The Art of Teaching K/1st: Meet Lindsey Sandkuhler!

Lindsey Sandkuhler took over The New Century School‘s mixed age Kindergarten and 1st-grade homeroom for the 2019–2020 school year. Teaching, she says, is “kind of a family profession,” and both of her parents are teachers. She always knew she would follow in their footsteps and attended Towson University to earn a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. She is from Towson and lives there still.

Road to TNCS

From college, Ms. Sandkuhler never looked back. After graduating, she was hired by Harford County public schools, where she had completed her student teaching. There, she taught 4th grade for 2 years, then 2nd grade for 3 years. Next, she says, “I left the county and decided to go for pre-K—big difference!” At a nature-based preschool, she taught 4- and 5-year-olds, then spent an additional 2 years at a different private preschool for 5-year-olds. “Now, I’m here, year 9!”, she said. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind!”

So what did bring her to TNCS? A bit of good timing! Her last school announced in February that it would be closing permanently in June. Ms. Sandkuhler saw that TNCS was hiring, liked what she saw, and applied. She was offered a position the day after she interviewed in May, at least partly because her teaching style meshes so well with TNCS’s educational approach. “It was both a relief not to have to scramble for employment as well as very exciting for me to embark on this new adventure,” she explained.

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At TNCS

Back to liking what she saw, the aspects that most appealed to her about TNCS were precisely what makes TNCS the school that it is, particularly, small class sizes, the emphasis on The Arts, and differentiated learning. “I have done a lot of different kinds of teaching for a lot of different ages,” she said, which has given her insight into what works in early childhood and lower elementary education.

I really love how small the classes are. In the county public school, at one time, I had 28 2nd-graders in my class with no aide; it was just me. I felt like I couldn’t reach all my students. There was no way, and I burned out because of that. I was trying to get to everybody, and I just couldn’t do it. One of the great things here is the small class sizes. By week 3 I already had a good grasp on where most of my students are.

It’s a story we hear time and again about teachers being underresourced and, by consequence, students often winding up underserved. At TNCS, Ms. Sandkuhler has a very manageable 14 in one class and 13 another. “That’s amazing,” she says, “and I love that it’s so centered around where the students are. Yes, we’re going to encourage them and challenge them, but not to the point of frustration.”

She is here again making a comparison to her stint in the county public school system. “You had to stay on pace. If your students didn’t understand addition, too bad, you had to move on to subtraction because the test is happening on this day coming soon, regardless. That’s another reason I needed to move on. I felt bad for the kids. They weren’t ready, which was totally fine by me—we all learn differently—but that’s not how the county saw it. It was not okay.”

Ms. Sandkuhler teaches Math and English Language Arts (ELA), the two core subjects. She shares the K/1st cohort with Pei Ge, who teaches Global Studies, Science, and Mandarin. When asked about TNCS’s multilingual bent, she says, “I was very forthcoming at my interview about not being bilingual, and it wasn’t a blocker. But I think it’s wonderful to start teaching language so young. My students are now teaching me things in Spanish and Chinese, which is really cool.”

Love of Art and Nature

So what makes Ms. Sandkuhler tick besides a love of teaching? “I love art. My sister is an artist, a sculptor, so I live vicariously through her sometimes,” she said. “When I taught pre-K, during the kids’ naptime, I’d sit and watch YouTube videos on how to do calligraphy, and I would practice during my downtime. That’s something I had always wanted to learn. It’s very therapeutic. I like to draw and paint, too.”

In addition to making art, Ms. Sandkuhler enjoys being outside in nature (hence the nature-based preschool), especially hiking. Her parents live in an idyllic setting on the Choptank River in Dorchester County, and she goes there to kayak, crab, and fish. She describes her mother’s love of hummingbirds and the handheld feeders that the birds will come feed out of if you remain still enough. “Sometimes it’s so nice to get out and away,” she said.

Not surprisingly, her pursuits out of the classroom influence her approach inside it: “Parents should know that I’m creative. I’m patient with the students. If they’re not getting something a certain way, then we’ll try a different approach. Basically, I’ll be their kid’s advocate for the school year.” Among a parent community that values art, creativity, and compassion, this will all come as very welcome news. There are additional benefits as well, including the cognitive gains that come with the synergy between art and academic disciplines:

The county schools are so into math and reading—which is fine, I get that, but they’ll take away band and art. Those are the first things to go. But, for kids who might be struggling with math and reading, the arts might be the only thing they look forward to at school. If they can’t have a reason to go to school, the other subjects are just going to suffer more. So, I really feel strongly that creativity needs to be incorporated not just in art class, but throughout the curriculum, including my subjects, math and ELA. I just find it very important. More understanding starts to open up for the child.

Artfully said, Ms. Sandkuhler! Welcome to TNCS!

Meet the Teacher: Laura Noletto Joins TNCS’s Pre-Primary Division!

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Laura Noletto is seen here dressed for Love Day, during TNCS’s Spirit Week.

The New Century School welcomed Laura Noletto as Pre-Primary Spanish Lead Teacher about a month ago. Although “Señora Lala,” as she likes to be known by her students, has been at TNCS only a few weeks, she is already well-loved by her students and their families and an integral member of TNCS faculty.

 

Early Life

Born in Caracas, Venezuela to a Venezuelan mother and a Cuban father (she has dual citizenship), she visited the United States regularly growing up. “My family always vacationed in Maryland or nearby—D.C., Baltimore, Annapolis—(every summer and every Christmas), and I have very fond memories of these vacations. So, Maryland was, for me, a second home because my aunt lived in Bethesda for 50 years,” she explained. “My father and my aunt left Cuba in the 1960s. My father went to Georgetown University, and my aunt attended Maryland University and stayed here. During this time, my father met and fell in love with a Venezuelan, my mother, and returned to Latin America.”

She moved to Baltimore in 2016 from Eugene, Oregon, where she was a toddler therapeutic teacher for a foundation called Relief Nursery.

Professional Background

Sra. Lala originally studied law and was a practicing lawyer for 5 years before realizing that she needed something more creative. Her professional history, though amazingly varied, has always been in education or tangential to it in some form or another:

I was always teaching. Even in law school, I was assistant professor to a Roman law professor. So, I think my passion has always been education, even though I thought I wanted something more grandiose, and teaching might not seem so adventurous or glamorous (or so I thought when I was younger). As I get more and more mature, I see that it’s the most important profession that exists. I also did art research. I got Master’s degrees in curatorial art and Latin American studies.

But, I think that what lead me to early childhood was a seminar that I took on autobiographical books about childhood. We read writers who were exploring their first 5 years because that period contains the most profound memories that any human can have. The first 5 years of your life sets up the rest of your life—so, reading Wordsworth, Proust, Garcia-Marquez, they all tried to recover that first 5 years, those intense memories, such as the first time you try a different fruit, or you hear someone speaking another language, or someone teaches you a song. That seminar switched me to early childhood, although it took me a long time to realize it. I remember my first 5 years. I can remember being a 3-year-old living in the tropics, but coming to New York and opening my eyes to see snow. I wanted to eat it. These very simple memories are still there because of their impact. It tells me that we really do make a difference with these very young minds, these very young students.

She now knows that she prefers teaching this age group to teaching older kids. “I tried,” she says. “When I came to Baltimore, just to try it, I was teaching 4th- and 5th-grades and middle school at a public school. I was teaching about 75–100 kids a day 45 minutes of Spanish, again, just to try that age because each age is very different.” The workload was taking a toll on her, she reports, and she found herself exhausted at the end of each day. “After 2 months, I said, ‘I miss the little kiddoes.’ When I was in the Relief Nursery, I had already fallen in love with teaching the toddlers, but I thought it was related to being there, or something fleeting. I thought to myself, ‘Do you really want to change from college students to toddlers age 2 with nothing in between?’ So, I tried the in-between ages and realized, ‘Yes, I definitely love the extremes—either I teach college, or I go all the way down to toddlers.”

After some reflection, she realized how logical this seeming contradiction actually is:

In college, the students are there because they really want to learn. Students age 2 also really want to learn—how to put their jackets on, how to communicate with others, how to become a civilized human being, everything. So, it’s two passionate moments of human being. The other ages are in rebellion. They don’t want to learn in the same way. They either want to play, or they think they already know—they want independence from adults. At those ages, being a teacher is more about classroom management than about tapping into the fervor to learn.

She explains that when she saw the curriculum at TNCS, she felt an immediate kinship. Her sons (she has fraternal male twins, currently 19-years-old) not only grew up bilingual, but one of her sons even attended a Montessori school, which is not a common kind of school in Venezuela (there are only two or three in the entire capital of Caracas, despite its size):

My child blossomed in the Montessori environment. So, I already knew the program, and I thought it was fascinating how TNCS incorporates language learning within the Montessori curriculum. To allow language and culture to be a tool, a vehicle of learning. It’s not only that you’re speaking in Spanish, but the child is so eager to learn that he doesn’t care that he can’t understand the Spanish in the beginning, he’s open. He’s open to the culture, and sometimes language is not about only knowing language, it’s also about a different way of perceiving life because it’s cultural.

You know, the Chinese teachers, we Latin teachers, we have lots of similarities with Americans, but we also have our own approaches to early childhood education. You can see the differences with our approach to classroom management compared to that of the Chinese teachers. They are very different, but each very beautiful in their own ways, with very beautiful results, but it’s different. And the kids here in TNCS, they get to see both, and that’s preparing them for the 21st century and a global perspective. I think in the 21st century, all this culture will blend in—I hope so. It’s healthy to learn from each other.

Transitions

She moved to New Orleans from Venezuela in 2014, where she lived for 1 year, working as an educator in the Degas House museum. “At this point, I had already changed careers twice (lawyer to college professor to art researcher), and I could see a point where I switch from art researcher back to educator. The Degas house was my transition. I was researching Degas and also teaching kids 3 days a week. Then, in Oregon, I was immersed full-time in teaching toddlers.”

Her husband is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is currently involved in the longest-running study on HIV, that began in the late 1980s. It was landing this position that brought them to Baltimore in 2016, although he formerly worked there for 5 years in another capacity.

On Teaching

Teaching takes a passion, and each teacher has an age-group that they love. I love the 2s and 3s. I was a college professor in Venezuela, which is big, big, big kids—almost grown-ups—teaching in a film academy, the School of Visual Thinking. Before that, I was in charge of developing art programs. So, I was in the education field, but I was always separated from little kids—I don’t know why. Then, when I came to the United States, maybe because my own kids are 19 years old now, I just fell in love with early childhood education. And there has been a lot of development in the area. So, 10 years ago, if you had a high school diploma and you loved kids age 2, you could be a toddler teacher. Now, you must study curriculum and learn about how they learn. I find it so fascinating. They learn so fast—like computers. They’re incredible; they’re sponges.

Being in Baltimore 

Sra. Lala says she adores Baltimore for its history (especially relating to Edgar Allen Poe, whose entire catalogue she has read) and culture, with New Orleans also a favorite for similar reasons. “Baltimore and New Orleans have the most haunted history and the most beautiful historical buildings. They also have this connection with the Caribbean, and I’m Caribbean. They are port cities, so they are very culturally rich cities. I am amazed at how vibrant the art community is here. I do hope that it gets better as a city but not so overpriced that it kills the great energy it still has,” she says.

One thing that people might not know about her is that she created a historical graphic novel, published in Venezuela, about a 14-year-old princess living in an ancient (pre-Columbian) city and gifted with super powers—the ability to control mosquitoes, which acted as barriers to visitors by carrying yellow fever and other often-fatal diseases. She also wrote several short stories that won national competitions. “I really want to try now to write kids’ books,” she says. “I want to contribute to literacy in Spanish. I am inclined to that path. I now see Dr. Seuss as a genius!” (Who knows, maybe one day Sra. Lala’s graphic novel or one of her as-yet-to-be-written children’s books will grace the shelves of TNCS’s library!)

“I have to keep re-inventing myself,” she says. She points to a plaque hanging on the multipurpose room wall that reads, “You have to bloom where you’re planted.” “So, I’m blooming in Baltimore now.”

And we are so glad you are here, Sra. Lala! Welcome to TNCS!

Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education

Despite the relative prevalence of Montessori education in the United States, surprisingly little research has examined its efficacy. In the more than 4,000 U.S. schools (including private, public, and charter) having implemented Montessori curricula since 1907, the studies that do exist have demonstrated inconsistent findings.

A new study by Angeline Lillard from the University of Virginia published last year in the Journal of School Psychology finally provides some definitive feedback. These results are also pretty provocative. As one parenting advice journalist reads them, maybe preschool doesn’t really matter so much—or, to be more precise, what preschool a parent chooses doesn’t matter so much. In a regular feature called The Kids on Slate.com, Melinda Moyer wrote, “If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need preschool.” In other words, worrying about where to preschool your kids pretty well implies that you are providing a caring, hands-on, and stimulating environment for them to grow up in. The rest takes care of itself at ages younger than 5 or 6 years in such an environment. (Click here for Moyer’s entertaining article in full.)

The Real Deal

That was actually a fairly incidental point of Dr. Lillard’s study, however. The real thrust of her investigation was whether Montessori preschool in particular produced any difference in cognitive outcome compared to conventional preschool. So, for current and prospective families of The New Century School, the tagline might be more like, “If you are reading this article, good job in choosing a Montessori program for your kid!” Because, in fact, Dr. Lillard’s research shows that after a Montessori schoolyear, study participants (numbering 172 and ranging in age from 33–76 months), measured higher in executive function (also defined as “self-regulation”), theory of mind, reading, math, vocabulary, and social competence than their counterparts in any other type of conventional school program.

Researchers measured these areas with a set of tasks each focusing on a particular skill and then compared end-of-year scores to beginning-of-year scores to see point gains. The results are:

Executive function: the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders task—kids are required to perform the opposite of a response to four different oral commands (for example, being asked to touch their toes if told to touch their head, and vice versa). Montessori, +13.72; conventional, +7.34

Theory of mind: the False Belief test (and others)—kids are shown a box (e.g., a crayon box) and asked to guess what is inside. Once they are shown that the box contains something unexpected (i.e., not crayons), they are then asked to predict what someone else’s guess will be about the contents. Click here for a video demonstration. Montessori, +0.39; conventional, +0.12

Reading: the Letter-Word Identification task—kids are required to correctly identify letters in words of increasing difficulty.  Montessori, +11.28; conventional, +5.9

Math: the Applied Problems subtest—kids are required to demonstrate simple counting, addition, and subtraction, skills as well as reading clock faces and identifying coin values. Montessori, +4.58; conventional, +3.53

Vocabulary: the Picture Vocabulary task—kids are required to correctly identify the picture that illustrates a given word. Montessori, +2.92; conventional, +1.08

Social competence: the Social Problem-solving task—kids are given a fictional problematic scenario and asked to present solutions (for example, how to share a book between two children). Montessori, +0.33; conventional, –0.07

Classic Montessori’s Lasting Benefits

Thus, the Montessori students made considerably higher gains in each area. Also note where the biggest gains (and differences) were seen—that is, in executive function and social competence. These skills are not only important predictors of school readiness, but also of later academic performance and much later life satisfaction. Dr. Lillard attributes the significant differences in outcomes to the consistent use of in-class Montessori materials and techniques. (See the gallery below for TNCS’s primary students happily engaged with the Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math materials.)

Another interesting note is that Montessori preschool is also often credited for producing “sleeper effects” in secondary school, in which novel social and cognitive benefits emerge well after the student has left the Montessori curriculum.

A final note is that Dr. Lillard’s study also compared “classic Montessori” programs with what she designated “supplemented Montessori.” For the purposes of this post, TNCS fits the “classic” category, which is defined by 3-hour work periods, 3-year age groupings, one Montessori-trained teacher, and use of traditional Montessori materials. In Dr. Lillard’s study, supplemented Montessori in general fared no better or worse than conventional preschool curricula.

Interested in reading more of Dr. Lillard’s work? Her website, Montessori-Science.org, provides access to a host of related articles.

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