Gab Sussman: Opening Windows to the World in ELA!

Middle school at The New Century School enters its fourth year with a fresh new face as homeroom teacher: Gab Sussman. The first thing that strikes anyone walking into Ms. Sussman’s classroom is her warmth. She positively radiates enthusiasm and kindness, and it’s obvious that she wants to be there.

Educational and Professional Background

Growing up in Putnam County, in New York, Ms. Sussman attended both public and private schools and has a broad understanding of what both types of school have to offer. She attended Loyola University Maryland here in Baltimore as an undergraduate in a pre-med program. She said that battling the physics and calculus courses was fine for a while until she heard a classmate talking about her elementary education classes. Something clicked, and just like that Ms. Sussman changed her major to elementary ed. “That’s where it all began,” she said. “After I graduated in 2012, I went back to New York City and began teaching in early elementary classrooms in independent schools.” She also pursued a master’s degree in educational leadership at Fordham University. “There I did a lot of professional development around integrating technology; about reading and designing curricula; as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she explained.

After her time teaching and earning her graduate degree, she returned to Baltimore in 2019 to “close the gap,” as she puts it—she and her now-spouse had been maintaining a long-distance relationship and decided it was time to change that. “When I started working here in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to teach the upper elementary grades, and now I’m really excited to be teaching middle school,” she said. The impetus for her progression up through the grades came about during that professional development for coding and computer programming. Although she loved teaching early elementary, she and the school librarian started a coding club, and so she began interacting more with upper elementary school students. “What was also fun about that was, as my own students were getting older and advancing into older grades, I was able to keep in touch with them through the club and see how much they had changed. Our relationships grew and got deeper because they were older and experiencing a perspective shift. Through that after school program of coding, I realized that I really enjoy teaching older kids.”

So, when she was planning her move back to Baltimore, she had a good deal of flexibility as far as what grades she was comfortable teaching as well as what age groups she enjoys teaching. She got a position teaching in an upper elementary classroom in a Baltimore independent school. “This felt really familiar,” she said, “to be teaching 4th- and 5th-graders. It was new, but also at the same time I had the experience of teaching coding to that age, so it was a way to expand my career and my skills as a teacher.”

Her path to teaching middle school happened along a similar trajectory. At the school where she was teaching, an opportunity to coach middle school field hockey middle school presented itself. This happened during what she calls “the pandemic year” and turned out to involve more than just coaching field hockey. “I was getting to know the students and hearing what their days were like and supporting them social and emotionally. They had just done online school for a whole day, and now they’re showing up for a virtual practice. It was new, but again it was an opportunity for me to interact with this age group.”

Falling into Place at TNCS

TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders on a jaunt around Fell’s Point.

And now here she is at TNCS! She says she started wanting to teach middle schoolers in a more direct academic way, so when the position opened up here, she was quite excited about it. She has both the very familiar upper elementary–age students in her English Language Arts (ELA) classes as well as the fun new chance to teach her 7th- and 8th-graders as both homeroom teacher and ELA teacher as well as Global Studies teacher.

Things are falling into place in multiple ways for Ms. Sussman. “One of my favorite things about teaching upper elementary and now middle school are the amazing middle grade and young adult books. They are engaging and rich and complex, and I love being able to reach students through books,” she said.

Stories are really powerful, and being able to find that genre or find that one book that really turns the student into someone who loves reading feels really fulfilling. It takes the legwork to do the research and find those well-reviewed books and getting them in the hands of students, but those windows and mirrors are a really powerful way for young people to learn about the world and relate to the world outside of their own bubble of families and friends. It broadens their understanding of how the world works. I think that books teach lessons and can be opportunities for connecting with other people.

Gab Sussman being a good neighbor and helping out at Greedy Reads . . . and maybe doing a bit of research?

Ms. Sussman has ideas about how to reach those students who may not be independently grabbing a book to read or defaulting always to graphic novels.

What I love about ELA is helping kids make that bridge from graphic novels to really learning what kind of stories or what kind of characters appeal to them. There are all kinds of graphic novels; they’re not just fantasy. And the graphic novel genre and and format is very appealing to students of all ages and strengths and skill levels. Being able to help students understand that there’s something about the kind of stories that you enjoy, so let’s dig deeper into that. A lot of it has to do with just learning more about who you are. I really try to find those kinds of stories that kids need or are yearning for and and put them in their hands. ‘This is the story you’ve been wanting—once you start reading and you literally fall into the book, you’re not going to miss the pictures. The words will paint those pictures for you.’


In her second month at TNCS, Ms. Sussman says she already loves it. “I’ve always been drawn to smaller communities. As a kid, I was really lost in a large public school, and I felt like it was really hard to figure out who I was and figure out where I fit in the larger community.” She explains that this informed her university choices as well as where she felt most comfortable teaching. “The smaller structure in many ways is conducive to a stronger community feel,” she said. She also feels that TNCS is authentically diverse and multicultural:

It’s very tangible. It really affects how people interact with one another, and even in small communities, you can still feel isolated or you can still feel alone. So, it feels really wonderful to be part of a community that is intentional about representations of cultures and ways of life here. It affects the expectations that people have for each other, and it feels very vibrant in a unique way.

She says this carries over even into how some students are new to the school and some have been at TNCS for their entire academic careers. “There is really rich history in their relationships with each other. It feels natural, and, in a way, it mirrors society in terms of how people have history in a place and some people come and go.”

She’s right at home at TNCS and in her ELA classroom. And the answer is no, if you were wondering whether she experienced any regret about giving up medicine in favor of a career in education.

I would be a very, very different person if I had not gone into education. I think being an educator is part of my identity—from the the training that goes into teacher education to the experience of working with kids and partnering with families to staying up to date on child development and what literature to expose kids to. I can confidently say that I feel really proud and really happy with where I am. As I was growing up, I had an older sister go to medical school and seeing that and wanting to be like her, might’ve been a factor in why I thought I also wanted to be a doctor. But having that conversation with that one person majoring in elementary education allowed me to carve this path on my own and for myself.

That sister went on to become a child forensic psychiatrist, and so she and Ms. Sussman are both experts in different areas of child development and not only have interesting conversations but are also able to support each other in their respective work.

All in all, it’s pretty clear that, at least for this part of Ms. Sussman’s story, the ending is a happy one.

Gab Sussman and her homeroom students, just chillin’ on the TNCS campus.

 

TNCS Canta y Baila con 123 Andrés!

Singing and dancing have always been regular activities at The New Century School. But when the TNCS Parent Council sponsored a virtual end-of-year concert by 123 Andrés on June 4, 2021, those traditions took on a special new meaning!

The Latin Grammy-winning music duo is well known to the TNCS community, and this joyous event brought us together in a new way. It was a first for the TNCS community to be sure, but it was also one of many firsts for the TNCS Parent Council. So let’s take a moment to reflect on their stupendous achievements! Tilly Gurman, the head of the Parent Council put it best:

I am so proud of all the activities we, as a Parent Council, have collaborated on over the last academic year. Considering the obstacles, in addition to many activities that we have done in years past, we pulled off the first Silent Auction, the first Earth Day Volunteer Activity at Patterson Park and now the first school-wide, real-time virtual concert to come together as a community and celebrate this amazing year!

And that’s really what the 123 Andrés concert was all about—celebrating our successes throughout the 2020–2021 school year, and the “beauty and resilience that is the TNCS community.” Revisiting this wonderful celebration seems like the perfect way to start the 2021–2022 school year on the right (dancing) foot!

TNCS families were given proprietary links to view the concert recording, which, due to contractual obligations with 123 Andrés, we cannot reproduce here. We can, however, enjoy these digital images from the event and some screenshots of the happy audience!

Concierto de Familia, con 123 Andrés

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Where There’s a Band, There’s Merch!

Although these aren’t really for sale, TNCS upper elementary students designed and created these beautiful posters for each of 123 Andrés’ songs.

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. . . And here’s to another year of one-of-a-kind learning and fun at TNCS . . . and hopefully plenty of signing and dancing!

Tad Jacks Joins TNCS as Interim Head of School!

On July 1, 2021, Tad Jacks joined The New Century School as Interim Head of School. Before he had even started, though, he expressed how much he was looking forward to being part of such a multicultural environment. TNCS Executive Directors and Co-Founders Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner told parents that, “[Mr. Jacks] comes to us with a wealth of experience, pedagogical expertise, and leadership skills.”

Let’s explore that wealth!

An Abundant Career

Mr. Jacks’ road to TNCS stretches far—overseas, in fact. He was born and grew up in the King of Prussia area of Pennsylvania, but he began his career in education at the American School in London as a student teacher and baseball coach. Although his love lay with working with kids, his first job out of college was as a college admissions officer before re-entering the independent school realm. Re-entering? Mr. Jacks attended Friends’ Central School, a Quaker co-ed day school, in Pennsylvania as a student, so it was a good fit for him to join Friends School of Baltimore. At Friends, he wore a variety of hats, from admissions to development (for example, he started up a a center for Russian language and culture) to teaching (for example, a high school class called “US society 1900 to 1960”) and even coaching golf.

After 23 years at Friends and all of those many hats, he was approached by The Odyssey School to become their Head of School. Although Odyssey’s mission is to provide an education environment conducive to learning difference like dyslexia, they wanted Mr. Jacks for his extensive experience with governance, strategic plans, accreditation, admissions, and development. Within a few years, though, his athletic daughter was about to go to college. He needed the flexibility to attend her matches and provide all the support college students need. As she was attending school in New England, he decided to take a position as Assistant Head of School at the Wooster School, in Danbury, Connecticut, alongside the Headmaster who just happened to be a dear friend of Mr. Jacks’ as well as his former teacher. He actually commuted to Connecticut from Baltimore for 5 years! And called it fun!

Back in Baltimore, he embarked temporarily on a project to lead and support the Middle Grades Partnership with the Baltimore Community Foundation. Before the next school year began, Mr. Jacks was contacted about heading The Craig School in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. That 7-year stint came to a close just last year when the commuting finally did get to him (he was only home in Baltimore on weekends and holidays). “I decided that I’ve done this commuting enough, and I’m going to come home,” he explained. “So for the last year, I’ve been doing really interesting projects for people, mostly in education.”

TNCS and Tad Jacks: A Natural Fit

All in all, his career in education spans 42 years, a career he is grateful for. The depth and breadth of such an illustrious career might have tired out a less high-energy person than Mr. Jacks, but it’s clear he’s got plenty of ideas still to develop. And that brings us to TNCS. He says he had heard about TNCS both from friends of his daughter and from his natural habit of staying abreast of the independent schools in the area.

He has also worked side by side on diversity programs with our former Head of School Shara Khon Duncan. “I’ve known Tad since the 90s,” she said, “and TNCS is in good hands. He has a heart for diversity, and he digs right in and does the work.”

(Mr. Jacks says he is also eager to gain a little Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, not that multilingualism is his forte per se.)

Not surprisingly, given his background in development, he has begun to shape a vision of what his time at TNCS could mean.

I want a concept—a spirit—that as a school in Baltimore City we must continue making a difference for this city. And maybe it’ll come out in different forms along the way. There are so many problems that come to school even before a teacher can get to work with education. So I’ve always asked how I can make a difference in the city. I have way too much energy to not be in school right now. I just feel like it’s not just where I want to be, it’s also where I need to be.

Of course this kind of empathic orientation aligns beautifully with TNCS’s commitment to service learning, and Mr. Jacks says that’s another aspect of TNCS that attracted him. “It would be nice to put a solid foundation in place so that every year students in the different divisions know what big projects they’ll be working on,” he said.

That’s not to say that Mr. Jacks plans to make drastic changes—instead, he’s here to help. In an email to staff, he wrote:

My hope is that I will learn more during each meeting and want to hear from you about your roles, your interests, and how best I can help you. My pledge to all of you is that I will do my best to help each of you in your work and to support you on your objectives and goals. During the coming year, I plan to immerse myself in the life of the school, capitalizing on opportunities to build school spirit and support progress in key areas. I will be listening for ideas that foster relevant, engaging, and inspired learning.

And he’s eager to advance TNCS’s Core Values of Compassion, Courage, Respect, and Service. “In my first few days here, I have found that many individuals are compassionate about working with young children, have the courage to help a parent understand that their child may need more attention, have a respect for each other, and are in service to our community,” said Mr. Jacks.

Said Ms. Faux and Ms. Lawner: “It was clear from our interactions and from his amazing references that Tad’s philosophy of education, commitment to children, and auxiliary skill set would make him a fantastic fit for TNCS. We are confident and enthusiastic that this next step will move TNCS to an even stronger future as a leader in progressive, diverse, and joyful education.”

Although it may seem like he’d have time for nothing else, given his involvement in so many facets fo education, Mr. Jacks also has a personal life complete with hobbies and predilections, like contemporary music and visual arts. And yet, somehow, the conversation always swivels back to education in the best way. Mr. Jacks still remembers being in high school—elementary school, even. “I’m in education because of things that happened in the 4th grade; 4th grade and 11th grade were two watershed years, and I don’t think that’s any different for students now.”

How fortunate that TNCS’s current student body will have at least one of their watershed years under such capable and compassionate leadership. Welcome to TNCS, Tad Jacks!

Look! We Have Come Through!

Look! We Have Come Through! is the name of a collection of poems by D. H. Lawrence that recount what it’s like to go through an extended period of stress and strife and the subsequent state of exultation achieved on the other side of that traumatic journey.

After more than a year of living through a pandemic with plenty of social conflict thrown in, we can all relate to that experience of crisis. As of this spring, though, we can also begin to feel that we have survived something momentous. At The New Century School, the TNCS community not only survived, but somehow also managed to flourish, to grow, and to deeply appreciate each other. This post is your year (plus) in review, our coming-through story.

Although you’ve seen many of these moments before, collected together, they depict the beauty and resilience that is the TNCS community.

Spring and Summer 2020: Our World Goes Upside Down

Friday, March 13, 2020 was the last day of in-person school for the 2019–2020 school year, as the world as we knew it shut down. What a scary time unlike any other for most of us . . .

. . . And yet, within days, TNCS Virtual School was up and running. It was nothing short of miraculous. Here is an excerpt from “Virtual TNCS: A School and Its Student Body Continue to Thrive“:

TNCS is a success story in this otherwise quagmire of uncertainty. TNCS admin and faculty had already begun working feverishly behind the scenes to prepare for what would become known as “distance learning.” By Sunday, March 15th, a team of student volunteers had been appointed to help transition all TNCS students to a virtual learning environment. In other words, classes would continue, just like every other day, but TNCS students would “attend” from home, meeting up online. On Monday, March 16th, the student volunteers sent messages and made phone calls to the parents of the younger students on their lists to get them set up in Google Classroom, an online platform to “organize assignments, boost collaboration, and foster better communication.” Meanwhile, staff were being trained on the new platform and designing and adapting curricula. By Tuesday, March 17th, nearly 100% of TNCS students were up and running (yes, even preschoolers!), and parents received a very welcome message: “TNCS Virtual School begins tomorrow!” (Read the message in its entirety here.)

From preschool to middle school, TNCS students didn’t miss a beat.

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See more great photos and videos of those initial days of TNCS Virtual School here. We even had guest blogger Kathryn Hardaway (and then–TNCS 8th-grader) provide suggestions and advice for transitioning to a new way of life.

As TNCS students and parents adapted to virtual learning and remote work, we became acutely aware of what a sisyphean task TNCS administration and staff were undertaking to keep students happy and learning. TNCS had even become an official Essential Personnel Child Care (EPCC) site within 48 hours of the initial shutdown, run by TNCS’s beloved Jatiya Richardson (read TNCS Emergency Personnel Child Care: Heroes Helping Heroes! for more).

So, the gratitude started pouring in, in the form of handmade cards, photos, and thank-you videos. Revisit A Spring Break Message to Thank You, TNCS! to see more like this:

Despite the circumstances that obviated our normal day-to-day, the TNCS community found ways to overcome and rise to new heights. We had:

The firsts just kept coming, and the feeling of hope growing. Where many were experiencing debilitating inertia and then stagnation, TNCS began to bud.

Fall and Winter 2020–2021: We Can Do This!

On September 1, 2020, TNCS pulled off yet another amazing feat: partial reopening. It was hard, really hard. But, again, admin and staff dug in and did what it took to educate TNCS students using a hybrid model of part virtual students and part in-person students. “Welcome to the 2020–2021 School Year, TNCS Community!” tells that stupendous tale, but here are some visual highlights of the physical measures taken to keep everyone safe:

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New teachers, new roles, and new ways of being in the classroom (at home, in person, in small pods) soon became the norm. We even managed virtual Pot Lucks!

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Campus was off limits to anyone not authorized to be there, and TNCS succeeded in staying open continuously throughout the entire year. This coup is due in no small part to the TNCS Wellness Team’s behind-the-scenes efforts and community Q&As. In fact, what soon emerged as one of the silver linings of the pandemic was how committed everyone was to making this work. If we couldn’t participate in our normal activities and enterprises, we could sure transfer that energy to other things and continue on a positive—and fruitful—trajectory. Besides the Wellness Team, the TNCS Parent Council also stepped up in a big, big way this year: read “TNCS Parent Council 2020–2021 Hits the Ground Running!“.

There were hiccups, of course, and low points. Teachers began to feel terribly burned out, not surprisingly, with their dual roles of in-person and virtual teaching. Fortunately, they had allies, including former Curriculum Coordinator, now Dean of Students Adriana Duprau. They also had the TNCS community, who, at the behest of the TNCS Parent Council, undertook an initiative to never let them forget how appreciated they are.

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Also read “Caring for the Community” to see how TNCS students and families spread some love over the winter.

And, it must be said, through it all, TNCS was under the sure guidance of former Head of School Shara Khon Duncan. Read her inspiring words to the community in Holiday message from Sra. Duncan and revisit her legacy in TNCS Head of School Bequeaths a Beautiful Legacy. Sra. Duncan and our intrepid Co-Executive Directors/Co-Founders Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner sacrificed untold hours of sleep and personal life to keep TNCS operating smoothly.

Under their leadership, we were able to maintain many of our annual traditions, like:

Through it all, the blossoming continued.

Spring 2021: We’re Back, and It’s Going Great!

As Quarter 3 dawned, a transformation began. Nearly all of the student body was attending school in person, and, even with all of the safety measures in place, things started to feel almost normal again. But, in true TNCS fashion, “normal” wasn’t going to be good enough, and lots of new and wonderful initiatives débuted.

Former middle school homeroom teacher turned TNCS School Counselor Daphnée Hope began holding sessions to give TNCS students space to work through some of their pent-up anxiety, including a couple of fun trips to The Sandlot. The TNCS Parent Council held its first-ever Silent Auction. TNCS primary students held rain-making ceremonies.

And then, the floodgates opened. By the month of May, the energy around campus exploded, and the joy was palpable. We had stand-up comedy. We had field days, visits to B’more Licks, walking tours of Fell’s Point, teddy bear picnics and fairy tale stage plays, park clean-ups, a visit to a pet resort, a preprimary family picnic, and even our very own private concert with 123 Andrés—all of which are covered in “Highlights from a Triumphant 2020–2021 School Year at TNCS!“.

Finally, we had some farewells. We tearfully said goodbye to the TNCS Class of 2021 in a moving and beautiful graduation ceremony. During that ceremony, the TNCS Parent Council also included a farewell tribute to Sra. Duncan to convey our gratitude for all she did for TNCS and to wish her well along the next leg of her journey. Her End of Year Message also sums up the last 18 months in her eloquent, honest voice.

And Now . . .?

And now we turn to the future, having come through.

TNCS is a one-of-a-kind place. We’ve said since its opening more than a decade ago that it’s magical and that magic happens within its physical (and now we can add, “virtual”) walls. But March 2020 through June 2021 not only substantiates this idea, it also gives it new meaning. Although it’s difficult to express such wondrousness in words, when you see the faces of the children who reap the benefits of this special realm, you can nevertheless begin to feel it, too. We can’t wait to see what delights the 2021–2022 school year promises at TNCS.