March STEAM Madness: Jumping ahead to the “M”!

True to form, March 2017 blew in like a lion and out like a lamb . . . but this year, a numbers-minded marsupial bounced into the middle—at The New Century School, anyway!

Math Kangaroo Comes to Baltimore

For the first time in Baltimore, TNCS hosted Math Kangaroo, an International Competition for 1st- through 12-grade students whose mission is to:

  • Encourage students to master their mathematical knowledge.
  • Give them confidence in their ability for comprehending mathematics.
  • Help them understand how mathematics applies in nature’s laws and human activities.
  • Develop their ability to derive pleasure and satisfaction through intellectual life.
  • Show that mathematical education is significant in every part of the world.

imgres“Bringing an international math competition to Baltimore has been a dream of mine for a long time,” said TNCS Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director and former math teacher Jennifer Lawner.

A challenge for Baltimore as more people are choosing to stay and raise their families here is offering appropriate activities for them that are currently available in the county. Organizations like the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and Coppermine Fieldhouse have been critical in trying to recruit activities for Baltimore so that we can have our children participate in engaging pursuits and sports leagues, and I think TNCS also helps with extracurricular activities. For me, math competitions are also in the realm of things that Baltimore needs to function as a livable place for families.

Why Math Kangaroo

TNCS hopes to offer the competition annually henceforth, and participation will be open to students from schools city-wide. This first event was somewhat of a trial run, though, before actively recruiting other schools. Ms. Lawner said she wanted to first make sure that the event “lifted students up rather than discouraging them. What we’re trying to do is get children interested in math at early ages so that they might consider intensive study or careers in math-related fields in the future.” Math Kangaroo had the benefit of opening participation in 1st grade, whereas many other math competitions, such as Math Olympiads, start at 4th grade. “They have to be old enough to be able to read the problems and instructions,” explained Ms. Lawner, “but the first and second level exams also offer a lot of visual problems for younger students.”


The biggest appeal of Math Kangaroo, however, is the approach to doing math. For example, the problems start easy and get progressively harder so that there will always be enough problems for the individual student to be able to work out and feel successful enough to keep going. “Encountering problems they have never been exposed to before is a really good experience for students,” added Ms. Lawner, “because they have mastered at least enough skills to try, and that’s our primary goal for them—to be motivated to try but be okay with possibly not being able to get it the first time.” TNCS’s regular math curriculum consists of skill-building and problem-solving, but Math Kangaroo provided a fresh kind of problem for students to tackle. Said Ms. Lawner:

The problems are formulated in such a way that, for example, multiplication might be necessary for the solution, but it won’t be immediately obvious that multiplication is required. The student has to fundamentally understand what multiplication accomplishes in order to use it in the context of the problem. It’s not just working through 50 arithmetic problems in a fixed amount of time, as people might imagine. These problems might involve multiple steps, each requiring a mathematical tool that the students have been learning to use, which gets them figuring out how these skills fit into solving the problem. It’s not a repetitive thing; with actual problem-solving, you have to use logic in addition to traditional math skills. The strength of these problems is that they must be understood very deeply to be solved, and that’s really what is being tested.

Math Kangaroo 2015 Sample Questions

In the weeks leading up to the March 16th competition, TNCS teachers worked with students to give them practice breaking down these kinds of problems into discrete steps and organizing their work. Reading the problem carefully is key in problems such as what are listed below. Go on, give it a shot! (Answers are given at the end of the post in case you get stumped.)

Level 1/2

1. Look closely at these four pictures.

Which figure is missing from one of the pictures?


Level 3/4

2. Peter has ten balls, numbered from 0 to 9. He gave four of the balls to George and three to Ann. Then each of the three friends multiplied the numbers on their balls. As the result, Peter got 0, George got 72, and Ann got 90. What is the sum of the numbers on the balls that Peter kept for himself?


A) 11               B) 12               C) 13               D) 14              E) 15

Level 5/6

3. Four points lie on a line. The distances between them are, in increasing order: 2, 3, k, 11, 12, 14. What is the value of k?

A) 5                 B) 6                 C) 7                 D) 8                 E) 9

Level 7/8

4. In a group of kangaroos, the two lightest kangaroos weigh 25% of the total weight of the group. The three heaviest kangaroos weigh 60% of the total weight. How many kangaroos are in the group?

A) 6                 B) 7                 C) 8                 D) 15               E) 20

Level 9/10

5. The figure shows seven regions formed by three intersecting circles. A number is written in each region. It is known that the number in any region is equal to the sum of the numbers in all neighboring regions. (We call two regions neighboring if their boundaries have more than one common point.) Two of the numbers are known (see the figure). Which number is written in the central region?


A) 0                 B) – 3               C) 3                 D) – 6               E) 6

Level 11/12

6. When reading the following statements from the left to the right, what is the first statement that is true?

A) C) is true.    B) A) is true.    C) E) is false.   D) B) is false. E) 1 + 1 = 2

Competition Outcomes

Parents may have been skeptical about the idea of their kids sitting down to take what, in effect, was a 90-minute math exam, complete with answer bubbles carefully filled in with no. 2 pencils, especially because this is something they had not been asked to do thus far at TNCS. But, perhaps surprisingly, the students not only handled it without issue, but actually enjoyed it, more importantly, which was the primary goal. It’s easy to speculate on why—it’s a competition—a game—not an anxiety-inducing test, and kids brought lots of positivity to the experience. The challenge is itself motivating, in the same way sports can be for the physical body. Participation, moreover, is optional.
They also received a T-shirt, a pencil, a tattoo, and a certificate of participation for joining in, so those inducements may be responsible for some of the joie de math.  Another reason, explained Ms. Lawner, “is that children all over the world were participating, so our students felt very special to be a part of this. Mathematics is done all over the world, and Math Kangaroo wants to make students aware of that connection and prepare them for that global challenge.”
One thing that is important to bear in mind about this kind of endeavor is that the score, seemingly paradoxically, is largely beside the point. Because the exam is intended to challenge, many students might not score even above 50%, but, said Ms. Lawner, “the value was that students had the opportunity to step out of the curriculum and face new problems, and they got excited about math. Parents and teachers also got excited and participated. I think the experience elevated the students’ interest in mathematics and awareness of mathematics as an international activity—great benefits, to be sure.”
The primary goals of fun and engagement were achieved, if how excited students were both before and after the event are any indication. Some parents even report being given math tests of their children’s devising. Nevertheless, it might seem counterintuitive for a school that does not adopt standardized tests to go in for this kind of math exam. “The baggage that goes along with the word ‘test’ is a lot,” said Ms. Lawner, “when what we’re really trying to do is give students a period of challenge. It’s not so much a test on material that they’ve learned and are supposed to regurgitate as an experience with challenging problems and what they can do with them.” Another kind of “score,” in other words. “How hard they worked was so impressive,” said Ms. Lawner who was on hand to help out during exam administration. “They used all their time and were so determined to do this thing.”
IMG_1440 1
Even so, students who do score well will be rewarded with prizes. There are medals for the top three students in the country, and ribbons for the top three in the state. Other prizes include books, games, gift cards, and toys. Students who demonstrate high achievement over multiple years are eligible for college grants.

The Future of Math Kangaroo at TNCS

Previous Maryland winners seem to cluster in Montgomery county—“It’s time for Baltimore to challenge that!” said Ms. Lawner. With the inaugural event being so well-received by TNCS students, next year, the hope is to offer two public sessions for non-TNCS students in addition to the in-school exam.
There’s so much talent in Baltimore, in our children, and I would just love for them to be encouraged to come show their stuff. Sometimes all children need is to be asked to participate. It might start somebody down a path that could lead to his or her life’s passion. I think it’s really important to encourage math, especially as students get older and the math gets harder. Our goal here is for students to get a really solid foundation in math so that later they’re able to make choices and that multiple future paths are open to them. A career in engineering, for example, requires a certain level of math skill. So, we always want to promote the possibility that you can do it—you can stare at a problem long enough, given the right tools, to find a creative solution.
Answers to Practice Questions
1. D) image005 2. E) 15 3. E) 9 4. A) 6 5. A) 0 6. D) B) is false.

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.


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.