TNCS’s Annual Elementary & Middle School Information Nights: An Overview

On the first two Thursdays of December, The New Century School hosted Information Nights about TNCS elementary and middle school programs, the first for current elementary/middle school families, the second for prospective families including those currently enrolled in TNCS’s preschool program.

The event is the best opportunity to get an in-depth look at the various curricula. After an introduction by TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali, each teacher described his or her classroom approach and particular subject area. Following these teacher presentations, audience members asked specific questions of the presenters. They also had the chance to flip through relevant curriculum materials.

The TNCS Difference

Mrs. Danyali first explained that one big change from the primary program is that, beginning in elementary, students have a homeroom teacher but then cycle through other classrooms throughout the school day, receiving instruction from a “team” of teachers, who each teach by subject area, rather than remaining with primarily one teacher as in preschool. Another key difference is that fewer Montessori elements are incorporated in the curriculum, although certainly the spirit and even some of the math materials are retained, depending on grade level.

Aspects that do continue from the preschool program include combining age groups within individual classrooms. “Staying true to our philosophy that students learn best in a mixed-age environment, we do combine ages in our elementary and middle school programs,” Mrs. Danyali explained. Thus, there are currently two K–1st-grade homerooms, one K–2nd-grade homeroom, a 2nd–3rd-grade homeroom, and a 4th–6th-grade homeroom.

Another continuous feature is individualized instruction—meeting the child at his or her academic and social level.

Her discourse then turned to what sets the TNCS elementary and middles school programs apart from those of other schools: “One thing we really believe in is learning languages,” she continued. “Every single day, your child will have individual time with their language educator, so they get a 45- to 90-minute block of Spanish and another with Mandarin Chinese. As their skills develop, they do more focused reading and writing, math, and culture in those two languages.”

Another difference she mentioned is the degree of depth in Science and Global Studies. “These disciplines are theme based as well as cross curricular,” she explained, “resulting in deeper exploration of the topics. For example, in Quarter 1 of the 2016–2017 school year,  students studied Egypt, with projects differentiated by grade level. The topic of Egypt carried over into English Language Arts as well as art class. We ensure that they get the full experience across the curriculum.”

Finally, so-called “specials” classes—that is, art, music, physical education—each take place twice weekly, which subjects get squeezed out of many public and charter school curricula to make room for disciplines more geared toward “what’s on The Test.”

Mrs. Danyali also has implemented twice monthly assemblies that explore aspects of character development, each assembly devoted to a particular theme. So far this year, elementary and middle school students have been taking a deep dive into the four Core Values and have enacted skits, made drawings, and told storied to illustrate what these concepts mean to them. Service learning, in particular, has been a key focus in the elementary and middle school program, and students have regularly participated in initiatives both in and around school as well as for the surrounding communities such as by serving as “safeties” who escort younger students from the car line into the school building a few mornings per week, cleaning up Gunpowder Falls State Park, and serving as “blanketeers” through Project Linus.

Science & Math, Kindergarten through 2nd Grade

fullsizerenderKiley Stasch is in her second year at TNCS. As Science and Math instructor for K–2nd grade, she explained that in Kindergarten, the Montessori approach to math is used, which relies on manipulatives to demonstrate increasingly abstract concepts. The “Daily 5” (or some permutation thereof) is also used for classroom management as well as to provide very individualized instruction.  Divided into small groups, students rotate with their group through a series of five stations: computer technology time (ABC Mouse, SuccessMaker, Khan Academy, depending on age and skill level), hands-on math games with partners or individually, meet the teacher, read to self (math- and science-related topics), and a science center.

“Although all levels are doing an energy unit, currently, what I’m doing with my Kindergarteners will be different from what I’m doing with my 2nd-graders and different from what Mr. McGonigal is doing with his 6th-graders,” she explained. “We try to build our instruction on whatever the students need, what they are capable of, and guide them as far as they can go.”

English Language Arts, Kindergarten through 2nd Grade

tncs-elementary-and-middle-school-programs-information-nightAdriana Duprau has been with TNCS for 7 years and is the lead for English Language Arts and Global Studies for K–2nd grade. “We have 45 students in our cohort [about 12 but no more than 16 per class], which includes many different personalities and abilities. Our goal is to make sure they get the personalized instruction they need. They also stay motivated to progress by their peers who might be working on something they aspire to.” This class also uses the Daily 5 approach. Here it is read to self, read to someone, word work, listen to reading (on the computer), and writing work. “Even my youngest 5-year-olds can quietly and independently rotate among these stations. It works very smoothly and allows me to work with at least four groups a day, meaning that students get one-on-one teacher time virtually every day.”

She incorporates Junior Great Books, which is a monthly whole-class exercise that encourages sharing new ideas and rich conversation; Lucy Calkins and Just Write for writing instruction; Fundations, for beginning readers/spellers; and Wordly Wise 3000.

“It’s nice to see my students working at their own level, not necessarily their assigned grade. Because I have mixed ages and therefore multiple curriculum materials, I can provide higher level materials for the student who is rapidly advancing,” she said.

Spanish Language Arts, Kindergarten through 2nd Grade

fullsizerender-02Profesor Manuel Caceres is in his second year of teaching at TNCS and teaches Spanish speaking, reading, writing, and grammar to the K–2nd cohort. “I know you hear about me a lot,” he joked. “Each teacher has his or her own recipe to provide each student with the best academic experience.” He uses the Santillana platform for helping students develop skills and achieve fluency but was quick to remind us that there’s no magic bullet for learning another language.

He uses Daily 3—writing, reading, and speaking—in the classroom. He approaches the curriculum by school quarter, starting with the basics of vocabulary and handwriting and building on reading comprehension and, for example, verb conjugation, as the year progresses. He also incorporates games, singing, and media to keep them moving and engaged. “Academically, they will be at a very high level in terms of Spanish proficiency when they eventually transition to high school,” he said. “It’s a really amazing opportunity that the school provides.”

He explained that he also tailors his lessons to connect with the areas of exploration happening in other disciplines, such as the unit on Egypt (Egipto) already mentioned. As with other teachers, he also makes sure that instruction is individualized and sees a wide range of abilities and skill level among the cohort.

Mandarin Chinese, Kindergarten through 6th Grade

fullsizerender-03Another teacher in Year 2 at TNCS, Wei Li, or “Li Laoshi,” teaches Mandarin Chinese to all elementary and middle school students. “We use the same methods here as were used in preschool to teach Mandarin,” she explained. This method centers on Total Physical Response (TPR), a proven strategy that incorporates movement to deepen comprehension. “So, we sing, we dance, and we play games in Chinese class. But, we focus more on Chinese characters and reading skills in elementary and middle school, so they can read books independently,” she explained.

“Another way we incorporate TPR is with acting out stories each Friday,” she went on. They write these stories and act them out on stage. “Books are the backbone of the curriculum,” she said, “and students can progress at their own pace through them.” Here again, due to the mixed ages and as well as the varying degrees of skills among them, individualized instruction is paramount. To achieve this, Li Laoshi uses the Daily 5—meet with teacher, write sentences using Chinese characters, read books, play games, and use the computer.

jianzi-1Cultural elements are also emphasized, so they do a lot of cooking and eating Chinese food as well as playing traditional Chinese playground games, such as jianzi, a feathered shuttlecock (see photo) played similar to hackey sack, and Chinese squash. Calligraphy and painting is also taught to further promote the students’ interest in learning Chinese.

Art, Kindergarten through 6th-Grade (So Far)

fullsizerender-07Elisabeth Willis has been at TNCS for years and in different capacities. She now, in fact, teaches art to all TNCS students, including pre-primary and primary students. By Kindergarten, her students have attained functional skills and can apply them ever more masterfully. She also incorporates Art History at this point, which is her specialty. Her students can now recognize artwork by artist.

Mrs. Willis encourages her students to bring their ideas for projects to her, and, as such, did some bookmaking with them earlier this year. She also encourages them to embrace their own styles and adapts assignments as necessary to accommodate, for example, a student’s inclusion of more detail than was called for. Instead of using oil pastels to add color to such a piece, she allows that student to use a different medium.

Importantly, she links art class with other content areas, to deepen and enrich the student’s experience. When they were studying Ancient Egypt, for example, she introduced them to hieroglyphics, and some students even began sending notes to each other written in this representational alphabet. The older students even designed cartouches to feature their hieroglyphic messages.

“Art is a more meditative place in the school,” she said. “The students relax, do some introspection, and really put the work out there. I’m very proud of them,” she said. “All of my students are doing art past what they would be learning in their assigned grade. Kids are more than able to make really good art, despite what a curriculum made by adults says.”

English Language Arts & Science, 2nd Grade through 6th Grade (So Far)

fullsizerender-04Dan McGonigal is in his third year at TNCS, having worked in different capacities in the elementary program and teaching English Language Arts and Science for the 2016–2017 school year. Mr. McGonigal also taught for 8 years in the public school setting. With his dual perspective, he says, he clearly sees the advantages that TNCS students have in this program. “As several teachers have mentioned,” he explained, “we are highly individualized with students’ education, and this is certainly also true for 2nd- through 6th-graders. We try to meet students at their ability level rather than their assigned grade level, whether it’s a 6th-grade student reading at a 4th-grade level, or a 4th-grade student reading at a 6th-grade level.”

The focus of his reading class is to get students thinking more deeply about the content, to pick up context clues and infer the author’s meaning. “We also do a lot of discussion-based learning when it comes to language arts acquisition,” he said. “Building on the skills that students have learned earlier and applying them to higher-level texts, we are developing a love of learning in students.”

Regarding writing, he says he tries to find opportune moments to ask for a piece of writing to make it “real.” “Instead of doing writing in isolation,” he explained, “we apply it to a real-world situation. We integrate writing not only with what we are reading but also with science topics and any other content areas.” Chapter books, teacher-led discussions, and student-led discussions comprise a big part of class time, and he also incorporates spelling and vocabulary acquisition with Wordly Wise, which puts challenging vocabulary in context and gives words multiple meanings. In spelling, he emphasizes patterns rather than rote memorization in order to build up skills.

Moving on to science, he describes himself as a “passionate science educator.” “I recently got certified as a STEM Education Leader, among the first cohort of only eight teachers to receive this certification from Towson University.” He says he integrates engineering everywhere he can, always applying it to solving real-world challenges and problems. “For example, he explains, “we have just started our energy unit, and after we have learned all about energy and how it works, what it is, and its different types, we will then put that knowledge to use in an engineering challenge. It’s a way to really bring that instruction alive, and it’s also a great way to assess students insofar as their designs and creations reveal the thinking and understanding that went into them. We are developing 21st-century skills and instilling the kinds of habits that The New Century School embodies.”

Curriculum materials include Engineering is Elementary, Fox Education Systems, and a lot of teacher-created items designed with individual students in mind. “In 2nd through 6th grade, we are getting more serious in terms of holding students accountable for their learning. We start to see quizzes and tests, for example, all to make sure each student is getting what he or she needs,” he concluded.

Math & Global Studies, 2nd Grade through 6th Grade (So Far)

fullsizerender-05Beatriz Cabrera is new to TNCS for the 2016–2017 school year (look for a Meet-the-Teacher post on her in the coming weeks) and teaches Mathematics and Global Studies to 2nd- through 6th-graders. But that’s not all—Sra. Cabrera teaches her subject areas in Spanish, thus providing an authentic immersion experience. Thus, students enhance their Spanish language acquisition and also learn core content in that language.

“I came from Spain 2 years ago,” she said, “and I am really happy to join The New Century School. My students are learning Spanish very quickly.” She describes the process by which she pulls of the amazing feat of teaching Math and Global Studies in Spanish to mostly nonnative speakers as one of accrual. Initially, she repeated everything she spoke in Spanish, in English, so she could be sure they understood their instructions for a given lesson, until she observed that her students were comfortable enough to go full Spanish. “They are very bright,” she said. Her materials are also in English, so those she translates herself into Spanish.

Sra. Cabrera also implements the Daily 5 rotation approach to class time and dedicates more time on Fridays to playing games. “By the last day of the week, they are tired, so I try to make it fun. They love it,” she said. In fact, this game-playing is strategic in another way by preparing her students to participate in Math Kangaroo, an international competition that U.S. students will join on March 16, 2017.

In keeping with the theme of individualized instruction, she says she also allows students to work where they are. “Students can have the perception that math is hard or that they cannot do math, so I try to make them feel comfortable. ‘You are here to learn,’ I tell them, ‘and the most important thing is to try. You do not need to be afraid if you don’t know how to do something. That’s what you are here to do—to learn how,'” she explained.

Currently, in Global Studies, they are studying the Ancient Roman and Greek Empires, having completed their “Egipto” unit in the first quarter. Here again, she translates her class materials into Spanish and encourages students to also speak and write in the language, often offering extra credit if they do so. In this class, the focus is not so much on proper usage as on just usage. Grading on grammar and the like is reserved for another class.

Spanish, 2nd through 6th Grade

fullsizerender-06Fabiola Sanzana is another TNCS veteran, having been with the school for many years. She teaches Spanish to the 2nd- through 6th-graders. “I am from Chile,” she began, “and in my culture, the Spanish language is very, very important, especially in terms of writing.” All of her materials are Latin American based that she obtains from her teacher networks.

Sra. Sanzana is currently teaching her students how to interpret instructions. Nothing is in English, and she expects them to figure out and understand their instructions in Spanish, which they manage very well. “I give them the tools,” she says, “such as how to use online Spanish dictionaries and to choose the most accurate translation, so they can proceed with a given activity.” She describes how, at the beginning of the school year, students relied heavily on the dictionaries (parents may recall this during homework time), but now they have progressed beyond the need for such help and can read and interpret the instructions independently. “They have assimilated an enormous amount of vocabulary,” she said.

They are also learning syllables, nouns, big numbers, and more. “They are not little kids anymore. They are ready and able. Also, if they have been with Profesor Manuel, they come to me with very advanced vocabulary,” she said. “Here they are facing more difficult lessons and advanced Spanish.” She emphasizes correct pronunciation in speech and correct orthography, including accent marks, in writing.

She implements a Daily 3 rotation in the classroom: one-on-one instruction, in which they address specific concerns about assignments or cover new material if appropriate; read to self or others, in which they have begun reading short novels and answering related questions to test comprehension (which Sra. Sanzana deems “amazing”); and group work that might include dictation, role-playing, games, or songs. Her students always want more, she says, which is a very good sign indeed!

Regarding instructional differentiation, her class is composed of a spectrum of levels from native Spanish speakers to novice speakers who just joined TNCS this year. “I prepare materials for each student,” she says. “I meet with all of them to determine where they are and teach accordingly.”

All Wrapped-Up

After the teachers each spoke, Mrs. Danyali explained some administrative points that are always frequently asked about, such as that TNCS sends out report cards four times a year, with a specialized reporting system that accommodates a multilingual school. TNCS is also MSDE (MD State Department of Education) certified. Parent–teacher conferences are held twice yearly, and teachers may be contacted separately at any time to address specific concerns or just to check in and keep the lines of communication open. Homework begins in Grade 2 and is given on Mondays, with the remainder of the week to complete it. Prior to Grade 2, nightly reading is encouraged.

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The evening ended with Q&A between staff and audience on specific points, and curriculum materials were made available for parent perusal. Current families appreciated the in-depth look at the elementary and middle school programs and the amount of preparation that went into each teacher presentation. Prospective families were surely impressed by the robustness of education at TNCS. From the academic rigor infused into core subjects, to the multilingualism, to the emphasis on The Arts, coupled with the customized instruction each child receives, these elementary and middle school programs are truly unique in Baltimore.

 

TNCS Elementary Students Inform through Writing

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Lower elementary students are also given regular writing sessions. This student gets right down to it!

Although The New Century School was abuzz in March with all things STEM Fair related, Language Arts hardly suffered! Amidst the science- and engineering-oriented preparations, projects, and presentations, TNCS upper elementary students were busily working on their Informational Writing pieces.

Language Arts teacher Adriana DuPrau follows the renowned Lucy Calkins writing curriculum, as recently detailed in “State-of-the-Science Elementary Writing Instruction at TNCS.” For this phase of the curriculum, Mrs. Duprau challenged her students to choose a topic they wanted to educate others about and then to elaborate on the topic in a 1- to 2-page cohesive document. They worked on their pieces in “writing workshops.” During most of this time, students wrote independently, with Mrs. DuPrau conferring and guiding as needed. What emerges during these workshops becomes a “mini-lesson,” in which the teacher offers strategies for writing that the student will be able to apply in other writing contexts and in this way continuously cultivate effective writing and communication skills.

“Topics ranged from the Baltimore Ravens to immigrant families,” said Mrs. DuPrau. Her students also presented their pieces to the rest of the class, giving them some important practice in the art of public speaking and boosting their self-confidence in the bargain. (See a slide show of these wonderfully self-possessed presenters below.) Also of note is that the students provided an accompanying illustration, which served both to help convey the idea they were elaborating on as well as to make the topic richer for their own exploration of it. Arts integration has been receiving lots of media attention recently, but this innovative approach to education is nothing new to TNCS!

how-to-writing-tncs

Also just in time for the STEM Fair! There was lots of seed planting and nurturing going on at TNCS this spring!

Informational Writing is the age-appropriate curriculum for 3rd- through 5th-graders, but all TNCS elementary students are given writing instruction and ample opportunities to express themselves in writing, right down to kindergarteners. Teresa Jacoby’s K/1st students, for example, also participated in a writing project that took the form of a How-To. Students were asked to explain in stepwise fashion how to approach a given task, such as making a PB&J or planting a seed. These writing pieces, too, were accompanied by illustrations.

Writing in the classroom is an integral part of learning, helping students to communicate effectively; to review and remember recently learned content; to be creative and explore a topic deeply; and to better understand their experiences and, by extension, themselves. Write on, TNCS elementary students! We eagerly await all that you have to express!

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State-of-the-Science Elementary Writing Instruction at TNCS

As The New Century School grows and expands, the elementary program curriculum is continually refined to provide a progressive education that ensures self-motivated, inquiry-driven, critically thinking students. One area of ongoing focus is on writing, a skill that will serve students throughout their academic careers and is vital to their contribution to any profession post-academically. The ability to write opinions/arguments, informational pieces, and narratives is hailed as such an essential 21st-century skill that it gets quite a large share of attention in Common Core State Standards, but enhancing literacy skills is a primary concern for any school, whether public or private. Accordingly, on a recent Monday this past September, TNCS elementary teacher Adriana DuPrau attended a writing workshop in Leesburg, VA to stay up to date on current best practices and proven frameworks for teaching writing in the independent environment of TNCS.

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The Lucy Calkins–led writing workshop gave writing instructors the tools they need to implement a systematic writing curriculum.

Led by veteran writing instructor Lucy Calkins, the workshop grew out of her 35 years of writing instruction research. Ms. Calkins and her colleagues are best known for the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) out of Columbia University. TCRWP was built on the premise that “Students can only become stronger, more confident writers and learners when they know where they are going and have a clear roadmap to get them there.” Students need a  pathway, in other words, to write a coherent piece just as they do to solve an algebraic equation or use the scientific method to conduct a physics experiment. Elements must build upon one another, leading up to a conclusion. TCRWP gives writing teachers grade-specific (K–8) support in the form of “Units of Study for Teaching Writing.”

The good news is that as schools hear the rallying cry . . . to develop school-wide, coherent approaches to teaching writing, they needn’t invent curriculum on their own . . .” writes Lucy Calkins. TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali got the message. She seized the opportunity for TNCS Language Arts teacher Mrs. DuPrau to attend The New Units of Study in Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing Grades 3–8 workshop to learn directly from leading practitioners and researchers in the field of writing education.

Three topics that Mrs. DuPrau found especially helpful to implement a systematic writing curriculum are as follows:
  • The Architecture of Effective Writing Minilessons: The content of the minilesson changes from day to day but the architecture of the minilesson often remains constant. Minilessons begin with connection. This is teaching students something we hope they’ll use often as they write via Demonstration, Guided Practice, Explanation with Example, and Inquiry. Teachers will then give students a quick opportunity to try writing about what was just taught. Last comes linking. To bring closure to the minilessons, teachers usually link the minilesson to what the class has learned on previous days, to that day’s work-time, and to the children’s lives.
  • Conferring with Student Writers: One-to-one conferences are at the heart of the process approach to teaching writing. While they appear to be warm, informal conversations, conferences are in fact highly principled teaching interactions, carefully designed to move writers along learning pathways. Steps include learning about the writer; supporting/complimenting the writer; deciding what your teaching point will be and how you will teach it; teaching it to the writer something, following the architecture of a minilesson; and re-articulating what you’ve taught, encouraging the writer to do the same as he or she writes.
  • Revison Strategies: Add more. Look at the beginning, middle, and end of your piece. Ask, “What have I left our?” Take out parts that don’t belong, that are redundant, or that take away from the overall cohesiveness of your piece. Reread, and ask, “How can it be clearer? Is this really what I have to say? What’s the most important thing I want my reader to know?” Reread for sound (read it aloud or have your partner read it to you), asking, “How can I make it sound better? Where does the sound work, and how can this be extended?” “Where does the sound not work and how can I make it sound the way I want it to?”
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An Argument Read Aloud Protocol gave writing instructors specific classroom heuristics.

“It was a really wonderful interactive writing workshop,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “I was given the opportunity to work with a lot of other professionals as well as learn great writing techniques that work in grades 3–6. I liked how it focused on different grade levels so I can see what the expectations are for higher grades as we map and plan our curriculum at TNCS.”

Although the ability to read was once considered the most important aspect of literacy, in the connected era we now live in, writing shares the spotlight, as the ability to convey knowledge becomes almost as important as the knowledge itself. Writing is also itself a learning tool, the vehicle through which critical thinking and inquiry occurs.

TNCS elementary students will conduct research and share findings, they will collaborate and provide helpful feedback, and they will clearly convey meaning across all scholastic disciplines and all through writing. In their future chosen vocations—whether as journalists, engineers, mathematicians, teachers, social or environmental activists, artists, etc.— their ability to write well will help ensure their happiness and success.