Meet the Teacher: Elizabeth Bowling Joins TNCS Primary!

The New Century School follows a classic Montessori structure and approach in its primary division for children ages 3 to 5 years old. For the 2017–2018 school year, Elizabeth Bowling, who is from Carroll County here in Maryland and lives there now with her husband and their three children, joined the primary Montessori team. Although new to the school, she was already well known to her current colleagues!

Journey to Montessori

Having now been in a Montessori classroom environment for the last 14 years, she began her present career as an assistant at Bethesda Montessori School. After assisting for 4 years, she decided to take the training herself. Her route to that decision, however, had some twists and turns along the way:

I was an education major in college initially, and then I changed my major to law and became a paralegal. But, in the back of my mind, I wondered if I had made a mistake. When I told a former high school teacher of mine, he said, ‘You’ll regret it, and you’re going to end up a teacher. You think that you want something more exciting now because you’re young. But you’ll end up a teacher.’ So I kind of always kept that in the back of my mind.

Although Mrs. Bowling did not set out to become a teacher, let alone a Montessori-certified one, once she started, she knew she had found her calling. “After I graduated from college and in the legal field, I was not really very happy. I just sort of looked around one day and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ and wondered what would be a better fit for me,” she recounted. Still in her 20s, she felt it was an ideal time to explore options and happened to see a job opening for an assistant at a Montessori school. “I knew nothing about Montessori, but I thought, just to be in a school setting, let me see if I like that. I had the interview, and the head of school had a good feeling about me. So, even though I had no experience, I worked there for a couple of years.”

When asked to elaborate more on how and why she chose the path of Montessori with no prior familiarity with it, she explains that having only been inside a traditional classroom was actually a benefit. “Although I had some adjusting to do, coming in with a clean slate meant that I didn’t have any preconceived notions and was very open and very trainable that way.”

Although she enjoyed her colleagues and the administration, she went back into law for financial reasons but was soon once again miserable. She says, “I had hit some crossroads in life and knew I needed to change my course. That’s when I went back and I took the Montessori training.” She had been encouraged by her colleagues (as well as students who wanted their in-class lessons from her) to do so and had felt such a strong connection in the Montessori classroom that this next step felt right and natural to her.

Once certified, she began teaching as classroom lead at what was then called the Montessori School in Lutherville, MD (and also where she completed her training) and is now known as Greenspring Montessori. She reports having a truly wonderful experience there and an amazing mentor, who has since retired from teaching. “She taught me everything that I know. I was her student teacher, and we were still extremely close and very good friends,” said Mrs. Bowling.

Welcome to TNCS!

In that reciprocity intrinsic to Montessori, Mrs. Bowling was later able to become a mentor in her own right. TNCS’s own Lisa Reynolds was once her assistant and mentee! Mrs. Bowling enjoys being back together and also with Ms. Mosby and the rest of the team. She feels they all work together incredibly harmoniously. (See TNCS Primary Workshop 2017 that demonstrates how each lead teacher on the Montessori team plays to her strength and contributes to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.)

Her current classroom here at TNCS comprises 19 3- and 4-year-olds. She is assisted by Yanely Pozo, who is in her first year as assistant and who Mrs. Bowling is thrilled to be working with and finds a “perfect match.” “Im really enjoying it here,” she said. “The administration is very kind and very supportive, so I feel very calm, joyful, and accepted here. I feel like what I bring to the table is is always considered and respected, which is lovely.”

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And then there’s her established connection with the other teachers:

Ms. Mosby, Mrs. Reynolds, and I all worked together earlier on, so we already knew each other quite well. But it’s nice to kind of come full circle and be back together. And Yangyang is fantastic—extremely supportive and so kind—so it’s just so nice to feel like you can easily go to a colleague for an idea or to share work or whatever the case may be. We have that kind of support among us, which is really nice and not always the case. We powwow and brainstorm together, and that’s usually how we handle our division. At the primary workshop, for example, we worked out how to convey what we feel is important and what we feel that the parents should know and would be helpful to understand. I happen to like the work cycle, so explaining that was my part of my contribution. We just share the love.

She says of her students: “My children are precious. At this age, they are a work in progress, but they enjoy each other and they have a great amount of potential.” She says her classroom functions quite smoothly. “This a good fit for my personality and the things that I believe in,” she said.

TNCS Primary Workshop 2017

Last month, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. Unlike Open Houses and Information Nights that are general question-and-answer forums, a workshop’s purpose is to show you specifically what your 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. 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.

There are four lead Montessori teachers this year: Lisa Reynolds, Elizabeth Bowling, Maria Mosby, and Yangyang Li, and each presented an aspect of the primary curriculum.

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Work Cycle

Mrs. Bowling went first, introducing the foundational concept of the work cycle. “This is so incredibly important and something we are always looking for in the children,” she began. “The classroom environment focuses on independence, sense of order, concentration, and coordination. This takes time not only to develop within a child but it takes time in the day as well, so we do our best to provide an uninterrupted work time, usually 3 hours, in the morning.” She explained that, as Montessori educators, they are closely observing what materials that the students opt to work with because it demonstrates where their interests lie and also shows the student’s mindset. “You want them to practice lessons you’ve given them, but you also want them to be able to go back to works that they’ve mastered as well.”

The work cycle has three parts: preparation, working, completing (putting away). To prepare, the student spreads out a throw rug and lays out the components of the “work*” in an orderly fashion. Next the student does the work, following the steps as the teacher has previously shown them. Finally, they clean up the work, put it away on the shelf, and choose a new work. “That’s a lot when you’re 3, or 4, or even 5 and 6,” said Mrs. Bowling. “So, again, that takes some time to develop but it’s what we’re working on every day with your child, that complete follow through. This consistency aids the development of care and respect for their belongings and the environment. It also shows their ability to follow directions. It even introduces the basics for plot structure, which will aid them in reading comprehension. A lot goes into everything your child is doing in a day,” she said.

Montessori Skillset

Ms. Mosby spoke next, to talk about the theme of independence, confidence, and risk-taking within safe parameters. “From the time the child is born, he is working on little things that develop his independence,” she explained. “Before he learns to walk he has to learn to crawl. The child continuously seeks opportunities to increase his independence through a series of natural developments and milestones. The adult’s role, the parents role, the teacher’s role—-especially in this environment—is to foster it.” It’s a well-known Montessori tenet that we should never let a child risk failure until he has a reasonable chance of success. One way this bears out in the classroom is that everything is child-sized, from all furniture to the tools and materials, and the environment is prepared by the teacher.

“Everything we set up for the child to do helps them successfully do each work. The child is allowed to manipulate all of the things we have set up.” And here is where the risk-taking can come into play. The child may not be ready for a particular work or may need another lesson on how to complete it. But the important thing is, mistakes are okay. “We don’t correct the child,” said Ms. Mosby. “We let him discover his mistake and then we’ll go back and assess it later, we don’t interrupt his concentration. What we’re working on in this stage is developing that concentration and really helping him to focus on one thing at a time, isolating one concept and then adding more and more.”

This will help get them ready for elementary, where they’ll be doing new things, encountering additional challenges, and collaborating with other children. “At this stage, she said, “they’re working with just one thing at one time by themselves. That’s why you’ll see mostly one or two seats at a table. We don’t want too many children working together because they tend to distract one another. So, allowing a child to develop skills unhindered by an adult helps to develop independence, confidence, and appropriate risk assessment. We’re watching to make sure they’re safe while at the same time giving them that ability to assess risk for themselves, make mistakes, and learn from them.”

Practical Life

Newly certified Yangyang Li spoke about the Practical Life component of the Montessori curriculum, which, she explained, comprises four areas: care of self, care of the environment, grace and courtesy, and movement of objects. She said that, “practical life connects the child to the world, to the environment. It’s also indirect preparation for math and other academics.” If a child is interested in something, she explained, “the child will concentrate on it.” She also said that children at this age want real experiences, which also cultivates concentration as well as self-motivation. “Please help me to do the work by myself,” said Li Laoshi, is the attitude they convey. All of this also develops emotional independence.

Importantly, the child uses all of the senses when engaged in a practical life work, which could be cleaning tables, sweeping, arranging flowers, or anything else that is a part of daily chores. When the instructor demonstrates a practical life lesson, as you can see in the video below, she moves slowly and deliberately, taking care to experience all of the tactile sensations, sounds, smells, and so on, and follows an orderly sequence of steps. Thanks to the parent volunteer who now understands the correct way to do some washing up!

Interconnections

Mrs. Reynolds explored how the Montessori curriculum is interconnected, from practical life to science and geography, math, and language. “The materials build upon one another, making the progression important,” she explained. “Some works isolate one skill and focus on it while others may be educating the child in multiple ways. Many of the materials are self-correcting, which also promotes independence and problem solving.”

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Questions and Answers

A Q&Q followed, and parents were given the chance to inquire about specific aspects. Two that brought home a lot of the concepts are reproduced here.

Parent: What are some examples of work that the child is doing on a daily basis?

Instructors: The children are all working on different things. An example might be a group of 3-year-olds having a lesson on sounding where we would go around the room have them try to pick out something that starts with a certain sound. There is a lot of preliminary work so they might be doing pouring work, cleaning work and then you might take those things away and they might start pouring their own snack or working with some food preparation. They have started making coffee for us (laughter). It’s such a caring, loving thing for them. So they’re all working on different things in all different levels. You might see a teacher on the rug giving a lesson and the other teacher will be observing other children working independently on their lessons.

Parent: One question related to independence, where do you strike a balance between letting them explore on their own and then finding out it’s not working to putting them on the right track? At what point do you reorient them?

Instructors: First of all, we’re looking at, did they choose a work they’ve actually had a lesson on because you want to make sure they have. If they haven’t had a lesson on something then we intervene and redirect. If you have given this child a lesson and they’re picking up this work and it’s becoming too playful and not purposeful work then that might be a time we might come along side them and redirect them. We are watching that. There’s a purpose for the work. Of course, if they are trying and having difficulty, that is just part of the process. If they’re throwing things or being disruptive, that’s a different story. So we have to use our judgment to determine which direction to take.

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*Searching with the keywords “work cycle” in the search bar of this blog will bring up past years’ posts about primary workshops. They all have slightly different perspectives and are worth checking out if you are interested in learning more about Montessori education at TNCS.

Adriana Duprau Becomes Curriculum Coordinator at TNCS!

With the commencement of the 2017–2018 academic school year, The New Century School scaled some exciting new heights. To name just two, the inaugural 7th-grade class made its debut, and the student body en masse has grown to more than 200 children. These milestones are impressive, certainly, but are also not without accompanying challenges. How does one small school accommodate an age range from 2 to 12 years? How do teachers keep all students engaged in mixed-age classrooms? With such a well-rounded curriculum, how is continuity of instructional approach maintained across so many diverse subject areas?

Enter Adriana Duprau, TNCS’s new Curriculum Coordinator (also known as Curriculum Specialist). Mrs. Duprau is already known to many among the TNCS community—in fact, there’s a very strong chance that she has taught your child in her classroom at some point, considering that she has been at TNCS since it first opened back in 2010. Being so familiar with TNCS operations, she was the natural choice to take on this new role, which, in brief, entails supporting teachers and giving them constructive feedback on how they are implementing the curriculum. Interestingly, however, she came into the role less because someone was actively being sought and more so because she was already the go-to when an instructor needed strategies for example, for differentiating lessons. In Mrs. Duprau’s case, as you’ll see, this support extends to students as well.

Job Description

She spends about 80% of her time in the classroom so she can see firsthand what teachers are doing. She makes sure, for example, that lessons are being appropriately differentiated to accommodate the varying skill student levels in each classroom. At the same time, she wants to see that students are being challenged. On a macro level, another thing she looks for is that students are transitioning smoothly among divisions (e.g., pre-primary to primary, primary to kindergarten, elementary to middle school).

These are tasks that Head of School Alicia Danyali has handled in the past, but as the school grows, it became clear that a dedicated role was needed so that Mrs. Danyali can devote her time to running the school.

Sometimes school teachers can feel overwhelmed. Mrs. Duprau is there to “close the loop,” as she puts it. “What are their challenges; what are things that I can help with?” she asks herself, to provide an extra resource to the teachers. In some ways, it’s also a means of quality assurance. “If teachers are having a hard time, how can I offer support? Or, they may be having a hard time with a particular student—what can we do to come up with solutions?” she explains. “Having an objective observer who can stand back and take notes can be very revealing in these situations,” she continued, “and together we can problem solve and brainstorm the best approaches to addressing the challenges.”

Mrs. Duprau also plays a big part in helping Mrs. Danyali with professional development outside of the classroom, such as by demonstrating lessons during PD days and doing trainings.

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Curriculum Coordinator Adriana Duprau

Although she has embraced this support role, taking on a new position also can come with challenges. For Mrs. Duprau, the one thing she most worried about was not having her own classroom. “But, as it turns out, I spend most of my time in classrooms, so I’m really excited that I still get to have that time with students and with other teachers,” she said. And, although she has found herself so far spending most of her time in elementary and middle school classrooms, she nevertheless has had to get to know all 200+ students on a first-name basis . . . now that’s a challenge!

However, the biggest challenge she has found so far is having her suggestions go unheeded, whether inadvertently or from an unwillingness to take feedback, although Mrs. Duprau anticipates that this will probably dissipate as teachers acclimate to the idea of having a curriculum specialist and get used to accepting support.

Job Goals

She says her main goals, at least initially, are to make sure that teachers feel supported and know what should be taking place inside their classrooms. For example, programs like Reading A–Z might be new to a instructor, so Mrs. Duprau guides him or her through implementation. Again, her experience—not to mention her particular area of expertise—come in very handy here. She also sets up technology in classrooms so that appropriate ages all have access to SuccessMaker, a stalwart in the TNCS math program. All this, says Mrs. Duprau, because “we want to make sure we see growth in the students. This will give us a ‘closer look’ at the kids.”

She then uses the data she gathers to close any would-be gaps, such as finding ways to help former Montessori students matriculate into the non–classic Montessori Kindergarten classroom, or, conversely, introducing students who did not come up through the TNCS primary ranks to the “Montessori feel” of the K classroom. The Kindergarten group, by the way, is the largest it has ever been, so this is an area of keen interest. Moreover, Kindergarten can comprise a wide variety of skill levels, from students who are not yet reading and writing to students already completely comfortable with chapter books. Helping teachers set up their Daily 5 stations, for example, can go a long way to successful classroom management in this heterogenous setting. This has given her ideas for how to manage next year’s K transition: “A goal for us is to figure out what objectives the primary kids should end this school year before ‘going up’ so that they are prepared and can thrive in the more structured environment,” she explained.

Incidentally, in her tenure at TNCS, Mrs. Duprau has always had children of this age in her classroom, but now she says, “having my own kindergartener at home and seeing where he is developmentally has taught me even more about this age than having been a kindergarten teacher for so long.” So now, she can bring a dual perspective to the support she offers current TNCS K teachers—that of the seasoned teacher as well as the parent.

“I also get to spend a lot of time in other subject areas,” she explains. Chinese, music, and art, for example, are not classes she would have been a part of as a teacher. Now she observes how those are going to make sure all aspects of the curriculum hang together in a cohesive way and that instructors are meshing well. “One thing I saw was that having all of one division participating in a specials class together made the class too big. Being able to be there and see what’s unfolding and offer potential solutions has been very useful. We are now splitting the groups and adapting schedules to make sure that students and instructors are getting what they need.”

Another goal is to firmly establish units of study (e.g., in Global Studies and Science) that rotate on a 3-year basis so that students are all getting the full breadth of each discipline. The information is taught at differentiated levels, and she envisions gathering all of these lessons together in a master curriculum.

Reflections

“Although I really miss having my own classroom,” says Mrs. Duprau, I am really enjoying this new position, and I think it’s very beneficial to the school. “There are aspects of the role that I am continuing to grow in, because I have never held a job quite like this one before—I now work as much with adults as I do with kids!” She finds the position perfect for her current situation, with two young children at home to care for, and she is also learning a tremendous amount about teaching from this new vantage point.

“My primary objective is to be helpful and to facilitate smooth operations,” she said. “My interest was sparked when I would help other teachers who were unfamiliar with the mixed-age and mixed-language approach, and I found that I loved that interaction. I broached the idea of having a curriculum specialist in some capacity at TNCS, and the administration agreed immediately.” She learned her superb classroom management skills both as a Baltimore City public school teacher and by her first mixed-age experience at TNCS.

If she ever does return to the classroom, she says she is considering trying an older cohort to see what that would be like. In the meantime, Curriculum Coordinator suits her just fine!

 

 

 

 

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!

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!

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.