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.

Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

“Play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori a century ago, and with that simple yet compelling concept, launched a revolution in early childhood education. The Montessori method is often mistakenly faulted for not making room for “imaginative play,” but the converse is actually true, and it’s also why the method is so downright effective. By integrating “work” (i.e., learning) with materials and lessons that children are naturally drawn to, the Montessori method allows kids to do what they do best—play, explore, touch, smell, absorb—but in a constructive, productive way. In other words, they are learning because they want to without even realize it’s happening. It’s sheer genius.

Fast-forward to this century, and an offshoot of this concept has begun to take root: play facilitated by “playworkers.” Playworkers describe (they resist defining it—you’ll see why) play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Activities such as building a sand castle and playing make-believe fit this description, whereas playing Angry Birds on an iPad is something else entirely (no judgment implicit here, parents!). It’s no accident that the playwork model of play sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Playworkers’ (also called “play associates”) roles are to be the caretakers of the play environment. Unlike the bored, inattentive playground monitor of yore, these are trained adults who oversee an open setting in which children can direct their own play, maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for them.

Trained to what, exactly? Enter Imagination Playground, The New Century School’s latest schoolwide initiative to ensure a happy, adjusted, engaged student body. Launching soon, a focus on constructive play is what makes Imagination Playground a natural fit for TNCS. Says school cofounder Jennifer Lawner, “We will begin using it in the gym space during school hours and also make it available to The Lingo Leap for birthday parties and other activities.”

So What is Imagination Playground, Exactly?

Imagination Playground blocks close-up

A close-up of the foam blocks . . . makes you want to reach out, grab one, and start playing!

The flagship Imagination Playground opened in New York City in 2010; since then, more than 700 Imagination Playground sets have been implemented internationally . . . including right here in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, very soon. To backtrack a bit, Imagination Playground is a “play system that encourages unstructured, child-directed ‘free play.’” It looks like giant Tinker Toys—only soft, on an extremely large scale, and powder blue! Developed by the architectural firm The Rockwell Group, this play system “in a box” (or cart, as the case may be) can be used anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and comprises three key elements:

1. Manipulable Environment: Traditional playgrounds consist of fixed equipment. The experience kids get from swinging or sliding is somehow passive, even though they are actively moving. There is still the element of deriving enjoyment passively rather than having created/designed the experience. Not so here, where kids manipulate the play environment according to their own lights, then do with it what they will.

2. Loose Parts: An assortment of age-appropriate “found parts” can be integrated with the signature blue building blocks to expand on and extend play in new directions.

3. Play Associates: Workers are trained with a specific curriculum developed by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “saving play” as well as addressing America’s “play deficit” to properly implement and oversee an Imagination Playground.

According to Imagination Playground website’s FAQs, “This unique combination of elements enables children to create a great new playground each time they visit.” Click here for a video demonstration/profile.

More About the Blocks, Please

These are really the core of the Imagination Playground. The biodegradable foam blocks are nontoxic, cleanable, recyclable, resistant to microorganisms, and nonflammable. They are all blue—no variations are possible. This is to both encourage the use of, that’s right, imagination, rather than getting distracted by colors (or worse, fighting over them) as well as because that color was best received among kid focus groups. The blocks kit includes shapes like “l’il cheeses,” “clover gears,” and “arched chutes.” Are you getting excited yet? This basic kit can enhanced with angles and curves add-on sets to build endless combinations of kid-engineered “playgrounds.” They also promote collaboration among children to build their place space together.

And the Play Associates?

Must be the world’s best job, right? Probably pretty close, though training is a nonnegotiable prerequisite. This job is really more about managing the environment than playing with kids, however. Performing safety checks, setting up and putting away the loose parts, and cleaning the materials are their primary responsibilities, all to enable kids to let their imaginations take them where they will. “Play Associates set up and step back.”

As stated above, Play Associates are a kind of “playworker,” a profession written extensively about by Penny Wilson in the U.K., herself a professional playworker. Together with a nonprofit organization right here in our own backyard, Ms. Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, MD aim to “[establish] playwork as a profession in the U.S. . . . [in] its efforts to restore play to children’s lives.” Read their Playwork Primer 2010 here.

Play: Not Something to Mess Around With

In the end, there’s a very serious side to play—not in a bad way, but in terms of the no-nonsense list of benefits that this kind of play yields. Playing with loose and found parts, researchers agree, hones cognitive, creative, and social development. In fact, it is precisely through play that kids develop. By playing, they are actually transforming their dreams into reality as noted pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst David Winnicott believed and for whom the concept of play was a central motif. Tied to influential architect Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts:

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”

and the fundamental logic of Imagination Playground emerges. Did you watch the video yet? Those parent and education professional testimonials were full of words like “problem-solving,” “engaged,” “higher-level thinking,” “teamwork,” and even “character strengths like grit, resilience, and self-control.” (Remember education researcher/author Paul Tough? One of the NYC school principles he wrote about, Dominic Randolph, is an Imagination Playground advocate and user.) All of these blog themes are really starting to, uh, “connect”!

For a final word on the child’s sheer driving need to play, here is an excerpt from an interview with playworker Penny Wilson in the American Journal of Play:

“It is a common mistake that adults make to think that play is frivolous and fun, a pretty frill of childhood. But play not only develops physical and mental strength and agility, it is the mechanism by which children work out their thoughts and emotions. As adults we struggle to explain and understand ourselves and the things that happen around us. We wrestle with words. For example, I find it very difficult to capture the words I need to explain this thought to you now. Children have exactly the same need to grapple with their thoughts. But they use their playing as their language.”

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts or share an anecdote in the Comments section!

Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!

On February 20th, The New Century School hosted a Primary Workshop to provide parents with a firsthand experience of the Montessori approach to pre-K education. This information-filled evening was the second such Primary Workshop of the 2012–2013 school year. Workshops for Pre-primary and Elementary student parents are also held regularly and will be profiled in this blog at future points.

Unlike Open Houses and Information Nights that are general question-and-answer forums, a Workshop’s purpose is to show you specifically what your children are learning and doing during their daily class time. For those parents who did not attend Montessori school as kids, the Primary Workshop is a marvel—both eye-opening and fun. 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.

The evening was very well organized and executed. Parents were divided into three groups and rotated through classrooms, each featuring a presentation by either Mrs. Lawson, Mr. Sellers, or Mr. Warren. This way, parents got to see a bit of everything as well as interact with Primary teachers they might not have known as well as they do their child’s particular instructor. Montessori Primary education is divided into five distinct categories: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, and Geography (Science) and Culture. The Fall 2012 Primary Workshop explored the Practical Life and Sensorial components, leaving the remaining three for last week’s Workshop. Each teacher presented lessons to the parent group in much the same way they present lessons to students. Movements are controlled; the pace is unhurried. Thus, the student is given ample time to absorb all aspects of what is happening.

Language

Mr. Sellers presented the Language portion of the Workshop. He described 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.

Mr. Sellers calls these “stepping stones into reading” and it’s easy to see how and why this approach is so effective. Over the course of the 3-year Primary cycle, a child would start 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.

The metal insets indirectly relate to language development. By tracing the shapes and moving through the progressively more difficult tasks associated with the insets, kids strengthen the hand muscles they need to write.

Parents, Mr. Sellers also included 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 all those strange kitchen tools accumulating in the drawer (knew they had to be good for something!). As you explain new words, adds Mr. Sellers, 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.

Math

Montessori math is likewise a progression of lessons from concrete/discrete to abstract. Mr. Warren 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.”

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.

Mr. Warren’s approach to presenting the materials was to use a parent volunteer to walk through a cycle of lessons, who afterward said, “If I had these materials when I was in school, I might still remember how to do long division!” Thanks Mr. Warren, for providing a true hands-on experience!

Geography and Science

Mrs. Lawson introduced the group to Geography and Science. She loves these lessons, she says, because “teaching them gives me the opportunity to learn about other cultures,” adding, “and to keep in touch with my former students who have moved to China and Switzerland.” (We miss them, too, Mrs. Lawson!) She also displays objects from around the world in her classroom to have a physical representation of a particular locale always on hand.

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.

Just as with the other Montessori categories, the scientific disciplines are taught in a linear fashion. Here, teachers start with a big picture, such as the world, and move to increasingly smaller geographic units—continents to countries to right here in Baltimore. With biology, kids explore life cycles and habitats. Mrs. Lawson says she continually tries to take kids out of their “comfort zones” by asking questions like, “What is this made of?” to expand their views of their worlds.

A 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. They 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.”

One take-away from the three-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.

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.

Language Curriculum Specialist Joins TNCS

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Lisa Warren, Language Curriculum Specialist

Piggybacking on a post (Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function) from earlier this year, this discussion profiles Lisa Warren, on-staff language curriculum specialist at The New Century School. Ms. Warren came on board in October 2012 to organize and standardize the existing language education at the school. With a Master’s Degree in linguistics from Georgetown University that combined research into how kids acquire second language with curriculum design as well as previous experience teaching Spanish, French, and English, she is well qualified for this new role.

Her role, she says, is primarily to integrate language education throughout TNCS’s progressive, Montessori-inspired curriculum. The primary components of language education are already firmly in place—the teachers, the native speakers, the classes, and (in some cases) the immersion—but Ms. Warren has erected a framework on which these pieces can connect, be reproduced in successive classes annually as well as across the same level (i.e., all primary classes are focusing on the same lessons), and meet national standards. As she puts it, “There was a lot happening in language education around the school.”

She came to TNCS as the result of Head of School Alicia Cooper-Danyali’s active search for such a specialist. Mrs. Cooper-Danyali herself brings a wealth of language-immersion experience to her position and saw the need for the dedicated staff member who could connect all the language dots at TNCS in addition to crafting “plans that document the school’s long-term goals, which include a language curriculum both reproducible and adjustable.”

The Curriculum Map

Key to this exciting new TNCS initiative is a rubric called the curriculum map*. This level-specific document serves two purposes: 1) it provides a comprehensive overview of what is being taught in a given language (i.e., Spanish or Mandarin) and 2) it allows Ms. Warren to identify gaps and fill those in. Aspects of language education like culture and how well a particular class matches up with current themes guide her assessments. She is passionate about her work.

“Being able to talk about something in a lot of different ways is very important for cognitive development,” she says, drawing on her impressive research background. Indeed, the benefits of learning another language have been touched on in earlier blog posts, but Ms. Warren adds to the growing list. Wider cultural understanding, the ability to communicate with multiple populations, and keener analytic skills are among her special foci in what advantages speaking more than one language affords. Multilinguals have an “expanded view,” she says, “which makes them more creative and better problem-solvers.” She cites a study in which a cohort of bilingual kids and another of monolingual kids were asked to list alternative uses for a plastic water bottle. The monolinguals averaged only a couple; the bilinguals’ list stretched to 10 or more. This ingenuity translated to better Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in a related study. It’s a known, but unfortunate fact that kids from lower socioeconomic groups tend to fare worse on standardized tests. Speaking more than one language abolishes this demographic disadvantage—bilinguals, no matter what their socioeconomic stratum, score higher in both math and verbal sections as well as overall. Click here for a comprehensive, annotated bibliography on this critical research.

Perhaps the best part of the curriculum map is that it allows teachers to target their teaching to students in the same class according to their individual levels. This means that students can enter TNCS at any age and have their learning needs met. This “differentiated instruction” is also rounded out by groupwork, such that, for example, elementary students are currently working on sustainable environment projects (sponsored by Clean Currents) for the Science Fair, part of which they are required to do in Spanish. Because they are working as a group, all levels support and help each other with the result that they learn the scientific method in two languages!

In the Classroom

Ms. Warren’s work is not all behind the scenes. She likes to spend time in the classroom, getting to know the kids and working with the teachers to have a very clear sense of the application of her work. She provides a library of resources for teachers to draw from, for example, that includes books, puppets, costumes, flashcards, music, and more. She also offers professional development. For the latter, she might model certain behaviors to show a teacher how to maintain a focus on language while redirecting a disruptive student. Or, she might serve as her own “lab rat” in language class: if she is able to follow an activity in Mandarin, which she doesn’t currently speak, she knows it’s an appropriate activity for the students. If she gets lost, she helps the teacher reshape the activity to the students’ level.

Part of this is ensuring that activities/lessons meet The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL)’s  “5 Cs”: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities, each of which is subdivided into series of standards. (Click here to read the standards.) It’s reassuring to know that TNCS students are organically acquiring other languages via their interactions with native speakers around the school, but that there is also a sound pedagogic infrastructure supporting that process. Again, though, this kind of balance is what TNCS is all about.

Spanish gym class

Senora Casado plays a game with primary students during gym class. “Encouraging the children to speak and communicate in Spanish is the goal in our weekly gym lessons,” she says.

To play, students must understand and respond to commands given solely in Spanish. They learn lots of action verbs this way!

Students play Rolling the Ball (“Rueda la bola”), in which they roll the ball to a friend while reciting a Spanish chant. To play, students must also understand and respond to commands given solely in Spanish. They learn lots of action verbs this way!

At Home

A final piece that Ms. Warren is locking into place is with parents. Regardless of whether parents are themselves multilingual or not, TNCS is exploring ways to encourage and support language acquisition at home. You can learn along with your kid(s), or you can print and post the Word of the Week around the house. Ms. Warren can usually be found in attendance at TNCS Info Nights, and she is even considering holding an Info Night dedicated to language strategies parents can use at home.

Welcome to TNCS, Lisa Warren!

Have an anecdote, question, or comment to share? Your participation in this important discussion is welcome!

*Note: Mrs. Cooper-Danyali plans to implement curriculum maps for all other disciplines as well.

Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function

Mandarin class

Combining games with Mandarin instruction. Hmmm—what does that carpet say?

There’s a lot of buzz currently circulating about bi- and multilingualism—people who speak more than one language are smarter, they tend to earn higher wages, and they have clear communication advantages amid increasing globalization, according to a recent NY Times article. Learning second and third (and beyond) languages is becoming an educational priority; in fact, the language instruction at The New Century School is a big factor in why some parents choose TNCS for their kids.

Those parents are even more on target with that choice than they might have initially known, as multiplying evidence shows. Turns out, how you acquire new languages is also important, according to preliminary research sponsored by the American Councils for International Education. Initial findings suggest that the more language kids get, the bigger their improvements in all sorts of metrics, from literacy to math to creativity to executive function . . .  and the list goes on.

Why Learning Another Language Matters: The Benefits

But before we get deeper into the how, let’s look more closely at the whys and wherefores of multilingualism. Learning a foreign language is not easy for most adults, if the proliferation of Rosetta Stone–type products is any indication. For kids (the younger the better), it’s a heck of a lot easier, which begs the question, why do public school systems generally wait until high school to offer foreign language instruction? Experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages agree that starting a second language early in childhood has many benefits, including increased competence in that language. More importantly, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not.” Furthermore, they argue that language acquisition is fundamentally a cognitive, rather than a linguistic exercise. In other words, learning a new language requires and hones problem-solving skills, which children are actively developing. Their flexible brains are ideal for the mental calisthenics language acquisition demands.

There are other ways in which “the earlier the better” comes into play—increased fluency in both the foreign and the native languages, for instance, as well as more accurate pronunciation and intonation are more easily achieved by young learners. By no means does this suggest that older learners, including adults, should give up trying to learn a new language; it just means that gains will likely be more modest. The point is, the optimal window for language acquisition is during early childhood.

Not only are kids’ brains better suited to the mental workout, but the workout itself—just as physical exercise does to the body—actually reshapes their brains to function even better. Bilingual kids’ brains always have both languages active internally even when they are only speaking one at a time. This forces their brains to be constantly monitoring their surroundings for what utterance is appropriate in the given context, sort of like being continuously presented with a minor problem to solve (or, to continue the exercise metaphor, posing low-level chronic resistance to muscles). Far from confusing kids, as once thought, the internal conflict makes their brains more nimble; they think more clearly, not less. To test this, in one experiment, scientists presented a group of kids ages 4 and 5 years with the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task, which required them to sort the cards first by color, then by shape, even when the color didn’t match (this video shows how difficult this task is for preschoolers). To perform the task, the child needs to be able to manage conflicting stimuli, a marker of executive function (for which we’ll borrow this definition: “a set of processes that are responsible for the conscious control of thought and action”). The bilingual children consistently outperformed the monolinguals.

Merging Practical Life skills with immersion in Spanish in a Primary classroom.

The student carries out instructions given in Spanish, successfully coordinating a progression of cognitive functions in order to assist the teacher with cleaning the chalkboard.

With evidence that bilingualism leads to “cognitive flexibility” accumulating in several studies in the early 2000s, researchers next investigated at what age the advantages begin to manifest and found through meta-analysis of existing studies that at age 2 years and even earlier, bilinguals exhibit better cognitive function than their single- language counterparts.

And, although it’s easier to learn other languages at younger ages, the benefits are lifelong. Bilingual patients stave off dementia in older adulthood better and longer, for example. (See below for links to the original research papers with loads more information and data.)

TNCS’s Approach

Now back to the “how,” for the latest development in this ongoing inquiry, it seems that immersion in another language facilitates its acquisition. So, with language, it’s not just the earlier the better, but also the deeper the better. Language immersion is just what it sounds like, except with an additional nuance in the scholastic environment: the student learns the language and is also learning other subjects in that second language. Thus, math, phys ed, or art instructions are presented in, for example, Spanish to native English speakers. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is currently funding research on the efficacy of the immersion approach, with all indices pointing to favorable results. As stated above, the preliminary findings show better academic performance.

So, to wrap up, what does all this have to do with TNCS? Well, in several important ways, TNCS is getting it right.

  • First, TNCS provides both Spanish and Mandarin language instruction, arguably the two most relevant non-English languages in the changing U.S. demography.
  • Second, language instruction begins as early as possible—as soon as the student matriculates. For pre-primary–enrolled students, this is age 2 years.
  • Third, immersion is central to TNCS philosophy. Pre-primary students are fully immersed in either a Spanish or Mandarin classroom. Primary and elementary students get both formal instruction in Mandarin and Spanish and partial immersion in Spanish (e.g., phys ed at The Lingo Leap might be taught in Spanish, etc.).
  • Fourth, TNCS encourages parent participation in this important process. Print and post the Word of the Week in Spanish and Mandarin featured on TNCS’s website. Parents can learn right along with their kids!
  • Fifth, Montessori education inherently cultivates executive function; therefore, the pairing of Montessori-inspired and language curricula is synergistic—each component enhances the other.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Hello Kitty signifies a job well done!

Elementary students even learn Mandarin characters, recording them in practice books!

For more information:

  • Read the seminal 2004 article from Developmental Science here.
  • Read the 2009 article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America here.
  • Read the 2010 article from Journal of Experimental Child Psychology here.

Ciao! ¡Adiós! Auf Wiedersehen! Au revoir! Zàijiàn! Ilalliqa! Shalom! Sayonara!

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.

Exercising That Mind–Body Connection

New for the 2012–2013 school year, The New Century School provides a gymnasium for physical education! In keeping with TNCS’s progressive, forward-thinking style, though, this gym is no ordinary gym. The Lingo Leap (TLL), as it is now known officially, integrates physical exercise with cognitive development—moving and learning!

TLL’s philosophy is that brains work more efficiently when the body is also engaged, and there’s plenty of hard science to back up this notion. In fact, neuroimaging shows that during movement, more brain areas are lit up, meaning that more of the brain is active and in use. Why not take advantage of this “powered-up” state and give the brain something to do with its extra energy? Let’s face it—one of the most challenging tasks we can give our hungry brains is learning a new language.

The Lingo Leap is run by Amy Pothong

TLL Director Amy Pothong

So, TLL focuses on multiple language acquisition; currently, yoga, dance, and other movement classes are being offered for ages 2 and up (including for interested parents) in your choice of English, French, or Spanish with plans to add classes in Mandarin and Arabic soon. TNCS students, by the way, get regular phys ed at the gym in Spanish. TLL Director Amy Pothong says that “when [students] are totally immersed, they speak like natives.” Although this idea might sound revolutionary, it’s actually “getting back to the basics.” “As we get older,” says Pothong, we must get more socially standardized, which can hinder our natural ability to learn through movement.” Babies, she points out, largely communicate through gestures, which are a very basic form of movement and hearken back to the earliest human communication by our ancient ancestors.

The connection, then, between bodily movement and thought conveyance is well established in our being. Two main schools of thought have emerged to explore how we can optimize this connection to actually learn to communicate better (or at least in more than one language). First was Total Physical Response (TPR), developed in the mid-1960s by Dr. James Asher as a method of learning a second language. Asher noted that the conventional approach to learning second languages differed dramatically from how infants learn their first language. Infants learn to communicate by internalizing language, a process of protracted listening and absorbing. TPR is a technique that replicates that process for learning second languages and beyond by giving a command, modeling the action described in the command, and then having the student imitate that action. Students are not initially asked to speak, but to comprehend and obey the command. Understanding is at the root of language acquisition, according to Asher. This makes a lot of sense when you consider how babies learn to respond to increasingly complex utterances before ever verbalizing a thought.

Language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen has found this method very effective. Read his article on TPR here. He says, “A constraint on all activities that we might consider is that they be interesting for both the teacher and the students; it is difficult to fake enthusiasm.” Enter TLL with engaging movement classes for kids plus their parents!

The second school of thought is known as SPARK. SPARK was put forth by Dr. John J. Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Exercise, contends Ratey, dramatically enhances circulation to the brain and encourages synaptic growth, thereby priming the brain for improved function—providing the “spark,” in other words. Improvements in function include both mental health as well as cognitive ability (think, learning languages at TLL!). A significant corollary to SPARK theory is that exercise also improves academic performance after exercise, whereas TPR focuses on learning during movement. Read more about Dr. Ratey’s findings and about his latest book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, on his website. (His wasn’t the first, incidentally: Plato argued for the ideal education to incorporate physical training in The Republic more than 2,000 years ago.)

Gerstung equipment can be moved and reconfigured in endless ways

Gerstung Movement Education equipment at TLL

About that physical training, TLL features state-of-the-art Gerstung gym equipment that “[encourages] children to use their own innate curiosity to stimulate movement. Created by Siegfried Gerstung, a world-renowned educator, Gerstung equipment is not only customizable and moveable to provide “movement education” in three dimensions, but the Gerstung company is locally owned, with that commitment to community shared by TNCS and TLL.

Director Pothong and her staff are themselves polylingual, and instructors are native speakers of the language they are teaching in. Pothong is Thai and may even hold Thai cooking classes at TLL next year. It’s a “multipurpose space,” she says, “that encourages social, mental, verbal, and physical development.” (And culinary!)

Registering for classes is a snap on TLL website–make the jump to polylingualism!

TMCS students stretch and move, following instructions given in Spanish

TMCS students participate in Spanish gym class