Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers

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

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

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

Reading Buddies at TNCS

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

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

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

Benefits Abound

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

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

Strengthening Community

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


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

TNCS Dean Attends Progressive Education Summit!

As a key part of its identity, The New Century School embraces progressive education. It was a natural fit, then for TNCS Dean of Students and Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali to attend City Neighbors Progressive Education Summit here in Baltimore at the end of January. According to its website, “The Progressive Education Summit brings together hundreds of educators from around the region and the country to share best practices, work with great educational thinkers and practitioners, connect with other educators, and work to bring alive the child-centered, democratic ideals of progressive education.” Attendant schools were an equal mix of public and independent, and about 550 educators from across the country participated.
summit-flyer-2019

The 2019 summit, the eighth annual, featured master classes, the first summit storytelling event by 10 to 15 storytellers, over 30 workshops, a Baltimore resource fair, and abundant networking opportunities. In addition, this year, David Sobel was the Keynote Speaker. The author of Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Community, Sobel is a leading national voice in place-based education. He was recognized as one of the Daring Dozen educational leaders in the United States in 2007 by Edutopia magazine.

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

Progressive Education Talks

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

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

Place-Based Education

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

Service Learning

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

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

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

Positive Schools

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

Pillars-and-Tenet-infographic-without-school-logo--6-01-17.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward and Upward

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

TNCS Elementary & Middle Visit the Frederick Douglass–Isaac Meyers Maritime Park!

February marked Black History Month, also known as National African American History Month, the annual celebration of notable achievements by African Americans as well as a time to reflect on their critical role in the history of the United States. This period of recognition dates back to 1915, 50 years post-emancipation, when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), formerly the ASNLH. This organization went on to sponsor a week dedicated to Americans of African descent during the second week of February, which coincides with the birthdays of two of the most important figures in all of U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Since 1976, that week has expanded to embrace the whole month of February, and each year the sitting ASALH has established a different theme for Black History Month. For 2019, that theme was “Black Migration.” According to their website:

The theme Black Migrations equally lends itself to the exploration of the century’s later decades from spatial and social perspectives, with attention to “new” African Americans because of the burgeoning African and Caribbean population in the United States; Northern African Americans’ return to the South; racial suburbanization; inner-city hyperghettoization; health and environment; civil rights and protest activism; electoral politics; mass incarceration; and dynamic cultural production.

Elementary and middle school students at The New Century School learned last month just how Baltimore figures into this theme in very important ways. Although Maryland upheld the constitutionality of slave-holding from 1715 through 1864, the city of Baltimore was a hybrid of northern and southern proclivities. Being so close to the Mason-Dixon line, it was a stopover point for escaping slaves headed north to abolitionist states or Canada. It was also home to many freed former slaves, one of whom was Frederick Douglass himself.

tncs-visits-frederick-douglass-museum

TNCS Head of School Alicia first gave some preparatory social/emotional learning lessons tailored to first one cohort of 4th- through 8th-graders and, later, a second cohort of 2nd- and 3rd-graders.

After, they walked through Fell’s Point to the Frederick Douglass | Isaac Myers Maritime Park & Museum overlooking the harbor on Thames St. and now under the aegis of Living Classrooms.

TNCS students would explore some big questions prior, during, and after their visit: “How can one man own another?” for example. They would also consider the Underground Railroad and how so much of a runaway slave’s chance of successful escape was completely out of their own control— how much uncertainty and difficulty a slave would likely encounter.

The students were completely captivated by the interactive exhibits. They will not soon forget their encounter with Frederick Douglass or with what it was like to follow the North Star with the fervent hope of reaching a better place.

tncs-visits-frederick-douglass-museum

Check-In with TNCS Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau!

The New Century School‘s Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau has been very busy heading into the third quarter of the school year. That’s due, of course, to the fact that she oversees the curricula of both elementary and middle school divisions, which is no small task, but there’s another aspect making this particular year rather special—in 2019, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade class!

So, let’s just get this out of the way. In Baltimore, it’s not where you went to college, it’s where you went to high school. It’s a thing.

High School Readiness

The implications of graduating the first 8th-grade class are huge. First, it’s important to get it right and pay close attention to the process to be able to replicate it seamlessly in subsequent years as well as to avoid pitfalls. Most importantly, however, the students must be ready for high school, and that readiness entails a lot, especially here in Baltimore City, where high schools are not zoned; rather, students choose the school they want to attend and then apply to get in. This is true for both public and private high schools. Many city high schools have unique identities, so students can match up their individual strengths and interests to the particular school that is going to meet their needs. Ultimately, they are embarking on a path that should prepare them for future success, whether that’s in college, career, or whatever else they envision.

This process takes planning: School choice starts by exploring available options to learn what each school offers; where it’s located; and, importantly, what special academic (e.g., results on a standardized assessment) or admissions requirements (e.g., audition or portfolio) must be met to be accepted. Attending school Open Houses and doing Shadow Days are also typically part of the process.

So, Mrs. DuPrau has been supporting this effort in many ways, starting with testing. “We learned that some of our 8th-graders had not taken many tests, and so we need to provide more test-taking opportunities. Next year, practicing for tests will take the place of teacher’s choice time for middle school students. Let’s learn how to take a test. It’s also important to have a test for students coming in to TNCS to see where they’re at,” she explained.

Wait—TNCS doesn’t do standardized testing, does it? Although the TNCS approach is the antithesis to “teaching to the test,” as mentioned above, the results of a standardized assessment are probably going to be necessary for any student bent on getting into the school of choice.

Oh, I See!

That’s where the Independent School Entrance Exam—the ISEE—comes into play. This test comprises Reading Computation, Essay, Quantitative Reasoning, Mathematical Computation, and Analogies. Dean of School Alicia Danyali began implementing test-taking skills instruction as well as practice time during the 2017–2018 school year.

“Most private school students need to take the ISEE, and then their score is what the majority of private schools will look at. That’s the big standardized test,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. She signed up TNCS to be an Education Records Bureau (ERB) member so that the ISEE could be administered on site. (“ERB is a not-for-profit member organization providing admission and achievement assessment as well as instructional services for PreK–Grade 12,” according to the ERB website.)

Said Mrs. DuPrau: “We opened the ISEE up to 6th–8th graders. It was optional for 6th and 7th grade and mandatory for the 8th grade because they need that score.” The 3-hour test took place on November 14th and was proctored by TNCS Language Arts teacher Ilia Madrazo. “It ran all morning,” said Mrs. DuPrau, “and was the first time our students had taken a real test.” (A practice run took place last May.) “To prep the 8th graders for this test, [TNCS Co-Executive Director/Co-Founder Roberta Faux] worked with them weekly, especially in math,” she said. How did the students fare? “They said it was super hard,” said Mrs. Duprau. “The ISEE is hard. Out of all the high school testing they have been doing, they said the ISEE was by far the hardest.” (But they scored highest in math!)

It’s important to note that the ISEE is required for applications to private schools.

And Are They Ready?

For public schools, on the other hand, the i-Ready is a required test, which, unlike the pencil-and-paper ISEE, is administered online and took place a month after the ISEE, on December 14th. “From my understanding,” explained Mrs. DuPrau, “the computerized test will first assess ‘where the student is’ and either build on questions if the student keeps getting everything right, or it will go back. In this way, it’s similar to how SuccessMaker works.” Thus, i-Ready is both intuitive and differentiated.

After students had taken the test, Mrs. DuPrau escorted them to Taco Fiesta for lunch!

tncs-middle-schoolers-take-the-i-ready-test

Having taken both the ISEE and the i-Ready, TNCS 8th graders now have the option of applying to both public and private schools. They also took both tests early enough that they could retake one or both if desired.

Students applying to Institute of Notre Dame additionally had to take the High School Placement Test (HSPT), which was administered at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

High School Applications

While all this testing fervor was happening, students had to begin completing their high school applications, which were due December 14th for most private schools and approximately a month later for public schools. Some other schools they are applying to include Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and Western High School—for those of you true Baltimoreans sure to inquire!

Mrs. DuPrau was instrumental here as well. She worked with TNCS scholarship students during the school day as needed to help them navigate the less-than-straightforward application process. She got the students accordion binders so they could organize materials by school—one tab per school. “For each school they applied to, we made checklists, put in our applications, made copies, and made sure we scheduled a shadow day and an interview,” said Mrs DuPrau. With binders in hand, they attended the Baltimore City Schools Choice Fair at the Convention Center on December 9th. Explains Mrs. DuPrau: “All the high schools from Baltimore City go there and have their own booth. A few representatives from the school man the booth and share about the school. There were also a lot of performances—singing and dancing and things like that. The girls would visit the booth and ask questions, and there were also students from the school on hand whom they could talk to.”

“The girls had so much fun with it,” recounts Mrs. DuPrau, “and I also taught them how to research information on their own. They’re binders are still growing, and they keep adding tabs!”

tncs-curriculum -coordinator-adriana-duprau-helps-apply-to-high-school

Mrs. DuPrau also had the good fortune to meet a representative of the i-Ready test whose job is specifically getting 8th graders into high school. She invited Mrs. DuPrau to join a committee on how to prepare 8th graders, follow up with them, make at least two visits throughout each high school year, and later help them apply to colleges.

Other Areas

As busy as she was with the 8th-graders, Mrs. DuPrau still made time for all of the other TNCS students, for tutoring, for setting up programs around campus, for doing dismissals (always with a big smile) as well as for teachers and faculty.

Self-Defense Class

For students in grades 4 through 8, Mrs. DuPrau arranged a self-defense/self-empowerment workshop on December 18th with author and mindfulness guru Jillian Amodio. The class focused more on promoting self-confidence and respect rather than combat techniques and was divided into boys and girls sessions, with slightly different curricula. Tips for online safety and other common-sense habits were also encouraged.

This video gives an idea of what her workshops might cover; however, they are tailored to context and age.

Finally, Ms. Amodio gave the following mantras for the students to reflect on.

Mantra for Respectful Males
I respect myself, my body, my mind, and my emotions.
I respect the bodies, minds, and emotions of others.
I respect that others feel differently and value our differences.
I am allowed to express sadness and hurt without being seen as weak.
I offer to help others when I see they are in need.
I will not place myself above anyone else. We are all equal and worthy.
There is no place for unnecessary aggression in my life.
Gentleness is a something I value.
Sensitivity towards others is something I take pride in.
There is no reason to be rude.

Mantras for Strong Girls
I respect myself, my body, my mind, and my emotions.
I respect the bodies, minds, and emotions of others.
I respect that others feel differently and value our differences.
I am allowed to express sadness and hurt without being seen as weak.
I offer to help others when I see they are in need.
I am in control! I am Strong! I am worthy!
Bold is beautiful!
I will never settle for less than I deserve!
I will not apologize for others! I will not apologize unnecessarily!
Every great woman has encountered fierce battles. Wear your battle scars with pride and rejoice in all you have conquered!

Learn more about Ms. Amodio at jillianamodio.com.

Staff Support

Although her official title is “Curriculum Coordinator,” Mrs. DuPrau’s responsibilities stretch beyond the classroom. She works closely with TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, for example, and also meets regularly with teachers. “[Señora Duncan and I] work together on how we can help with or improve the curriculum. I also help her observe teachers as well as with applying for federal grants (e.g., Title II and Title IV). We are also trying to figure out how our school can be recognized on school choice applications.”

tncs-curriculum-coordinator-adriana-duprau-and-teachers

She notes that morale among teachers has been especially high this year, which makes her job more fun—as well as trickles down to happier students. Part of this, she reasons, is the wonderful teachers themselves and another part of it is how valued they feel by the administration. In general, a spirit of collaboration and positivity pervades.

Coordinating the International Trip

Another first for TNCS this year is the international service trip middle schoolers will take this spring. They are planning to go to Puerto Rico, where passports are not required. “That is a big project,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “Figuring out all the details and coming up with fundraising ideas has been challenging.”

But, never fear! It will happen, and Immersed will fill you in on all the fun! In the meantime, thanks for all you have done to make the 2018–2019 school year such a huge success, Mrs. DuPrau!

TNCS Middle School Students Learn Grant Writing!

At The New Century School, service to the community is a core value. Dean of School/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali has integrated service learning throughout the school year in many ways (read last week’s “check-in” with her for more on specific initiatives).

Last month, she  took it to the next level when she invited 11th-grade McDonogh School student Laya Neelakandan to present on her impressive experience with grant writing to support several charitable projects. She learned of Ms. Neelakandan last June after having collaborated with one of Ms. Neelakandan’s teachers (Mary-Catherine Irving) on a service project for her son’s school. Ms. Irving told her about Ms. Neelakandan’s remarkable accomplishments in service initiatives, and they discussed the possibility of a visit to TNCS. “I am excited that the students will have this opportunity, which the 6th- to 8th-grade students can use as a ‘jumping off point’ to initiate their own grant writing to support and fund service,” said Ms. Danyali.

Grant-Writing Presentation

tncs-grant-writing-presentationEven this early in her sure-to-be illustrious career, Ms. Neelakandan has already received 11 grants from five different foundations—she has been awarded every grant she has ever applied for!

After introducing herself, she began her presentation by describing her first grant-writing experience for The World We Want Foundation (WWWF). This organization promoted philanthropy among youth all around the world and was introduced to Ms. Neelakandan by Ms. Irving. Her proposal was designed to teach the importance of giving back at a young age, so she recruited groups of 1st-graders to make blankets, hygiene kits, and bags of trail mix to distribute to Baltimore’s homeless citizens.

tncs-grant-writing-presentation

With her written grant proposal, she was first awarded enough to fund a couple of such projects. She next wrote a follow-up proposal to fund all of her projects and received three $1,000 grants over a 3-year period. This allowed her to expand her philanthropic efforts to include the India Project, which is a school supplies drive for Indian schools. She made and sold friendship pins to buy dictionaries and other supplies that she delivered in person in India.

tncs-grant-writing-presentationAfter a very successful run with WWWF, which closed down in 2015, Ms. Neelakandan went in search of a new project to support and came across Karma for Cara (K4C), which is based in Baltimore and is dedicated to “Empowering Youth to Repair Our World.” Following the online instructions, she applied for and won four $1,000 microgrants. With these, she was able to keep her already successful WWWF projects thriving as well as add a backpacks drive. She continues to support K4C.

She then learned about Disney and Youth Service America (YSA)’s 2017 Summer of Service Organization Grant and, to her surprise, won the $500 grant 2 years in a row. She says the experience “proved that I should be confident in myself and that I can change the world (and you can too!) and showed me that there are people out there who believe in the power of youth.”

tncs-grant-writing-presentation

Ms. Neelakandan’s work has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Orokawa Foundation (a grant-making organization in Towson, MD) approached her about funding her projects. She is using the money to establish a library at a domestic abuse shelter. TNCS students may be assisting her in this endeavor in the near future.

And—breaking news–in the days since she presented at TNCS, she has been awarded yet another grant in the amount of $150. Kindness Grows Here is a new foundation that awarded its first Annual Kid Kindness Grants this month! “[They] want kids with awesome ideas to submit applications for ways in which they can help spread kindness in their school, community, town, or neighborhood.”

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 10.23.10 AM.png

Ms. Neelakandan closed her TNCS presentation with some hard data (which has since been updated, given the new grant she just won):

  • She has raised $10,478 in the 6 years she has been doing these projects.
  • She has delivered over 150 handmade fleece blankets, 800 bags of trail mix, more than 1,200 sweet treats, 750 hygiene kits, and 300 backpacks.
  • She has directly helped over 1,250 less fortunate men, women, and children.

She has also been invited to speak at fundraisers, won awards, and influenced fellow students. With these mantras in mind, this is how she has done it:

  • There is no such thing as a small act of kindness.
  • Find your passion and use it to change the world.
  • Keep applying to different places and never get discouraged if it does not work out.
  • You have the power to change the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
  • Ask questions, be a leader, be kind and empathetic.

Interview with Laya Neelakandan

Because the visionary Ms. Neelakandan had to return to school immediately following her presentation, she kindly agreed to an email interview for this piece, transcribed here.

How did you become interested in grant writing?

“When I was in 4th grade, my mentor, Mrs. Mary-Catherine Irving, asked me if I wanted to lead her class in service projects. She introduced me to the concept of microgrants, and, at the age of 10, I applied for and received my first grant. Since then, I have continued to immerse myself in grant writing to get support for the projects that I make for the homeless.”

Do you plan to go to college? What will you major in, if so?

“I do plan to go to college after I graduate high school. Though I’m not completely certain yet exactly what I want to major in, I’m very interested in English and writing and aspire to be a journalist.”

What future career do you plan to pursue?

“I want to pursue journalism as a future career and use the power of my words to make a difference in my community and highlight social justice causes.” [Ed. note: You go, girl!]

Can you describe your experience of presenting at The New Century School?

“Presenting at The New Century School was an amazing experience for me. I had never presented about my grant writing before, and I loved seeing the students’ earnest and engaged faces as I told them how they have the power to change the world. Their interest shone through especially during the Q&A, where they asked me some of the most intriguing and introspective questions I had ever received, including what inspired me to keep giving back and if my school supports my work.”

Will you be doing additional work with TNCS students?

“The TNCS students are going to be conducting a collection drive for gloves, mittens, scarves, and socks for families at a shelter that I have been working with this past year (this is the Family Crisis Center shelter where I built the library for the children). I am excited to see what other ideas the students come up with.”

What are your hobbies (or, what do you enjoy doing in your free time)?

“In my free time, I enjoy playing piano, classical Indian flute, practicing classical Indian dance, singing, reading, and writing.”

What do your parents think of your work?

“My parents are extremely supportive of my work. They help drive me when I go out to distribute the items to the men and women who need them. They have also instilled in me the importance of using this gift of life to help others.”


Ms. Neelakandan is pictured below right with a woman outside a homeless shelter last January. “I had just given her some handmade fleece blankets. It was below freezing outside,” she explained.
tncs-grant-writing-presentation

Ms. Neelakandan drove home two primary points for TNCS students: First, youth have the power to do good, and, second, write from the heart when seeking a grant—“If you really care about something, it will show through in your writing,” she said.

“She was inspiring and wonderful,” said Ms. Danyali. It certainly will be wonderful to see just how she inspires TNCS students and what great things they will make happen in the coming months!

Time for a Check-In with TNCS Dean of School/Head of Lower School!

The New Century School expanded its administrative structure this year, allowing each team member to fully engage in their respective roles. As Shara Khon Duncan become year-round Head of School, Alicia Danyali became Head of the Lower School as well as schoolwide Dean of StudentsImmersed will do an annual check-in with each Head, and this post represents the first such piece.

Being Dean

IMG_0109As Dean of School, Ms. Danyali’s responsibilities range widely. She circulates through classrooms, teaching and mediating with students as well as advising teachers, all with the goal of maintaining, or, when necessary, restoring, the community. (This is in addition to day-to-day duties like drop off and dismissal and such administrative ins and outs, of course.)

In her 6 years’ tenure at TNCS, Ms. Danyali has always been interested in what she calls an “invisible curriculum,” which is her way of referring to the soft skills (norms, values, and beliefs) that children need to develop to grow as human beings. Nevertheless, as Head of the entire school before the reorganization, she did not have the breadth to undertake as many initiatives as she might have liked. She feels confident, though, that she began “planting the seeds” among the student body, and expectations were established. The TNCS student models the school’s four Core Values, Courage Compassion, Service, and Respect.

With her now more specialized role and inspired by an education conference hosted by the National Network of Schools, she hit the ground running when the school year began, immediately putting some programs in place. “I’m starting some partnerships with and among teachers. For example, I am doing yoga with the K/1st cohort, which is designed to help them understand feelings. We started with the feeling anger, just tensing our muscles and going through some six or seven poses and then talking about how breathing affects how we react to things. That is a really big concept for them and an adjustment, to just sit and breathe.”

Class Partnerships

In preschool, which is also her Head of School focus, she did not launch any big initiatives to allow them the first quarter to settle in and acclimate to their new environment. “We have some plans later in the year when the primary students are a little bit more mature and they can partner with organizations and understand the meaning a little bit more,” said Ms. Danyali. As for preprimary, they will partner up with the primary classes. “They’re not going to do service learning, per se, but they will learn how to socialize in a group—to feel comfortable around other people and pick up on social cues as well as learn how to be a little independent,” she said. Thus, Sra. Lala’s class teams up with Mrs. Bowling’s class, Sra. Salas with Ms. Mosby, and Song Laoshi with Mrs. Reynolds. One example is making hummus as a group (Sra. Salas’s and Ms. Mosby’s classes), mixing all the ingredients and smelling, touching, and tasting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Song Laoshi and Mrs. Reynolds have partnered on a lot of creative initiatives, explained Ms. Danyali. “They’re both extremely creative people and share lots of ideas for making art and decorations, like for the recent Fall Festival. All of the preschool classes came together, and parent volunteers set up different stations, like bowling and face painting and different fun things. It was really nice how the kids have started to notice and recognize each other. The 5-year-olds are really feeling like they are mentoring the 2-year-olds, which is exactly what we want to see.”

The class pairs also had their Thanksgiving feasts together for another opportunity for those partnerships to solidify as well as to bring the parent communities together. “The primary mentors love to be good role models for the younger students. They make decorations together, they set the table together . . . all of those things that are a big part of the Montessori philosophy of practical life—of taking care of self, of taking care of our community,” she said.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Of course, the mentor–mentee relationship reaches the other way as well. Thus, the primary classes get their own chance to be taken under the wing of older students. The non-nappers in Ms. Mosby’s class, for example, will join Ge Laoshi’s K/1st students to be video pen pals with a class of Chinese Montessori students, who are taught by former TNCS teacher Yang Yang, who is now back in China. They communicate in Mandarin and English.

tncs-class-partnerships-video-pales

They also get a chance to have stories read to them by their older reading buddies.

Here again, the partnerships will work both ways, with Ge Laoshi’s students also partnering with Ms. Sharma’s 4th- and 5th-graders on a weekly basis, to help take care of the school grounds as well as taking out the trash and the recycling from classrooms. The older students showed the younger ones the ropes and also made sure they stayed safe as they progressed about the campus. They will help make sure the TNCS environment looks its best! Meanwhile, Ms. Shaffer’s K/1st class will work with Ms. Madrazo’s 6th- through 8th-graders in reading groups—in students’ choice of language.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Another ongoing initiative is having the middle schoolers act as “Car Line Safeties”—they volunteer for service on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to escort younger students safely into the school. “The little ones are always very receptive,” said Ms. Danyali. “They look at a 6th-grader as really important!”

Ms. Danyali is working hard to instill the deep sense of community that is essential to any successful organization. “We’ll be mixing up the opportunities, so when a student sees someone not in the same division on the playground or around school, he or she has that friendship in place, and the community supports each other as we grow academically and socially.”

Back to that conference mentioned earlier, one thing that Ms. Danyali really appreciated about it was that it included early childhood education. “It’s important that we understand how vital a part of education that is. We’re planting the seeds of who they will become—developing self confidence, taking risks. I’ve sought it out for years, so it was encouraging to see such a big focus on preschool.” The conference also covered how to find what resources are available and how to collaborate with other schools. Ms. Danyali is now networking with other early childhood classrooms that are also language immersed to build some external relationships. “I want to take all of the preschool teachers on a field trip to visit another school to see how other people do it, maybe in the spring. What are best practices at other places and how can we get involved?”

Social and Emotional Learning

As part of the invisible curriculum, Ms. Danyali has been doing workshops on social and emotional learning using nonverbal cues. Pairs of students decide on a sound and a movement they will make together, then they find another pair and combine the two sounds and movements into one. This keeps growing until everyone has been gathered together making one big sound and movement. “It shows how much there is to be said for nonverbal communication and what that means in our place in the world. How we can go anywhere and understand each other if we have a common sound and movement—nonverbal cues,” said Ms Danyali.

“I focus a lot on navigating emotions and feelings and identifying what they are. In the 2nd- and 3rd-grade classes, in particular, the social dynamic has been really interesting. It seems like this is when social cliques start, and exclusion can happen. So, we will really be working on inclusion with them before we set them out into the world,” she said.

Service Learning

In elementary and middle school, service learning really ramps up. In weekly meetings with the older students (Grades 4 through 8), Ms. Danyali discusses possibilities for class partnership activities and wider school initiatives as well as planning for future endeavors. Based on a recent presentation from a student from McDonogh School on her experience with grant-writing for charities (blog post on that to come!), the older group is going to take on their own grant-writing initiative, for example.

Ms. Danyali is not new to service learning, having been the Service Coordinator at other schools, and service itself is an intrinsic value for her. “Service has always a big part of my life personally, and it helps put things in perspective about what’s really important,” she said.

It comes from my parents, my grandparents—that feeling like it’s part of your makeup, that’s just what you do. Of course, it has served me well because I feel like it’s a huge benefit to me to appreciate what I have. I find it really fulfilling when I know it’s made a difference. But I also have a hard time saying no sometimes, so it’s important also to keep a balance.

Two service projects were recently completed: the annual non-perishable food drive for United Way of Central Maryland/Beans & Bread and a collection of men’s socks and underwear for Baltimore Rescue Mission. “The older grades will be helping to organize the items collected, and I asked for a cohort of student volunteers to deliver them. They need to make that connection—this is where it’s going and this is who it’s serving. I want to have those conversations,” said Ms. Danyali. “It just has to be a big part of your life that you’re not just thinking about yourself all the time. And kindness too.”

The 2nd- and 3rd-grade classes did the annual Linus blanket initiative. “That is such an amazing project.”

Being Head of Lower School

“I feel like we’re really off to a great start this year,” said Ms. Danyali. “We’ve had some great workshops and a lot of parent partnership in the preschool. Classes are running like well-oiled machines. The preprimary classes can take a little bit longer, but they are now on a schedule and regimen.”

Another aspect of her position is working with the preschool teachers. “They are so dedicated, loyal, and loving. They really understand the psyche of that age, and I enjoy working with them, planning with them, and supporting what they think is best for their students,” she said. The cohort can be so different from year to year, she explained, keeping the teachers in their toes. “For example, one of the preschool classes has 14 boys, and one of the classes only has 4 students who are verbal, so there’s a lot of navigation, adjusting, and adapting.”

She is pleased that her new role affords her more time with her colleagues, including the assistant teachers. “They are a big part of the equation and our philosophy here because of the language they bring, and I’ve had the opportunity to get to know them better. I have aspirations for them to grow professionally here, and I have been able to give them bigger responsibilities and more structure. They now report to me weekly on how the students are progressing in the language.”

What’s in the Offing

Elementary and middle school students will have quarterly field trips that are service or community oriented in one way or another. The 8th-grade students will embark on the first-ever TNCS international trip, which is still being planned. Book fairs will take place, as usual, including an online Mandarin book fair. These and other school fundraisers will make use of parent and student volunteers, as appropriate. Ms. Danyali also works closely with the TNCS Parent Council who host their own set of initiatives to raise money for the school. Even initiatives with a clear fundraising bent help contribute to the TNCS thriving sense of community.

“I feel really proud that we’re not even halfway through the school year, and we have already done so much as a school community,” she concluded.

TNCS Preprimary Workshop, Fall 2018

If you were unable to join the Fall Preprimary Workshop or if you are interested in learning more about the preprimary language immersion program at The New Century School, this blog post is for you!

Head of Lower School/Dean of Students Alicia Danyali describes the program in this overview:

Our youngest students at TNCS are immersed in Mandarin or Spanish all day by native-speaking educators who are passionate about sharing their language and culture. In the preprimary program, the child is the curriculum. The classroom offers an environment that includes a balance of structure, play, and social development.  Students are given daily opportunities to use their imaginations to create with age-appropriate materials as well as to strengthen their fine and gross motor skills.  Milestones, such as “toileting readiness” are supported throughout the school year.  Partnership with families is critical at this stage in development.

Preprimary Focus

The key point here is that language is the program focus and is hands down what sets the TNCS preprimary program apart from other preschools. But let’s back up a step—why is learning a second language important at an age when most children are still learning a first, in the first place? Language acquisition actually remodels the brain in ways that ultimately improve cognitive function. This article describes how language-learning supports brain function: Why Multilingual People Have Healthier, More Engaged Brains. You’ll see how this flows naturally in to the primary curriculum and how intentional is the interplay between the two divisions.

And now, on to the business at hand. “The workshop went really well,” said Ms. Danyali, ” and we had about 30 families in attendance.” She led the presentation and discussion with support from the three preprimary teachers: Donghui Song (“Song Laoshi”), Laura Noletto (“Sra. Lala”), and Elizabeth Salas-Viaux (“Sra. Salas”). Each teacher additionally has two or three assistants and one floating assistant. She first explained what TNCS does have in common with other preschools: “Your child will still get circle time, nap, playtime, snacks . . . but the format will be in the target language.” She also explained the importance of parents sharing enthusiasm for the program and for the child’s experience in it. “If you’re enthusiastic; they’ll be enthusiastic,” she said.

Another important message she wanted parents to come away with is to not expect your child to be speaking fluently on a timetable. They will develop at their own rate, as appropriate, and quantifying their language-learning is not the point at this stage—it’s brain development. “If they are responding appropriately to instructions, they are demonstrating comprehension, and, not only is the first step in learning, but this also transfers beautifully into the primary Montessori program, which focuses on ‘the absorbent mind’ and the taking of the next step—how you apply what you’ve learned.” (The focus of the primary program is on gaining independence: how teachers can encourage independence and what it looks like at school and at home.) Teachers know when a child is ready to transition to the primary program when he or she can demonstrate the ability to focus for brief periods. Back to that notion of interplay between the two curricula mentioned above, one of the ways that multilingualism reshapes the brain is to equip it resist distraction (read more on how in the article linked above).

Making the Transition to Primary

The Spring Preprimary Workshop will delve into this topic as well, but the moment your child enters the preprimary classroom, teachers begin the process of readying them for their next steps. They learn about structure and the rhythm of the day, for one thing. They learn how to participate in a community, even if they are still nonverbal. “Creating those boundaries throughout the day provides young children a sense of security and a sense of what comes next,” said Ms. Danyali. Once they feel secure, their confidence grows; from there, the desire to branch out and take (healthy) risks is possible, and that’s how true learning happens.

There are different milestones that students should have attained, such as toileting, but there are other aspects as well. Importantly, they will learn so much from making and subsequently correcting mistakes. (The “self-correcting” nature of the Montessori method will be covered in an upcoming post on the Fall Primary Workshop.) Thus, they have to demonstrate a willingness to take some risks, meaning to show the beginnings of what will blossom into independence.

The primary classroom is partial immersion in addition to following the Montessori method. Language-learning is still very much in evidence, but the goals for the primary program are on developing the ability to sustain focus. The ratio of teacher to student grows a bit wider, too, from 1:6 in preprimary to 1:10 in primary.

How Can You Support the Language Experience?

Whether you speak more than one language or not, you can readily incorporate language and model your support: Express your “likes” about the language environment they are experiencing, and avoid having expectations that student will speak immediately in the target language. “Know that the environment will support your child, and the learning will happen organically,” said Ms. Danyali. To facilitate your ability to engage in some of the activities below, use the resources (see bulleted list) to reinforce vocabulary your student is learning in class. Also, says Ms. Danyali, “The preprimary teachers make it really easy to extend learning at home by outlining what books they have been reading in class and what songs they have been singing as well as tips and suggestions in their weekly communications.” Here are some activities you can try:

  1. Play music in the language at home or in the car; combine with dancing.
  2. Experience the culture by exploring its holidays, food, and traditions.
  3. Watch short (2–3 minutes), age-appropriate videos in the language.
  4. Read story/picture books, especially about relevant topics for the age group (e.g., identifying feelings, understanding social settings).
  5. Play games and role-play with puppets in the language.

Books, Websites, and Resources for Your Family’s Language Journey

Finally, Ms. Danyali feels it extremely important to help dispel the pervasive myths about bi- and multilingualism. These “fast facts” are taken from The Bilingual Edge.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 3.41.50 PM.png

Closing out the preprimary workshop, Ms. Danyali said, “On behalf of TNCS’s preprimary team, we look forward to continuing the immersion discussion and your continued partnership.” A preprimary Observation Day will be scheduled for spring 2019 to give you the chance to see all of this beautiful learning taking place in your 2- and 3-year-olds!