Gab Sussman: Opening Windows to the World in ELA!

Middle school at The New Century School enters its fourth year with a fresh new face as homeroom teacher: Gab Sussman. The first thing that strikes anyone walking into Ms. Sussman’s classroom is her warmth. She positively radiates enthusiasm and kindness, and it’s obvious that she wants to be there.

Educational and Professional Background

Growing up in Putnam County, in New York, Ms. Sussman attended both public and private schools and has a broad understanding of what both types of school have to offer. She attended Loyola University Maryland here in Baltimore as an undergraduate in a pre-med program. She said that battling the physics and calculus courses was fine for a while until she heard a classmate talking about her elementary education classes. Something clicked, and just like that Ms. Sussman changed her major to elementary ed. “That’s where it all began,” she said. “After I graduated in 2012, I went back to New York City and began teaching in early elementary classrooms in independent schools.” She also pursued a master’s degree in educational leadership at Fordham University. “There I did a lot of professional development around integrating technology; about reading and designing curricula; as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she explained.

After her time teaching and earning her graduate degree, she returned to Baltimore in 2019 to “close the gap,” as she puts it—she and her now-spouse had been maintaining a long-distance relationship and decided it was time to change that. “When I started working here in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to teach the upper elementary grades, and now I’m really excited to be teaching middle school,” she said. The impetus for her progression up through the grades came about during that professional development for coding and computer programming. Although she loved teaching early elementary, she and the school librarian started a coding club, and so she began interacting more with upper elementary school students. “What was also fun about that was, as my own students were getting older and advancing into older grades, I was able to keep in touch with them through the club and see how much they had changed. Our relationships grew and got deeper because they were older and experiencing a perspective shift. Through that after school program of coding, I realized that I really enjoy teaching older kids.”

So, when she was planning her move back to Baltimore, she had a good deal of flexibility as far as what grades she was comfortable teaching as well as what age groups she enjoys teaching. She got a position teaching in an upper elementary classroom in a Baltimore independent school. “This felt really familiar,” she said, “to be teaching 4th- and 5th-graders. It was new, but also at the same time I had the experience of teaching coding to that age, so it was a way to expand my career and my skills as a teacher.”

Her path to teaching middle school happened along a similar trajectory. At the school where she was teaching, an opportunity to coach middle school field hockey middle school presented itself. This happened during what she calls “the pandemic year” and turned out to involve more than just coaching field hockey. “I was getting to know the students and hearing what their days were like and supporting them social and emotionally. They had just done online school for a whole day, and now they’re showing up for a virtual practice. It was new, but again it was an opportunity for me to interact with this age group.”

Falling into Place at TNCS

TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders on a jaunt around Fell’s Point.

And now here she is at TNCS! She says she started wanting to teach middle schoolers in a more direct academic way, so when the position opened up here, she was quite excited about it. She has both the very familiar upper elementary–age students in her English Language Arts (ELA) classes as well as the fun new chance to teach her 7th- and 8th-graders as both homeroom teacher and ELA teacher as well as Global Studies teacher.

Things are falling into place in multiple ways for Ms. Sussman. “One of my favorite things about teaching upper elementary and now middle school are the amazing middle grade and young adult books. They are engaging and rich and complex, and I love being able to reach students through books,” she said.

Stories are really powerful, and being able to find that genre or find that one book that really turns the student into someone who loves reading feels really fulfilling. It takes the legwork to do the research and find those well-reviewed books and getting them in the hands of students, but those windows and mirrors are a really powerful way for young people to learn about the world and relate to the world outside of their own bubble of families and friends. It broadens their understanding of how the world works. I think that books teach lessons and can be opportunities for connecting with other people.

Gab Sussman being a good neighbor and helping out at Greedy Reads . . . and maybe doing a bit of research?

Ms. Sussman has ideas about how to reach those students who may not be independently grabbing a book to read or defaulting always to graphic novels.

What I love about ELA is helping kids make that bridge from graphic novels to really learning what kind of stories or what kind of characters appeal to them. There are all kinds of graphic novels; they’re not just fantasy. And the graphic novel genre and and format is very appealing to students of all ages and strengths and skill levels. Being able to help students understand that there’s something about the kind of stories that you enjoy, so let’s dig deeper into that. A lot of it has to do with just learning more about who you are. I really try to find those kinds of stories that kids need or are yearning for and and put them in their hands. ‘This is the story you’ve been wanting—once you start reading and you literally fall into the book, you’re not going to miss the pictures. The words will paint those pictures for you.’


In her second month at TNCS, Ms. Sussman says she already loves it. “I’ve always been drawn to smaller communities. As a kid, I was really lost in a large public school, and I felt like it was really hard to figure out who I was and figure out where I fit in the larger community.” She explains that this informed her university choices as well as where she felt most comfortable teaching. “The smaller structure in many ways is conducive to a stronger community feel,” she said. She also feels that TNCS is authentically diverse and multicultural:

It’s very tangible. It really affects how people interact with one another, and even in small communities, you can still feel isolated or you can still feel alone. So, it feels really wonderful to be part of a community that is intentional about representations of cultures and ways of life here. It affects the expectations that people have for each other, and it feels very vibrant in a unique way.

She says this carries over even into how some students are new to the school and some have been at TNCS for their entire academic careers. “There is really rich history in their relationships with each other. It feels natural, and, in a way, it mirrors society in terms of how people have history in a place and some people come and go.”

She’s right at home at TNCS and in her ELA classroom. And the answer is no, if you were wondering whether she experienced any regret about giving up medicine in favor of a career in education.

I would be a very, very different person if I had not gone into education. I think being an educator is part of my identity—from the the training that goes into teacher education to the experience of working with kids and partnering with families to staying up to date on child development and what literature to expose kids to. I can confidently say that I feel really proud and really happy with where I am. As I was growing up, I had an older sister go to medical school and seeing that and wanting to be like her, might’ve been a factor in why I thought I also wanted to be a doctor. But having that conversation with that one person majoring in elementary education allowed me to carve this path on my own and for myself.

That sister went on to become a child forensic psychiatrist, and so she and Ms. Sussman are both experts in different areas of child development and not only have interesting conversations but are also able to support each other in their respective work.

All in all, it’s pretty clear that, at least for this part of Ms. Sussman’s story, the ending is a happy one.

Gab Sussman and her homeroom students, just chillin’ on the TNCS campus.

 

Get a Glimmer of TNCS Middle School: Meet Daphnée Hope!

The Middle School program at The New Century School got a whole new look for the 2019–2020 school year. Daphnée Hope not only took over as the 7th- and 8th-grade homeroom teacher, but she also transformed the classroom into a place of beauty, inspiration, and motivation. You can’t walk into her class without feeling uplifted! Even her name sparks positivity!

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With Hope for the Future . . .

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Home from first deployment!

Ms. Hope came to TNCS from San Antonio, Texas, and she and her husband moved to Baltimore almost 2 years ago for his work as a fighter pilot with the U.S. military. They now live in the Hampden neighborhood. She taught for a year and a half at other schools in the city before joining TNCS and is in her fifth year of teaching overall. We’ll delve into how her first year at TNCS is going, but first let’s backtrack to how she found teaching—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it found her!

Ms. Hope earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Texas A&M University. Her teaching degree came later and not in a completely conventional manner. Having so many creative writing credits meant that she could take additional related classes and then be “adopted” by a school that would mentor her as a teacher. “During my first year of teaching I wasn’t technically a teacher,” she explained. “I walked in on the first day of school and thought, ‘the students and I are going to learn together!’ It was really scary but it was the most rewarding growing experience.”

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Hiking in Sedona, AZ

This last insight came from a bit of reflection—she wasn’t immediately aware that deciding to teach was the right thing to have done: “I didn’t actually set out to be a teacher. I became a teacher. I’ve always loved kids, but I had never thought about teaching.” She recalls her father telling her and her sister that they could choose whatever degree they wanted to pursue, so long as they could find employment in their chosen fields. Ms. Hope had a job set up in France after college, but, much to her dismay, that fell through.

So, upon graduating, she started sending out résumés, thinking that she would teach for a year while figuring out what career she really wanted. She went for an interview for a teaching position in west Texas that somehow did not feel right to her. On the drive home, she confided her feelings to her mother who had accompanied her. “I really don’t want to teach there,” she told her mother, who responded that it was sort of the only available option. Then, in a stroke of maternal genius, she suggested stopping in a cute little town for lunch to cheer her daughter up. What happened next can only be described as “destined.”

We stopped in, and this feeling came over both of us. My mom said, ‘You can work here for a year.’ So, we go to the middle school, and I basically knock on the door and introduce myself to the principal. I said something like, ‘I know this might seem random, but I was wondering if you had any English positions open.’ She actually replied, ‘We have been praying for a teacher to walk through our doors for almost 4 years now!’ They hadn’t had a teacher, and there I was, just like they had wished for. Also, like me, she was a graduate of Texas A&M and an English major. Just like that, they hired me! I couldn’t believe it—it was so unexpected, but it was the best 2 years of teaching I had ever had. It was a godsend. The only reason I left is that my husband and I got engaged and had to move.

IMG_1399That was Ozona Middle School, and Ms. Hope clearly benefited from that near-miraculous experience. Her career path was set—she was a teacher through and through, after all!

. . . And Hope for the Present!

Mere weeks into her first year at TNCS, Ms. Hope seems to embrace everything about the school, and her positivity is infectious. Upper elementary and middle school students are working hard in her ELA and Global Studies classes and loving every minute of it.

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She came to TNCS because she was actively seeking an independent school, her experiences in city public schools having been somewhat discouraging. When she met with Head of School Señora Duncan, she felt excited about the school and the prospect of teaching here. “I could see myself fitting in well here. I remember going home and telling my husband that the kids are just so happy, and they want to learn.”

Ms. Hope’s ELA class initially comprised a Daily 4 Rotation of independent reading with daily reading log, mini writing lesson with her, word work station (5th grade) or ISEE test prep (6th through 8th grades), and iReady (see TNCS BTS Night for more information). However, as time has gone on, she has adapted the Daily 4 to better fit the needs of her students and to incorporate real-world learning. Depending on the day of the week, the Daily 4+ might consist of novel study through a literature circle station, a TED talk station, iReady reading comprehension lessons, a vocabulary/word work station, a social-emotional journaling station, and a news article analysis and conversation station.

Teaching writing is one of her passions, and she especially loves teaching writing to middle schoolers. Their first writing assignment for the year was a personal narrative, and quarter 2 started off with creative writing—a Halloween-inspired short story. “I really enjoy building relationships through writing. I use writing and journaling to help my students make sense of their feelings and have an outlet—a creative space to call their own,” she said. Middle schoolers, after all, are going through profound physical and emotional changes, so having tools like creative expression to forge them into something manageable is highly important for this age group. Her classroom is a space where they can be themselves, maybe even their best selves.

“My favorite thing about working here is that the kids are so happy to learn. You just don’t find that everywhere,” said Ms. Hope. It’s also true that not every school is fortunate enough to have such enthusiastic educators. Ms. Hope infuses her classes with rigor and fun. Her standards are high, and TNCS students are thoroughly enjoying rising to the challenge! Welcome to TNCS, Ms. Hope, and here’s hoping the rest of your school year gets even better!

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Meet the Teacher: Leslie Shaffer Joins TNCS Lower Elementary!

This fall, The New Century School welcomed Leslie Shaffer to teach kindergarten/first-grade for the 2018–2019 school year. Immersed had the pleasure of interviewing her recently and brings you the highlights in this post.

Meet Leslie Shaffer

tncs-k-1st-teacher-leslie-shafferMs. Shaffer is originally from New York state and graduated from Hamilton College in upstate New York in 2015 with concentrations in Government and English. She went on to get a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

Once she was out of college, Ms. Shaffer moved to Connecticut to take a position teaching pre-K and kindergarten at Greenwich Country Day School, in what she says was similar to an apprenticeship program. After 2 years, she returned to New York City to teach kindergarten at the all-girls school Sacred Heart and reports that she thoroughly enjoyed that 1-year experience.

So far, she has not merged her undergraduate Government concentration into her teaching, because once she realized later in college that reading books for fun could be a major, she was hooked. “I took an English class by accident and wound up loving it. It’s now something I use a lot in the classroom, and I’m so excited that I get to do so,” she said.

This past summer, she moved to Annapolis to be closer to family, who have a business on the Eastern Shore. When asked what inspired her to apply to teach at TNCS, she says: “I think a lot of it was the neighborhood. I knew I didn’t want to teach in Annapolis, even though I would be living there. Having just come from New York, I wanted to be in more of a city environment, with more going on. I wanted a little bit of excitement. Annapolis is a lovely place, but it’s not a city.”

The 15 students in her homeroom class plus the 14 students she co-teaches from Pei Ge (“Ge Laoshi”)’s homeroom are contributing to that excitement Ms. Shaffer enjoys. “I love it here,” she said. “I really do. I think what I’ve liked most is that the parents are so interesting, and so the kids are, too. Everyone is traveling to different places, has family in different countries . . .  I think it’s fascinating.”

Ms. Shaffer’s primary subjects are Math and English Language Arts, and she does the Daily 3 or 4 rotation for both (including a snack rotation). Her homeroom students spend the first 1 1/2 hours of the day with her, and then they move to Ge Laoshi’s classroom for Global Studies and Science. The two classes also switch for part of the afternoon. Many of her first-grade students came up through the TNCS primary program, and many of her kindergarteners are new to the school, but everyone has adjusted beautifully, thanks to the built-in differentiation that rotations afford. Says Ms. Shaffer:

I think my favorite parts about being a teacher have always been the small group work and working one on one with a student. I think that the day lends itself so well to having rotations, and although I enjoy my time with them, I make sure they stop at a good amount of independent stations, too. But also there’s always one more, and that’s just with me. I love that part of it.

English Language Arts Class

“In ELA, differentiation is crucial,” explains Ms. Shaffer, “because some of the students coming in could not yet identify all of the letters of the alphabet, while many of the 1st-graders can completely read on their own.” Thus, her ELA class will typically have a rotation that includes her reading with a small group in the “library” (pictured below) and another with her listening to a student reading independently as well as various exercises involving more intensive focus on individual letters. “For those who are still working on letter recognition,” she said, “each week we focus on a letter. For those who can read on their own, this becomes more like coming up with a list of how many words they can spell with the letter of focus.” Most of the books in the K/1 classroom are “decodable,” meaning that there are no tricky sounds or silent letters, to give young learners the chance to gain some confidence before encountering the many exceptions to the rule that comprise the English language.

The best part of the day for Ms, Shaffer takes place in ELA class, with her students circled around her:

My favorite part of the day is always doing a read-a-loud, which, for the past 2 months, has been a Marcy Watson book. They are chapter books, which seems like a lot for kindergarteners to listen to, but because the books are so funny, the students are really, really attentive, even from the beginning of the year.  I think it’s been a good place as well for the kids who are very comfortable reading. Every once in a while, they’ll want to read the next chapter, and the other students still listen to them, which is so nice.

Math Class

The Math curriculum for all TNCS elementary students is Singapore Math. For K/1 students, many who are transitioning from preschool, math class includes manipulatives, but, albeit quite similar, these are from Singapore Math rather than Montessori materials the students would have used in primary.

“The students have mainly been using the base 10 block so far, explained Ms. Shaffer. The 1 is represented by a tiny cube, 10 is a stick, 100 is a block of 100, and 1,000 is a cube. “This system works really well, especially for the 1st-graders, who are doing addition and subtraction, but also for the kindergarteners who are just starting to figure out what the numbers represent.” She is also incorporating bead rings, another way to represent smaller numbers, as shown below.

“They’re doing very nicely,” said Ms. Shaffer, “and we had a professional development training in Singapore Math earlier this year that really helped us understand how to use the materials most effectively.” (More on that in a future post!)


Ms. Shaffer is very much at home at TNCS, and her fascination with people and culture—and learning—makes her an ideal fit for the school. There is one aspect of the day in which her students have the upper hand over her: “They love it when they come back from Chinese class, and they know all these words that I don’t,” she laughed. But even here, she is picking up vocabulary and enjoying the fun of learning right alongside her wonderful students.

Welcome, Ms. Shaffer! Huānyíng (欢迎)!

Writer in Residence Joins TNCS: Meet Ilia Madrazo!

IMG_1209This past November, The New Century School embarked on a new approach to English Language Arts instruction. Welcoming Ilia Madrazo to the faculty, TNCS now features dedicated ELA teaching for 3rd-grade through middle-school students, which allows intensive focus in the all-important skills of enhanced reading comprehension and effective writing.

Although the elementary and middle school  teaching staff had already been established for the 2017–2018 academic year, when Ms. Madrazo became available, new opportunities that were too good to pass up likewise opened for TNCS’s academic offerings. Ms. Madrazo is a passionate educator with over 20 years’ experience teaching ELA, English as a Second Language, and Reading to school-aged students of all levels as well as at the university level. She earned her master’s degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Houston and pursued doctoral level studies in English Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico. She is a published researcher and has presented at various conferences. In addition to scoring such a credentialed instructor, bringing Ms. Madrazo on as “Writer in Residence” also allowed the other elementary and middle school teachers at TNCS to specialize in their preferred subjects, such as Jon Wallace now being science guru full time.

About Ilia Madrazo

Ms. Madrazo came to Baltimore last March via Houston, Texas but is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where much of her family including her son still resides. (Her son is currently studying Physics at the University of Puerto Rico with the goal of becoming a radiologist.) She decided to move from Houston (just in time to avoid Hurricane Harvey, she added) because, after 10 years there, she needed a change. Having a brother, sister-in-law, and a nephew here made Baltimore the logical choice. One day in the future, she hopes to move to Spain.

Once here, though, she jumped in with both feet, establishing clear rules and expectations from the outset. She jokes: “So far it’s going very well. I think the kids and I are in the honeymoon period because they are working really well for me.” She immediately implemented “literature circles,” which got students engaged in reading in new and deeper ways—a primary goal of Ms. Madrazo’s. She describes the literature circle as akin to a book club, with a facilitator (her) and a group of students discussing the book theme and associated topics. She also incorporates writing instruction in an innovative way here: “We approach the book not only as the reader, but also as the writer. Good books teach you how to write well. I’m big on non-fiction because it allows students to see the form of the writing, and that can be helpful. Writing is very hard to teach and learn, so starting from another perspective can reduce students’ anxiety about it.”

Despite being Spanish/English bilingual and having experience teaching ESOL, Ms. Madrazo’s preferred medium is definitely ELA. She discovered this while teaching adults during her doctoral studies in Puerto Rico. “Honing in and concentrating on English learners came naturally to me, and I just fell in love with it,” she explained. This came as somewhat of a surprise to her because she did not set out to pursue literature and writing in college. “My bachelor’s is in Psychology,” she explained. “I entered college as a premed, but I wanted to have a life outside of studying, so I thought I would be a child psychologist. I always knew I wanted to work with children, older children.” On graduating, she began pursuing a master’s in Education on her mother’s advice, as something to always be able to fall back on, but marriage and starting a family temporarily interrupted those plans. As mentioned above, however, she did get that master’s and has been a teacher ever since. Her whole family, in fact, even though they study very different disciplines, are all teachers.

Developing her writing skills is another story: “I was never trained to write. So when I got to college, I had to learn how to write a perfect story. I found that I had to do an outline to organize my thoughts and then add the meat to it.” She still uses this formula today to ensure that each piece of writing is coherent, measured, and makes a clear argument.

Writing Program at TNCS

With abundant expertise and experience, Ms. Madrazo has lots of ideas for expanding the writing program at TNCS. Writing is communication, and good communication is an absolutely essential 21st-century skill.  She says: “I want to move writing forward, not only writing a good story but writing a solid essay or opinion piece in which students must give me evidence to support what they’re saying. So, if they’re reading a book, I want them to be able to tell me not only that a character went through a change but also to be able to cite in what paragraph and on what page that change occurred. This practice will be very good preparation for high school and college.”

So far, she is using some of the same materials already in play in ELA, such as Wordly Wise for vocabulary expansion and the Lucy Calkins curriculum for elementary writers, and is also incorporating new ones, like the Just Write series and Words Their Way for 3rd and 4th grades. Middle school students will have an entirely separate curriculum using, for example, Empowering Writers. She will be refining the curricula throughout Quarters 3 and 4.

She is also finding ways to manage the different levels within each group by utilizing the Daily 5 classroom management rotation. This includes “Word Work” in the Wordly Wise website, or SuccessMaker, or Raz kids; a small group that works with her; writing or reading alone, and doing “Word Sorts”—a method of classifying words based on their spelling pattern and phonetics; among other writing and reading-related activities.

“I’m excited to be able to dedicate myself to ELA and really focus here,” said Ms. Madrazo.. “I fell in love when I came to TNCS the first time. Having a greenhouse, chickens, I loved it. The cafeteria is focused on healthy food. I like that the classes are small. I love Fells Point. I also want to thank the parents and administration for embracing me. It’s been lovely so far and I hope to have a great partnership with them.”

If you have not done so already, make time to meet Ms. Madrazo, such as during second-semester Parent–Teacher conferences. Besides being an excellent teacher and writer, in her free time, she enjoys traveling, listening to podcasts, playing board games, and hanging out with her Puggle, Jupiter.