Happy Birthday, Immersed!

Dear Readers, this is a proud day, marking the end of Year 1 of The New Century School‘s blog. That’s right, 52 posts later, here we are (this is #53). To celebrate, let’s take a look back at what your favorite posts have been—after all, we’re here for you.

Top 10 Most Popular Posts

  1. Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education  (224 views so far)
  2. Achieving Balance in Education at TNCS  (215 views so far)
  3. Sustainable School Lunch: Garden Tuck Shop Program Part I  (199 views so far)
  4. Elementary Science Fair!   (175 views so far)
  5. Top 10 Reasons to Attend Montessori Kindergarten  (171 views so far)
  6. Inside the Montessori Classroom  (156 views so far)
  7. Exercising That Mind–Body Connection  (146 views so far)
  8. Elementary Program Merges Montessori and Progressive Education at The New Century School  (130 views so far)
  9. A TNCS Original  (128 views so far)
  10. Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!  (125 views so far)

Because a little analysis is just irresistible, let’s draw some conclusions. It’s pretty clear that Montessori and Elementary are the  commonest themes on this list, which is entirely appropriate. TNCS is achieving something entirely unique in education in meshing a progressive, rigorous curriculum with the gentleness and humanity of the Montessori approach. TNCS students learn the standard academics but also get a firm grounding in foreign language and an abundance of the arts, movement, and technology. Perhaps most important and often overlooked in conventional schools is the attention to social relationships and building mutually respectful interactions with peers and with the administration.

So thank you, readers, for your following and your support. What would you like to read more about in future?

International Camp at TNCS

For 2 weeks this summer, The New Century School will be hosting five visitors from China to participate in International Camp. From August 5th through 17th, three elementary-age girls and two of their mothers joined TNCS elementary students for an opportunity to be immersed in English. As TNCS moves more fully into its own foreign language immersion style, this pilot camp presents a unique way to reciprocate—to immerse foreign students in English. Let’s meet them!

Mr. Lapreziosa and our Chinese and American friends say cheese!

Mr. Lapreziosa and our Chinese and American friends say cheese!

Alice (Cui Jianing*), Grace (Kuang Juoqui*), and Michelle (Ma Rai*), each age 9 years, came all the way from Guangzhou, China’s second largest city and located in the southeast. During their stay, they will participate in camp activities such as cooking and gardening, they will visit key Baltimore sites such as the aquarium and the Walter’s Art Museum, and they will take daytrips to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Michelle, mom Kelly, and Grace are staying at the home of TNCS Executive Director Roberta Faux and her family. Alice and mom Jane are being hosted by another hospitable TNCS family.

As is China’s custom, the girls presented a gift to their American campmates upon arrival. The girls had lots of fun together wearing their beautiful handpainted masks.

Having lots of fun together is more or less the itinerary every day, in fact. They love playing with each other’s toys and games, for example, making the most of that particular cultural exchange. Here are some excerpts from a visit to the classroom:

TNCS: What is the one thing you want to do most while you are here?

Alice: (Thoughtful pause.) Maybe shopping.

TNCS: What would you like to do during your visit to Washington, D.C.?

Grace: Play on the playground!

Michelle: Go shopping for long, pink dresses!

TNCS: What has been your favorite part of being here so far?

Alice: Playing with Michelle and Grace.

Grace: Playing with Kathryn’s toys . . . her weaving set.

Michelle: Playing with kitty Ebony (Kathryn’s cat).

TNCS: What is your favorite thing to eat here in the United States?

Michelle: Blueberries and spaghetti! (Not together.)

TNCS: What flavor of ice cream do you hope to get later at Pitango (the afternoon’s scheduled activity)?

Alice: Chocolate!

Grace: Cookie dough!

Michelle: Chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla!

As you can see, the girls are simply delightful! When asked why they decided to come to International Camp at TNCS, their mothers said, “We want the kids to experience a different culture and to improve their English.” The girls had studied English for 3 years prior to coming here, but there’s nothing like immersion to encourage fluency. The TNCS natives agree. “Our job is to help them learn English and not speak bad grammar,” explained the TNCS gals when asked whether they were taking the chance to practice their Mandarin with their new friends. Moms Kelly and Jane report that by Day 2, they could hear a big difference in their girls’ English, so the no-Mandarin-allowed policy strictly enforced by the TNCS cohort seems to be working!

The camp is being taught by a newcomer to TNCS, and we’re very fortunate to have him and his special expertise. Craig Lapreziosa is a former engineer turned English as Foreign Language instructor, who says, “If you have to communicate in a foreign language, you will.” Of the experience so far, he says that the biggest challenge has been keeping the Chinese and American students integrated during learning activities. They tend to cluster off because it’s more comfortable for them. Socially, it’s a different story, however. “I was worried about how to break the ice among them, but they did it on their own—there’s no shyness among them at all,” laughs Mr. Lapreziosa and points to where the girls were supposed to be having their morning snack. Instead, they were all dancing and singing along to the Beatles playing over the computer, not a drop of inhibition to be seen from anybody! Six 7- to 9-year-old girls will certainly tend to be an exuberant group. “I have new respect for elementary teachers,” jokes Mr. Lapreziosa.

With their daughters having such a nice time, Kelly and Jane have decided to extend their trip a week longer to visit New York City, Boston, Niagara Falls, and (of course!) Disneyworld after leaving Baltimore to take full advantage of being in the United States. Neither Kelly nor Jane has been here before, though Kelly got her M.B.A. in Canada. She now teaches business at Guangdong AIB Polytechnical College, and Jane is a data processing engineer. They describe how different education is at TNCS in contrast to home, where instruction is always lecture style. “Here, they can actually experience things to learn,” says Kelly. She describes Mr. Lapreziosa as being very patient and helpful with the girls. The ladies have some good camp ideas of their own brewing, too. We just may see them back again next year, which would be a real honor. They are most welcome!

Fortunately, our visitors didn't actually have to walk here ;).

Fortunately, our visitors didn’t actually have to walk here ;).

"Walking around the world from China to the United States": This related art project was done during Mandarin Immersion Camp, held earlier this summer.

“Walking around the world from China to the United States”: This related art project was done during Mandarin Immersion Camp, held earlier this summer.

*English spellings helpfully provided by Charlotte Chen—our former and well-loved Chen Laoshi! Thanks Charlotte!

Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function

Mandarin class

Combining games with Mandarin instruction. Hmmm—what does that carpet say?

There’s a lot of buzz currently circulating about bi- and multilingualism—people who speak more than one language are smarter, they tend to earn higher wages, and they have clear communication advantages amid increasing globalization, according to a recent NY Times article. Learning second and third (and beyond) languages is becoming an educational priority; in fact, the language instruction at The New Century School is a big factor in why some parents choose TNCS for their kids.

Those parents are even more on target with that choice than they might have initially known, as multiplying evidence shows. Turns out, how you acquire new languages is also important, according to preliminary research sponsored by the American Councils for International Education. Initial findings suggest that the more language kids get, the bigger their improvements in all sorts of metrics, from literacy to math to creativity to executive function . . .  and the list goes on.

Why Learning Another Language Matters: The Benefits

But before we get deeper into the how, let’s look more closely at the whys and wherefores of multilingualism. Learning a foreign language is not easy for most adults, if the proliferation of Rosetta Stone–type products is any indication. For kids (the younger the better), it’s a heck of a lot easier, which begs the question, why do public school systems generally wait until high school to offer foreign language instruction? Experts at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages agree that starting a second language early in childhood has many benefits, including increased competence in that language. More importantly, “Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not.” Furthermore, they argue that language acquisition is fundamentally a cognitive, rather than a linguistic exercise. In other words, learning a new language requires and hones problem-solving skills, which children are actively developing. Their flexible brains are ideal for the mental calisthenics language acquisition demands.

There are other ways in which “the earlier the better” comes into play—increased fluency in both the foreign and the native languages, for instance, as well as more accurate pronunciation and intonation are more easily achieved by young learners. By no means does this suggest that older learners, including adults, should give up trying to learn a new language; it just means that gains will likely be more modest. The point is, the optimal window for language acquisition is during early childhood.

Not only are kids’ brains better suited to the mental workout, but the workout itself—just as physical exercise does to the body—actually reshapes their brains to function even better. Bilingual kids’ brains always have both languages active internally even when they are only speaking one at a time. This forces their brains to be constantly monitoring their surroundings for what utterance is appropriate in the given context, sort of like being continuously presented with a minor problem to solve (or, to continue the exercise metaphor, posing low-level chronic resistance to muscles). Far from confusing kids, as once thought, the internal conflict makes their brains more nimble; they think more clearly, not less. To test this, in one experiment, scientists presented a group of kids ages 4 and 5 years with the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task, which required them to sort the cards first by color, then by shape, even when the color didn’t match (this video shows how difficult this task is for preschoolers). To perform the task, the child needs to be able to manage conflicting stimuli, a marker of executive function (for which we’ll borrow this definition: “a set of processes that are responsible for the conscious control of thought and action”). The bilingual children consistently outperformed the monolinguals.

Merging Practical Life skills with immersion in Spanish in a Primary classroom.

The student carries out instructions given in Spanish, successfully coordinating a progression of cognitive functions in order to assist the teacher with cleaning the chalkboard.

With evidence that bilingualism leads to “cognitive flexibility” accumulating in several studies in the early 2000s, researchers next investigated at what age the advantages begin to manifest and found through meta-analysis of existing studies that at age 2 years and even earlier, bilinguals exhibit better cognitive function than their single- language counterparts.

And, although it’s easier to learn other languages at younger ages, the benefits are lifelong. Bilingual patients stave off dementia in older adulthood better and longer, for example. (See below for links to the original research papers with loads more information and data.)

TNCS’s Approach

Now back to the “how,” for the latest development in this ongoing inquiry, it seems that immersion in another language facilitates its acquisition. So, with language, it’s not just the earlier the better, but also the deeper the better. Language immersion is just what it sounds like, except with an additional nuance in the scholastic environment: the student learns the language and is also learning other subjects in that second language. Thus, math, phys ed, or art instructions are presented in, for example, Spanish to native English speakers. Given the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is currently funding research on the efficacy of the immersion approach, with all indices pointing to favorable results. As stated above, the preliminary findings show better academic performance.

So, to wrap up, what does all this have to do with TNCS? Well, in several important ways, TNCS is getting it right.

  • First, TNCS provides both Spanish and Mandarin language instruction, arguably the two most relevant non-English languages in the changing U.S. demography.
  • Second, language instruction begins as early as possible—as soon as the student matriculates. For pre-primary–enrolled students, this is age 2 years.
  • Third, immersion is central to TNCS philosophy. Pre-primary students are fully immersed in either a Spanish or Mandarin classroom. Primary and elementary students get both formal instruction in Mandarin and Spanish and partial immersion in Spanish (e.g., phys ed at The Lingo Leap might be taught in Spanish, etc.).
  • Fourth, TNCS encourages parent participation in this important process. Print and post the Word of the Week in Spanish and Mandarin featured on TNCS’s website. Parents can learn right along with their kids!
  • Fifth, Montessori education inherently cultivates executive function; therefore, the pairing of Montessori-inspired and language curricula is synergistic—each component enhances the other.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Hello Kitty signifies a job well done!

Elementary students even learn Mandarin characters, recording them in practice books!

For more information:

  • Read the seminal 2004 article from Developmental Science here.
  • Read the 2009 article from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America here.
  • Read the 2010 article from Journal of Experimental Child Psychology here.

Ciao! ¡Adiós! Auf Wiedersehen! Au revoir! Zàijiàn! Ilalliqa! Shalom! Sayonara!

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts in the Comments section.