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.