Meet the Teacher: Michele Hackshaw Joins TNCS Primary Division

michele-hackshaw-joins-tncs-primaryMichele Hackshaw joined The New Century School at the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year as a Montessori Lead Teacher with Gloria Jimenez assisting. A native Spanish speaker from Caracas, Venezuela, she moved to Baltimore with her husband in 2000.

In her home country, she pursued a macroeconomics degree but decided to come to the United States to immerse herself in English while earning a Master’s in business. She spent a few years working in the business field, and then, Señora Hackshaw says, the recession of 2008 hit. She began volunteering in her children’s school and found to her surprise that she really enjoyed that type of work. She liked childhood education so much, in fact, that she went for Montessori training. Once certified as a Montessori teacher, she worked at Bridges Montessori School in Towson for about 5 years. “I definitely prefer teaching to business, to my initial surprise. Then, even after the economy got better I told my husband that business is something I don’t want to go back to. I really love what I’m doing right now. I really love to get up and go to my work. This [gesturing to her classroom] is my vocation.”

The switch in careers from business to teaching might seem like quite an about-face, but Sra. Hackshaw believes that the work has greater significance for society. “We have such a a big impact on these children. How they turn out depends on what we do for them, show them, expose them to.” Besides her humanitarian reasons, teaching is also a lot more fun for her than working in an office was, where interactions with irate clients were often less than pleasant. “Here, it’s not like that. Somebody might be crying because I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, and 10 minutes later, he’s got a huge smile. There are no bad work days,” she says.

Her children, a girl and a boy, are now 9 and 10 years old, respectively and have the good fortune to be growing up bilingual. The same can be said of Sra. Hackshaw’s 10 3- to 5-year-old primary students who are in a Spanish-immersion Montessori classroom. “In the beginning, teaching in Spanish was a bit challenging because it was a new language for my students, who were all new to the school. But they learned so fast, and now it’s just great,” she smiles.

About being at TNCS now, she says it’s not only a wonderful experience, but she is learning a lot, professionally. “This is a different environment,” she explains, “because I never worked in a full Spanish immersion classroom, although it was Montessori. But I have never taught Montessori in Spanish or given a Montessori lesson in Spanish. And, unlike teaching Spanish, for example, at an after-school program, which is mostly teaching vocabulary, here it’s different. I speak Spanish the whole time. It has been a valuable process of learning and discovery.” (Please see Montessori Language Arts, Match, Science, and Global Studies at TNCS to learn more about how Sra. Hackshaw and other TNCS primary teachers give Montessori lessons.)

0c1a3e31-5a05-47c6-b01e-2a68c79271d6

For now, Sra. Hackshaw’s “business” is nurturing her students within her warm and peace-loving classrom. “There’s so much that you can give to them, and they will learn from you. If you keep empowering them and model how to be good people, they learn that.”

Welcome to TNCS, Sra Hackshaw!

img_6572

 

TNCS Hosts Education Conference for Teachers from China!

Last week, The New Century School hosted some very special guests: nine kindergarten and preschool educators from China (plus one of the teacher’s 5-year-old daughter, Kitty).  They came to the United States for some training sessions as part of a conference titled “Innovation in Education,” the brainchild of TNCS Co-Founders Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner in partnership with representative Alex Xu from Each Future Cultural Network, a company dedicated to fostering cultural exchanges between China and the United States. Although this was not the first time TNCS and EFCN have jointly hosted Chinese guests (see International Camp at TNCS), this session was unique in being devoted to teacher training for adults.  
Explaining how the conference came to be and its mission, Ms. Faux says:
We were approached by a group in China interested in learning more about U.S. education styles. TNCS partnered with Loyola and Johns Hopkins University to present talks and sessions on a variety of topics. Our mission was to expose Chinese teacher to progressive styles of learning, especially at the preschool and early elementary ages. Many progressive schools approach education based on a model of human development (Montessori). This encompasses two main principles: 1) Children engage in psychological self-construction by means of interaction with their environments, and 2) preschool children have an innate path of psychological development. Children who are at liberty to choose and act freely within a prepared environment act spontaneously for optimal development. This is a critical time for children, which has a long-term impact on future learning and development. This is a very new concept to Chinese education and culture.
The group arrived on Sunday, April 24th and began attending conference seminars first thing the next morning. As Ms. Faux said above, the concepts presented were mostly unfamiliar to the group, but this did not lessen the appeal of listening to presentations and engaging in question-and-answer sessions afterward. Of the nine, three spoke English and were able to help Mr. Xu with the task of translating the presentations by speakers into Mandarin as well as the responses by the group into English to facilitate smooth communication. The itinerary was as follows.

Day 1

On Monday, the group stuck pretty close to home base, starting with a welcome tour of TNCS and an overview of the week’s workshops. After being treated to breakfast by Chef Emma Novashinski, they observed the primary and K/1st classrooms during the morning, then had lunch with the upper elementary students followed by gelato at Pitango in Fell’s Point. Back at headquarters, they enjoyed their first formal presentation by TNCS K/1st teacher Adriana Duprau on classroom management in a non-traditional classroom, where students enjoy considerably more freedom than in traditional classrooms.
This may well have been the most challenging concept of the week for them to embrace, given that there is little leeway in the typical Chinese classroom, and students are expected to conduct themselves according to a strict standard of behavior. In a classroom that averages 30 or more students, such behavioral expectations make sense—no one would be learning anything amidst the mayhem that would otherwise likely result. Instead, the model Chinese student pays attention to the instructor, sits still (in some cases even sitting on his or hands to avoid the temptation to fidget), and speaks only when called on (see TNCS Visits Schools in China).
 

A very thoughtful discussion followed the talk, with the group inquiring about TNCS’s approach to standardized test taking and arguing that every student needs high scores. In Chinese schools, excelling is a must.

Day 2

On Tuesday, the group traveled to Columbia to visit the Washington Montessori Institute of Loyola. Speaker Jennifer Shields, Director of Primary Training, presented the basics of the Montessori approach and how it not only accommodates how children develop but also optimizes that development. As part of the presentation, the group sang a “Good Morning” song, toured classrooms, and watched video footage of a primary classroom in glorious, productive action.

After the morning session, the group returned to TNCS for lunch, followed by a talk from Head of School Alicia Danyali on bilingual education. Once again, the subsequent Q&A focused on the differences between the organic approach to language acquisition that TNCS adopts with the Chinese way, which is often includes using tutors for extra practice.

Day 3

On Wednesday, escorted by JHU School of Education Assistant Dean for Community Schools Dr. Annette Anderson, the group first toured the relatively new Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School, also known as Henderson-Hopkins, an early childhood center as well as K–8 school. According to their mission, this public school:

. . . will pursue the most contemporary, effective approaches to meeting the needs of students, their families, and the community. The school will take a holistic approach to developing the potential of each student, one that focuses on the behavioral, cognitive and physical health of the child. It will emphasize individualized learning, and family and community involvement supported by wrap-around services.

The creation of an early childhood center is key to assuring early success for students and their families and will help each student reach his or her full potential. By placing an emphasis on physical and social development as well as academic achievement, Henderson-Hopkins is fully committed to making sure that all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten and that they will be fully prepared to enter their high school of choice and eventually college.

After lunch at nearby Atwater’s, the group headed to the JHU campus School of Education building, where Assistant Professor Dr. Carolyn Parker gave a presentation on STEM Education. Her talk centered on JHU’s National Science Foundation STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools (SABES) grant. “The SABES grant is a 7.4 million dollar award that leverages the skills and resources of the schools, community, and businesses in three high-minority, low-resource Baltimore city neighborhoods. The goal is to integrate science into a child’s world as opposed to bringing a student into the world of scientists.”

After this full day, the group was ready for some rest but not before one of them made the very incisive point that China seems to invest its educational resources in the top achievers, whereas the United States seems to be focusing on raising up the underperformers.

Day 4

Thursday started with a very special treat—handmade smoothies courtesy of Chef Emma followed by the first-ever TNCS talent show! Students from all levels performed songs in Mandarin, and the upper elementary also sang in Spanish for good measure. The Chinese group was enthralled, and TNCS faculty nearly burst with pride.

From there, the group attended a talk on Mindfulness in Education by Dr. Carisa Perry-Parrish at Johns Hopkins University Medical Campus. See TNCS Teachers Get Mindful! for a similar discussion. Much of this talk involved regulating emotions and how children respond to stressors, which is an also area of expertise of one of the group members, Hui Huang, who goes by “Rowena” in the States.

Lastly that day, the group toured the Baltimore School for the Arts under the guidance of TWIGS (afterschool program) Director and Musical Theatre Instructor Becky Mossing. Here the group saw choir, orchestra, dance, sculpture, and theatre students engaged in their respective arts and also got a peek inside the rigorous academic classrooms.

Day 5

Friday began with a tour of the Washington International School and a presentation on WSI’s international program that challenges students in preschool through 12th grade “to become responsible and effective world citizens.” This was followed by a talk by presenter Alice Zhang on teacher training at the Center for Chinese Language Teacher Development and Training at the University of Maryland College Park.

The final activity was a farewell party back at TNCS, where the group received certification for having completed the training and relaxed with some refreshments. They also provided verbal and written feedback about their experience to help shape future conferences. Said one of the attendees, Xiang Xueying, who goes by “Gloria” in the states, “I really enjoyed my stay here very much.” Gloria was especially impressed with the Western habit of reading to young children nightly before bed and wants to encourage Chinese parents to adopt this practice.

tncs-innovation-in-education-conference-for-chinese-educators

All in all, according to TNCS Lead Mandarin Instructor Wei Li, they were all quite satisfied with the training program. From their reports, she gleaned the following:

They found the arrangements of this training reasonable and colorful. They have visited different levels and different kinds of school here, from pre-primary to university, from private to public school. Also, they were exposed to different areas of education, like language, math, art, psychology, etc. Several things impressed them a lot. First, they appreciated the warm and thoughtful hospitality from TNCS. Second, they enjoyed the advanced Montessori teaching theory and the “practical life” Montessori classroom environment. Last but not least, they were impressed with TNCS students’ multilingual ability, especially their Chinese proficiency.

Mr. Xu also felt that the program was a success and that it was well organized. His one suggestion for future such programs is to tailor the round of talks more to the given audience’s specific background, such as preschool-oriented topics for this last group. It’s a good suggestion because, as Ms. Faux has confirmed, another conference is in the works and may be becoming an ongoing TNCS endeavor!

TNCS Parent Workshop: Making the Transition from Pre-Primary to Primary

This week’s Immersed post is a very special one, brought to you by TNCS Primary Teachers Maria Mosby (main author, photographer) and Lisa Reynolds (main photographer), with additional contributions from TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali and Pre-Primary Teacher Yu Lin.

Their topic? The New Century School‘s Pre-Primary Parent Workshop held January 21, 2016, which was in itself something a little different, focusing on how to make the transition from the pre-primary classroom to the primary classroom a smooth one for our 3-year-old friends. It’s quite a big step for such small children, and many parents experience considerable anxiety about how their child will handle it—a baby in diapers in spring, to a self-possessed student of a multilingual Montessori classroom come fall? Impossible! Yet this is exactly what occurs each year, to the amazement of parents, the delight of the kids themselves, and with knowing smiles by the teachers. And so without further ado, here’s how they do it, as written by Ms. Mosby as well as an excerpt from Lin Laoshi!

The purpose of the Parent Workshop was to give parents an overview of what their child’s experience would be like once they move up to the primary classroom, as well as answer any questions, and perhaps help alleviate any anxiety they might be feeling. It began with Lin Laoshi talking about the difference between the pre-primary and primary classrooms, with the focus being more on independence in primary:

The TNCS pre-primary program is a language immersion program, focusing on foreign language enrichment. Children are exposed to the language 100% of school time. They learn languages through singing fun songs, playing games, doing hands-on activities, and attending cultural presentations. The classroom setting relies mainly on group work with the guidance of the program teacher.

The TNCS primary program is a mixed-age Montessori program, which encourages students to be independent, explore freedom within limits, and learn to establish a sense of order. They are encouraged to choose any activity from within a prescribed range of options and do their work independently most of their school time.

In order to bridge the gap between the two programs, students in the pre-primary program are gradually encouraged to do more things by themselves to enhance their abilities of self-awareness and self-control.”

Mrs. Danyali then gave the parents insight into the placement process and an overview of the primary program, while I walked them through a typical day. From there, it became more of an open discussion and question-and-answer session.

tncs-preprimary-to-primary-transition

A quiet, cozy moment with a friend in the peace corner goes a long way to making children feel comfortable and at ease.

What particular challenges the children will face was a big part of the discussion. Separation tends to be the biggest issue in my experience. Even though these students have been to school before, they are entering a different environment with new teachers, new friends, and new routines. That’s a lot for a young child at once. We try to make the transition as gentle as possible, and make them feel at home.

Another difficult aspect for the new children can be understanding that not all of the Montessori materials are available for them to use just yet. Everything is so new and enticing—in fact, the Montessori materials are specifically designed to call to the children. However, a new 3-year-old, though very excited by the movable alphabet or bead cabinet, is most likely not quite ready to use these materials. That’s why it’s so important to go over preliminary lessons, or the “ground rules” of the classroom, several times in group and individual situations to kindly but firmly give reminders to all.

tncs-preprimary-to-primary-transition

This group Spanish lesson on rainforest animals shows that little kids really can focus . . . even it means keeping their hands otherwise occupied!

Another point to remember is that we make sure each individual child is ready for this transition. Our administrators are very skilled at making sure that children who move up are both physically and emotionally ready. In the rare cases in which a child has shown signs of not being comfortable in the new environment, we worked with the parents to help the child become more independent and develop the skills he or she needed to feel secure in the primary classroom. Consistency and partnership between home and school is, thus, vitally important, as is respect for the child and his or her individual needs.

The photos below (picturing kids who just moved up to primary this school year) erase any doubt that young children are eager to embark on journeys of independence and self-exploration. They learn by doing at this age, and allowing them this opportunity does wonders for their self-esteem, let alone their physical and cognitive development.

The take-away message is, parents should be reassured that this transition needn’t be a scary experience, and there isn’t much special preparation* necessary. We are set up to welcome all children as they are, and the primary classroom is the next step in the work that they’ve already been working so hard at in pre-primary—developing self-help skills, socialization, motor skills, and working within a community.

*Here are some practical tips for parents to familiarize themselves and their children with the exciting changes to come.

  1. It’s great for parents to prepare their children for the transition by talking about it in a positive way, perhaps choosing new items together for the new school year.
  2. Talk about it—but not too much too soon. Constantly discussing the transition, especially when it might be months away, may create anxiety for your child.
  3. Slowly begin introducing more opportunities for independence (allowing your child to dress himself with support, help to pack lunch, etc.). However, I don’t advise rushing toileting or to cause children think there is a “deadline” for them to be ready. This may have the opposite of the desired effect.
  4. Visit the primary classrooms and read up on Montessori theory. A great introduction is A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom, by Aline Wolf. It’s a quick read and gives an overview of philosophy and materials. Lin Laoshi also recommended the book, Mindful Discipline, by Shauna Shapiro, PhD. Additionally, Mrs. Danyali provided a Reading List that includes these and other very helpful titles.
  5. Come to the “Back-to-School Meet and Greet” with your child at the beginning of the school year. It’s a great opportunity for your child to meet his teachers, new friends (and likely some old friends!), and become acclimated to the new environment.
tncs-preprimary-to-primary-transition

This sweet smile kind of says it all.

 

 

Transitioning from Preprimary to Primary at TNCS

parallel-play-with-montessori-materials

These preprimary students are very excited to be working with Montessori materials at age 2!

Accommodating children from ages 2 years through 10 years (and soon to be 12 years) and ultimately comprising four programs, including preprimary, primary, elementary, and middle school, The New Century School has always focused on how to make the transition from program to program as smooth as possible for students. Continuity is built into the school’s approach, arising as a very natural consequence from its philosophy and mission. No matter what point a TNCS student starts from, he or she is headed toward the same basic goals of self-motivated inquiry and discovery as well as how to be a nice person along the way.

tiny-TNCS-tot-explores-multiple-dimensions-with-Graduated-Cylinder-Blocks

This tiny TNCS tot is exploring multiple dimensions with the Graduated Cylinder Blocks.

Perhaps the most challenging transition that TNCS students (and their parents) face is moving from the preprimary program up to the primary program when the child turns at least 3 years old. At age 2, they might well still be in diapers—still babies, practically—then, a year later, they enter a completely new milieu, with new teachers, new classmates (most of whom are older), and a whole new set of expectations. They become, in short, tiny students.

Historically, this shift has always been more difficult for the parents. The toddlers, meanwhile, accept these changes more or less in stride, even eagerly. It’s safe to say that the children’s ability to adapt so quickly and so well has a lot to do with TNCS’s very well-considered transitional process. On Thursday, February 5th, Head of School Alicia Danyali and the three preprimary teachers, Mrs. Reynolds, Lin Laoshi, and Señora Ramos held a Preprimary Workshop to walk parents through what this process entails. It was a full house; preprimary parents are clearly curious, if not anxious, about what lies ahead for their kids. Rest assured, Mrs. Danyali’s and the teachers’ presentations allayed all concerns!

The talk focused on three key aspects of the move to the primary program: 1) the differences between the two programs, 2) the necessary milestones each child must have met in order to move up, and 3) how each child is placed in one of the four primary classrooms. All of these themes are interrelated, as will become clear.

Differences Between TNCS Preprimary and Primary Programs

The two biggest differences between the programs is that the primary classroom is not a language immersion environment, and it is a classic Montessori environment. These differences start to become less striking, however, when you consider that the children are introduced to the Montessori materials as well as the Montessori teaching style of nurturing guidance the moment they step foot into the TNCS preprimary classroom. Thus, 3-year-olds will enter the primary classroom with a good deal of familiarity with their surroundings and with the manipulative materials they will be working with. And, as with the preprimary classroom, the primary classroom is specially engineered and furnished to accommodate their size. For more on how the Montessori classroom functions at TNCS, please read previous Immersed posts “Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!,” “Inside the Montessori Classroom,” and “Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education.” The main point here is that Maria Montessori knew that kids need, above all else, to feel secure for optimal development; therefore, in the TNCS Montessori primary classroom, new skills are introduced when the child is ready for them, not when the calendar arbitrarily dictates.

Regarding the shift away from language immersion, that, too, is really only a partial shift. Although the class is “led” by a Montessori-trained teacher, a second teacher who speaks exclusively to the children in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese is also always on hand. Even better, these teachers switch back and forth among the classrooms on alternating days to ensure that the primary students are now receiving exposure to and instruction in both languages.

Milestones Demonstrating that a Child is Ready for the Primary Classroom

montessori-button-frame

This TNCS preprimary student practices her fastening skills on the Montessori Button Frame. She is well on her way to independent dressing!

Some of the current preprimary students have only just turned 2. Their parents might be wondering how conceivable it really is that their child might be sharing a classroom with kids who are starting to read and write in under a year from now. In diapers in May but using the bathroom by late August? Able to don outdoor clothing independently? Able to articulate daily needs? Those are some of so many hurdles jumped for lots of kids, towering obstacles for others. These are, however, prerequisites for moving up to primary. No matter where your child falls along that continuum, the overriding message that emerged from Mrs. Danyali’s presentation was that the child will be supported and nurtured along the way to readiness. These benchmarks are not in place for ranking or comparing student achievement, by any means. They are simply necessary from an operational standpoint. The primary teacher cannot sacrifice time away from giving the very specific Montessori lessons or helping a student master a task to change diapers, for example. The primary student is able to use the bathroom and get dressed to go outdoors more or less independently (assistance and guidance are always readily forthcoming, of course, and supervision is a constant).

This might sound rather stark at first. In fact, however, the first steps toward such independence have already been taken in the preprimary classroom, where independence and competence are very tenderly fostered. The TNCS student has become a fairly autonomous classroom resident even at age 2, as Mrs. Reynold’s gorgeous photos attest (also see slideshow below). Their ability to pursue their own interests will serve them very well, academically. They are internalizing/honing the four pillars of Montessori: Concentration, Coordination, Independence, and Order. Order? Indeed. Primary students are not only expected to select an activity that they want to work with, but they are also expected to complete that work as well as put it away correctly upon completion—it’s the Montessori “Work Cycle,” and it teaches accountability and a sense of accomplishment in addition to the importance of maintaining order. All “works” are designed to absorb the child (concentration) and also to develop both large and fine motor movements (coordination).

Parents are encouraged to reinforce the expectation of independence at home as well. Children can be allowed to pour their own drinks and zip up their own outerwear, for instance. Pants with elastic waists and shoes that fasten with velcro straps can facilitate their ability to get dressed by themselves and develop their confidence with such processes. Another way parents can aid such transitioning is by considering a TNCS summer camp for primary-age students rather than a preprimary camp to give them a taste of the fun in store.

Placement in a Primary Classroom

Although not an exact science, this aspect of the transition out of preprimary is very thoughtfully undertaken. Many factors are weighed in the decision-making: your child’s proclivities, the prospective teachers’ proclivities, and the ages and genders of the current students in the class. Each Montessori classroom should have a well-rounded mix of ages 3, 4, and 5 in order to function optimally. (Please see above links for the rationale behind the mixed ages of Montessori classrooms. In short, they promote incredibly fruitful mentor–mentee relationships that continuously evolve.) The child will remain in the primary classroom for 3 years, so a “good fit” is critical. TNCS may not be able to honor specific requests in all circumstances, but your child will always be placed in a classroom environment fully devoted to addressing each student’s needs.

And Finally . . . 

Even though the advance to the primary program is made as smooth as possible, TNCS students do face transitions and changes, as all students do. The important difference at TNCS is in the thoughtful, child-appropriate way these transitions are managed. As always, parents, you are encouraged to see how it all comes together for yourself—you’ll be amazed, gratified, and reassured. Here are four great ways you can do so:

  1. Attend an Admissions Fridays event held most Fridays through the end of the school year (register here).
  2. Attend the Primary Workshop, “Four Areas of the Montessori Classroom that Unleash Your Child’s Potential” being held February 12th, 2015 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm. (Childcare is available; sign up here by February 9th.)
  3. Read any of the related Immersed posts linked above, or simply search with keyword “Montessori” in the Immersed archives.
  4. Read Mrs. Danyali’s recommended books Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (Angeline Lillard) and A Parents’ Guide to the Montessori Classroom (Aline Wolf).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Meet the Teacher: Montessori-Trained Maria Mosby Joins TNCS

It's clear from her beautiful smile that this is one caring educator!

It’s clear from her beautiful smile that this is one caring educator!

The Montessori environment has “felt like home” to Maria Mosby for quite some time, she says, so she was a natural fit for Lead Teacher in one of The New Century School‘s four Primary Montessori classrooms. In fact, she began her own education at age 2 1/2 years at Columbia Montessori School, in Columbia, MD. “I grew up in Montessori,” she says, “so it has always been in my heart.”

After several moves with her family throughout New England and the Washington, D.C. area, which entailed a stint in public school, she rediscovered Montessori while studying Early Childhood Education at Towson University, and it has been Montessori all the way ever since. She had considered studying psychology, but says, “I’ve always had an affinity for children and wanted to be around them in my career. As a teacher, you do end up being a psychologist of sorts.” She knew that the primary age group was her target age group all along. “I worked with older children, elementary-age children, toddlers . . . but the 3 to 6 age group is really where my heart is.”

Even though she just joined TNCS full time this academic year, Ms. Mosby was no stranger to the school. As a primary assistant for 3 years and a toddler assistant for 5 years at Greenspring Montessori School (formerly, The Montessori School), she decided to take Early Childhood training through the Maryland Center for Montessori Studies. During her internship, she worked at TNCS’s summer camp and “loved the warm, peaceful community.” Even with a whole year-long absence, students remembered her and were excited to have her back.

Having been through the first semester and ironed out those wrinkles that inevitably come with introducing young children to new routines and new faces, she reports that “things are going very well. I love my students with their unique personalities, and I’m glad that there’s a 3-year cycle to look forward to with them. It has really been a growing experience for me.” She also attributes some of the successful transition-making to her Assistant Teacher Elizabeth Salas, who also joined TNCS this academic year. Señora Salas came to TNCS from Chile and besides being “wonderful,” in Ms. Mosby’s words, provides the Spanish immersion component to the classroom. Ms. Mosby herself is picking up some Spanish, although not as quickly as the students, she confessed.

Being such a staunch proponent of Montessori education, Ms. Mosby has a lot of insight from several perspectives into what makes it so effective. “The children are given the opportunity to reach their potential,” she said. “They’re not stifled. When I compare [Montessori education] to traditional education, I remember how I struggled with math, especially when my family was moving around. I needed help with fractions, but the class I entered had already studied them and were not going to backtrack just for me. And that’s not an issue here. Everyone is working at their own pace.”

Once a shy student, she also credits the independence that Montessori confers as part of its success. She sees daily in her classroom younger and older children working together, which often means a younger child absorbing a lesson he or she might be considered too young for in a conventional learning environment. “I don’t hinder them,” she says. “I let them see what they can do and also let them learn from their mistakes, which fosters that sense of independence that I love about Montessori.” It’s easy to see how this process builds confidence in children and primes them to learn.

Although she is incredibly well versed with all of them, her favorite Montessori materials are those associated with Practical Life. “They make a really nice school–home connection,” she said. Kids can play at cooking, flower arranging, tidying up, etc., and as they perfect these skills, they translate them to home and develop motor skills and a sense of responsibility to the immediate environment in the bargain.

“Another thing they have been working on is how to use the ‘peace table’ if upset and words to use when solving a conflict with others. They really enjoy the sensory items at the peace table, and it’s a good place to go when someone needs a place to chill out.” Just like the other Maria M., Ms. Mosby values treating others with kindness and receiving the same in return.

One very special project they have been working on as a group is writing to another Montessori class in Saskatoon, Canada. “The children have been very excited about it and have been drawing pictures to include. They have been learning about Canada’s cities and will also be learning a few French words,” she said.

In her free time, Maria enjoys running and does the Casey Cares Foundation 5K every year, which raises money for critically ill children in Baltimore and surrounding areas so that they can have things like birthday presents, vacations, and pajamas for long hospital stays. “I also work with Girls on the Run of Central Maryland as a “SoleMate.” “GOTR coaches pre-teen and middle school–aged girls to run their first 5K. It is a great organization that increases the girls’ self-esteem, overall health, and sense of sisterhood,” she says. She is also a certified children’s yoga instructor and will complete her 200-hour yoga training this year.

In closing, she said, “After I was away for a year, coming back [to TNCS] just felt like coming home. Everyone is so welcoming, and I feel very supported from the other teachers and from the administration. We all have something to offer. We collaborate and work together very well, even among the different divisions.” TNCS is thrilled to have the warm, compassionate Ms. Mosby in her very first Lead Montessori Teacher role!

Making School Transitions: Pre-primary to Primary at TNCS

Editor’s Note: For the 2014–2015 school year, TNCS modified the kindergarten program to better accommodate the growing student body. While the primary program still comprises a 3-year cycle, kindergarteners now move up to the elementary floor for a mixed-age K/1st classroom instead of kindergarten taking place within the primary classroom. This adaptation has proven a marvelous success and provides another very important transition mark for students as they broach their elementary years. The gist of the post below, therefore, still very much applies.

A recent stressor has been added to the list of 21st-century parenting tribulations: how to ensure that children are ready for kindergarten. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when that question wouldn’t even make sense to parents—Ready? For kindergarten? (Here’s a crayon; there’s a piece of paper. Go!) But with kindergarten morphing from extended preschool more and more into what resembles grade school around the mid-90s, educators observed a huge disconnect between what they were expecting of children and what those children were actually able to deliver in terms of concrete skills, independence, and maturity. We began to see a frighteningly pressurized climate in which parents competed to produce the most knowledgeable 5-year-old on the block. As if to heighten this pressure, studies found that the achievement gap that emerges in elementary school has its origins in the pre-school and kindergarten years, and the A-B-C/1-2-3 scramble accordingly intensified.

Successful transitions, however, are more than simply a function of individual children and their skills. More recent studies from the U.S. Department of Education demonstrate that “Children’s transitions are most strongly influenced by their home environment, the preschool program they attend, and the continuity between preschool and kindergarten.” This is not news to many of us, but it echoes a primary theme at The New Century School that bears exploring from a new perspective: continuity. TNCS academic programs come close to obviating the notion of hard and fast changes, such as preschool to kindergarten, by their very design. Maria Montessori knew that kids need, above all else, to feel secure for optimal development; therefore, the Montessori primary classroom encompasses ages 3–5/6 to soften those hard edges and eliminate the inherently false notion that “last year I was a little-kid; this year I’m a big-kid” that is the foundation of the preschool to kindergarten problem. Kindergarten at TNCS happens within the primary classroom, where the child has already been flourishing for 2 years. New skills are introduced when the child is ready for them, not when the calendar arbitrarily dictates. That holds true for all ages at TNCS, no matter what program, pre-primary, primary, or elementary. It’s a founding principle.

As mentioned, this post is meant to take a slightly different perspective, because even though the advance to kindergarten is made as smooth as possible, TNCS students do face transitions and changes, as all students do. The important difference is in the thoughtful, child-appropriate way these transitions are undertaken. Last month, TNCS held a Pre-primary Information Night focusing on The Next Step—transitioning out of the pre-primary program into the primary program. This is a big move for tiny kids and one that inspires dread, doubt, or sheer terror in many parents. In diapers in May but using the bathroom by late August? Able to don outdoor clothing independently? Able to articulate daily needs? Those are one of so many hurdles jumped for lots of kids, towering obstacles for others. No matter where your child falls along that continuum, the overriding message that emerged from Head of School Alicia Danyali’s presentation was that the child will be supported and nurtured along the way.

These bins hold students' indoor shoes and any paper work they accumulate throughout the week.

These bins hold students’ indoor shoes and any paper work they accumulate throughout the week.

Preparation for the primary program begins in the pre-primary program. Potty-training, for example, is initiated here as well as teaching how to put on jackets and outdoor shoes. Kids are also encouraged to be responsible for their own belongings by replacing jackets and shoes on labeled hooks or in cubbies. The immersion-style pre-primary program is where many students are first exposed to a second language. It’s also where they first get their chubby little hands on some of the Montessori materials that utterly fascinate and delight them. All of these are important introductions to primary classroom life. Kids enter the primary program already familiar with most aspects of it. The Montessori-trained teacher leading the primary classroom is there to gently guide and facilitate their process of becoming more independent.

A younger student gets some pointed help from his older classmate.

A younger student gets some pointed help from his older classmate.

But here’s the best part. Remember that kindergartners have spent 2 previous years in the same classroom, where they have gained the confidence to spread their academic and social wings? Well, that 3-year-cycle works the other way, too. Kids enter the primary classroom not as strangers in a strange land but as little friends taken under the wings of their older friends. The 5-year-olds who were nurtured into thriving kindergartners become the mentors and role models of the 3- and 4-year-olds, and this is the beauty of the mixed-age classroom. It makes for a much gentler way to start preschool. Does the span of ages present special challenges for the teacher? Rather the opposite; this model is all many Montessori teachers have ever known and is what they were trained in. “Seeing older kids helping their younger peers is my favorite part of the Montessori classroom,” says experienced Montessori teacher Angela Lazarony, who represented primary teachers at the Information Night.

Because of the primary 3-year cycle, which is an extended commitment, matching each child with the right classroom is a well-thought-out procedure in which school administration, the child’s pre-primary teacher, the primary teachers, and parents collaborate. Just as each child has a unique personality, so too each of the four primary classrooms has its own distinct “flavor.” (In addition to Ms. Lazarony, Mrs. Lawson, Mr. Warren, and Ms. Reynolds are the other primary teachers.) The teachers weighing in are trained observers who know their students well and probably have the keenest acuity to judge where each student will best thrive. A good fit between child and classroom ensures harmony and will enhance the child’s development. Other factors also influence the placement decision, such as making sure an even distribution of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds is achieved across classrooms, which is an integral component of the Montessori classroom.

Another primary classroom operating harmoniously.

Another primary classroom operating harmoniously.

Morning worktime is productive, harmonious, and orderly!

Morning worktime is productive, harmonious, and orderly!

Once there, what does the brand-new primary student’s day look like? Much of it will be very familiar to the child. Although the lead teacher speaks English, an assistant teacher in the classroom will be speaking only in his or her native Chinese or Spanish, so the child is still getting some immersion in that language. The other language will now be introduced in a slightly more formalized way three times weekly, when an assistant teacher from another primary classroom rotates in for this purpose. Thus, all primary students get both Mandarin and Spanish instruction. The day also begins in a way the child is already accustomed to, with “circle time” to greet each other, get oriented (calendar, weather, etc.), sing a song, and generally settle in to the schoolday. From there, the child gets free time with the Montessori materials, what they call “doing a work.” The idea is that each child will gravitate naturally to the manipulative that most interests him or her at that given moment, thereby cultivating a skill appropriate for his or her current stage of development. But what if my child gets stuck in a rut with a particular work, never trying anything new even when he or she has mastered the old work? many parents wonder. Says Ms. Lazarony, “we’re watching them to see where they’re going, but we’re leading them where we think they should go.” Amidst free time, teachers observe, guide, and circulate among small groups to give specific lessons in new works or skills.

Other familiar aspects are art, music, and movement instruction. Primary students met the amazing and gifted “specials” teachers Ms. Raccuglia (art) and Mr. Warren (music) as pre-primary students. Their activities in The Lingo Leap are supervised by an assistant teacher or sometimes by parent volunteers, which the kids love. By the way, volunteering is the ideal way for parents to be part of their child’s schoolday and another means to help him or her feel secure in the new classroom. Napping and playground time are also still in the mix.

The differences between the pre-primary and primary programs really lie in the degree of instruction taking place by the teacher and in the extent to which the student can explore. Because the primary program is self-paced, the student can reach well beyond conventional expectations for his or her age. Likewise, the child who needs more time absorbing the surroundings is supported and affirmed.

Big kids, little kids---we're all one big happy family!

Big kids, little kids—we’re all one big happy family!

Readiness is an important consideration in another way here. Not all 3-year-olds are ready to transition to the primary program, and this is something the parent should reflect on very carefully. The child not only has to demonstrate readiness in terms of being potty-trained and able to dress independently, but also should have the social competence to handle more than one age group and the maturity to participate in a group learning environment. The parent’s feelings are also important: Is this what you want for your child right now? Maybe you aren’t sure. Many parents opt for a half day in the primary program, which many preschools don’t even offer. (Note that kindergartners are state-mandated to be in school for a full day.)

The takeaway is clear: Children should get the space to develop at their own paces, but when they show willingness to expand, TNCS is going to make sure the transition is pleasant by supporting them in the way that will best serve them. Back to the study finding that continuity is critical to successfully making scholastic transitions, TNCS goes it a step or two beyond, adding nurturance and support to that continuity already very much in place at each scholastic level. No scramble here!