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!

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.

Goodbye 2015–2016 School Year! It’s Been Great!

Well folks, another school year at The New Century School has just ended. Immersed finds this news bittersweet—grateful for all the good times, learning, friendships, and memories it gave us, but also wistful that it’s over. Sniff.

To cheer ourselves up, let’s take a look at all the special ways TNCS teachers and staff made the end of the school year one big, happy celebration. Overseeing each event with warmth and grace was Head of School Alicia Danyali.

Primary Field Day

Although the scheduled Elementary Field Day got rained out, TNCS Primary students dodged the weather a week before school let out and had a . . . “field day” in Patterson Park! Primary teachers Maria Mosby, Catherine Lawson, Lisa Reynolds, and Martellies Warren pulled out all the stops, with games, snacks, and even a special guest performance by former TNCS Primary teacher, Ms. Laz! (Read more about Ms. Lazarony’s alter ego as Planet Uptune songwriter and vocalist here!)

There were beads, balls, bubbles, balloons, badminton, and bats—and that’s just the b’s! Frisbees, kites, and even baby ducks were also on hand to make this event the perfect send-off for the 3- to 5-year old set. See for yourself in this slide show that will make you wish you were a kid again.

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All-School Picnic

Next up was the chance for parents to join their kids during the annual TNCS outdoor picnic lunch. Initially rained out, the weather cooperated beautifully on Monday, and the playground was full to capacity of happy TNCS community members. Mrs. Duprau brought along a special new guest (and future TNCS enrollee), and Mr. Warren once again got mauled by his adoring fans. (But seemed to be okay with that ;).)

Grade 5 Graduation Ceremony

The following day saw a truly momentous occasion unfolding, not to mention a huge TNCS first. The oldest cohort of TNCS students graduated out of the Elementary program. You can read on their faces the many emotions this inspired. From pensive to elated to quite somber, they are clearly aware of the significance of graduating. This event not only means that this group, whom we have watched grow and mature into fine young ladies and gentlemen over the years under the expert tutelage of Elementary teachers Dan McGonigal and Kiley Stasch, will embark on a whole new scholastic phase—Middle School—but also that TNCS itself has grown and will embark on its own Middle School journey. These are wonderful tidings . . . notwithstanding their undeniable poignancy. Such great things lie ahead.

Kindergarten/Grade 1 End-of-Year Celebration

On the penultimate day of school, another graduation ceremony of sorts transpired. What started as a low-key, in-classroom potluck brunch grew into a full-on TNCS event, courtesy of K/1st teachers Teresa Jacoby and Manuel Caceres. They even had the kids collaborate on a “quilt” of self-portraits that will grace the halls of TNCS in perpetuity.

The Kindergarteners were awarded diplomas to signal their imminent passage grade-school status.

And the first-graders passed on some pearls of wisdom to their junior counterparts to ease their transition to the Big Time.

So thanks for the memories TNCS . . . and for making school such a positive experience for students and their families. What a profound gift this is. Other than being able to share these memories, the only other thing that makes closing out the school year bearable is knowing we’ll be back for 2016–2017 to share more great times :)!

 

TNCS Teachers and Admin Share School Memories, Part 2

As mentioned in TNCS Teachers and Admin Share School Memories a couple of weeks ago, with the 2015–2016 school year almost over, it’s a great time to reflect on all that The New Century School does for its students as well as all that education has given us. Prompted by TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali’s questions, “What is your fondest memory of school? and What teacher/school event influenced you the most in your educational experience?” here is another round of teacher and staff responses that provide a window into who they are as people, as educators, and as friends.

Emma Novashinski, Executive Chef & Master Gardener

Chef Emma draws on her love of growing things and the importance—and rewards—of practicing environmental sustainability.

My fondest memory at the school was actually this year’s Earth day. I have always wanted to watch a weeping willow tree grow, and I bought one to donate to the school as they are too large for a conventional garden. It was a little bittersweet.
I heard they were going to plant it on Earth day and got a call during lunch to join them. When I got out there the whole school was there! They all clapped and thanked me for the tree! To put roots into the Earth on Earth day was so fulfilling. My heart burst with love for everyone at the school. So thoughtful and meaningful and kind!!

Dan McGonigal, Elementary STEM Teacher

Mr. McGonigal shows us where his drive for protecting the environment began to develop and also that sometimes you just can’t take yourself too seriously.

My most influential teacher was one of my high school teachers, Mr. Shearer. He taught Environmental Issues. I remember him because he was so passionate about what he did, and it really hit home with me. I always had an appreciation for the outdoors, but he made me look at our environment in a different way. He discussed things in his class that came true later in my life, such as climate change, population problems, and even the flooding of New Orleans. It was a very memorable class for me and has impacted my own teaching.
My most memorable school moment was also my most embarrassing. I was called to the foul line during our assembly in the gym to show how I used routine to help me shoot a foul shot for our basketball team. I started my routine and heard some people laughing, and I continued and made the shot. I was asked to do it again, and more people laughed, but I made the shot again. The third time everyone was laughing and I didn’t realize why. But as it turned out part of my routine was sticking my tongue out! It was something that still makes me smile when I think about it.

Johanna Ramos, Pre-Primary Lead Spanish Immersion Teacher

Sra. Ramos gives some well-deserved props to a colleague and probably speaks for many in so doing.

I could say that the teacher that influenced me the most in my educational experience is Mr. Warren because of his hard work and dedication toward the school and the students.

Kiley Stasch, Elementary Language Arts & Global Studies Teacher

In her recollection, Ms. Stasch demonstrates the undeniable value of service learning and of mixed-age activities—two core TNCS elementary values!

One of my fondest memories of school was when my school had what they called “Stewardship Day.” On this day, we were split up into groups from K–12th grade and assigned different tasks to help improve our community. Not only was this a fun time to have the chance to climb on top of school buses to wash them, go on long hikes to pick up trash, and clean up community gardens, but it was also one of the few times
out of the year that we were able to interact with students of all ages that attended our school!

Elizabeth Salas-Viaux, Pre-Primary Lead Spanish Immersion Teacher

Sra. Salas’s takes a different approach and gives a shout out to the awe-inspiringly involved families of the TNCS community.

One of the things that have inspired me as a teacher is to see how families and communities work along with teachers in order to provide the best positive learning experience for our students.

It’s true that the educational environment works best when all stakeholders are invested both internally and externally. The TNCS community is a beautiful synergy in the truest sense of that word, as the students who go on to enter the world as kind, compassionate, caretakers of it will reveal.

TNCS Teachers and Admin Share School Memories

It’s just plain hard to believe that the 2015–2016 school year is almost over, but with only a handful of weeks remaining, this is a great opportunity to reflect on all that The New Century School does for its students as well as all that education has given us. In perhaps a similarly nostalgic frame of mind, TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali posed the following questions to her staff recently: “What is your fondest memory of school? What teacher/school event influenced you the most in your educational experience?”

It’s interesting to note the various ways the questions were interpreted—some answering from their past school experiences as young students, and others bringing their more recent TNCS experiences to bear. Regardless, Dear Readers, what follows are their heartwarming, often funny, and always insightful responses. You will get to know these wonderful educators in a new way, seeing what particular experiences and moments shaped them into who they have become as well as whence the unique gifts each brings to the art of educating your children.

Tissues handy? Okay, in no particular order, here we go!

Teresa Jacoby, K/1st Math & Science Teacher

Mrs. Jacoby, fittingly, reveals being awed by the power of science.

I think my fondest memory is winning first place in my 8th-grade Science Fair. My father who was a plumber helped me build a water cycle table. My water cycle table actually rained and had thunder and lightning. It showed the path that water follows from the mountains to the ocean. My father being my first and best teacher taught me to weld pipes and install a small water pump, which pumped the water to a showerhead hidden in the clouds. The water then followed a small river from the top of the mountain to the seashore draining into a bucket where the pump pumped it back to the showerhead.

Catherine Lawson, Lead Primary Montessori Teacher

Mrs. Lawson shows us where her compassion for students and her fun-loving side may have begun to develop in earnest.

I have two vivid memories from attending Fernwood Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland. The first was in the 3rd grade, when my class did a play called “February On Trial,” which was about February not having enough days to be counted as a month.  All of the holidays in February were represented by a character who were called on to defend why February was important to have. I was the bailiff and got to walk the defenses (characters) across the stage and have them say that they would tell the truth and nothing but the truth. These included The Groundhog, Cupid, George Washington, and February 29. I was very proud of my part. As I think back now as an adult, I realize that my teacher, Mrs. Reader, made up this part just for me because I wanted to be in the play so badly. I could not remember lines, so she simply had me have to say the same line over and over: “Do you promise to tell the truth and nothing but the truth?” I love Mrs. Reader for that.

The second activity was 6th grade Outdoor Camp, lasting 3 days and 2 nights. We had to hike to the camp, which was probably only a short hike, but I remember it feeling like miles. Once there, we got to dissect an owl pellet. It was so exciting to open up the pellet and finding the bones of a mouse—even a mouse skull. We slept on bunk beds in sleeping bags. It was very exciting. We had a dance one of the nights and all the boys were expected to ask all the girls to dance. The boy (Ralph Miller) who I liked from afar asked me to dance, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I thought nothing could be better than dancing with him. It is so interesting how your prospective changes as you grow up and mature. I know that we must have done more activities on that trip; however, these are the things that I can remember all these years later.

I hope as a teacher that I can make memories that children will remember all their lives. I am thankful for all the teachers that shaped my life and made me who I am today.

Dominique Sanchies, Admissions Director and Assistant Head of School

Mrs. Sanchies proves that teachers truly make a difference in their students lives.

I’ve had three life-changing teachers:

  1. Mr. Carlo Tucci, my childhood guitar teacher who made me sing during each lesson. This taught me that I had a voice.

  2. Mrs. Patricia Brawn my high school French teacher (4 years), who taught me that my voice (point of view and expression) was beautiful.

  3. My college Avant Garde Film instructor Ms. Kathryn Lasky, who taught me how to organize my voice to best be heard and to think outside the proverbial box.

Elisabeth Willis, Elementary Art Teacher

Ms. Willis demonstrates the undeniable value of differentiation in a child’s education and what it can do for self-esteem when teachers give the learner ways to use their strengths to grow!

It’s very hard to pick just one. Growing up, I had art teachers who recognized my abilities at a young age and always encouraged me to do more. Each art teacher, from 1st grade through high school, all played a major roll in how I learned and what I strived to become.  In elementary school, my teacher created an AP art class based on me and a few other students in my class needing more than just one art class a week. It also meant skipping gym for a day, which, for a clumsy kid, was amazing.

In high school, my teachers all encouraged me to take classes outside of just what the school had to offer. I ended up taking classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and doing precollege at both Parsons and MICA. Without the teachers I had throughout my life, I’m not sure I would have become who I am now or have experienced all I have been able to experience.

Lisa Reynolds, Lead Primary Montessori Teacher

Mrs. Reynolds’ sense of humor shines through in these funny memories from her tenure at TNCS.

A student and teacher go into the greenhouse to pick grapes. The student walks in first with teacher behind him. They startle two doves sitting in the grapevines, and the only way out is the door that the teacher and student are standing in. The birds swoop toward them, as they both duck so not to get struck by the anxious birds. The student looks up with a serious grin and says, “[Teacher], you have bird___ on your forehead!” The teacher says, “Thank you . . . would you please hand me a leaf?” This always makes me laugh when I think back on it!

Another time, I asked a student if her unique name had a special meaning. She thought for a moment and replied, “I just might be related to poison ivy and [my parents] wanted to mix it up a bit.” LOL!

Yu Lin, Pre-Primary Lead Mandarin Immersion Teacher

Lin Laoshi’s fondest memory of her time at TNCS happened when she saw her hard work paying off in a surprising way and in a brand-new context.

We took a field trip to the Baltimore Zoo last year. I was so surprised that many of our children were able to name the animals using Chinese, and they sang Chinese songs about the animals that they had learned in class. I was so proud of them.

Wei Li, Elementary Mandarin Teacher

Li Laoshi used this opportunity to reflect on the new experience of teaching Mandarin as a second language in this country and how she will use it to inform ongoing improvements—a lifelong learner!

This is my first year at TNCS, and it is also my first job in the U.S. I am so excited to be a member of this big and warm family, and I really enjoyed my job in the past year. I gained tons of practical experience in teaching a second language (Chinese), and I am becoming better in communicating with students who are in various ages and learning styles. I believe with the support from all my friendly colleagues, I will run the Chinese program better and better in the following years.

Maria Mosby, Lead Primary Montessori Teacher

Ms. Mosby shares recollections that show her both coming to terms with the need to persist in the face of possible failure as well as her overcoming obstacles with her newfound resolve.

One memory of mine that had a big impact on me was a poetry reading I was supposed to participate in in high school. Only a few students were selected to read their poetry, and I had worked on it for weeks. At the assembly, my teacher could tell that I was very nervous. She asked me if I would rather opt out, and, without thinking, I said “yes.” Everyone else read their poetry, and I stayed in the audience, wincing. I was angry at myself for not having the courage to go up there. I have always regretted that moment and promised myself that I wouldn’t let fear get in the way of another opportunity.

One of my fondest memories would have to be an accomplishment from middle school French class. I created a model of The Louvre while dealing with pneumonia. Several students suggested that I give up and that I would fail, but I pushed through and did it. I was very proud of that model, and kept it for several years.

Martellies Warren, Lead Primary Montessori Teacher and Elementary Music Teacher

Mr. Warren not only gives us another fascinating peek inside his illustrious career, but he also demonstrates that sometimes “the show must go on” even in the face of unimaginable tragedy to lift spirits and spread some love.

In 2001, Wynton Learson Marsalis “trumpeter, composer, teacher, music educator” asked the Morgan State University choir to record his work “All Rise” and perform it at the Famous Hollywood Bowl. We were scheduled to fly from the Dulles international airport headed to Hollywood California on none other than September 11, 2001. This was a huge deal for all of us, and we quickly told everyone we knew. Three weeks before we were scheduled to leave, Wynton called the late and former head of the Morgan State University music department Dr. Nathan Carter to ask if it would be a problem to move our departure date up to September 9th. Dr. Carter agreed, and this decision probably saved all of our lives.

On September 11, 2001, I awaken in Hollywood, California to several choir friends crying and frantically trying to call loved ones. I looked at the news and saw the first airplane fly into the World Trade Center. It was like something out of a horror movie, except it was really happening. Shortly after, the second airplane flew into the other tower, and we watched in horror as both buildings came crashing down. I had been trying to call my parents to let them know we were safe and that we had already flown out prior to the 11th but could not get through. My family and friends thought I was on the flight that left Dulles and had been calling my parents all day with their condolences.

Shortly after the 11th, Wynton and the producers felt that we should still do the show at the Hollywood bowl. We opened the show with an arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and sang to a packed stadium of patriotic concertgoers. A day later, we were cleared to fly back across the country to Dulles airport, where we learned we were the first flight allowed back into Washington, D.C. airspace! I’ll never forget being escorted into D.C. by fighter jets that surrounded our aircraft (yikes!). We landed safely and taxied to our gate on a runway lined with pilots waving American flags and cheering.

This experience shaped me as an educator. My life was spared for a reason. I have purpose and a duty to educated and provide the highest quality of education I can provide. It was that experience that helped shape me into the passionate educator and musician I am today!

Alicia Danyali, Head of School

And here’s what it all comes down to. Mrs. Danyali reveals both how important it is to be nurtured as a learner, in this case as a young teacher, as well as how essential to provide a nurturing space for the teachers now in her care as Head of School.

The teacher–mentor dynamic can be life-changing in every profession, especially in education. My most significant mentor, whom I find myself quoting throughout my career, is a 3rd-grade teacher, Mrs. Sharon Bleumendaal. Mrs. Bleumendaal was my first mentor and colleague in my first position after graduating from Florida International University with a BS in Elementary Education. I was given the opportunity to work overseas as a Grade 3 teacher, and my path into the international educational community allowed me to grow as a professional in ways I never expected.

Mrs. Bleumendaal was a veteran teacher who had many degrees. Of all these, the Montessori Philosophy was closest to her heart, even though the school where we taught was not Montessori. She opened my eyes to a community of learners who, under her guidance, were compassionate, intrinsically motivated, and excited about being in her classroom. This was the environment I aspired to create as an educator new to the profession. The key to her student success was her ability to differentiate instruction, meet the students right where they were academically, and challenge those students to tap into their full potential.

I was the luckiest new teacher in the world! I could throw out the traditional views and assessments through standardizing tests in the public domain, a bureaucracy that instilled fear into the generation of teachers from the early 90s and beyond, teachers who were, and are, desperately trying to make a difference, even with many odds against them.

At a recent staff development day in my current role, as Head of School, I quoted Sharon Bleumendaal while discussing the application of differentiating techniques to student needs, and not conforming students by honoring their learning style. Mrs. Bleumendaal was nurturing but held her students accountable. The classroom shined with high self-esteem and teamwork, years before these “buzzwords” were a concern for stakeholders worldwide.

Mrs. Bleumendaal was tapped into her students, and offered her full attention and dedication to them daily. She also trusted her students, which goes a long way in making choices that can guide decisions all the way through adulthood. It would be a big claim to state that if I never had Sharon Bleumendaal to mentor me right out of university, I can’t say if I would have stayed in education. My experiences and opportunities since those early days have undoubtedly shaped my career path and my own intrinsic motivation to stay in the field.

Want more? Never fear, Part 2 of this lovely exercise (thanks Mrs. Danyali!) will be published in future, as more responses come in from those who have not yet had a chance to share. The prospect might just make closing out another great year at TNCS bearable!

TNCS Primary Workshop: Connecting Montessori to Home

A few weeks ago, The New Century School Montessori teachers gave their bi-annual Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. But this time, they also added a new twist—how to support Montessori principles in the home.

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Our illustrious panel of Montessori teachers.

Joining teachers Catherine Lawson, Martellies Warren, Lisa Reynolds, and Maria Mosby, Head of School Alicia Danyali introduced the workshop and was quick to reassure parents that they needn’t run out and “remodel the home with Montessori materials”; rather, “this presentation is to show ways that Montessori can be connected naturally to what you already do in the home.”

Although previous workshops, including in the fall of this academic year, have demonstrated specifically what students are learning and doing during their daily class time, this one did not cover teacher and learning with Montessori materials per se. For those parents who did not attend Montessori school as kids, the materials are 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 prior Primary Workshops.

As such, the Montessori classroom is a very deliberately “prepared environment.” Every nook and cranny is optimized for both the child’s size and the child’s development (accommodating a range of both, of course). Similar child-optimization can also be accomplished with a little careful tweaking of the existing environment, such as in the home, as the TNCS Montessori teachers went on to demonstrate.

To make the home–school connection, they covered the following four areas.

Part 1

Up first, Mrs. Lawson described how to prepare the interior and exterior of the home and the car, joking that “we aren’t going to force anyone to set up this way. No one is coming to your home to check on you! But we’re trying to teach independence, and here are some ways you can further this at home.”

Entryway

  • Install low hooks for children to hang up their own coats or use child-sized hangers so they can hang their coats with everyone else’s (Mrs. Lawson showed an old, well-loved hanger one of her daughters had decorated for this use).
  • Create a place to put wet boots and dirty shoes.
  • Designate a place to keep lunch boxes, backpacks, and other regularly used gear.

Living Room and Family Room

  • Make these areas child friendly so children feel welcome—said Mrs. Lawson: “Children like to be where their parents are, but they need their things handy also.”
  • Make books available in every room, if possible, with a bookshelf or basket to hold them.
  • Keep some toys available for use in an organized way, which encourages easy clean up:
    • Use low bookshelves or the bottom shelf of a television cart to hold toys.
    • Give each particular toy a place on the shelf. Place activities with many pieces in dedicated holders (e.g., shoe boxes, baskets, etc.).
    • Offer limited choices of activities that fit on the shelves provided, and rotate the toys when interest wanes.
    • Use a bathmat, throw rug, or bath towel for the child’s designated activity area, à la Montessori.
  • Although these might be hard habits to break, try to avoid:
    • Using a toy box or big basket that holds many toys because children can get overstimulated with too many choices.
    • Allowing the child to play with many toys and then doing a big clean-up. Instead, encourage playing with one toy and putting it away before moving onto the next.

Bedroom

  • Make books available in every room, if possible, with a bookshelf or basket to hold them.
  • Use low shelves for children’s toys and activities:
    • Each toy should have its own place, and rotate toys as necessary.
    • Only have bedroom-appropriate toys in the bedroom because you will not always be present to supervise. Markers, for example, are not a good choice!
  • Keep a laundry basket handy that allows the child to dispose of his or her own dirty clothes each night.
  • If possible, install in the closet an easy-to-reach rod and child-sized hangers.
  • In the dresser, place season-appropriate clothes in the lower drawers so the child can choose the clothing and dress him or herself.
  • Install a bulletin board at the child’s eye level to display pictures of family members, artwork, postcards, etc.:
    • When they are reading, post reminders about things or just love notes.
    • Add a calendar to mark off days.
  • Consider using a comforter instead of a bedspread on the bed. Let it be the child’s job or to help pull up the comforter each morning.

    tncs-primary-workshop-connecting-montessori-to-home

    “It hides the wrinkles and looks tidy even if it isn’t perfect,” demonstrated Mrs. Lawson.

Outside

  • Make a place for outdoor toys (not just a big plastic tub for everything), such as a laundry basket.
  • Have opportunities for gardening (i.e., digging in the dirt) available.

Car

  • The car is an extension of home for many commuting families. Make it a happy environment with car-appropriate activities:
    • Books
    • CD of music or stories
    • DVDs
    • Activity books (avoid crayons, which melt)
  • Keep a supply of snacks and drinks on hand. Make a snack bag that allows the child to decide when and how much to eat (this encourages responsible decision making and avoids a power struggle).
  • For longer trips, consider making a goodie bag filled with tissue paper–wrapped activities or toys (they can be new things or things from around the house, e.g., rubber ducks, trucks, sticker books).

Part 2

Mr. Warren spoke next. “My part of today’s presentation is on allowing for mistakes. A huge part of Montessori and overall development is making mistakes.” He read essential parts from “Mistakes and Freedom,” an article published by The Center for Guided Montessori Studies and starting with this famous quote by Dr. Maria Montessori:

“It is a commonplace that the child must be free. But what kind
of freedom has he been given? The only true freedom for an
individual is to have the opportunity to act independently. That
is the condition sine qua non of individuality. There is no such
thing as an individual until a person can act by himself. The
instinct guiding the child to seek his independence thus leads us
to realize what the whole of nature demonstrates – that any sort
of association is composed of separate individuals. Otherwise
there would be no such thing as societies, but only colonies.
Education must foster both the development of individuality
and that of society. Society cannot develop unless the
individual develops, as we learn from observing the child, who
immediately uses his newly won independence to act on a social
environment.”

Read the article in its entirety here: http://www.guidedstudies.com/2011/04/mistakes-and-freedom/.

tncs-primary-workshop-connecting-montessori-to-homeMr. Warren ended with his own classroom tenets of allowing for mistakes:

  • Prepare the environment and step back.
  • Give the child time for reflection, problem-solving, and coming to their own conclusions.
  • Don’t swoop in!
  • Encourage the desired behavior, but understand and accept that mistakes are necessary for growth and development!

Part 3

Next up, tying into Mr. Warren’s theme, Mrs. Reynolds discussed the difference between praise and encouragement and how to allow children to cultivate the courage to be imperfect. “I like praise,” she joked, “it’s like candy.” Audience laughter ensued. “But what is the long-term effect,” she asked? “Children who are praised choose less challenging work.” That might seem counterintuitive—it’s why we praise our kids, after all, to ostensibly build up their self-esteem—but studies are unequivocal in demonstrating that our good intentions are having deleterious effects.

Mrs. Reynolds brought up the example of kids’ art, which parents can tend to gush over, even when what is depicted is basically a scribble. Not only does this signal to the child on some level that he or she doesn’t need to really try hard to make something praiseworthy, but the praise itself also becomes less meaningful.

The upside is, said Mrs. Reynolds, “Children who are encouraged for their efforts are willing to choose more challenging tasks on their own.” Encourage the deed, rather than praising the outcome. “Show respect for and interest in the child’s point of view.” Also, make sure to provide opportunities for the child to develop his or her life skills, such as making the bed. (Recall from Part 1, though, that the idea is to set the child up for success by “preparing the environment.”  See above.) This will help the child develop self-confidence and independence, as well as independence from the negative opinions of others.

“Who doesn’t want that for their children?” she concluded.

Part 4

Ms. Mosby then took up the thread of independence by presenting specific ways that parents can give children these opportunities at home. “Have you ever been approached by your children while your cleaning the house because they want to help?” she asked. Our tendency can be to brush aside these offers as sweet, but not really very helpful because we want an actually clean outcome for our efforts. But, this is exactly the time, explained Ms. Mosby, to tap into that natural excitement and teach them how to tackle some of these household tasks before they become too jaded to want to help. Sure, the results might not be perfect, but the ultimate reward of cultivating independence and a fundamental helpfulness in your child will outweigh this temporary downside.

She went on to tell parents how eager her students are to help clean the classroom and how she seizes those opportunities to both accept the help as well as teach the correct methods. “All of the materials I’m showing you are things you’ll already have around the house, such as dust cloths, dustpans, and plastic bins to wash dishes or other items ‘the old-fashioned way’.” (She gave parents the helpful tip that her students love polishing tables and will rub the polish practically off in their zeal for this task.)

Kids are also natural sous chefs—they love to help make their lunches, for example, such as by spreading ingredients on bread and peeling vegetables. Learning to use kitchen implements also helps them develop their fine motor skills. They can also be recruited to put dishes away. “Let them know you trust them,” said Ms. Mosby, ” and start with unbreakable pots and pans in a low cabinet, progressing as the child is ready to more fragile dishes.”

They can also help with pets. “They love to have another little someone to care for,” said Ms. Mosby. Let them brush the cat or dog and help put out the food and water. They can even help with younger siblings and get practice with gentle care in the classroom with babydoll models.

The garden or backyard is another area where kids can be a huge help, whether with cleaning up or actual gardening. A “pooper scooper,” she pointed out, makes a great child-sized leaf picker-upper.

Resources

Head of School Alicia Danyali offers the following resources “to support your family’s educational journey” with a young learner.

Books

  • The Child in the Family, by Dr. Maria Montessori
  • Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, by Jane Nelson
  • Child of the World: Montessori, Global Education for Age 3-12+, by Susan Mayclin Stephenson
  • How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way, by Tim Seldin
  • The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish

Websites

Cutting Edge Skills at TNCS

A recent Food for Thought article that aired on NPR explored the seemingly counterintuitive notion of letting toddlers play with knives. Sujata Gupta, the author and mother of a 3-year-old, writes, “Both my mother and mother-in-law recoiled when I suggested letting my son try his hand at chopping. Yet research, and the experience of educators, suggest that parents such as me would be wise to hand a tot a knife.”

That “recoil” is understandable, given that maternal instincts are to protect, not arm our children with implements of self-destruction. But, as Gupta discovers, allowing small children to wield real tools is a means of attaining self-efficacy, something that kids these days urgently need.

It may come as no surprise to TNCS parents that The New Century School has always operated according to this principle. TNCS primary classrooms follow the classic Montessori curriculum, a huge part of which is fostering independence, even in the very young. The Montessori philosophy is based on the observation that children learn by doing. They crave hands-on experiences, which is also a form of “play.” (In this sense, there’s a profound difference between “playing with knives” and “playing” with knives. The former is an invitation to accidents; the latter is an absorptive lesson in proper use.)

Of course, TNCS students are not handed honorary steak knives on matriculation. Step by step and through practice with preliminary “works,” they earn the privilege of using knives in the classroom for helping with food preparation in the Practical Life mode of the curriculum. Says TNCS primary teacher Martellies Warren: “I trust students with real tools once they show that they can be responsible individuals in other areas of the curriculum—such as if they have mastered or are working toward mastery in the art of using materials with care, working with materials from start to finish, working independently, caring for the classroom environment, and just overall being gentle and empathetic toward others.”

Catherine Lawson, TNCS’s most senior Montessori teacher, agrees. “Children want to do activities that include using knives; however, they know that they have to show that they are focused and responsible.” Once students have shown this level of consistency, says Mr. Warren, “they are allowed to use such tools as knives, hammers, graters, and peelers to prepare real food as well as serve themselves and each other.”

tncs-students-learn-responsible-knife-use

A TNCS primary student carefully spreads hummus on mini toast.

TNCS primary teacher Maria Mosby describes her process this way: “We use knives for spreading first (hummus, cream cheese, sunflower seed butter). The kids love to practice spreading butter on their bread at lunch time, and it’s a great opportunity to help out and practice at home with toast or sandwiches.”

Once the children demonstrate responsible spreading, they can move on to slicing, starting with softer foods and progressing to firmer fruits and vegetables. “We always stay nearby, but trust that the children are capable,” said Ms. Mosby.

And that, says Mr. Warren, encapsulates the “spirit and uniqueness of the Montessori philosophy!” He says that this type of “honor system” stems from Maria Montessori’s belief that the child should self-direct. “I often tell parents to ‘let go and trust’ their little individuals. In my experience this has been one of the most challenging task for parents to do.”

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A TNCS primary student cuts cucumbers, slices bread, and spreads cream cheese to make a cucumber sandwich.

Letting go and trusting might come more easily if parents knew just how successful this model is for cultivating that self-efficacy mentioned above. Ms. Mosby offers this explanation: “I have never been let down. I think it’s the fact that the students know they are using real tools that makes such a difference. They don’t use them as weapons. They are very careful and know that tools used improperly can be harmful.”

So, as Gupta says, “Go ahead and give your toddler a kitchen knife.” You might just get breakfast in bed from your aspiring cheflets.