Professional Development for TNCS Preschool Teachers: It’s All About Nature and Nurture!

One of the most important tenets of The New Century School is that the emotional, social, and physical development of very young children directly affects their overall development throughout their lifespan. That is why careful, thoughtful approaches to their education is so critical—this education must maximize their future well-being. TNCS preschool is not considered preparation for “real school”; TNCS preschoolers are very much students in their own right. It’s never too early to start cultivating the intrinsic qualities that make us conscientious, kind human beings.

Head of Lower School/Dean of Students Alicia Danyali upholds this vital tenet every day, and it is particularly evident during staff professional development (PD) days. At the end of March, in fact, Mrs. Danyali arranged for some very meaningful, rejuvenating PD for TNCS preprimary and primary teachers. This enrichment was well timed, as teachers entered their classrooms in the fourth quarter with a renewed sense of purpose, ready to share the fruits of their experiences with their eager students.

Reconnecting with the Natural World

“On Friday, March 22nd, we did a beautiful workshop with child psychologist Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish in the morning with all lead staff, and then I took the preprimary teachers Laura Noletto (Señora Lala), Elizabeth Salas-Viaux (Señora Salas), and Donghui Song (Song Laoshi) as well as primary teacher Lisa Reynolds to the Irvine Nature Center,” said Mrs. Danyali. “Montessori has such a deep connection to the natural world, and Irvine is a museum for preservation of land and plants and animals native to Maryland, so it seemed like a good fit.”

Irvine has a preschool for ages 3, 4, and 5, two classes of 14 students each. They also have family programming such as Mommy and Me classes and school programming as well as evening programming for adults. They offer field trips at their site, and they can even come to a school’s site. In fact, TNCS older students visited in the first quarter of this school year. Said Mrs. Danyali:

I did a survey for teachers at the beginning of the year and asked them, ‘What do you want to learn more about? What do you want to expand on? Where do you want to grow as a school?’, and everything pointed to nature—outdoor education, how we can be more connected, and what our possibilities are. So, I thought, ‘let’s call the experts,’ and I reached out to the director at Irvine and set it up. They are even having a nature preschool conference in April. They are big believers in planting those seeds early. I’m also looking to talk to them about an in-service volunteer opportunity either here at TNCS or at their site.

Because Irvine is a Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE)-accredited school, any TNCS teachers who attend the April conference would get 9 1/2 hours of continuing education credits. During their March visit, teachers explored the exhibits and classrooms and met and networked with other educators. Heavy rain prohibited trail-walking (the site is on 17 forested acres), but they had plenty to keep them occupied. “Irvine has a little something for everybody,” said Mrs. Danyali. “I think it’s going to be a great partnership and resource.”

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Reconnecting with Montessori Roots

While preprimary teachers and Mrs. Reynolds were getting back to nature, primary teachers Elizabeth Bowling and Maria Mosby went to The Montessori Event by the American Montessori Society in Washington, D.C. to learn more about, among many other things, second-language learning in a Montessori environment.

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This annual event moves all around the country and is attended by thousands from all over the world, but, when it’s nearby, both teachers try to attend. Ms. Mosby went to one held in Philadelphia 5 years ago, and Mrs. Bowling attended in New York City for Montessori’s 100th anniversary several years ago.

This year was notable for having an app available with scheduling functionality (the conference is divided into sessions) and downloadable presentations from world-renowned education specialists and speakers like Daniel Goleman.

Mrs. Bowling says she came away with a renewed sense of why she is a Montessori teacher:

You’re talking to so many people who want to know what you teach and where you teach. It’s really inspiring. At a talk between sessions, the Executive Director asked, if you love Montessori, please stand up. And the whole room—which was already standing room only—laughed and cheered. It was so encouraging; we’re all in this together. You don’t get to see that on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.

I also enjoyed being reminded of the basics, some of the concrete parts of the philosophy such as the importance of taking care of yourself. You take care of everybody else, and you give so much of yourself—you have to remember that even Maria Montessori said the teacher must also care for herself.

tncs-preschool-teacher-professional-developmentOne of the sessions Mrs. Bowling attended was “Self-Reflection as a Means to Evaluate Practice.” “This session covered the basics of preparing ourselves as teachers and stepping back and reevaluating our class or approaches as well as what’s going on within our own spirits so that we are able to give our best to our class and to one another as colleagues. It’s things we’ve learned and that we know, but this served as a great reminder. I could relate to so much of what this speaker described about her own teaching experiences, which was very comforting,” said Mrs. Bowling.

She also attended “Furthering Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom.” “This one talked about different types of behavior you might see in the classroom, and what that behavior really means. What is the child really saying with the behavior?” This involves taking a step back and looking at the wider context. When a child is being challenging, maybe he or she just needs a little extra love and attention, or maybe a task or a leadership opportunity. The need is coming out in a negative way, but the response, if positive, can completely redirect the child. The speakers demonstrated how a negative response (e.g., expressing aggravation) versus a positive response might affect the child during a role-playing session. Said Mrs. Bowling, “We really need to ask, ‘How can we help this student?'”

“How to Have Difficult Conversations” was a third session Mrs. Bowling attended. “It emphasized how to avoid putting your own biases on a conversation, which can minimize the other person—his or her culture or beliefs. We often do not realize that we’re being insensitive, so being careful and thinking through a response can help keep us more aware—just being careful of who people are and where they might be coming from,” she explained. If that sounds like mindfulness, it’s no accident. “Mindfulness is interwoven through Montessori and is part of the training up of the teacher. It helps you to really see your student,” she said.

tncs-preschool-teacher-professional-developmentMs. Mosby attended “Learning to Read in a Montessori Context.” “It turns out that our brains are not wired to read,” she said. “After explaining the science behind why learning to read can be really quite hard for some students, this session broke down how Montessori reading is taught at various levels and showed vocabulary games and ways to expand vocabulary. Words are taught with hand gestures so that every time the word is spoken, a hand gesture accompanies it.”

Ms. Mosby also attended “Integrating Best Practices with Art.” “This one talked about not only how art is being swept aside but also how it is so important in other classroom disciplines, like science and math—for example, tessellations are art/math hybrids that have 3D effects. The thing is, art is important in its own right. It’s great just because it’s art; it doesn’t require justification. Fortunately for us, it’s very much a part of the Montessori curriculum because it helps to develop a child’s fine motor skills and also helps him or her make sense of the world,” she said.

“Creating Bilingual Language Pathways,” was a third session Ms. Mosby attended. “This one talked about how to take advantage of brain plasticity and get those grooves created in the motor cortex. The speaker uses the five Cs we also incorporate here. Children need to hear sounds all the time to learn to link words to meaning. They also need sensory input. They should be exposed to a second language by age 4 for optimization—but any age can work,” explained Ms. Mosby.

One primary theme was peace. “Montessori is well known for promoting peace and being involved in social justice, so the speakers were called peacemakers,” said Ms. Mosby. Thrice-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Scilla Elworthy, in “Empowering Young People To Be Agents of Change,” spoke about how important it is to work to make small changes in the classroom, like bullying prevention, for global impacts. “The peace curriculum is woven throughout the Montessori curriculum from the tiny ones through high schoolers,” said Ms. Mosby. “There was even this huge peace table where you could go to do yoga or take a moment for yourself.”

True Montessorians, both Mrs. Bowling and Ms. Mosby seemed very reflective after their experience. “We serve the child all of the time. That’s a place we hold, and that is a humbling place,” said Mrs. Bowling. Ms. Mosby agreed. “We have to let go of the ego. Adults have to get used that in the Montessori environment, she said. “It’s definitely a paradigm shift. You have to look at it with a different eye—that these students are not vessels to be filled; they are people.”

“I left very inspired,” said Ms. Mosby. “It was so good to see so many people who just love children be there to lift each other up.”

“It really brings you together with others in your field, and you feel so encouraged. You leave with your bucket filled,” said Mrs. Bowling. “We’re reminded about why we’re so passionate and plug away it day after day. It’s because we believe in this approach to early childhood education. I needed that encouragement at this point in my career. And stories were so relatable, and, to me, that was the best part of it, that coming together and the camaraderie. If you’re in Montessori, it’s because you think it’s the be-all, end-all.”

“It’s a choice,” echoed Ms. Mosby. “You do it because you love it, and you love what it means.”

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And, of course, at this particular conference, nobody was rude! Need more Montessori? Check out Maria Montessori: The Musical!

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It’s Time to Catch Up with TNCS Preprimary Teacher Elizabeth Salas-Viaux!

Immersed‘s “Catch Up With the Teacher” series continues with preprimary teacher Elizabeth Salas-Viaux (“Señora Salas”).

Getting to Know Elizabeth Salas-Viaux

tncs-preprimary-teacher-elizabeth-salas-viauxSra. Salas started at The New Century School in 2014 when she joined Maria Mosby‘s primary classroom as an assistant teacher. The following year, she took over as lead teacher of a preprimary classroom with six children. She says she enjoys seeing her former “wonderful, beautiful” students around the school. Now in her third year as lead teacher, her Spanish Immersion class has grown to 18 2- and 3-year-olds.

Sra. Salas’s story is one of perseverance, of setting goals and sticking to them. She is originally from Santiago, Chile and came alone, speaking no English, to the United States in 2012 at 23 years old. “I had this dream of learning English so I started as an au pair,” she related.

We had an exchange experience. I was taking care of a 7-month-old, a 2-year-old, and a 4-year-old. I would speak only Spanish to them and they would speak only English to me, so that’s the way I learned English. I learned a lot about being flexible, being independent, and other things about myself. I was always open and happy to teach them about my Chilean culture. It was a rich experience.

That experience has stayed with her: “Those 2 wonderful years taught me that if I could learn English, and I did, then I can teach a Spanish immersion program and the students would pick it up.” She has also stayed in contact with her Virginia family, even having her wedding reception at their home.

So where did her dream of learning English come from? Back in Chile, she studied administration in hospitality and went to work at a Ritz Carlton Hotel. “That opened my eyes,” she explained. “I realized that I needed to learn English, to explore new cultures. I needed to go to another country and get better at this if I want to continue with this career.” Obviously, some parts of her plans underwent some change. She says that she had not planned on remaining in the United States at all but was going to return to Chile and resume her work in the hospitality industry, being so ideally suited for that role. “I have a lot of energy, and I always liked customer service, to focus on the client. And that’s why I came here, so I could improve my English and get a 2-year experience, then go back home and be with my family. Chilean people are very family oriented,” she explained.

As will happen, though, Cupid intervened. She met her now husband in Virginia, and, when he got a job in Baltimore, they moved here, right after tying the knot. Completely new in the area but still eager to practice her English and continue learning, she attended Northern Virginia Community College. She realized that she wanted to continue working with children and decided to apply to TNCS, having seen a job posting. “I would like to work hard and see if there’s something available here for me,” she said. “I fell in  love with the school, and I also love the Montessori philosophy.”

As for her family? “My parents come here every year, and I go there for Christmas or whenever I have a chance.”

In (and Out of) the Classroom

Fortunately, she seems to have made the right adjustments to her original life plan, both in terms of geography and of career. She loves teaching, as it turns out, which does have a lot in common with hospitality. “This is an environment that every time you come here you have people excited for the new day, excited to learn. It’s not like an office job. Everyday you see happy faces, and everyday is like a fresh start. They are always happy, like it’s going to be a good day. I love working with those little souls,” she said.

And those little souls are doing beautifully in the language immersion classroom, she reports. “Everything is just sort of natural’ it happens organically. [Sra. Lala and I] are very consistent with our routine and the way we express ourselves with the Spanish language, and it’s amazing to see how much the students have absorbed so far. We are super happy to see them already speaking the language and trying to communicate with us.”

She admires this unique aspect of TNCS as well as the other features that set it apart:

This is something I’ve never seen before, neither in Chile nor the United States. I really like the fact that the students have the chance to think for themselves and to reflect on their own actions is. Also, we take advantage of the city, the community. It’s nice to go for a walk, pass by the coffee shop and say hi to people. At TNCS, they can be children, experience lots of things through activities and getting out and seeing things. I like that we teachers can learn so much from each other. We have Chinese, we have English, we have Spanish. We have different food, and we have different cultures. We have different people. We all look different, I like that; I like that a lot.

Sra. Salas is happy teaching at TNCS and has thrown herself into it. Every day, we teachers try our best. We try to give the best of us every single day—to have good energy and a positive attitude and lots of patience. We are always there for the children.” She also says that she actively enjoys going to work every day. “I love what I do, and I’ve never had a moment where I wish I could stay home. Once you find your true passion, you never feel like you have to go to work everyday. I think that’s my motto, I truly believe in that. I’m very happy here.”

And TNCS is happy you’re here!

TNCS Preprimary Workshop, Fall 2018

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

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

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

Preprimary Focus

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

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

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

Making the Transition to Primary

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

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

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

How Can You Support the Language Experience?

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

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

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

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

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