocated to Michigan. She taught in Detroit public schools, and he went to Grosse Pointe to lead a grade 1 through 5 lower school. After a couple of years in Michigan, they relocated to Cambridge, MA, across the river from Boston. For the next 14 years, he assumed the principalship of schools in the Southborough and Watertown Public Schools.
“I’ve had the opportunity to be in independent and public schools for 33 or 34 years, 27 of those in educational leadership, and I like having that experience.” His most recent independent school experience was as Lower School Head at a pre-K through 4th-grade all-boy’s school called The Fessenden School in Newton, MA. “Once every 10 days he gathered all the students together and marveled at the range of learners and the developmental span. “Although that was challenging, it allowed me to really develop my skill set to engage children. They need some sort of activity; they’re attention spans are only so long, so you have to have little snippets of things and visuals. I would always have music at these assemblies.” Like TNCS, Fessenden “wears a lot of hats” being both a pre-K through grade 4 school but also having an upper school for 5th- through 9th-graders with a boarding option for domestic and international students. Mr. Billhardt was there from 2012 through 2020.
“Finally, over the last 2 years, I had a wonderful experience at the Willett Early Childhood Center, a public integrated preschool for children with and without disabilities. From age 3 there, students have the opportunity to get an individual education plan (IEP), and the public school is required to support them with the hope that they would learn strategies to overcome some of the disabilities or help support them with their disability. We had about 75 children on IEPs with another group of typically developing children as peer role models. All public schools have that opportunity, but I find it very effective. That was one building. Then there was also a stand-alone kindergarten building with 275 kindergarteners.”
Stephen Billhardt at TNCS!
His initial impressions of TNCS will surprise no one. “It’s a very nice community,” he said. “And there’s a lot going—a lot of exciting things. For me, it’s fun learning about such a language-rich immersion experience with the children. I’ve had Spanish in my schools in the past, but nothing to the level of what you see in the classrooms here.” He’s also excited to be back in the Montessori atmosphere. “Montessori is the greatest approach education has to offer for that age group.” He appreciates the multiage component of Montessori and the work ethic it inspires. “I love the open-ended work, the communication, and the collaboration,” he said. “I appreciate the methodical approach to the materials: how they’re laid out, how children access them, when they access them, and how long they access them. So, walking into classrooms and seeing that really gels with me.”
After this long in education, Mr. Billhardt says, he wants to be at a school that excites him. He also wants his role to work for everyone involved. “Let’s see if what I bring works for everybody and for the institution first,” he said of his new position.
With 33 years in the public and private sectors, Mr. Billhardt is excited to help contribute to TNCS. “I’ve had a unique opportunity to see and work with children and families in those sectors. I think all schools offer different opportunities for educators and school leaders to learn. Independent school leaders have a lot to learn from public school leaders and vice versa. I think finding what works best for children, how we communicate with families, how we support and develop educators—each school does it differently. But there are some very good practices out there, and being able to pick the best from the different schools I’ve been at and the experiences that I’ve had, I hope to bring those to this school.”
As for how he’s settling into his new city, he picked the perfect fall to do it, as he greatly enjoys being outside. With these warmer-than-normal fall temperatures, he’s getting plenty of opportunities to walk around and get to know Baltimore: “I like the water; I walk along the harbor in the morning and watch the sunrise, or I take the water taxi. I’ve climbed the Washington monument, but I haven’t yet made it to the art museums.” He particularly wants to get to the American Visionary Art Museum, and we all know what a treat he’s in for. He’s also excited to start sampling some of Charm City’s food. Then there’s the Enoch Pratt Free Library—he has been to four branches so far. Reading and listening to audio books are a favorite pastime. “I like spending time on my own to recharge,” he said. “I love being around people, but at the end of the day I like to get some alone time to rejuvenate.”
When he’s not in Baltimore, he likes road biking and boogie boarding. With our nation’s capital so close by, he and his wife are also looking forward to visits there. They also travel to their daughter’s music performances; she plays the upright bass. “I love spending time with my kids who are 21 and 20. I love seeing how they’ve developed as students and now young people/young adults. As parents, even if you’re an educator, you look back and at some point, you have to say, ‘I did a pretty good job’. I think it’s important as parents and guardians to celebrate our children’s successes and be there to support and nurture them as they grow up. They still need us. That’s our role; our role doesn’t go away.”