TNCS’s Second Annual Town Hall

town-hall

TNCS will host a Town Hall annually to provide a forum for communication of ideas and news to the TNCS community.

On Tuesday, March 10th, The New Century School held its 2015 Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro said, “We are a young and very ambitious school, so yearly meetings like this are critical. We will provide an annual state of the school update, specifically the K–8th program, and a forum for families to ask questions.” Childcare with dinner and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were offered, and questions were solicited ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly.

There was an evident unifying thread to this event: collaboration. Mrs. Munro remarked by way of introduction that “the map hasn’t been written to exactly where the school’s destination is and what the steps are along the way.” The implication is clearly that TNCS community input is not only valued and taken seriously but is also helping navigate to the destination. We are writing this map together.

tncs-town-hall-audience

TNCS parents chat amongst themselves while having a little nosh prior to the start of the event.

Some notable differences from last year’s Town Hall bear pointing out. The biggest is the growth and maturation that the past year has afforded TNCS. Now in its 5th year, TNCS has emerged from the growing-pains phase faced by any new school as a secure, comfortable-in-its-own skin swan. It is owning its unique identity, and that feels good. Another key difference was in the nature of the interaction between the audience of parents and the event speakers (school administrators and executive directors). Parents were encouraged to share any concerns, but criticism was given in an overwhelmingly constructive way. Parents explained their problems but helpfully offered potential solutions to these problems in the same breath. The result was a very positive and productive evening. It felt like we were all in this together, collaborating to help keep the school flourishing and moving forward. Oh, right—that is the essence of the TNCS community!

happy-hour-light-fare-provided

Hors d’oeuvres gave attendees time to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingle, and recharge before getting down to business.

Speaker Presentations

In Public Health, the concept of “patient activation” measures an individual’s capacity to manage his or her own health and health care. Does she eat right and get plenty of sleep to maintain health? If he falls ill, does he have the skills to communicate effectively with a physician and to follow doctor’s orders? A correlation can be drawn in the education domain: “parent activation.” The Town Hall audience of parents was highly activated. They participate competently in the education their children are receiving at TNCS, they are knowledgeable about every aspect of their child’s school day, they purposefully sought out the school that best aligned with their own values. Their kids are so much the better off for it. This is not a way to say that TNCS students are simply academically superior. Although that is often the case, academic performance is not the key measure of “success” at TNCS; it’s so much more.

Co-Founder and Executive Director Roberta Faux calls the TNCS community “like-minded,” and she expressed our shared vision beautifully in a couple of personal vignettes. She retold the story of the school’s origins (much of the audience had not heard it last year) and how quickly the 1-room Patterson Park Montessori grew into TNCS today. Then she described a lovely interaction she recently had with one of her daughters, in which her daughter asked her what gifts would she (mom) prefer had been bestowed on her daughter as a baby by a fairy godmother, a là Princess Aurora in the story of Sleeping Beauty. First of all, what an insightful and touching question from such a young child. Both this question and the answer Mrs. Faux ultimately gave exemplify what TNCS is, how it works, and why it is such a phenomenal school. “I took a step back,” she said, “and I asked myself, “as parents and educators, what do we want for our kids?” In the meantime, of course, she had answered her daughter by telling her that she likes the gifts that her daughter already exhibits, such as her kind spirit and enumerating her many other attributes.

“It’s not just about achievement,” she continued. “It’s about being able to find our own happiness, overcome stress, engage in healthy give-and-take human relationships. These are the real-life training skills that we hope our children grow up learning and take with them.” She explained that in the United States, “giftedness” and high IQ are perhaps overvalued. “All children are capable of great things,” she said. But what’s wrong with working hard to achieve goals rather than being able to effortlessly master something? “Grit” is what will allow a person to attain mastery of something otherwise outside of his or her given wheelhouse. At TNCS, students are encouraged to try new things, to explore and to inquire their way into making self-guided discoveries. This takes perseverance, and this stick-to-itiveness will be a resource they can draw on in any circumstance for life. (Please see below for links to the TED talk she mentioned as well as Immersed‘s own handling of this topic.) “Education should not be just about achievement,” concluded Mrs. Faux. “It’s about cultivating the strength to work hard enough to find what you love. For my kids and for the kids here, if they can find that, then we’ve given them so much.”

Co-Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Lawner spoke next to express appreciation of and gratitude for TNCS staff and families, second the ideas expressed by Mrs. Faux, and to share a charming anecdote of her own: “Thinking back to 2007, I remembered how Roberta and I would sit on the sofa in her sunroom and discuss the crazy idea of opening a preschool. Finally, I knew I had to make a decision, so I said, ‘I’ll only do it if we can do language immersion,” and without any hesitation whatsoever she said, ‘well, okay’.”

Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into nine umbrella categories: Space, Curriculum, Staffing, Standardized Testing, Accreditations, Parent–Administration Organization, Scholarship Fund, Short-Term and Long-Term Plans, and Open Q&A. Although not every topic got exhaustive coverage and not necessarily in this order, the following synopsis provides a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction.

Space: Indoor and Outdoor

The Middle School opens in fall of 2016 and will most likely be housed in the existing Union Box space of Building North. The Co-Founders are in talks with architects and engineers to develop it as a multi-classroom space, which, if all goes planned, will be secured by August. Fall 2015 will see a mixed-age grade 4/5 classroom, mixed-age grade 2/3 classroom, and either two mixed-age K/1st classrooms or a straight K class plus one mixed-age K/1st class.

Last year’s playground redesign experienced some environmental setbacks but is still going to happen in order to create a space that can work for preschool, elementary, and future middle school students. A new geo dome will be erected, and the greenhouse will be moved. Other aspects are less certain, but ideas for improvement flew about the room. Also, Head of School Alicia Danyali just announced that Friday that TNCS mom Tracey Browning has organized another High Five fundraiser at Camden Yards. Funds will go to the playground overhaul.

Staffing and Curriculum

Mrs. Danyali fielded these topics and was visibly thrilled to announce that she will be joined by an Assistant Head of School in August. This will free up much of her time to focus on exploring new approaches to inspire kids to learn and be excited about that learning. The International Baccalaureate is one such program on the horizon. “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” through challenging and rigorous education programs.

Regarding the curriculum, questions here were very specific. Being fans already of the school day scholastic content, parents wanted to know if there will be additional after-school enrichment, sports, and musical instrument instruction. The administration heard them loud and clear—this was perhaps the primary issue of the evening. Proposed solutions will probably involve community partnerships, and this is a good thing on many levels. TNCS is committed to being a responsible and active member of the external community; partaking of community offerings is one way to honor this commitment. Discussions were already underway to expand the relationship with Coppermine Fieldhouse at DuBurns Arena, so giving more opportunities for team sports instruction and participation is a likely outgrowth. The Patterson Park pool could be used for swimming lessons, and the ice skating rink could also be used in an athletic program. Musical instrument instruction will have to be given some more thought, but some creative workarounds thrown out included inquiring about the services of Laura Norris, Director of the Baltimore Chapter of Mando for Kids, a free program that teaches Baltimore City kids ages 6 and up to play the mandolin. Mrs. Norris just happens to live down the block from TNCS and is a frequent guest performer. This video clip features all age groups she currently teaches. Developing a special offshoot for TNCS students is a distinct possibility.

Standardized Testing

“Will TNCS be implementing standardized testing?” was another popular question. “To be in line with the other private schools, it makes sense,” said Ms. Danyali. “We are leaning toward the ERB, but it’s not set in stone yet. We want something that would match this independent, dual-language learning environment.” According to the ERB–Lighting the Pathways to Learning website (ERB stands for Education Resources Bureau), “ERB is the only not-for-profit member educational services organization offering assessments for both admission and achievement for independent and public schools PreK–grade 12. . . With the diverse needs and requirements in today’s academic landscape, ERB takes a customized approach to our services.” Ms. Danyali says she is grateful that TNCS isn’t forced to implement standardized testing, “but students also need to know how to take a test—it’s important to have that exposure.”

Such testing, albeit less pressurized than it would be in a public school setting, will also prepare students for matriculation into secondary school and beyond. Regardless, teachers are never asked to simply “teach to the test.” They have freedom to accomplish their goals how they deem suitable, based on and tailored specifically to the individuals they teach.

Parent–Administration Organization 

Parents were very vocal about their willingness to help tackle existing obstacles to progress. A  suggestion was made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee, and another to create an oversight committee to help tie individual committee threads together to more effectively communicate school changes and news. “We are open,” said Mrs. Munro. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” Thus, again the collaborative nature of this group was felt.

Short- and Long-Term Plans and Q&A

Though we didn’t get the chance to address this one head on, a theme throughout the discussion emerged that could serve to answer questions about how well students will be prepared for the next steps (whatever those might be) in their academic careers and lives. With the attention to whole-child development, the carefully differentiated instruction, the administration policies that ensure that TNCS doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the city and state educational corps, etc. all combine to guarantee not just preparedness but that the TNCS-educated student will thrive in his or her future environs.

The Q&A gave TNCS administrators a clear idea of what parents feel could be done better. These issues were addressed with seriousness and respect and are of immense value to the moving the school forward. Many parents took this opportunity to praise the school and administrators for the zillion things they get right on a daily basis.

Finally . . .

For more information on Professor Angela Duckworth and grit, please visit the following links:

See you next year, TNCS community! In the meantime, keep that valuable and much-appreciated feedback coming!

Cultivating a Growth Mindset at TNCS

“You can do hard things,” author Barbara Kingsolver regularly told her Montessori-educated children as they were growing up. The independence that the Montessori method fosters in the youngest of children manifests later as the perseverance to work through difficult math problems, learn another language, and make deadlines in upper grades. And there’s that word again—perseverance. It has peppered this blog ever since author Paul Tough spoke at the Patterson Park Public Charter School during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 about his latest book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Power to Succeed. Since then, grit and perseverance (they’re never solo anymore, always hand in hand, the Brangelina of the education world) have become superstars, rising meteorically to the top of the class. So pervasive has perseverance become that it even gets billed as one of the skills your preschooler will learn by watching “Peter Rabbit” on Nick, Jr.! (Peter is always getting into scrapes and must think on his furry feet, take chances, and make a few mistakes before ultimately avoiding the hungry Mr. Fox’s stewpot or the broadside of angry Mr. MacGregor’s garden spade by the end of the show.)

The New Century School, although strictly Montessori only in the primary program, embodies the principles of independent learning, self-guided discovery, and the curiosity to delve deeply into a topic of inquiry throughout its curricula, from primary all the way up through elementary. Independence, curiosity, the wherewithal to see something through . . . what does it all add up to? Self-esteem, which, in turn, cultivates better learning. In an interview with The Sun, Kingsolver explained“There’s this myth that self-esteem comes from making everything easy for your children and making sure they never fail. If they never encounter hardship or conflict, the logic goes, they’ll never feel bad about themselves. Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s not even a human life. Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks. It’s as simple as that.”

Authors Kingsolver and Tough aren’t just waxing poetic, either. “Grit” in the education context (as in the persistence, determination and resilience needed to succeed at learning) was coined by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, who won a MacArthur Genius grant for her pioneering research. Thanks to work like hers, we now recognize that academic mastery requires an enormous outlay of time and effort as well as being able to start over if at first we don’t succeed (something that artists of every stripe have always intuited). The next logical step must be to figure out how to systematically inculcate grit, perseverance, and the self-esteem they engender in students. Can grit be taught?

Mindset Works

Mindset Works has developed the Brainology curriculum to teach students that they have the power to learn. IQ is not ultimate benchmark for learning!

Mindset Works has developed the Brainology curriculum to teach students that they have the power to learn. IQ is not ultimate benchmark for learning!

According to Janna Peskett, Curriculum and Professional Learning Specialist at Mindset Works®, yes it can! Profiled recently on NPR’s Morning Edition, Mindset Works’ flagship product is the Brainology curriculum, which is designed to cultivate a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. “Growth mindset,” the brainchild of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, means believing that success comes from effort, not inborn intelligence or talent. Dr. Dweck is a cofounder of Mindset Works, and, like the gritty Dr. Duckworth, hopes to help students believe that not only are frustration and mistakes part of learning, but that intelligence is not static—it can be developed; it can grow.

Mrs. Peskett says, “Cultivating a growth mindset is connected to the grit and perseverance movement, but goes a step further into developing student agency.” Students who have a fixed mindset tell themselves things like, “This just isn’t my thing” or “It’s [so and so’s] fault that I can’t do this” in response to failure. Eventually, avoiding the risk of failure becomes habit, and scholastic progress comes to a screeching halt. With a growth mindset, by contrast, students faced with failure ask themselves, “What can I learn from this?” and “What different strategy can I approach this with next time?”. “Whereas fear of making mistakes holds students back, struggling and taking risks facilitates learning,” explains Mrs. Peskett.

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed, whereas a fixed mindset holds that intelligence is static

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed, whereas a fixed mindset holds that intelligence is static

Brainology

Underwritten by a grant from the Raikes Foundation (“Empowering young people to change their lives”), Brainology is currently being implemented in eight Washington, D.C. middle schools. The D.C. school system is undertaking this pilot year as a research study to determine whether the curriculum’s concrete strategies will improve education outcomes in its underserved communities. For example, in one lesson, students are taught about how negative emotions can interfere with learning and are given four specific strategies for circumventing those negative emotions:

  • Square breathing: Inhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts, exhale for 5 counts, hold for 5 counts. This allows time for emotion to drain out from the frontal lobe and let the rational brain take over.
  • Positive self-talk: Reframe negative thoughts in a positive way. “I don’t understand this word” becomes “I don’t understand it yet, but if I ask for help or practice a different strategy, over time, I will get it.” (Recall that Dr. Bonnie Zucker named similar strategies in her recent TNCS presentation.)
  • Visualization: Visualize a desired outcome; see yourself doing it. “I want to read this book from start to finish.”
  • Avoiding “fight or flight”: Recognize that the brain is sensing a threat when, for example, the palms start to sweat. “Recognize it, name it, and then let it go,” says Mrs. Peskett.
Just like our muscles, our brains can be shaped and toned---worked out.

Just like our muscles, our brains can be shaped and toned—worked out.

Brainology is a blended curriculum (some takes place in class and some online) and is appropriate for 4th through 10th graders. Says. Mrs. Peskett, “it all boils down to helping students believe that their brains are malleable.” She sums up this concept of neuroplasticity by telling kids, “You can change your intelligence through effort.” Because fixed mindsets can affect students of all socioeconomic backgrounds and prevent them from realizing their potential, Brainology potentially has quite a broad appeal. Even at TNCS, where cultivating growth mindsets is inherently part of the everyday curriculum, students naturally experience frustration, negative thinking, and anxiety. Helping them learn how to respond to failure can subvert such barriers to learning. Of course, exercise, sleep, and nutrition also play important roles and are integral to Brainology. Certain foods (e.g., those containing omega-3 fatty acids, leafy greens, etc.) increase neuronal communication; exercise also gets those synapses firing. Sleep optimizes waking brain function. But all of this relates back to those conjoined concepts, grit and perseverance. “Everything you learn from is going to require you to take a risk and possibly fail,” says Mrs. Peskett.

We can help our kids recognize that they can do hard things.

Related

What’s your mindset? Find out here.

Want more Mindset Works resources? Click here.

Find Brainology and Mindset Works on Facebook here.

Read about the perils of overpraising your kids here.

The Importance of Being Artistic

In a scholastic environment increasingly focused on science, math, and technology, the arts can get short shrift. This issue is not a new one, and yet, despite empirical data, loud protests from the vox populi, and common sense, the arts are always first on the chopping block. According to The Impact of Arts Education on Learning study, “The arts enhance the process of learning. The systems they nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities, are, in fact, the driving forces behind all other learning.” But education policymakers seem to persist in the belief that art is less important than the scientific disciplines.

Process-oriented Art

Not so at The New Century School, fortunately, where balance in all subjects is a primary goal, and the arts are as highly valued as anything else. Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia, with a B.F.A. from The Maryland Institute College of Art supplemented by classical art study at The Schuler School of Fine Art in Baltimore, originally began teaching at TNCS in their first year as Patterson Park Montessori and has been affiliated with the school ever since. The 2012–2013 schoolyear is her first year teaching dedicated art classes to all levels, pre-primary through elementary. She tailors classes to each level, so that no matter what their ages, kids are making the most of art class (see Art for All Levels below).

Jenny Raccuglia

Art teacher Jenny Raccuglia believes that art education is essential to human development

Mrs. Raccuglia’s approach to teaching art meshes very well with TNCS’s progressive, Montessori-inspired approach. Instead of perpetuating the dichotomy that traditional education is a teacher-led series of instructions to follow and Montessori is a student-centric and completely volitional (i.e., kids do what they want when they want, within reason), art class (and TNCS in general) merges the two. This union produces what Mrs. Raccuglia calls “process-oriented art” in which students are taught certain steps to create a project, but the spaces between those steps, says Mrs. Raccuglia, “leave a lot of room for individual interpretation.” The results are not only technically sound, but individual pieces show a broad spectrum of style, creativity, and  innovation. They’re really wonderful, in short.

Art for All Levels

Says Mrs. Raccuglia, “I approach each of the four groups [pre-primary through elementary levels] differently, but always with the goal of priming them for the next step.” Each group is assessed on age-appropriate manual dexterity and expression of creativity.

• Hands-on skills: In pre-primary (ages 2–3 years) classes, kids are taught the basics, like color-mixing. They learn what the materials are and how to use them appropriately (i.e., not to eat them, joked Mrs. Raccuglia). A typical pre-primary project is painting a paper mouse. Kids are given pre-cut mouse shapes to paint with a blotter, using their choice of color(s). This project gives them plenty of creative space and also takes into consideration that their manual dexterity is still developing. Grasping a blotter in their fists comes much more easily to them than holding a paintbrush. Thus, they build confidence by seeing the results of their handiwork while learning technique and effective material use. “Kids learn with their hands,” says Mrs. Raccuglia, “that’s how they explore the world. As long as they are confident in using the materials, I give them the opportunity to practice doing what they want with them.”

 

Primary art class

Primary students hard at work snipping, gluing, and arranging their own Snowy Days

• Creative autonomy: In primary (ages 3–5 years) classes, kids continue to develop their new skills and are encouraged to try new ways of approaching tasks. Assignments vary, but skills such as gluing, painting, cleaning brushes, and cutting are reinforced periodically throughout the term. Classes begin with what Mrs. Raccuglia calls an “imagination sparker,” which is a storybook that inspires the class project. Beginning class with a story also helps kids at this age transition to a new work cycle; it helps them shift their focus. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, is a recent example of this project structure. After hearing the story, kids were asked to design their own interpretations, using paper cutouts similar to the book illustrations. Mrs. Raccuglia stresses that the students should approach the project in new ways, rather than simply reproducing the original artwork, to gain confidence in their ideas. This approach drove another recent art project, in which kids designed owls to roost in a tree hanging in the TNCS all-purpose room. Parents might have noticed quite a bit of variance in each owl, even though kids drew from the same sets of materials. Says Mrs. Raccuglia, “the eyes shouldn’t always have to go on the face.” That’s one good way of making an owl, she concedes, but it isn’t the only way, and those other ways can spark tremendous creativity in children.

Note the variety of materials and media this primary student used to interpret the assignment

Note the variety of materials and media this primary student used to interpret the assignment

Art room

A variety of materials at the ready, placed Montessori-style within kids’ reach

• Command of ideas: In kindergarten (approximately ages 5–6 years) classes, kids are further encouraged to explore. They have some technical fluency; now it’s time to really put it to use. Younger kids are willing to explore, according to Mrs. Raccuglia, but by this age they tend to think there’s only one right way to approach a project. We talked about why that is. By age 5 years or so, kids have begun to develop self-consciousness, to see themselves outside of themselves. This is a natural part of human development, but the initial reaction to this new awareness of self can be self-doubt and a tendency to retreat. So, Mrs. Raccuglia counters that with encouragement to trust themselves. “I don’t necessarily set out materials and say, ‘have at it,’ ” she says, “but I do introduce the project, set boundaries, and then leave plenty of room for experimentation.” It’s clearly working. In a project inspired by The Littlest Matryoshka (pictured at bottom), by Corrine Demas Bliss, kids designed their own matryoshka. Given just the basic outline of the doll, kids then had free range to design their doll however they chose. Other than their graduated sizes, sets of nesting dolls don’t vary, so this was a real test of kids’ ability to produce something according to their own lights. Just see how well they rose to the challenge!

This student brings a bit of masculine perspective to his doll---isn't it amazing how differently the individual kids see the same assignment?

This student brings a bit of masculine perspective to his doll—isn’t it amazing how differently the individual kids see the same assignment?

Although the doll in the story was a brunette, the student who created this lovely rendition chose to give her version more familiar coloring

Although the doll in the story was a brunette, the student who created this lovely rendition chose to give her version more familiar coloring

• Being artists: In elementary (ages 6 years and up) classes, kids have mastered basic techniques and are ready for new aspects of art to explore. They learn about artists, for example, and art history. More importantly, they learn how to think like artists. “The big secret of being an artist is not being afraid to make mistakes to get to something you like. Being an artist is fearlessly making mistakes,” says Mrs. Raccuglia. One way she fosters this receptivity to the experience of making art is by giving the elementary students “free days,” during which they present an idea to her, and she makes it happen by supplying materials and advice, if necessary. So, after a recent lesson about Da Vinci, the kids were naturally enthused about inventions and suggested building robots. “The main thing is to capture that idea,” says Mrs. Raccuglia, “and then we work out the how.” If the robots (pictured) are any indication, those kids feel incredibly empowered by this kind of trust and collaboration. The students also keep portfolios at this level, which they are encouraged to go back through periodically to finish up or revise individual pieces.

This robot likes to look her best

This robot likes to look her best

Elementary kids "invented" these robots after a lesson on Leonardo Da Vinci

Elementary kids “invented” these robots after a lesson on Leonardo Da Vinci

Postscript: Why Art?

It may be safe to assume that anyone reading this post has already answered that question for him or herself, but a new book on the subject could offer some new twists. In The Artistic Edge, author Lisa Phillips suggests that art is critical to teaching the life skills that kids will need to navigate adulthood. Phillips also lists the Top 10 skills children learn from the arts, a list that promotes qualities like perseverance, similar to those gaining currency by education researchers like Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed and profiled in Getting the Education Nitty Gritty in this blog last November.

Mrs. Raccuglia says that Phillips’ list aligns closely with her own goals, and that’s easy to see. Creativity, Confidence, and Problem-solving (also a recurrent theme of this blog), are the top three on the list, and those themes cropped up again and again during our discussion (which, by the way, preceded publication of Phillips’ list). “If there’s one thing I want to successfully teach the kids, it’s how to build skills but stay open,” she says. Expanding on that thought, she says she often asks herself, “What is my role?” as she designs a particular project or lesson. “Not all of these kids will become artists, so what can I teach them that will help them through life? The ability to trust in their imagination and their own ideas,” she finishes emphatically.

What better qualities to instill in kids facing a very new and different world?

A lesson that incorporates an artist, a style, spatial perspective, and multiple media

A lesson that incorporates an artist, a style, spatial perspective, and multiple media

Projects start with the "imagination sparker"

Primary and kindergarten projects start with the “imagination sparker”

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

Inside the Montessori Classroom

Many of us have at least a vague idea of what Montessori education is about and that Maria Montessori was an expert in child development and education, but some of us—even parents of Montessori-educated kids—still have questions. Or, maybe you have tried to explain Montessori education to curious friends and family members and have been met with blank stares or frank puzzlement in return.

colorful materials and inviting tableaux comprise a TNCS class layout

The Montessori classroom invites and inspires

In this post, we’ll compare a Montessori classroom to a traditional one to characterize The New Century School educational experience and gain some insight into how the classroom works, why Montessori students love learning, and why the Montessori method is so wonderful for our kids. In fact, despite obstacles (e.g., budgetary, legislative), the U.S. public educational system has begun to show the Montessori influence here and there, as educators wake up to the fact that students graduate from school and are at loose ends for how to live enriched, fulfilling lives. The traditional model has certain shortcomings that the Montessori education inherently prevents. (However, this discussion is not intended to belittle traditional education, only to investigate how Montessori can enhance learning for many by virtue of a radically different approach.)

children work independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning primary Montessori classroom

Children working independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning Montessori classroom

At TNCS, pre-primary classes (ages 2–3 years) follow the classic Montessori model; primary and elementary classrooms (ages 3–5 years and 5 years and up, respectively) use a Montessori-based approach. Classes comprise mixed age groups quite deliberately, and this is the first big difference between Montessori and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in Montessori education is that older children assist younger ones and that younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element in Montessori education is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for 3 years, developing trusting, long-term bonds. The teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

practical life materials teach kids everything from proper handwashing to garment buttoning

Practical Life materials

Another difference an observer would note immediately on entering a Montessori classroom is the room itself. Students are not seated in rows facing a teacher who is lecturing at a chalkboard as in a traditional classroom. Rather, individuals or small groups either completely independently or with the aid of the teacher are each engaged in separate activities that they have voluntarily chosen. They might be seated at small work tables or kneeling on rugs as they go about their tasks, which vary from sensorial (such as tracing sandpaper letters with their fingers) and practical-life activities (such as practicing folding towels) in the pre-primary and primary classrooms to working at computer stations at the elementary level. The point here is that students be inspired to learn by engaging in what draws them instead of required to sit passively and be lectured to. Not only will the consequent learning be deeper and richer, but the student will look forward to learning as the natural extension of his or her innate curiosity. School should not be something our kids dread, after all!

having completed work with the number rods, this child surveys his work before putting away the materials

A child in the Primary classroom works intently on the number rods

More importantly, this room for individual concentration and focus is the hallmark of Montessori education. It fulfills the child and allows him or her to become the person who intrinsically wants to help others and to make a difference in the world. Although it’s easy to imagine that a classroom full of kids each doing what he or she individually wants would be chaotic and noisy (a very common misconception), the complete opposite is true. TNCS classrooms are warm and peaceful places. The children are engaged in their work, and the atmosphere is one of pleasant, purposeful exploration. It goes without saying that passive, rote memorization–based learning has no place here. Learning is a dynamic, absorbing experience. It’s truly a marvel to see the self-discipline TNCS kids exhibit as they go about their daily work.

Yet another difference is the breadth of the classroom. TNCS extends the classroom to encompass the surrounding neighborhoods, fostering a sense of community and instilling the importance of community involvement—“our extended campus is the city.” And, for that matter, the world. TNCS has a very diverse student body, and students are encouraged to share their culture, promoting mutual respect and a broad, global perspective. Getting outside and seeing what’s going on around the school is a regular part of TNCS curriculum.

A final difference to be discussed here (though there are many more) is in the approach to “success.” AT TNCS, the product of the work done is not the focus; rather, the doing of the work is what’s important. Making mistakes and having another try is all part of the process. Students learn to relish the endeavor, of trying over and over, instead of being afraid to make those mistakes: “They welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again.” (This hearkens back to an earlier post on “grit”; see “Getting the Education Nitty Gritty” in Recent Posts, top right.) This also touches on another concept fundamental to the Montessori classroom—work cycles. Although Montessori methods are often criticized for not allowing imaginative “play” and focusing all on “work,” children do not make this distinction. If they are doing what they themselves have chosen to be doing, it follows that they will be enjoying it. The work cycle, though, by having a beginning (choose work), a middle (do the work), and an end (put away the work), additionally teaches them commitment, focus, and persistence. The rhythm of the work cycle has applications in all areas of daily life, not just in the classroom.

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” And this sums up the difference between a Montessori and a traditional classroom best. All too commonly, the traditional classroom, even at its pinnacle, can do no better than produce test-takers, albeit skillful ones; the Montessori classroom, by contrast, yields happy, inquisitive, well-rounded citizens of humanity.*

playing on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall day

For more information, including articles and videos, visit The Montessori Foundation’s website. And, find some hard data on the learning experience delivered by traditional versus Montessori approaches here.

*You want proof, you say? Consider this illustrious list of well-known folks, from silicon valley entrepreneurs to great chefs to princes, who were either Montessori educated or educators, and see for yourself!

Getting the Education Nitty Gritty

 The New Century School believes fervently in instilling core values in children as a key part of their education. Life skills are equally, if not more important, than cognitive skills in developing the whole person. Such skills include self-discipline and self-esteem, among others, which enable us to surmount challenges. “[TNCS students] welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again,” affirm school founders Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner.

author Paul Tough promotes second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Education writer and speaker Paul Tough
Photo credit: Mary McIlvaine Photography

Education author and speaker Paul Tough might well approve of this approach. Tough’s second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, explores the seeming paradox that helping kids learn how to fail can ultimately teach them how to succeed—and not just on standardized tests.

So, as Superstorm Sandy raged outside on the evening of October 29, 2012, an intrepid group braved the elements to gather at the Patterson Park Public Charter School‘s cafeteria on East Baltimore Street to hear Tough speak. Building on accumulating evidence that children exposed to “toxic stress” experience lifelong debilitating emotional and neurologic effects (see Harvard University’s “Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development” for more information), Tough also writes about what happens when stress is a positive influence. He explains that adversity in small doses and the subsequent soothing that comes from nurturing environments is a critical part of development in infancy. A crying baby who is soothed by a caregiver is not only learning an important dynamic but is also establishing appropriate neurochemical pathways. Such seemingly mundane interactions set off a veritable fireworks display of synapsing neurons in the infant brain.

What does this have to do with education? A whole lot. For one thing, that critical infant development period is followed in the schoolage years by a similar development period in which kids begin to exhibit metacognition, or the ability to “think about thinking.” Curiosity, self-reflection, executive function . . . that’s metacognition, and it’s something we’d do well to allow kids plenty of room for. Yet, conventional wisdom has dictated “teaching to the test.” In the United States, school systems can seem set up to basically get kids into college. But what happens after? As Tough reports, educators began noticing that the crops of great test-takers schools had been producing were unequal to so-called “real-world” challenges. Meanwhile, Dr. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and her research team discovered that intelligence isn’t all that kids need to make it: They need grit. As she defines it, grit is “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.”

Paul Tough's second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Paul Tough’s latest book outlines an approach to child development and education that dovetails perfectly with TNCS’s Montessori-inspired methods

Stated simply, kids that try harder, do better. At TNCS, kids read; write; appreciate literature, art, and music; and speak multiple languages, all in a progressive, Montessori-inspired learning environment. Just as importantly, they learn leadership skills and the ability to think critically because they are free to work at their own pace, which encourages the self-discipline and self-control that will serve them so well throughout their lives. Maximizing children’s natural desire to learn, TNCS teachers guide and coach students through academic and “practical life” tasks they are actively and passionately engaged with, rather than just “filling them with facts.”

Students learn, in other words, just that “stick-to-it-iveness,” that grit, that Tough calls one of the most important noncognitive skills, or “character strengths,” along with curiosity, optimism, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, and self-control. These seven key character strengths have been a part of TNCS’s mission all along. By learning to manage their failures (to “tough it out,” so to speak), TNCS students are, conversely, honing the tools they need for a life fulfilling, meaningful, and happy.

TNCS elementary classroom exempifies project-based learning and guided discovery at an individualized pace that promotes curiosity, self-discipline, and persistence

A TNCS elementary classroom exempifies project-based learning and guided discovery at an individualized pace that promotes curiosity, self-discipline, and persistence

Wondering about your own level of grittiness? Take the Grit Test here!

Read Paul Tough’s in-depth account of character education in the New York Times Magazine here and more on toxic stress in The New Yorker here. Listen to Tough’s Back to School interview with Ira Glass on This American Life here.