The Art of Teaching K/1st: Meet Lindsey Sandkuhler!

Lindsey Sandkuhler took over The New Century School‘s mixed age Kindergarten and 1st-grade homeroom for the 2019–2020 school year. Teaching, she says, is “kind of a family profession,” and both of her parents are teachers. She always knew she would follow in their footsteps and attended Towson University to earn a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. She is from Towson and lives there still.

Road to TNCS

From college, Ms. Sandkuhler never looked back. After graduating, she was hired by Howard County public schools, where she had completed her student teaching. There, she taught 4th grade for 2 years, then 2nd grade for 3 years. Next, she says, “I left the county and decided to go for pre-K—big difference!” At a nature-based preschool, she taught 4- and 5-year-olds, then spent an additional 2 years at a different private preschool for 5-year-olds. “Now, I’m here, year 9!”, she said. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind!”

So what did bring her to TNCS? A bit of good timing! Her last school announced in February that it would be closing permanently in June. Ms. Sandkuhler saw that TNCS was hiring, liked what she saw, and applied. She was offered a position the day after she interviewed in May, at least partly because her teaching style meshes so well with TNCS’s educational approach. “It was both a relief not to have to scramble for employment as well as very exciting for me to embark on this new adventure,” she explained.

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At TNCS

Back to liking what she saw, the aspects that most appealed to her about TNCS were precisely what makes TNCS the school that it is, particularly, small class sizes, the emphasis on The Arts, and differentiated learning. “I have done a lot of different kinds of teaching for a lot of different ages,” she said, which has given her insight into what works in early childhood and lower elementary education.

I really love how small the classes are. In the county public school, at one time, I had 28 2nd-graders in my class with no aide; it was just me. I felt like I couldn’t reach all my students. There was no way, and I burned out because of that. I was trying to get to everybody, and I just couldn’t do it. One of the great things here is the small class sizes. By week 3 I already had a good grasp on where most of my students are.

It’s a story we hear time and again about teachers being underresourced and, by consequence, students often winding up underserved. At TNCS, Ms. Sandkuhler has a very manageable 14 in one class and 13 another. “That’s amazing,” she says, “and I love that it’s so centered around where the students are. Yes, we’re going to encourage them and challenge them, but not to the point of frustration.”

She is here again making a comparison to her stint in the county public school system. “You had to stay on pace. If your students didn’t understand addition, too bad, you had to move on to subtraction because the test is happening on this day coming soon, regardless. That’s another reason I needed to move on. I felt bad for the kids. They weren’t ready, which was totally fine by me—we all learn differently—but that’s not how the county saw it. It was not okay.”

Ms. Sandkuhler teaches Math and English Language Arts (ELA), the two core subjects. She shares the K/1st cohort with Pei Ge, who teaches Global Studies, Science, and Mandarin. When asked about TNCS’s multilingual bent, she says, “I was very forthcoming at my interview about not being bilingual, and it wasn’t a blocker. But I think it’s wonderful to start teaching language so young. My students are now teaching me things in Spanish and Chinese, which is really cool.”

Love of Art and Nature

So what makes Ms. Sandkuhler tick besides a love of teaching? “I love art. My sister is an artist, a sculptor, so I live vicariously through her sometimes,” she said. “When I taught pre-K, during the kids’ naptime, I’d sit and watch YouTube videos on how to do calligraphy, and I would practice during my downtime. That’s something I had always wanted to learn. It’s very therapeutic. I like to draw and paint, too.”

In addition to making art, Ms. Sandkuhler enjoys being outside in nature (hence the nature-based preschool), especially hiking. Her parents live in an idyllic setting on the Choptank River in Dorchester County, and she goes there to kayak, crab, and fish. She describes her mother’s love of hummingbirds and the handheld feeders that the birds will come feed out of if you remain still enough. “Sometimes it’s so nice to get out and away,” she said.

Not surprisingly, her pursuits out of the classroom influence her approach inside it: “Parents should know that I’m creative. I’m patient with the students. If they’re not getting something a certain way, then we’ll try a different approach. Basically, I’ll be their kid’s advocate for the school year.” Among a parent community that values art, creativity, and compassion, this will all come as very welcome news. There are additional benefits as well, including the cognitive gains that come with the synergy between art and academic disciplines:

The county schools are so into math and reading—which is fine, I get that, but they’ll take away band and art. Those are the first things to go. But, for kids who might be struggling with math and reading, the arts might be the only thing they look forward to at school. If they can’t have a reason to go to school, the other subjects are just going to suffer more. So, I really feel strongly that creativity needs to be incorporated not just in art class, but throughout the curriculum, including my subjects, math and ELA. I just find it very important. More understanding starts to open up for the child.

Artfully said, Ms. Sandkuhler! Welcome to TNCS!

Meet Multifaceted Loretta Lee: One of TNCS’s New Lower Elementary Teachers!

Given its progressive, inquiry-based bent, it’s no surprise that The New Century School attracts some very special educators, as we have seen over the years. The 2019–2020 school year boasts several new faces, all of whom will be profiled by Immersed. Today’s post, though, is all about Loretta Lee, who has a 2nd- and 3rd-grade homeroom and teaches English Language Arts (ELA) and Global Studies to the 2nd- through 4th-grade cohort.

Background

IMG_0773Right off the bat, Ms. Lee identifies herself as an educator. This avocation seems to be central to who she is (although it’s not the only way she sees herself). “I have been teaching since the late 1970s,” she said. “One of the reasons I’ve stayed in the profession as long as I have is that I consider myself a lifelong learner. I enjoy learning new ways to teach and new techniques, and I’ve been give the opportunity in most schools that I’ve worked in to be able to grow in all sorts of different ways, like sitting on hiring committees, running book clubs, and so on.”

She also explains that she has seen education trends come and go and has clear notions of what works and what doesn’t:

I’ve seen a full gamut of what’s going on in education. One of the things I’ve chosen to be here at TNCS is the progressive nature of the school and the ability to meet kids where they are. That’s not true in all schools, and that’s one of the things that definitely drew me here. I’ve been in places that really embrace that, and I’ve been at schools that really don’t.

She earned an undergraduate degree in early childhood education in Boston and went on to obtain a graduate degree at University of Wisconsin in Madison, where her major was Educational Law and Policy Studies. In support of these studies, she testified at senate assembly meetings as well as served as an intern on a committee for how monies were spent in public schools. She also created curricula for incarcerated youth. “Oftentimes what happens to those poor kids is that their education stops as soon as they get incarcerated,” she explained. “We put together a curriculum so that when they came back out, at least one thing was in place for them.”

At TNCS

Ms. Lee brings a rich background of experience to her classroom, and this becomes a valuable asset not just to her lucky students but to her as a teacher as well, as she explains. “One of the benefits that comes with age is knowing yourself well enough to know what fits. I don’t think you know that when you’re very young and just starting out. So this is where my career journey has led me.”

Although she now lives in northern Baltimore County on a 3 1/2-acre piece of property, she and her family have lived all over the country. Her husband is also a career educator, and they have taught in Connecticut, where they met; on the West Coast; and for 15 years in Texas before relocating here in 2014. They decided to come back to be near their parents, one set in Florida, the other in New Jersey. The Lees  are now right in the middle! They also really like where they live: “There’s a donkey next door,” said Ms. Lee, “and roosters everywhere. We have horses and two large dogs we wanted to give the ability to be outside and stretch their legs. It’s very beautiful and quiet. I only wish it was about 15 miles south because the commute isn’t great,” she joked. Besides her four-legged babies, she has two sons. The oldest is 27 and still lives in Dallas. The younger one (age 19) is here with them and doing a “gap year” between graduating high school and starting college, explained Ms. Lee.

Before coming to TNCS, she taught at Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville. But now that she’s at TNCS, she finds it refreshing, she says. “It’s really a fit, even with trying to get used to the nuances of a new school and its culture. The kids have been great, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them. My colleagues have been very sweet, and I know I’m probably the oldest, but I always say I’m young at heart.”

As for how she wound up teaching ELA, she explains that this is the first time in a long time that she is not teaching math but has always been interested in ELA.

I went to a parochial school for many years and I knew that’s not the way I wanted to teach, and it’s not the way I learn best either. So, I wanted to open up my mind to other ways of getting the same information. There’s not one way—there are many, many ways, and I just wanted to allow for that. Visually, aurally, it doesn’t take you long to realize strengths and weaknesses when you’re presenting in multiple ways. Where are they picking it up the best? That’s half the battle. Where do I put this information in so that it actually goes in and stays somewhere? Once you learn those aspects of teaching, it makes it very easy to move on and keep making progress.

And I like ELA! It comprises not only the reading element but also the writing and the spelling, and it really has all the individual nuances for the English. I want the students to make connections; I want them to see that it works together. I think so often we segment things out and then you expect the children to make the connections. I think if you connect everything together to begin with, then it really makes sense for them.

Ms. Lee has familiarized herself with the Singapore math curriculum as and appreciates seeing that same approach used in math as well—making real-world connections to numbers. Math for this cohort of 33 total students, by the way, is taught by Ms. Klusewitz as is science.


As mentioned, although Ms. Lee is a veteran educator and teaching is very important to her, she has other sides and has many interests. “I guess the one thing that parents should know about me is that I am a parent, and I have been there, done that. But I have many facets. I really enjoy design work and color and art pieces, so that’s a love of mine as well. I also enjoy being on the water, especially the ocean. It’s my place to regroup and recharge.”

IMG_0714She spends much of each summer in Maine, where she bakes cheddar biscuits, blueberry crisp, and the like for her best friend’s retail shop. “I’m the comedy relief,” says Ms. Lee. “When I arrive, everyone goes, ‘she’s baaaack’!”When it’s time for her “to come back to reality,” she enjoys cooking in her spare time and has a to-die-for tequila lime shrimp. Let’s hope she makes an appearance at a TNCS pot luck!

With or without your blueberry crisp  in tow, Ms. Lee, welcome to the TNCS community!

 

TNCS Head of School Wraps up the 2018–2019 School Year!

Shara Khon Duncan has been Head of School at The New Century School for a full year.  Immersed had another sit-down with her for a nostalgic look back at her first year, what goals she set and accomplished, what went well, what she’s continuing to address, and what she’ll tackle next.

Immediately, Sra. Duncan expressed her pleasure and gratitude for what she called a great year.

It’s really great—I love it. Friends, family, and former colleagues will say things like, ‘you don’t look tired enough,’ or ‘you’re still smiling; how is that possible?’, and it’s because I love what I do. It’s not a job. I love coming to this place everyday, where I have such wonderful people to work with as well as wonderful students and families. I tell people that this is one of the most diverse environments that I’ve been in. It’s a blessing to be here.

Diversity and languages are, indeed, important to Sra. Duncan, who was a Diversity Coordinator at one of her former schools. She is amazed that TNCS doesn’t even need one—it organically attracts a culturally diverse population and is inherently inclusive and respectful of the community’s various needs. And the languages really elevate the school for her; in fact, that’s what originally drew her to TNCS (see TNCS Welcomes Shara Khon Duncan as Head of School for her rich history with languages). She gets to use her adopted language Spanish daily, and she is even picking up some Mandarin, thanks to the perseverance of Li Laoshi. Sra. Duncan joked that, so far, she can tell you whether it’s raining or not. “In all seriousness, though, it’s just wonderful to hear the students speaking in Spanish and Mandarin,” said Sra. Duncan. It amazes me to hear kindergarten students who just started in the fall and spoke only English singing in both languages at the spring concert and sounding like they’ve been doing it all their lives. It gives me chills.”

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Goals Accomplished

The year went really fast in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve been here a long time,” said Sra. Duncan. “It presented some challenges in the sense that there was a lot of work to do just putting systems into place, trying to make it so that we can run more efficiently in the background, which was one of my goals.” She explained that in order to be as visible and out and about on campus as she’d like to be, she needed to first work behind the scenes to establish a framework.

One such system is a new student management system, which the TNCS community will learn about in the coming weeks and will launch for the 2019–2020 school year. It’s called Blackbaud, and it will provide a much more efficient platform for communication—think school delay and closing announcements—as well as much, much more. Staff will be able to readily send out notifications, and teachers will have individual web pages that parents can access to find out what’s going on in the classroom rather than receiving such information from a sometimes unwieldy email platform. Resource boards will also be available to house other kinds of information so parents don’t have to go spelunking through their inboxes to find out, for example, what is the requested dress for an upcoming student performance. It’s right there in one easy-to-access place.

“That process of vetting various systems to see which one would work best for us took a good deal of my time,” said Sra. Duncan, “but we established teams, and I talked to other schools. Things like that take time; you want to do your due diligence. There’s no one system that works well for everyone, perfectly, but our hope is that this one will probably work the best for us.”

Blackbaud will also facilitate the application process as well as the administrative workflow for teachers and other staff so that they can maximize their time. “When you’re a small school, you wear many hats. But anything we can do to make people’s jobs better, so they work smarter not harder, is really important. We can, including me, find ways to use our other skills more effectively,” said Sra. Duncan. Curriculum is one thing that is very much on her mind that Blackbaud will help streamline.

See what other successes the year held in Thoughts on the First Half of the Year from TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, and read on for what’s to come!

What’s Next

One important change is with the upcoming implementation of i-Ready supplemental work. “We used to use SuccessMaker, but it didn’t really work for us the way we wanted it to this year. What we found through our research is that i-Ready will give students the ability to practice their skills in ELA and Math in a classroom rotation,” said Sra. Duncan. The advantage is that, as a supplemental program rather than a primary curriculum, it will help diagnose any problem areas students might be having and feed that information to the teacher.

Narrowing the focus a bit, with TNCS having graduated its first-ever 8th-grade class this past year, the Middle School is very much on everyone’s mind. One thing that this class showed Sra. Duncan is that test-taking skills are critical. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “Being a school that doesn’t do standardized testing, per se, we nevertheless have to prepare our students for the standardized testing they’ll need to enter high school. So, we’re working on test-taking skills for our middle school students, in particular, and they all took the ISEE test this past year.”

She says she wants to make the TNCS Middle School the best it can possibly be and is focusing on strengthening that program over the summer.

Our goal is to help people understand that we go all the way through 8th grade. We want people to see this as a school that doesn’t end after preschool or even after elementary, it ends at 8th grade, and we want families in for the long haul. Families who enter in preprimary or primary believe that something is good about our program, so why not see how that can continue in their child’s life? They know that language is important, and they get to see it in action. I’m in awe everyday of what our teachers do, but we want that to continue all the way up. So that’s something we are working on.

Another thing the first crop of 8th-graders revealed to Sra. Duncan and to Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau, TNCS’s “resident expert on high school applications,” is that middle schoolers must get used to doing daily homework, so they increased the amount mid-year. “That may sound like not a popular thing, but it helps them get that time management piece down that they really need in order to be prepared for high school,” explained Sra. Duncan. “Students adapted to it wonderfully, and parents were right along with us!”

With the test pilot of increased homework having gone so well, this new initiative will continue for the coming year. Additionally, research and other long-term projects are on the horizon. “There’s a lot more that we need to teach our students, such as understanding how to use and be critical of technology. There are pieces that they have to learn about the whole process, and what’s important is helping them understand what goes into the process of researching. It’s almost as important as the writing process,” said Sra. Duncan.

She continued: “We feel very good about our first graduating middle school class, and we learned an awful lot about the whole process. Ultimately, we just want to make sure that we have everything we need to make sure our students are prepared for when it’s time to move on from here.”

It’s a Partnership

With everything that Sra. Duncan and the rest of the school is doing to ensure that TNCS students are learning and flourishing, it’s vital to remember that parents also play important roles in this process. One big theme of Sra. Duncan’s is the importance of two-way communication and that her door is open. When community members hear things thirdhand, for example, but don’t bring their concerns forward, uncertainty spreads. “When people are talking to others about something they’ve heard regarding the school, but they don’t come to me, I can’t address it. If you have a concern, I’m happy to talk to you about it,” she said.

She’s going to be straight with you, but she also really wants to hear what you have to say and is going to be very fair about that. “I know I have more peace of mind if I just say my piece or ask my questions. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they can’t come talk to us. This is your child. Come talk to us. We may not agree, but we’ve got to talk about it. I get it—I’m a mom, too.”

A second important theme is that TNCS is a work in progress—a very innovative and exciting work in progress—and that there’s no such thing as a perfect school.

The advantage is that we will always keep trying to be better. We are a young school, but that’s a good thing, because we’re trying to figure out how to make this work beautifully every single day. We are trying to learn from every little thing that doesn’t quite work the right way. We fix what doesn’t work, and we figure out how to do more of what goes great. This hidden gem down here is pretty amazing, and when people really find out about it, they are duly amazed.

Final Thoughts

When asked what the main thing she wanted parents to know about her first year at TNCS, Sra. Duncan said: “This is what I was made to do. This is my thing. I’ve been working toward this my whole life, and I didn’t know it. It’s just so wonderful. This is my place. I love it. I really love it.”

And, with characteristic good humor: “Also please don’t run over me while I’m directing traffic. Please.”

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TNCS Primary Classes Engage in Some High Drama!

For the last year, primary teacher Maria Mosby has hosted special drama workshops for her students at The New Century School. Young children are especially keen for experiences that challenge and inspire them in an interactive way, and theatre provides the ideal arena for such activities. Importantly, being on or behind stage also allows children free rein to be creative and to express themselves.

A Year of Acting Out

So, while she was in teacher training, Ms. Mosby met a drama teacher and actor named John Waldron who also teaches preschool and lower elementary children, and they have remained friends in the succeeding years. Last June, Mr. Waldron offered to come to TNCS and do one of his classes as a fun, end-of-year activity for Ms. Mosby’s students. “It lasted over an hour because they were so intrigued,” said Ms. Mosby. “So we decided to invite him back this year to do quarterly classes with the children.”

For the 2018–2019 school year, the quarterly classes expanded to include all primary students, and their enthusiasm for Mr. Waldron’s drama class has not flagged! Says Ms. Mosby: “The children love it! The warm-ups, improvisational games, and opportunities to not only act out stories but also express their creativity really keeps them involved. There is no need to say, ‘Please sit still and pay attention to the presentation.’ They usually ask for more.”

According to his bio, “[Mr. Waldron] specializes and trains in improvisational theatre. The games and activities he includes in his workshops help promote active listening, creativity, team building, and social interaction.”

Although drama/theatre does not a specific connection to the Montessori method per se, it’s a logical fit. “Dr. Montessori did encourage children to use their own imaginations (once they had a solid foundation in reality) to create,” explained Ms. Mosby. “This is what the children are doing in a way.” She also explained that Dr. Montessori observed that children’s creativity and self-expression seems to blossom around the age of 6 or 7 years. However, it’s clear that even the youngest TNCS primary students were fully engaged in Mr. Waldon’s classes. He does capture an audience! And that’s no surprise, given his background. He earned a BFA in theatre from Virginia Commonwealth University and has been involved in teaching, directing, and performing for over 20 years. He currently teaches drama to lower elementary students at a Montessori school in Falls Church, VA. He also teaches students through high school age as well as adults.

For the culminating class that happened May 28th, Mr. Waldron pulled out all the stops. The students performed a play, sang songs, danced, and “wrote” their own play. Ms. Mosby said she especially enjoyed this one. “This presentation was something new that I hadn’t seen him do before, and I am always impressed with how he captures the children’s attention and cooperation without really any need for assistance from me or any disciplinary tactics,” she said.

The play they performed was “The Sixteen Little Pigs,” and if that sounds familiar, it’s because instead of limiting it to 3, each student got to be one of the house-builders in the classic tale.

Guess who played the wolf, to much audience appreciation?

But they liked him crying even better!

In a plot twist, however, empathy and compassion win the day, and everybody gets their “just desserts.”

Sorry, for this next one we have no words . . .

Why did the wolf get a happy ending, again?

Then it was fun-on-stage time!

In “Emotional Orchestra,” a small group each represented “happy,” “sad,” and “surprised.” When pointed to or called on, the group acted out their emotion.

In the student-created play, the children made up stories by each adding a line, after which Mr. Waldron acted out the story the children put together.

TNCS primary students were truly fortunate to have had this experience. Mr. Waldron  has worked with students from ages 3 to 93. His has performed at the International Theatre Festival in Sibiu, Romania with Classika/Synetic Theatre, the Kennedy Center, and National Theatre. He has also performed at Wolf Trap for the International Children’s Theatre. “These experiences have helped him form a unique approach to introducing young performers to theatre and acting,” his bio states

What’s Next?

In the near future, Ms. Mosby reports that Mr. Waldron may soon be directing Maria Montessori, the Musical. We won’t want to miss that—hopefully it’s a traveling show!

For TNCS specifically, Ms. Mosby approached the upper elementary and middle school teachers about possibly doing some Latin and Shakespearean plays next year. Mr. Waldron also holds regular classes at the Little Theatre of Alexandria as well summer camps for 3rd- through 8th-graders. This year’s lineup in include Skits A Rama, Heroes and Villains, Mystery Improv: WhoDunnit?!, Improv-alooza, Screen to Stage, and Mythological Madness.

Professional Development for TNCS Preschool Teachers: It’s All About Nature and Nurture!

One of the most important tenets of The New Century School is that the emotional, social, and physical development of very young children directly affects their overall development throughout their lifespan. That is why careful, thoughtful approaches to their education is so critical—this education must maximize their future well-being. TNCS preschool is not considered preparation for “real school”; TNCS preschoolers are very much students in their own right. It’s never too early to start cultivating the intrinsic qualities that make us conscientious, kind human beings.

Head of Lower School/Dean of Students Alicia Danyali upholds this vital tenet every day, and it is particularly evident during staff professional development (PD) days. At the end of March, in fact, Mrs. Danyali arranged for some very meaningful, rejuvenating PD for TNCS preprimary and primary teachers. This enrichment was well timed, as teachers entered their classrooms in the fourth quarter with a renewed sense of purpose, ready to share the fruits of their experiences with their eager students.

Reconnecting with the Natural World

“On Friday, March 22nd, we did a beautiful workshop with child psychologist Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish in the morning with all lead staff, and then I took the preprimary teachers Laura Noletto (Señora Lala), Elizabeth Salas-Viaux (Señora Salas), and Donghui Song (Song Laoshi) as well as primary teacher Lisa Reynolds to the Irvine Nature Center,” said Mrs. Danyali. “Montessori has such a deep connection to the natural world, and Irvine is a museum for preservation of land and plants and animals native to Maryland, so it seemed like a good fit.”

Irvine has a preschool for ages 3, 4, and 5, two classes of 14 students each. They also have family programming such as Mommy and Me classes and school programming as well as evening programming for adults. They offer field trips at their site, and they can even come to a school’s site. In fact, TNCS older students visited in the first quarter of this school year. Said Mrs. Danyali:

I did a survey for teachers at the beginning of the year and asked them, ‘What do you want to learn more about? What do you want to expand on? Where do you want to grow as a school?’, and everything pointed to nature—outdoor education, how we can be more connected, and what our possibilities are. So, I thought, ‘let’s call the experts,’ and I reached out to the director at Irvine and set it up. They are even having a nature preschool conference in April. They are big believers in planting those seeds early. I’m also looking to talk to them about an in-service volunteer opportunity either here at TNCS or at their site.

Because Irvine is a Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE)-accredited school, any TNCS teachers who attend the April conference would get 9 1/2 hours of continuing education credits. During their March visit, teachers explored the exhibits and classrooms and met and networked with other educators. Heavy rain prohibited trail-walking (the site is on 17 forested acres), but they had plenty to keep them occupied. “Irvine has a little something for everybody,” said Mrs. Danyali. “I think it’s going to be a great partnership and resource.”

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Reconnecting with Montessori Roots

While preprimary teachers and Mrs. Reynolds were getting back to nature, primary teachers Elizabeth Bowling and Maria Mosby went to The Montessori Event by the American Montessori Society in Washington, D.C. to learn more about, among many other things, second-language learning in a Montessori environment.

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This annual event moves all around the country and is attended by thousands from all over the world, but, when it’s nearby, both teachers try to attend. Ms. Mosby went to one held in Philadelphia 5 years ago, and Mrs. Bowling attended in New York City for Montessori’s 100th anniversary several years ago.

This year was notable for having an app available with scheduling functionality (the conference is divided into sessions) and downloadable presentations from world-renowned education specialists and speakers like Daniel Goleman.

Mrs. Bowling says she came away with a renewed sense of why she is a Montessori teacher:

You’re talking to so many people who want to know what you teach and where you teach. It’s really inspiring. At a talk between sessions, the Executive Director asked, if you love Montessori, please stand up. And the whole room—which was already standing room only—laughed and cheered. It was so encouraging; we’re all in this together. You don’t get to see that on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.

I also enjoyed being reminded of the basics, some of the concrete parts of the philosophy such as the importance of taking care of yourself. You take care of everybody else, and you give so much of yourself—you have to remember that even Maria Montessori said the teacher must also care for herself.

tncs-preschool-teacher-professional-developmentOne of the sessions Mrs. Bowling attended was “Self-Reflection as a Means to Evaluate Practice.” “This session covered the basics of preparing ourselves as teachers and stepping back and reevaluating our class or approaches as well as what’s going on within our own spirits so that we are able to give our best to our class and to one another as colleagues. It’s things we’ve learned and that we know, but this served as a great reminder. I could relate to so much of what this speaker described about her own teaching experiences, which was very comforting,” said Mrs. Bowling.

She also attended “Furthering Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom.” “This one talked about different types of behavior you might see in the classroom, and what that behavior really means. What is the child really saying with the behavior?” This involves taking a step back and looking at the wider context. When a child is being challenging, maybe he or she just needs a little extra love and attention, or maybe a task or a leadership opportunity. The need is coming out in a negative way, but the response, if positive, can completely redirect the child. The speakers demonstrated how a negative response (e.g., expressing aggravation) versus a positive response might affect the child during a role-playing session. Said Mrs. Bowling, “We really need to ask, ‘How can we help this student?'”

“How to Have Difficult Conversations” was a third session Mrs. Bowling attended. “It emphasized how to avoid putting your own biases on a conversation, which can minimize the other person—his or her culture or beliefs. We often do not realize that we’re being insensitive, so being careful and thinking through a response can help keep us more aware—just being careful of who people are and where they might be coming from,” she explained. If that sounds like mindfulness, it’s no accident. “Mindfulness is interwoven through Montessori and is part of the training up of the teacher. It helps you to really see your student,” she said.

tncs-preschool-teacher-professional-developmentMs. Mosby attended “Learning to Read in a Montessori Context.” “It turns out that our brains are not wired to read,” she said. “After explaining the science behind why learning to read can be really quite hard for some students, this session broke down how Montessori reading is taught at various levels and showed vocabulary games and ways to expand vocabulary. Words are taught with hand gestures so that every time the word is spoken, a hand gesture accompanies it.”

Ms. Mosby also attended “Integrating Best Practices with Art.” “This one talked about not only how art is being swept aside but also how it is so important in other classroom disciplines, like science and math—for example, tessellations are art/math hybrids that have 3D effects. The thing is, art is important in its own right. It’s great just because it’s art; it doesn’t require justification. Fortunately for us, it’s very much a part of the Montessori curriculum because it helps to develop a child’s fine motor skills and also helps him or her make sense of the world,” she said.

“Creating Bilingual Language Pathways,” was a third session Ms. Mosby attended. “This one talked about how to take advantage of brain plasticity and get those grooves created in the motor cortex. The speaker uses the five Cs we also incorporate here. Children need to hear sounds all the time to learn to link words to meaning. They also need sensory input. They should be exposed to a second language by age 4 for optimization—but any age can work,” explained Ms. Mosby.

One primary theme was peace. “Montessori is well known for promoting peace and being involved in social justice, so the speakers were called peacemakers,” said Ms. Mosby. Thrice-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Scilla Elworthy, in “Empowering Young People To Be Agents of Change,” spoke about how important it is to work to make small changes in the classroom, like bullying prevention, for global impacts. “The peace curriculum is woven throughout the Montessori curriculum from the tiny ones through high schoolers,” said Ms. Mosby. “There was even this huge peace table where you could go to do yoga or take a moment for yourself.”

True Montessorians, both Mrs. Bowling and Ms. Mosby seemed very reflective after their experience. “We serve the child all of the time. That’s a place we hold, and that is a humbling place,” said Mrs. Bowling. Ms. Mosby agreed. “We have to let go of the ego. Adults have to get used that in the Montessori environment, she said. “It’s definitely a paradigm shift. You have to look at it with a different eye—that these students are not vessels to be filled; they are people.”

“I left very inspired,” said Ms. Mosby. “It was so good to see so many people who just love children be there to lift each other up.”

“It really brings you together with others in your field, and you feel so encouraged. You leave with your bucket filled,” said Mrs. Bowling. “We’re reminded about why we’re so passionate and plug away it day after day. It’s because we believe in this approach to early childhood education. I needed that encouragement at this point in my career. And stories were so relatable, and, to me, that was the best part of it, that coming together and the camaraderie. If you’re in Montessori, it’s because you think it’s the be-all, end-all.”

“It’s a choice,” echoed Ms. Mosby. “You do it because you love it, and you love what it means.”

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And, of course, at this particular conference, nobody was rude! Need more Montessori? Check out Maria Montessori: The Musical!

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Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers

Peer mentoring is a built-in, powerful tool at The New Century School, arising as a very natural consequence of its philosophy and mission. Classes comprise mixed-age groups quite deliberately, a big difference between TNCS and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in TNCS’s approach to education is that older children assist younger ones, and younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element of TNCS’s approach is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for more than just a year, developing trusting, long-term bonds.

Incidentally, the teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

Not only does social and emotional learning (SEL) increase from the mentor–mentee relationship, but academic gains are also made. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence to back up the suggestion that mentoring and being mentored provide cognitive advantages that conventional teaching does not. A 2017 study from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that partnering with higher-achieving peers can have a positive influence on a student’s learning, and students who are older, more capable readers can be these peers for young students.

Reading Buddies at TNCS

That’s where Reading Buddies comes in. This practice pairs different grade-level classrooms for community reading time—an upper-grade homeroom connects with a lower-grade one, and students pair up for time with books.

This cooperative learning method happens all over the campus, in all divisions. In a check-in post from earlier this school year, TNCS Dean of Students/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali enumerated many of the initiatives she was undertaking for the 2018–2019 school year, including establishing various class partnerships for service learning purposes—read more on that here. And the roots of the school community deepen as classes across campus work and share together. Because of the success of Reading Buddies, in particular, we’re revisiting this lovely tradition in more detail.

“Every second Wednesday, my 4th- and 5th-grade homeroom students go to Ge Laoshi’s K/1st class to participate in service learning by reading to their young friends,” explained TNCS teacher Nameeta Sharma. When asked what he liked about the Reading Buddies program, one of her 4th-grade students replied, “Everything!” “It’s fun to read to the little kids, and they really listen to me while I’m reading,” he continued. “Sometimes the teachers pair us up, and other times we just go read to whoever we want to. We all like to read Dr. Seuss books while we’re there.”

Benefits Abound

Reading Buddies also promotes reading. It allows younger readers to see what being a fluent reader looks like, as they have a peer model demonstrating reading skills. Older students become positive role models as well as develop patience and empathy as they work with their younger buddies. As the year progresses and the skills of the younger readers increase, students take turns reading to each other. In some cases, the mentee goes on to become the mentor of an even younger student. The relationship is thus bidirectional and enormously enriching.

The benefits are profound. Both sets of students get excited about Reading Buddies time because it’s a chance to do something different, visit another classroom, have fun, and make new friends. Even the Middle Schoolers love it!

Strengthening Community

Cooperative learning is also a great way to build community in the school, a primary part of TNCS’s mission. Another benefit of cooperative learning is simply that the Upper Elementary and Middle School students would not have another opportunity to get to know their younger schoolmates without this special time together. The upper and lower classrooms are situated in different buildings, and even lunch and play spaces are kept separate, as appropriate. Thanks to Reading Buddies, though, younger students recognize their role models around campus and can wave hello. It’s so nice to see, and these relationships can extend beyond the reading partnership. They can even have a positive impact on disruptive behavior. Younger children yearn for the respect of their older heroes and tend to comport themselves with more self-awareness in their presence. Older children develop a sense of protectiveness and want to nurture their adorable young friends. It’s easy to imagine how these SEL moments take root and flourish in a child’s character.


The practice of sharing a book is a delightful gift in and of itself; Reading Buddies deepens the enrichment exponentially. Now that’s a happy ending!

TNCS Dean Attends Progressive Education Summit!

As a key part of its identity, The New Century School embraces progressive education. It was a natural fit, then for TNCS Dean of Students and Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali to attend City Neighbors Progressive Education Summit here in Baltimore at the end of January. According to its website, “The Progressive Education Summit brings together hundreds of educators from around the region and the country to share best practices, work with great educational thinkers and practitioners, connect with other educators, and work to bring alive the child-centered, democratic ideals of progressive education.” Attendant schools were an equal mix of public and independent, and about 550 educators from across the country participated.
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The 2019 summit, the eighth annual, featured master classes, the first summit storytelling event by 10 to 15 storytellers, over 30 workshops, a Baltimore resource fair, and abundant networking opportunities. In addition, this year, David Sobel was the Keynote Speaker. The author of Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Community, Sobel is a leading national voice in place-based education. He was recognized as one of the Daring Dozen educational leaders in the United States in 2007 by Edutopia magazine.

Mrs. Danyali had much to say about her experience at the summit, all glowingly affirmative. “I loved everything about it,” she said. “There were a lot of opportunities to attend workshops and hear speakers throughout the day—more than any single person could actually attend.” The conference was divided into categories: Educator Reflection and Care, Arts Integration, Place-Based Education, Leadership, Learning Disabilities, Health, Trauma, Cultural Relevance, Development, Social Justice, and Progressive Education. “When I heard that David Sobel was the Keynote, I was really excited. I am a big fan of his.” She absorbed quite a lot from the presentations and will bring her perspectives to bear at TNCS. She started by describing the overall spirit of the conference then discussed the presentations that stood out most to her.

Progressive Education Talks

“The conference started off with some Baltimore high school students speaking, and I thought that set the tone so beautifully. The speeches were very uplifting,” said Mrs. Danyali. One was from City Neighbors and spoke about how a teacher changed his life, believed in him and supported him, despite the odds being very heavily stacked against this student just because of growing up in what is considered quite a dangerous part of the city. Another, from Digital Harbor, immigrated here 2 years ago speaking no English and is now fully English proficient. She spoke about all of the opportunities the school has afforded her in pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot. “Both of these demonstrated right from the start of the conference that educators should not label students. Even when we feel defeated by a set of circumstances, there are a lot of resources that we can solicit. We can network with other schools, for example. No matter how well funded a school is, there will always be social challenges to deal with. So just knowing that support is out there is helpful,” explained Mrs. Danyali.

The purpose of the conference was about how progressive education looks in different settings. One of the main themes was storytelling, and how an educator’s story can shape how he or she guides students. “What I really was interested in was how there can be different takes on various philosophies, like civic engagement or helping people with trauma, and how that can be embedded in the curriculum and not so stand alone,” said Mrs. Danyali.

Place-Based Education

Although place-based education was one of the categories/presentations of the conference, it informed everything. Said Mrs. Danyali:

The philosophy is very much in line with TNCS’s approach. You use what’s in your neighborhood, and you use what’s in your surroundings as part of developing curiosity and an open-ended inquiry-based curriculum. For me, it was great because [Sobel] had so many inspiring, real-life examples in his presentation from not only high school but also all the way down to preschool, where this should start. I was really impressed with the examples he shared from around the country of students exemplifying place-based learning in all age groups. Creative City, right here in Baltimore, is one school implementing the approach.

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Mrs. Danyali explains that all three preprimary classes this spring will follow Sobel’s teaching prescriptively, which is essentially student driven. “All of the preprimary students seem to be really interested right now in fire trucks and the fire brigade, so we’re looking to connect with a local fire department to get them to come and do a presentation. This will also help to take away that fear of hearing the siren by knowing they are here to help,” she said. “We’ll make that connection right here in their own community and do more investigation.”

As noted, place-based education is for all age levels; in fact, it is inherently a developmentally appropriate approach because it is authentically student driven. “As I drive to work in the morning, I’m always thinking about what Baltimore offers for place-based education,” said Mrs. Danyali. “This happens to be Black History month, and we have Frederick Douglass, the Underground Railroad, and so on. We make connections with local businesses, such as Greedy Reads Bookstore. We’ll get to know the Post Office around the corner. This gives students a sense of identity in the community and less fear, because Baltimore sometimes gets a bad rap. Also, understanding the cultures that make up the community is vital—inclusivity and diversity.”

Importantly, place-based education integrates all subject areas, including service into the unit of focus. Students learn all of the other disciplines as well, but rather than having the idea that doing math, for example, is all drudgery, they develop the mindset that they can use math to find answers to something they have gotten curious about in their community surroundings. They start to grasp that learning is not for learning’s sake but is useful and meaningful and a way of navigating the world. They are empowered—they see that their intellects make an impact on that world; they become problem-solvers. “It’s a concept called ‘firsthandness,’ explained Mrs. Danyali.” Firsthandness sort of speaks for itself, but, essentially, it’s experiencing the world as it is, where it is, rather than how it’s packaged and presented inside a classroom.

Service Learning

Another important value at TNCS is Service, and TNCS students in all divisions pursue regular service-oriented activities around the campus (e.g., taking out the trash, helping escort younger students into the building at morning drop-off, beautifying the grounds) and in the wider community (e.g., blanket-making, stenciling storm drains with environmental awareness messages—the list is too long to reproduce here!).

So, sitting in on a service-learning talk appealed very much to Mrs. Danyali.

With my role in service for the school, I learned about service-related programs for students going into high school that are happening right here in Baltimore. One is a 5-week community garden project that they apply for that happens once a week starting in April in a community that is currently a food desert. I shared this with Mrs. DuPrau as a possible area to explore for some of our students to help them get that experience, because they will have a service commitment in high school to fulfill in order to graduate. So, this could be a jumping-off point if they’re interested in being outside and meeting other students. It’s almost like a camp in that way. This volunteering might even lead to part-time paid work. The programs also have a lot of community support.

Positive Schools

Mrs. Danyali was also very moved by a presentation by Shantay M. McKinily, Director of the Positive Schools Center, University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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The presentation was on the Maryland Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices, a statewide campaign on training teachers on how to implement and teach restorative practices, which is a passion of Mrs. Danyali’s. Ms. McKinily covered new and emerging research out of Harvard on cutting the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the unfortunate trend of so-called “problem students” coming out of schools and going right into the criminal justice system. “Something that is really shocking to me and has been occupying my thoughts is that, as prisons are privatized, they are somehow able to get data from schools on detentions and other disciplinary measures taking place in 4th grade and using that information to project where to build prisons and where prisons will be needed,” said Mrs. Danyali.

tncs-head-of-school-attends-progressive-education-summitThis idea leads her right back to a truth she holds dear—that we need to attend to the social and emotional needs of our youngest students:

This is game-changing in the sense that, although we put a lot of thought and energy and time into the middle and high school years about where our children will end up, in reality, our society has allowed the prison system to get information on percentages of younger children who are chronically absent or chronic behavior problems and use those numbers. It defeats the purpose of all of these research-based grass roots efforts. As hard as people are working to tell their real story, the narrative already in place—that if they are in this position by 4th grade, they’re doomed—comes from a much bigger system working against them.

Ms. Mckinily gave lots of examples, some from personal experience, such as the need to build more schools and have smaller class sizes so that teachers are not having to contend with such large numbers of students, upward of 30 a class. She explained that the prevailing classroom management principle at her school was to divide the class into three groups. Imagine a hypothetical top group, who is more or less left to their own because they can work independently. and score well. The hypothetical middle group might show promise but needs help, and, although it can be difficult to determine exactly what they need, they will likely get tutoring and other support. The lower group needs lots of catching up and are treated almost like a lost cause.

Ms. McKinily felt that she may have contributed to the prison pipeline when she was an educator because that hypothetical lower group never got what they needed. This is partly because her school was counting on her to get as many students as possible to that high group so the school would receive better government funding. In addition to being academically behind, the lower group might have many other social challenges to contend with, and so their host of problems was just too overwhelming to deal with, and school resources would go to students who had a chance to make it to the higher-achieving group. The lower group, of course, became the group identified as a problem—fodder for the prison pipeline. Ms. McKinily felt strongly that she needed to get the word out there: That lower group needs the biggest focus to avoid the devastating and lifelong repercussions of being identified as a societal problem and put away.

“Her goal was to change the narrative, to get the support that they need for student wholeness, for literacy, and for staff leadership,” explained Mrs. Danyali. “The Positive Schools Center works with schools in Baltimore City, such as Wolfe Street Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School. These are ‘big small steps’ for change, but the success stories are amazing.”

Onward and Upward

“It was a great experience and definitely relative to many aspects of the mission at TNCS,” concluded Mrs. Danyali, about the summit. As a result of her attendance, Mrs. Danyali will have the chance to take her expertise into the wider educational sphere. She was asked to join two D.C. groups geared toward early childhood education—one is on progressive education and another is for more specifically preschool immersion educators who are also doing place-based curricula. “We network through workshops, emails, and newsletters and focus on developmentally appropriate curriculum and how to bring school out into the community . . . being flexible and more student-driven. You can cultivate that in preschool and build on it.”