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.

davenport photo

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: 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)!