Back-to-School Night: Meet New TNCS Teachers and More!

Thursday, September 11th was The New Century School‘s Back-to-School Night for the 2014–2015 academic year. Back-to-School Night is TNCS parents’ chance to learn how their child’s classroom operates. Whereas Orientation is a more general introduction to school, at Back-to-School Night, families get details on everything from what the daily schedule looks like to when it’s their turn to provide class snack. Teachers introduce themselves and their teaching styles or philosophies and explain the curriculum (K:1st syllabus), demonstrate how their educational materials are used, and answer parent questions.

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TNCS’s new Kindergarten/1st-Grade teacher Teresa Jacoby.

This year, several new instructors have joined TNCS, and Back-to-School Night was a great way to get to know them. One of the new lead teachers is Mrs. Teresa Jacoby. She brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm to TNCS’s new mixed-age Kindergarten/1st-Grade classroom, which parents recognized immediately. (See biographical details below.)

A former 3rd- and 4th-grade science teacher and Reading Specialist in the Baltimore City school system, Mrs. Jacoby integrates reading and writing into all other disciplines and declared her expectation that all of her students will be strong readers by year’s end. Her personal philosophy meshes beautifully with TNCS’s educational values:

I believe that each student is an exceptional individual who requires a safe, caring, and encouraging learning environment in which to grow and mature emotionally, intellectually, physically, and socially. There are three elements that I believe are beneficial to establishing such an environment: 1) the teacher acting as a guide, 2)  the child’s natural curiosity directing his/her learning, and 3) encouraging respect for one’s self, others, and things found in our world.

kindergarten-classroom

New for the 2014–2015 academic year, Kindergarten/1st-grade teacher Teresa Jacoby introduces her students to the classroom and its special routines.

She also believes strongly that education is optimized when a mixture of self-guided exploration, small-group learning, and one-on-one instruction is utilized, very much a TNCS-held value. Just as TNCS focuses school-wide on inquiry-based learning, in her class, such inquiry “gives students ownership of their learning and more lasting knowledge of the skills needed to achieve real understanding,” she says. Additionally, Mrs. Jacoby believes that critical thinking/solving problems is key to developing leadership skills, the ability to collaborate in teamwork, and self-sufficiency as individual learners.

As appropriate for a General Studies teacher, Mrs. Jacoby can pretty much do it all (art, math, special ed, etc., in addition to what has already been mentioned), but she says she has more and more discovered her special fondness for science. She incorporates scientific thinking into every nook and cranny of her curriculum in fun ways that ignite her students’ curiosity. “The kids are so naturally curious; it’s nice to discuss [science] with them, and they like to talk about it,” she said. She also has students keep journals, which gives her another way to guide them in further exploration of topics that they have broached.

“Just like a well-oiled machine works efficiently,” she says, “so does a well-thought-out and planned classroom environment.” Thus, the classroom she shares with her (also new) Assistant Teacher Mrs. Kimberly Tyson, with her own impressive résumé, encompasses several discrete learning environments—there’s a technology corner equipped with computers, an area with worktables for  groupwork such as with manipulative materials, a large carpet for whole-class circle time, and even a settee for students to sit back and enjoy a book on individually. She also generously brought along her own personal class library, which students are encouraged to use as much as possible.

One aspect of teaching that Mrs. Jacoby holds very dear is knowing and understanding her students. She has quickly learned a lot about her kindergarten/1st-graders and has an amazing ability to adapt to their needs on her feet so as to keep learning happening. So, when she found that after Spanish lessons, for instance, students struggled to be able to focus, she decided to let them “get the wiggles out” for a few minutes before resettling. Even the movement she incorporates in class has an express cognitive function. She uses a version of Simon Says that gets them using their whole brains—that is, integrating both left and right hemispheres—by performing a series of continuous movements and asking them to repeat the last movement she made. She demonstrated the activity for parents attending Back-to-School Night, many of whom were surprised by just how challenging it was! As if she had intuited it, TNCS will begin implementing movement regularly within classrooms to promote blood flow to the brain. (More on this topic is to come in the near future!)

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This artwork was created by TNCS elementary students to exemplify the school-wide theme of Community Building.

Finally, mutual respect is the capstone of Mrs. Jacoby’s pedagogical approach and is yet another way she shows just how right for TNCS she is. “A healthy learning environment must also include respect for all, a sense of safety as well as trust,” she says. “I work extremely hard to build a learning community based on mutual respect for one’s self, others, and our surroundings. Creating a strong sense of community in my classroom instills security, which builds trust and in turn builds comfort levels conducive to learning. I nurture that sense through personal modeling, class meetings, role play, and reflective journals.” It just so happens that TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali’s first theme of this school year is Community Building, and school-wide, students have engaged in activities that help them grow stronger both as individuals and as a team.

We welcome you to TNCS, Mrs. Jacoby, and anticipate an incredible first year together! Stay tuned for more posts in this series to meet TNCS’s other new lead teachers and learn the inner workings of their classrooms!

Mrs. Jacoby’s Bio

Teresa Jacoby holds a Master’s Degree as a Reading Specialist from Loyola University in Maryland and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Special Education with an Art Education Minor from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She also has an Advanced Professional Certificate Special Education 1–12 and an Advanced Professional Certificate Reading Specialist Certification, both from the state of Maryland. She has taught a wide variety of students ranging from Kindergarten through 8th grade Special Education in all content areas in both self-contained and inclusion environments. She also has run many extracurricular activities from chairing the Science Fair to Chess Club to Lego Robotics Club. She lives in Baltimore and enjoys using her artistic skills in and out of the classroom, gardening, riding bikes and spending time with her family.

Standardized Testing: It’s Time to Talk About It

The heartbreaking paradox exists in U.S. public education that conscientious teachers want students to think and to learn during the time they spend together, yet those same teachers must produce a sufficient proportion of students who can pass standardized tests. As the ill-starred students graduate without having learned much beyond how to choose A, B, C, or D, it’s becoming increasingly evident that real learning and overemphasis on test-taking are mutually exclusive. In “Warnings from the Trenches”, originally published in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, former Maryland public school Social Studies teacher Kenneth Bernstein describes it like this:

“We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.”

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Federal policies such as 2001’s No Child Left Behind and 2009’s Race to the Top squeeze teachers into ever narrower pigeonholes while the students languish uninspired before seas of multiple choice bubbles waiting to be filled in (No. 2 pencil, please). NCLB mandated that states implement reading and math standards then measure student progress in those areas with annual testing in grades 3 through 8. Schools, moreover, are also measured against each other and “graded” on number of students meeting the standards. Due to the rigors imposed by these well-meant (insofar as originally intended to help disadvantaged students by leveling the academic playing field) but ultimately disastrous policies, teachers often face no choice but to “teach to the test.” If it’s not on a standardized test, it will probably fall to the wayside. Goodbye, foreign languages. So long, art. See ya later, music.

Those three things just listed have other important common characteristics besides being unlikely to show up on standardized tests: first, they are emphasized at The New Century School; second, they are noted for cultivating higher-order creative and critical thinking skills. Standardized tests, by contrast, are widely criticized as setting impossibly high stakes, creating a climate of cheating, and being of such poor quality and design that they don’t allow students to demonstrate what they may have actually learned. Some say these tests threaten to turn kids into a generation of mindless drones rather than intellectually curious, well-adjusted people who can think on their feet—you know, human beings.

Standardized Testing’s Negative Effects

Stemming from such adversity, “Warnings from the Trenches” was written as an address to college-level educators. Bernstein says to them,

“The structure of [elementary] testing has led to students arriving at [high] school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge . . . Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”

Reading this lament is unsettling enough, but the distress only grows when you consider the clear implication that the problem originates in elementary school but impacts a student’s entire academic career. When Bernstein’s article was reprinted in the Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet last month, comments poured in from instructors who had similar experiences. One college professor writes:

” . . .Within the first two weeks of each semester, I can identify students who were home-schooled or who attended private high schools. Why? Because they participate in class discussions. Because they can apply theory in meaningful ways. Because they can find examples that exemplify those theories in the world at large. Because they can write a proper sentence and a proper paragraph. Publicly schooled kids, for the most part, can’t do any of those things.”  

It’s clear: uncritical use of standardized testing has deleterious effects on both teacher and student. A pilot study compiled by the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing reported that at their worst, standardized tests:

  • Narrow and trivialize the curriculum. The focus of instruction shifts to easily assessed fragments of topics and away from significant or broad knowledge acquisition.
  • Exclude topics and skills not likely to appear on the test. Computer skills, long-term or collaborative projects, and even science at the lower grades get pushed out of curricula. (Notably, this finding was specifically from Maryland schools.)
  • Reduce learning to rote memorization of basic facts. Higher-order thinking skills get short shrift insofar as multiple-choice formats don’t require organization and composition of ideas or words to be answered.
  • Demand too much classroom time for test preparation. One study found that test prep occupied 10% of overall elementary class time.
  • Restrict how teachers teach. To prepare students for the testing environment, teachers often evaluate in-class work with a test-like, worksheet-like format—drilling.
  • Reduce time spent with individual students as well as instructional differentiation. One size fits all. It’s standardized, after all.
  • Exclude the student’s say in his or her own education. Gone is choice, guided exploration, and intellectual curiosity. Kids (and teachers) have to “stick to the program.”

And that’s not even taking into consideration the mental and physical health problems brought on by the stress of high-stakes testing. Kids exhibit gastrointestinal upset and regressive behavior, while teachers fight stress headaches in the days and hours leading up to the dreaded Test Time. NCLB also precipitated a rather ironic outcome: 19 states lowered their academic standards in order to show better test scores. No wonder, then, that in 2012 the United States ranked only 17th out of 49 countries in education. Worse, most other countries were showing improvements in academic matrices, whereas the United States’ performance was described as “hardly remarkable.” Ouch!

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized math test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized math test.

TNCS’s Approach to Standardized Testing

At TNCS, as the elementary program grows, standardized testing looms in the near future. The 2013–2014 school year will accommodate students through 4th grade. Public schools starting at 3rd grade in our state are subject to the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) to comply with the federal NCLB act. Being an independent school affords much more flexibility as well as choice in this matter, fortunately for TNCS.

Lest we throw the baby out with the bath water, it’s important to remember that schools need a means of assessing their curricula and the implementors of those curricula as well as student performance. The above criticisms apply to the worst-case scenario. What a carefully considered assessment situation can offer is a reliable way to evaluate academic achievement and to maintain school accountability without sacrificing core values. So, although we’re probably stuck with standardized testing in some form, rest assured parents—school administrators vow that TNCS elementary instruction will never deteriorate to teaching to the test. Though the standards are certainly covered, “[We are] committed to providing each child the opportunity to become an independent, secure, and balanced human being. Each child cultivates his or her natural intellectual curiosity while developing leadership skills and the ability to think critically. We embrace the individual and design developmentally appropriate activities and lessons to engage and enrich.” Many such engaging and enriching activities have been profiled in this blog, such as learning Mandarin and Spanish. Learning foreign languages is key to developing the problem-solving skills that so many students currently lack (see Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function). Providing art instruction is another way TNCS cultivates those character skills that some public school curricula sadly can’t begin to address (see The Importance of Being Artistic).

Hope for the Future

It’s also possible that the the current federal administration will continue taking steps to reverse some of the harm to public education done by NCLB. In 2010, the blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB is an offshoot) was released but stalled in Congress. The Obama administration countered by giving 34 eligible states plus D.C. the flexibility to expand academic performance measures, such as writing and social studies proficiency. Maryland is one of the states no longer suffocating under the restrictive NCLB measures. We can hope, right?

In the meantime, an “A+” goes to schools like TNCS, committed to providing a well-rounded, progressive education that benefits the whole child, not just the test score.

What do you have to say about this important subject? Please contribute thoughts, questions, and comments. Your participation in this discussion will help TNCS forge the way to a brighter future for elementary education in Baltimore. Our thanks once again to TNCS Enrollment Coordinator Robin Munro for suggesting this worthwhile and very relevant topic.