TNCS Bids Farewell to an Original!

Catherine LawsonAfter 7 years at The New Century School, primary teacher Catherine Lawson, of the Pear Tree classroom, is embarking on an exciting new life chapter and is consequently moving from the area. Of course, it’s not unusual that teachers come and go, as life changes—changes of locale, growing families, continuing education, etc.—dictate, but what makes this particular departure so significant is that Mrs. Lawson was one of the handful of teachers who opened the school in its current location back in August 2010 and, with Adriana Duprau, is one of only two who remained from that original group, as of the 2016–2017 school year. The other original teachers were Angela Lazarony (primary); Raquel Alvarez (toddler Spanish immersion); Zhihong “Jewel” Xie (toddler Chinese immersion); Jenny Miller, now DeFusco (art teacher); and Valerie Lim (Admissions Director). Back then, the student body comprised only about 50 children from ages 2 to 6 years.

Needless to say, this will be an emotional goodbye for Mrs. Lawson, for her fellow teachers and staff, her past and present students, and their families. Being a Montessori teacher, she taught many TNCS youngsters for 3 years during an especially formative time in their development. She knows them well, and she is very dear to them.

Immersed got the chance to chat with Mrs. Lawson to reminisce a bit and give her the opportunity to tell her story. Here is a transcript of that conversation.

Immersed: What was that first year like, here at TNCS?

Mrs. Lawson: It was a little crazy [smiling], because all of our materials were out in trailers in the back. We had just the empty building. During set-up week, we moved all of the materials into our classrooms.

Immersed: How long did it take you to get in the groove?

Mrs. Lawson: We found our groove pretty quickly. As a group, we all started working really well together, and so we were able to figure out the logistics. We worked as a team—that was the big thing. When we didn’t know what to do in a given situation, we would go to each other and work it out together. We were a really strong team.

Immersed: Can you tell us about the event that precipitated your move?

Mrs. Lawson: I inherited a house sitting on 3 1/2 acres in Vienna, VA from my aunt and uncle! It’s well located—only 5 minutes from anything—but, at the same time, it’s in the woods, so it’s nice and private. We have lots of wildlife there, like deer, fox, chipmunks, squirrels, and birds like bluebirds and big woodpeckers.

Immersed: Will you continue working in some capacity?

Mrs. Lawson: Oh yes—I plan to continue teaching, but with moving and all that entails plus closing the year out here, I haven’t begun to look for a position yet. My goal is to be in the house by July 1st. My last day here at school is June 16th.

Immersed: How long have you been teaching, and have you always been a Montessori teacher?

Mrs. Lawson: I have always been a Montessori teacher. I was getting a degree in preschool education in Massachusetts and realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. My sister-in-law, who was a secretary at Julia Brown Montessori in Silver Spring, MD, urged me to come visit. So over winter break I did, and fell in love. That summer, I attended a 10-week training program and discovered how intense the preparation really is, in terms of interning and compiling albums of all the lesson plans (nowadays they just give teachers the albums already made). And, in the state of Maryland, a college degree is required to teach Montessori. I finished my senior year of college then returned to MD, interned for 2 years, and have been teaching ever since—that was in 1990.

Immersed: Would you like to share any reflections on your time here at TNCS?

Mrs. Lawson: Oh, I’m definitely going to miss the kids. One of the things that’s really wonderful about working in the school as long as I’ve been here is being able to watch them over the years, many of them from age 2, growing and maturing and becoming their own people. I also love to see the families grow, with the the second child in a family coming through my classroom and maybe even a third. But the best is watching the individual child grow and mature. Like, the other day, Mr. McGonigal’s [2nd- and 3rd-grade] students came to read my students, and some of them had been my former students! I remember teaching them their letter sounds, and here they are reading fluently to my current students who are just now beginning to learn their letter sounds. It was so cool to watch. . . seeing who these children are turning out to be. I guess the hardest part for me is not knowing what they’re ultimately going to become. That’s going to be hard, especially having been with them for so long.

Immersed: Do you anticipate being able to visit?

Mrs. Lawson: Oh yes! I’ve kept in touch with some of my former students who are now graduating high school via Facebook and hope to do the same with my TNCS students. That’s fun.

Immersed: How have you seen TNCS evolve over the years?

Mrs. Lawson: When I started here, we had a Chinese and a Spanish toddler class, three primary classes, and an elementary. Now, we have two Spanish and one Chinese toddler classrooms, four primary classrooms, a 2nd-/3rd-grade classroom, and a 4th-/5th/6th-grade classroom. That’s a big expansion. Also, the Chinese and the Spanish language learning has evolved—we used to have just one teacher of each language to cover everything. Now we have big populations of Spanish and Chinese staff members. This means that the children can really be immersed because they are being spoken to in these languages continuously throughout the day, not just in blocks. In Professor Manuel’s K/1st class, he speaks full Spanish, for example, so at that level, the students are really getting it. I have worked at schools that taught Spanish or French for 45 minutes a day before, but I’ve never experienced anything like this level of immersion.

Immersed: Do you have any closing thoughts to convey? [Cue tears.]

Mrs. Lawson: I really love The New Century School. The staff and the families are like no other. The love and support of the families and the staff are like no other. This is the eighth school that I’ve worked in, in my life, and for the first time I really feel like I’m leaving family. When I have needed support this year, everyone has stepped in and done anything they could to help me, to make me feel supported.

On behalf of the TNCS community, Mrs. Lawson, Immersed would like to say that your ninth school will be very lucky to have you. Although you will be dearly missed, we hope that your next chapter is the best one yet!

TNCS’s Second Annual Art Show Beguiles Attendants!

tncs-seconnd-annual-art-showThe Arts are an integral part of every school day at The New Century School. Visual arts teacher (and newlywed, hence the name change) Elisabeth Davies hosted the first-ever TNCS student art show during the 2015–2016 school year, but her show this year took it to a new level.

Kicking off Memorial Day weekend, the show comprising works from each and every primary through middle school student took place Friday, 5/26/17, from 5:30 pm–6:30 pm. Paintings, drawings, and sculptures were on display, spiraling up the central staircase of building south and spilling out into the hallways. A silent auction* and reception were held in the multipurpose room. Attendees were invited to have some snacks and do a gallery walk through the school, guided by their young artists.

Ms. Davies says she came up with the idea for hosting an art show having grown up participating in one every year. “I grew up always having an art show in the district,” she explained. “It combined art from three elementary schools, two middle schools, and the local high school. It was a really fun event that brought everyone together and meant a lot to the kids to get to show their families.”

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It evidently means a lot to TNCS students as well. Ms. Davies says, “The students have worked so hard on every project this year, knowing that I would be putting together an art show at the end of the year. They were all very excited.”

Her primary goals for the show were to have some fun but also demonstrate the technique and skill that go into creating art:

I wanted to show parents all the skills their children learned this year in art. It may just look like a drawing of a snowman, but the kindergarteners and 1st-graders learned how to create foreshortened space and give volume to a sphere using shading. The 4th- through 6th-graders are learning how to draw from life and see and translate those things into paper. I’m so proud of every single student in the school.

As for the primary students, Head of School Alicia Danyali explains, “Primary students have studied communities all year long, working from the closest community to them (their families) all the way out to the world. This month, we have discussed what we all have in common and what makes us different, and that we are all part of a larger community outside of ourselves.” You’ll read below how this translates to their art.
And, with this brief introduction, we leave you now to feast your eyes on these amazing works of creativity, beauty, imagination, and masterful execution. This is truly one of those times when the picture is worth 1,000 words.

Snowmen at Night

Bad Hair Day

Self-Portrait

Cooperative Monsters

Space

Inner Self-Portrait

Van Gogh, Pigasso, and Mootisse

Inedible Food

Quilts

Other

Auction

*TNCS’s curriculum teaches global citizenship and peace. With that in mind, the primary students are excited to help other children in North America by making something with their own hands. The Peter Hesse Foundation aims to promote quality early childhood education; compassion; and a peaceful, just world. Parents for all ages were invited to take part in primary’s silent auction to benefit The Peter Hesse Foundation.

TNCS Brings It Full Circle with Restorative Practices!

There’s a trend emerging in U.S. schools currently, including here in Baltimore and surrounding counties, to improve school culture by fostering healthy interpersonal and intrapersonal dialogue instead of by using the more traditional punitive approach to deal with problems. Restorative practices (RP) gives students concrete tools with which to resolve conflicts with others as well as internal conflicts that might be preventing a given student from realizing his or her potential. RP, thus, “restores” both the community and the individual to wholeness.

Although RP is sometimes associated with schools in crisis or as a last-resort way to redirect students otherwise headed for the criminal justice system, it is more accurately applied much more broadly. RP is useful in any social setting because its primary goal is to promote relationships.

Restorative Practices at TNCS

That’s why The New Century School‘s Head of School Alicia Danyali has begun using RP at TNCS. “Restorative practices has been my focus for the whole year,” she said, “because I think it’s beneficial for any relationship. It has been around for about 30 years as a reaction to chronic poor student behavior. Although we do not have that problem at TNCS, I am very interested in giving TNCS students this tool to take ownership of their words and actions—that’s where the ‘restorative’ comes in.”

IMG_2283During the 2016–2017 school year, Ms. Danyali attended three professional development sessions with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) to ultimately become a “Trainer of Trainers,” meaning that she is now certified to teach TNCS staff (or anyone else) how to implement RP within their classrooms. She also attended sessions in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Development (CD) at the University of MD, put on by like-minded educators from Rutgers’ School of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Development (CD) in Schools and After-School Programs. She became familiar with RP through her colleague Barbara Sugarman Grochal, Director of School Conflict Resolution Education Programs, Center for Dispute Resolution at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Said Ms. Danyali:

I’m a longtime believer in restorative practices in education as well as private industries. I read the books; it was life-changing. Hearing [Ms. Grochal] speak is the reason I got so interested in restorative practices. It fits with so many of the other things I was interested in like mindfulness and strong, supportive emotional and social character development. These disciplines all send a similar message but use different tools and strategies to effect their outcomes.

She even brought Ms. Grochal to TNCS as an independent consultant to talk about RP to staff during TNCS’s first professional development day back in October. They learned about the RP ethos and got a “crash course” on how to use RP strategies. Since then, Ms. Danyali has undertaken subsequent trainings, working in small groups as needs are identified to present possible activities that teachers can use. She sometimes works within the classroom herself and other times models an approach for the classroom teacher to start from. Her goal is to have everyone ready to use RP as needed for the next school year as part of an overall increased emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL):

What can teachers do to keep this message of teaching the whole child going? We want our children to be emotionally competent. They are facing things that previous generations haven’t necessarily had to deal with socially. They don’t have that much face-to-face contact, and I think that’s a component that’s missing, to ensure accountability. We live in a society where everybody has a platform to speak their mind. I also want students to know that if they send a message for example on SnapChat airing a certain opinion, they still need to take accountability for that. There is a unifying theme to all of these things I’ve been exploring that I hope will support teaching the whole student. I professionally see equal value in SE/CD for student growth as in the academic portion.

A facet of the “trial run” she has been doing lately is in figuring out how to implement RP in age-appropriate ways. “The research shows that you can plant these seeds very young.” said Ms. Danyali, “If we plant conflict resolution tools even in students as young as age 2, those are not only part of our pillars of what makes a TNCS learner—compassion, courage, service, and respect—but also vital skills that they can use to navigate challenging times in their lives. We’re currently working out how to make it age-appropriate and differentiated, such as with how much time is needed among the various age groups.” Sixth-graders can handle lengthy discussions, but 2-year-olds need a modified approach, such as gauging the pulse of the class during the morning meeting and modeling empathy.

Restorative Practices in the Classroom

Exactly how RP works in application comes down to one essential premise: that we are not responsible for anyone else’s thoughts or feelings, but we can work as a community to raise up a community member in need of support. “We all come from our own personal stories, we take a lot of baggage, but restorative practices reminds us that we’re conditioned to react in a certain way to what goes on around us, while allowing the facts to evolve without the emotion. You may have experienced trauma in one of any number of forms, but that doesn’t excuse treating other people badly. Taking accountability, repairing–it can be as simple as something that happened on the playground when unkind words were used,” explained Ms. Danyali.

Thus, RP can undo the negative stories students might be telling themselves. “It makes us more aware that ‘I’m not only responsible for myself, but when I’m in a community setting, there’s an expectation of how I treat others’,” she said.

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To reinforce the concept of community, RP generally happens in a circle formation. Circles convey inclusion and equality. Said Ms. Danyali:

Circling is probably my favorite tool among the arsenal because you can see everybody. Everybody is exposed, and everybody’s voice is heard. It forces the issue of really listening to others and reminds us that everybody’s voice is important. There are so many valuable concepts that go along with this, and a lot of it is intuitive, but the most important part to me is that there is trust. What we say here in our community is okay, because we care about our community and everyone in it. Restorative speaks to working with students instead of doing something for them or even to them. I’d rather do with because when we’re working together toward the same goal, we’re making real progress. There’s also the sense that my teacher trusts me, or I’m not just here to please others.

For the last quarter of the school year, Ms. Danyali has been regularly visiting elementary classrooms and circling the students for discussions on a wide range of topics and with varying goals. For example, Señora Cabrera felt that the 2nd- and 3rd-graders were not focusing as the end of the year draws near, and in-class work was not getting completed. She was having to constantly redirect them and ask them to refocus. “RP allows you to be transparent about your goals,” said Ms. Danyali. “I told the class what Sra. Cabrera had observed about their high energy and said to them, ‘I just wanted to come around and check in with you. This is your community. Let’s sit in a circle and talk about it’.” This led to a discussion of “norms”; just as norms would be set in the workplace, they also need to be set in an academic environment.

So I said to them, ‘I know you set classroom rules at the beginning of the year—why aren’t they being followed? We’re going to revisit those rules now. I think you know what they are, but we’re going to talk about what our expectations are in a respectful environment, and that’s called norms.’ Everybody gave suggestions and I wrote them down verbatim on a big chart. The next day I followed up with another circle and brought the norms list to take another look at and provide feedback about what we had created now that they had some time to mull it over. There’s always a reflection piece to restorative practices. ‘Never be disrespectful to your peers or to your teachers.’ I asked how they felt about this–does anybody disagree with anything or want to add something? One student replied that she felt the word ‘never’ was too strong. ‘None of us are perfect, and sometimes we mess up. I worry about the consequence if I mess up. And I don’t want to let down my community.’ I thought that was so deep and reflective and accountable. It turns out that everyone wanted to change the wording, so we agreed on new verbiage and we moved on!

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That example embodies how RP works, but, as mentioned, it has wide-reaching applications. She also circled the 4th- through 6th-graders recently to get their feedback and thoughts on how they felt taking the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE®) on an informal basis as well as what they were anticipating during their upcoming overnight trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School.

See those circle sessions here!

Ms. Danyali explains her approach to circling this way:

I set a lot of boundaries to keep things brief and above all respectful. I gauge the attention span and where we are in the day. Something I’ve been using regularly in circles during class time is the ‘talking piece.’ As a teacher, it’s a valuable tool to get feedback and to, for example, rein in some of the excess energy during hard transitions like playground to classroom. In 60 seconds, you can get everybody on the same page—all right everyone, what are your goals for the afternoon, pass the talking piece and let each student speak briefly, and it resets the stage. You’ve said what you’re going to be accountable for, and you go off and do it. I end with community-building questions: ‘Who found out something new about a classmate? Who found they have something in common with someone else that they didn’t know before?’

To respond to challenging behavior, restorative questions might include:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking of at the time?
  • What have you though about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?

To help those harmed by other’s actions, restorative questions might include:

  • What did you think when you realized what had happened?
  • What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

 

Ms. Danyali wrapped up the RP discussion by saying, “I’m not doing this because I feel that our students are headed down the wrong paths but to remind them of what we have to be grateful for. In general, I believe that we have to combine best practices from a variety of sources. There’s so much invisible curriculum in this school already of tolerance and of understanding and cultural understanding—wouldn’t it be nice if we had a really deep understanding of ourselves and be okay with owning up to it when we make mistakes? The main thing I want our community here to understand is that RP is a mindset of coaching.”

Meet the Teacher: Michele Hackshaw Joins TNCS Primary Division

michele-hackshaw-joins-tncs-primaryMichele Hackshaw joined The New Century School at the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year as a Montessori Lead Teacher with Gloria Jimenez assisting. A native Spanish speaker from Caracas, Venezuela, she moved to Baltimore with her husband in 2000.

In her home country, she pursued a macroeconomics degree but decided to come to the United States to immerse herself in English while earning a Master’s in business. She spent a few years working in the business field, and then, Señora Hackshaw says, the recession of 2008 hit. She began volunteering in her children’s school and found to her surprise that she really enjoyed that type of work. She liked childhood education so much, in fact, that she went for Montessori training. Once certified as a Montessori teacher, she worked at Bridges Montessori School in Towson for about 5 years. “I definitely prefer teaching to business, to my initial surprise. Then, even after the economy got better I told my husband that business is something I don’t want to go back to. I really love what I’m doing right now. I really love to get up and go to my work. This [gesturing to her classroom] is my vocation.”

The switch in careers from business to teaching might seem like quite an about-face, but Sra. Hackshaw believes that the work has greater significance for society. “We have such a a big impact on these children. How they turn out depends on what we do for them, show them, expose them to.” Besides her humanitarian reasons, teaching is also a lot more fun for her than working in an office was, where interactions with irate clients were often less than pleasant. “Here, it’s not like that. Somebody might be crying because I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, and 10 minutes later, he’s got a huge smile. There are no bad work days,” she says.

Her children, a girl and a boy, are now 9 and 10 years old, respectively and have the good fortune to be growing up bilingual. The same can be said of Sra. Hackshaw’s 10 3- to 5-year-old primary students who are in a Spanish-immersion Montessori classroom. “In the beginning, teaching in Spanish was a bit challenging because it was a new language for my students, who were all new to the school. But they learned so fast, and now it’s just great,” she smiles.

About being at TNCS now, she says it’s not only a wonderful experience, but she is learning a lot, professionally. “This is a different environment,” she explains, “because I never worked in a full Spanish immersion classroom, although it was Montessori. But I have never taught Montessori in Spanish or given a Montessori lesson in Spanish. And, unlike teaching Spanish, for example, at an after-school program, which is mostly teaching vocabulary, here it’s different. I speak Spanish the whole time. It has been a valuable process of learning and discovery.” (Please see Montessori Language Arts, Match, Science, and Global Studies at TNCS to learn more about how Sra. Hackshaw and other TNCS primary teachers give Montessori lessons.)

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For now, Sra. Hackshaw’s “business” is nurturing her students within her warm and peace-loving classrom. “There’s so much that you can give to them, and they will learn from you. If you keep empowering them and model how to be good people, they learn that.”

Welcome to TNCS, Sra Hackshaw!

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Meet the Teacher: Laura Noletto Joins TNCS’s Pre-Primary Division!

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Laura Noletto is seen here dressed for Love Day, during TNCS’s Spirit Week.

The New Century School welcomed Laura Noletto as Pre-Primary Spanish Lead Teacher about a month ago. Although “Señora Lala,” as she likes to be known by her students, has been at TNCS only a few weeks, she is already well-loved by her students and their families and an integral member of TNCS faculty.

 

Early Life

Born in Caracas, Venezuela to a Venezuelan mother and a Cuban father (she has dual citizenship), she visited the United States regularly growing up. “My family always vacationed in Maryland or nearby—D.C., Baltimore, Annapolis—(every summer and every Christmas), and I have very fond memories of these vacations. So, Maryland was, for me, a second home because my aunt lived in Bethesda for 50 years,” she explained. “My father and my aunt left Cuba in the 1960s. My father went to Georgetown University, and my aunt attended Maryland University and stayed here. During this time, my father met and fell in love with a Venezuelan, my mother, and returned to Latin America.”

She moved to Baltimore in 2016 from Eugene, Oregon, where she was a toddler therapeutic teacher for a foundation called Relief Nursery.

Professional Background

Sra. Lala originally studied law and was a practicing lawyer for 5 years before realizing that she needed something more creative. Her professional history, though amazingly varied, has always been in education or tangential to it in some form or another:

I was always teaching. Even in law school, I was assistant professor to a Roman law professor. So, I think my passion has always been education, even though I thought I wanted something more grandiose, and teaching might not seem so adventurous or glamorous (or so I thought when I was younger). As I get more and more mature, I see that it’s the most important profession that exists. I also did art research. I got Master’s degrees in curatorial art and Latin American studies.

But, I think that what lead me to early childhood was a seminar that I took on autobiographical books about childhood. We read writers who were exploring their first 5 years because that period contains the most profound memories that any human can have. The first 5 years of your life sets up the rest of your life—so, reading Wordsworth, Proust, Garcia-Marquez, they all tried to recover that first 5 years, those intense memories, such as the first time you try a different fruit, or you hear someone speaking another language, or someone teaches you a song. That seminar switched me to early childhood, although it took me a long time to realize it. I remember my first 5 years. I can remember being a 3-year-old living in the tropics, but coming to New York and opening my eyes to see snow. I wanted to eat it. These very simple memories are still there because of their impact. It tells me that we really do make a difference with these very young minds, these very young students.

She now knows that she prefers teaching this age group to teaching older kids. “I tried,” she says. “When I came to Baltimore, just to try it, I was teaching 4th- and 5th-grades and middle school at a public school. I was teaching about 75–100 kids a day 45 minutes of Spanish, again, just to try that age because each age is very different.” The workload was taking a toll on her, she reports, and she found herself exhausted at the end of each day. “After 2 months, I said, ‘I miss the little kiddoes.’ When I was in the Relief Nursery, I had already fallen in love with teaching the toddlers, but I thought it was related to being there, or something fleeting. I thought to myself, ‘Do you really want to change from college students to toddlers age 2 with nothing in between?’ So, I tried the in-between ages and realized, ‘Yes, I definitely love the extremes—either I teach college, or I go all the way down to toddlers.”

After some reflection, she realized how logical this seeming contradiction actually is:

In college, the students are there because they really want to learn. Students age 2 also really want to learn—how to put their jackets on, how to communicate with others, how to become a civilized human being, everything. So, it’s two passionate moments of human being. The other ages are in rebellion. They don’t want to learn in the same way. They either want to play, or they think they already know—they want independence from adults. At those ages, being a teacher is more about classroom management than about tapping into the fervor to learn.

She explains that when she saw the curriculum at TNCS, she felt an immediate kinship. Her sons (she has fraternal male twins, currently 19-years-old) not only grew up bilingual, but one of her sons even attended a Montessori school, which is not a common kind of school in Venezuela (there are only two or three in the entire capital of Caracas, despite its size):

My child blossomed in the Montessori environment. So, I already knew the program, and I thought it was fascinating how TNCS incorporates language learning within the Montessori curriculum. To allow language and culture to be a tool, a vehicle of learning. It’s not only that you’re speaking in Spanish, but the child is so eager to learn that he doesn’t care that he can’t understand the Spanish in the beginning, he’s open. He’s open to the culture, and sometimes language is not about only knowing language, it’s also about a different way of perceiving life because it’s cultural.

You know, the Chinese teachers, we Latin teachers, we have lots of similarities with Americans, but we also have our own approaches to early childhood education. You can see the differences with our approach to classroom management compared to that of the Chinese teachers. They are very different, but each very beautiful in their own ways, with very beautiful results, but it’s different. And the kids here in TNCS, they get to see both, and that’s preparing them for the 21st century and a global perspective. I think in the 21st century, all this culture will blend in—I hope so. It’s healthy to learn from each other.

Transitions

She moved to New Orleans from Venezuela in 2014, where she lived for 1 year, working as an educator in the Degas House museum. “At this point, I had already changed careers twice (lawyer to college professor to art researcher), and I could see a point where I switch from art researcher back to educator. The Degas house was my transition. I was researching Degas and also teaching kids 3 days a week. Then, in Oregon, I was immersed full-time in teaching toddlers.”

Her husband is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is currently involved in the longest-running study on HIV, that began in the late 1980s. It was landing this position that brought them to Baltimore in 2016, although he formerly worked there for 5 years in another capacity.

On Teaching

Teaching takes a passion, and each teacher has an age-group that they love. I love the 2s and 3s. I was a college professor in Venezuela, which is big, big, big kids—almost grown-ups—teaching in a film academy, the School of Visual Thinking. Before that, I was in charge of developing art programs. So, I was in the education field, but I was always separated from little kids—I don’t know why. Then, when I came to the United States, maybe because my own kids are 19 years old now, I just fell in love with early childhood education. And there has been a lot of development in the area. So, 10 years ago, if you had a high school diploma and you loved kids age 2, you could be a toddler teacher. Now, you must study curriculum and learn about how they learn. I find it so fascinating. They learn so fast—like computers. They’re incredible; they’re sponges.

Being in Baltimore 

Sra. Lala says she adores Baltimore for its history (especially relating to Edgar Allen Poe, whose entire catalogue she has read) and culture, with New Orleans also a favorite for similar reasons. “Baltimore and New Orleans have the most haunted history and the most beautiful historical buildings. They also have this connection with the Caribbean, and I’m Caribbean. They are port cities, so they are very culturally rich cities. I am amazed at how vibrant the art community is here. I do hope that it gets better as a city but not so overpriced that it kills the great energy it still has,” she says.

One thing that people might not know about her is that she created a historical graphic novel, published in Venezuela, about a 14-year-old princess living in an ancient (pre-Columbian) city and gifted with super powers—the ability to control mosquitoes, which acted as barriers to visitors by carrying yellow fever and other often-fatal diseases. She also wrote several short stories that won national competitions. “I really want to try now to write kids’ books,” she says. “I want to contribute to literacy in Spanish. I am inclined to that path. I now see Dr. Seuss as a genius!” (Who knows, maybe one day Sra. Lala’s graphic novel or one of her as-yet-to-be-written children’s books will grace the shelves of TNCS’s library!)

“I have to keep re-inventing myself,” she says. She points to a plaque hanging on the multipurpose room wall that reads, “You have to bloom where you’re planted.” “So, I’m blooming in Baltimore now.”

And we are so glad you are here, Sra. Lala! Welcome to TNCS!

TNCS Celebrates the Year of the Rooster!

January 28th marked the 2017 Lunar New Year, also known in China as the Spring Festival (Chūn Jié; 春節), and rang in Year of the Rooster. The New Century School honored many Chinese New Year traditions schoolwide the day before on New Year’s Eve, which is considered Day 1 of the overall festivities.

Organized primarily by Wei Li (Li Laoshi) and Yu Lin (Lin Laoshi), there were dances mimicking the traditional Lion Dance in the pre-primary and primary classrooms; lower elementary students made beautiful spherical lanterns; and upper elementary and middle-school students passed hongbao (红包), red envelopes containing money or gifts to confer good luck (as well as money) to the recipients. Everyone got to eat delicious homemade vegetarian dumplings (with Kindergarten classes and up making their own), another good-luck custom in China on this special occasion.

In China, additional ongoing activities range from thorough housecleaning to shopping to setting off firecrackers. Li Laoshi, who was born in a Dog Year, explains what Chinese New Year means to her and why she was inspired to make TNCS’s celebrations so special:

I think Chinese New Year is the most important festival for Chinese, especially for people who are abroad. It always reminds us where our relatives’ hometown and roots are. It’s also like a connection to gather Chinese people who live here all together during this festival. Chinese New Year is way more than just eating dumplings and passing red envelopes but the existence of Chinese spirit. I feel so proud Chinese New Year is being accepted by increasing people and is playing a more influential role around the whole world.

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img_0596It just so happened that the elementary and middle-school students got another special treat when one of their schoolmates, a 2nd-grader, performed two Chinese opera songs in full costume. See her amazing performances here:

For yet one more reason, this Chinese New Year celebration was extra special. It was the last day that the group of visiting Chinese elementary and middle-school students would be spending in Baltimore with their newfound TNCS friends. (Details about their extraordinary visit will be the topic of next week’s Immersed.) This was truly an authentic celebration.

The fun didn’t end last Friday, though, as Chinese New Year is celebrated for 16 days (from New Year’s Eve to the Lantern Festival, which takes place on February 15th). Today marks Day 8, a very auspicious day, according to Chinese tradition. Spend it eating food you love, with the people you love.

In closing, here are some predictions broken down by Chinese zodiac sign to give you (most of you, anyway) something to really crow about, as befits Year of the Fire Rooster!

  • Natives of the year of the rooster: You will easily resolve problems that cross your path, especially because you can count on support from powerful and influential people this year.
  • Natives of the year of the rat: Look forward to enjoying many happy events, including financial success.
  • Natives of the year of the ox: You will enjoy unexpected success and unforeseen events.
  • Natives of the year of the tiger: You will not lack anything, enjoying a special astral protection and devoted friends that will come to your aid, even in the last minute.
  • Natives of the year of the dragon: For you, 2017 will be full of positive events and very good news, career progress, and profitable businesses.
  • Natives of the year of the snake: Anticipate standing out professionally and being promoted.
  • Natives of the year of the horse: This could be a good year, with personal and financial achievements, but imbalance and career changes could prevail, making you irritable and mischievous.
  • Natives of the year of the goat: Your expenditures may outrun your income this year, potentially leading to problems with the family and loved ones, who may try to get you back on track.
  • Natives of the year of the monkey: For you, 2017 is going to be really good, especially from a romantic point of view.
  • Natives of the year of the rabbit: This year may bring you difficulty and tension regarding material aspects.
  • Natives of the year of the boar: For you, this may be a busy and stressful year due to potential financial or professional problems that will require patience and tenacity to be resolved.
  • Natives of the year of the dog: Some unexpected problems in health and romance might occur.

On the bright side, overall this year, people will be more polite and less stubborn (but they may have the tendency to complicate things); 2017 is oriented toward progress, honor, and maximum integrity, with people learning to moderate themselves.

Xīnnián kuàilè (新年快乐)!

Montessori Language Arts, Math, Science, and Global Studies at TNCS

On January 26th, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education for students ages 3, 4, and 5 years. This information-filled evening was the second such Primary Workshop of the 2016–2017 school year and covered the second half of the Montessori curriculum—Language Arts, Math, Science, and Global Studies. The Practical Life and Sensorial aspects were covered in the fall workshop.

The workshop’s purpose is to show parents specifically what their children are learning and doing during their daily class time. For those parents who did not attend Montessori school as kids, the Primary Workshop is a marvel—both eye-opening and fun. For those who did grow up in a Montessori environment, the chance to reacquaint themselves with the materials must evoke the most delicious nostalgia. Maria Montessori developed the Montessori materials based on her extensive observation of children ages 2 1/2 through 6 years. Her goal was to put academic success within their reach by setting realizable achievement milestones, so, to do that, she tailored materials to be used the way she saw children interacting with their world. Primary students use these materials nearly exclusively, and seeing how the materials are actually used and learning what each does for the child’s development was the focus of the workshop.

Each primary lead teacher provided an overview of the discipline she was representing, but all four teachers cover all disciplines in their respective classrooms. They began by demonstrating how they present a “lesson” on a given material (a “work”): Movements are controlled and orderly; the pace is decidedly unhurried. Thus, the student is given ample time to absorb all aspects of what is happening. The overriding theme of the evening was that all lessons begin with the simplest concepts and move to increasingly complex ones. The student builds on and deepens understanding this way, rather than merely mimicking or memorizing.

Language Arts

Catherine Lawson presented the Language portion of the Workshop. The Montessori philosophy describes kids’ language acquisition as occurring over three major “explosions.” The first happens at age 12–18 months when babies start naming the elements of their surroundings. At around age 2 years, they begin to use sentences and describe how they feel. The final burst is at age 4–5 years when they begin to acquire reading and writing skills. Thus, they start with very concrete terms and make a series of abstractions to achieve literacy. How this translates to the Montessori classroom involves first making the student aware of the different sounds in a word, progressing to phonetics, and finally to spelling and beyond. (You may have even noticed that your primary-age student identifies the letter “a,” not by its name but by its sound. This is intentional, and Mrs. Lawson encouraged parents to do so as well. It’s less important for the child to know the name of the letter than to grasp its function.)

These “stepping stones into reading” demonstrate why this approach is so effective. Over the course of the 3-year primary cycle, a child starts with sandpaper letters—tracing a form and saying the sound with eyes first open, then closed. From there, the child learns to associate objects that start with a particular letter with the sound. The moveable alphabet, a later step, allows them to assemble letters to make words that correspond to certain objects laid next to the tray of letters.

Consonant sounds         Matching letters and objects       Moveable alphabet

Letter Mrs. Lawson says that language acquisition is perhaps the most important facet of child development, enhancing every other aspect. Communication also inherently conveys order—there’s a beginning, middle, and end, which underpins the Montessori approach as well.

She also recommended some handy tips for how to continue language development at home. The best we can do for our kids is to read and/or tell stories to them. (This advice is not exclusive to Montessori kids, of course, but it’s still nice to be reminded that our bedtime efforts are going to yield future dividends!) Another important at-home activity is to enrich kids’ vocabulary by identifying things that may be unfamiliar to them, such as kitchen tools. As you explain new words, adds Mrs. Lawson, make sure you emphasize the sounds within each words so the child learns correct articulation and enunciation.

Language and communication are integral to thought; giving the child the tools to express him or herself will build his or her confidence to communicate—and therefore to think—more effectively.

The primary classroom is also multilingual: Students benefit from having an assistant teacher who is a native speaker of either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, and these teachers rotate through the four primary classrooms so that all students are regularly exposed to both languages. For more on TNCS’s philosophy on multilingualism, please search the Immersed archives for many posts on the topic, such as TNCS’s Foreign Language Program Embraces the 5 Cs and Multilingual Media for Kids: Explore Beyond Dora; Bid Kai-Lan Farewell!. This article on multilingualism and enhanced learning is also informative.

Math

Number Rods

Students start to understand that numbers are symbolic of quantity with these number rods.

Bead units

They next begin to think in terms of units.

Montessori math is likewise a progression of lessons from concrete/discrete to abstract. Michelle Hackshaw presented the math materials and described teaching math as “starting with concrete knowledge of numbers and quantity and leading to ever more complex operations like multiplication and division.” She repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding what the numeric symbols represent.

Thousand blocks

To count units, students start with successively larger quantities of beads. Once they have truly made the leap from concrete to abstract, they move to the 1,000 blocks and eventually the alluring “bead frame.”

Kids first learn to count from 1-10 and are taught the concept that those numbers represent a specific amount. They make this connection with the number rods and with numeral cards. They sequentially progress through counting with beads to learn units of 10, 100, and 1,000, which teaches them the decimal system in the bargain. By combining the physical materials with these higher-order abstractions, the child will learn addition, subtraction, and on up, yet will have truly absorbed the deeper sense of such operations rather than simply memorizing a set of, say, multiplication tables.

Science

reptilesamphibiansMaria Mosby handled the Science portion of the workshop. Just as with the other Montessori categories, the scientific disciplines are taught from simple to complex, but here the progression can be less linear, as students are strongly encouraged to discover the natural world, rather than simply be told about it, explained Ms. Mosby. Science tends toward botany and biology, with kids exploring, for example, life cycles and habitats or getting a tactile boost from perusing the sundry contents of the “nature basket.” Ms. Mosby says she uses every opportunity to get kids out of their “comfort zones” by asking questions like, “What is this made of?” to launch various lines of inquiry and expand student’s views of their worlds.

sink-and-floatProbably the favorite activity among the younger primary crowd is the Sink and Float work, in which kids get to pour water (what?) into a vessel and then systematically dunk items (what?) into the vessel to see which will float and which will sink. Montessori is nothing if not kid-friendly!

Global Studies

tncs-primary-workshopLisa Reynolds introduced the group to Global Studies. “These lessons, she says, “give students the opportunity to learn about other cultures.” Primary teachers also display objects from around the world in their classrooms to have a physical representation of a particular locale always on hand.

landwater-formsA typical activity here might be doing puzzle maps to promote visual recognition of the names and topography of the seven continents and their relationship to each other. Students also develop manual control with manipulation of the puzzle pieces. From here, kids advance to push-pinning the outlines of the various land masses and creating their own “maps.” Another popular Global Studies activity is learning about the relationships between various types of land masses and water.

The main reason to begin teaching these topics so young, according to Dr. Montessori, is to help kids develop spatial orientation including the vocabulary to express it (i.e., “up,” “over,” “through,” etc.) because they have such an overwhelming  need for order in their environment. Putting the need together with the tool to fulfill it empowers young kids and gives them the confidence to be students, learners.

Putting It All Together

One takeaway from the four-part workshop was how beautifully all of the materials work together to provide a very complete and absorbing experience. Each one, though developed for a particular discipline, nevertheless encourages the child to use skills and senses from other areas. For example, the water and land mass trays also hone practical life skills (pouring the water from big pitcher to small and to the tray itself) and tune the stereognostic sense (kids touch the land masses and trace the waterway, feeling each form and storing that information away) while teaching fundamental geography. In later school years, a Montessori-educated child confronting the word, “isthmus,” for example, calls forth an immediate and multilayered concept of what that word represents that includes the physical relationship of the land to the water rather than just a memorized definition.

landwatersinkfloat

Emerging research has demonstrated the numerous and far-reaching benefits of preschool Montessori education (see “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education”). Seeing the true genius of the Montessori materials so intimately, it’s really no surprise that children derive a very full, well-rounded education by using them. They are, after all, really made for kids.

For more on the Montessori Method in TNCS primary classrooms, view primary-workshop_january-26-2017.

Finally, Head of School Alicia Danyali, who also introduced and opened the workshop, closed by illuminating another unifying thread of the Montessori curriculum and, indeed, TNCS as a whole: tolerance, kindness, respect. These qualities inform what Mrs. Danyali calls TNCS’s “invisible curriculum,” which, despite the lack of rubrics to measure individual progress by, is felt in every part of TNCS operations. If it’s hard to visualize young children exemplifying these traits deliberately, come watch a TNCS primary classroom in real time, where you’ll see students seamlessly migrating from work station to work station, helping one another, and above all respecting the space they are in as well as the other members of their harmonious community.