Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers

Peer mentoring is a built-in, powerful tool at The New Century School, arising as a very natural consequence of its philosophy and mission. Classes comprise mixed-age groups quite deliberately, a big difference between TNCS and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in TNCS’s approach to education is that older children assist younger ones, and younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element of TNCS’s approach is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for more than just a year, developing trusting, long-term bonds.

Incidentally, the teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

Not only does social and emotional learning (SEL) increase from the mentor–mentee relationship, but academic gains are also made. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence to back up the suggestion that mentoring and being mentored provide cognitive advantages that conventional teaching does not. A 2017 study from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that partnering with higher-achieving peers can have a positive influence on a student’s learning, and students who are older, more capable readers can be these peers for young students.

Reading Buddies at TNCS

That’s where Reading Buddies comes in. This practice pairs different grade-level classrooms for community reading time—an upper-grade homeroom connects with a lower-grade one, and students pair up for time with books.

This cooperative learning method happens all over the campus, in all divisions. In a check-in post from earlier this school year, TNCS Dean of Students/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali enumerated many of the initiatives she was undertaking for the 2018–2019 school year, including establishing various class partnerships for service learning purposes—read more on that here. And the roots of the school community deepen as classes across campus work and share together. Because of the success of Reading Buddies, in particular, we’re revisiting this lovely tradition in more detail.

“Every second Wednesday, my 4th- and 5th-grade homeroom students go to Ge Laoshi’s K/1st class to participate in service learning by reading to their young friends,” explained TNCS teacher Nameeta Sharma. When asked what he liked about the Reading Buddies program, one of her 4th-grade students replied, “Everything!” “It’s fun to read to the little kids, and they really listen to me while I’m reading,” he continued. “Sometimes the teachers pair us up, and other times we just go read to whoever we want to. We all like to read Dr. Seuss books while we’re there.”

Benefits Abound

Reading Buddies also promotes reading. It allows younger readers to see what being a fluent reader looks like, as they have a peer model demonstrating reading skills. Older students become positive role models as well as develop patience and empathy as they work with their younger buddies. As the year progresses and the skills of the younger readers increase, students take turns reading to each other. In some cases, the mentee goes on to become the mentor of an even younger student. The relationship is thus bidirectional and enormously enriching.

The benefits are profound. Both sets of students get excited about Reading Buddies time because it’s a chance to do something different, visit another classroom, have fun, and make new friends. Even the Middle Schoolers love it!

Strengthening Community

Cooperative learning is also a great way to build community in the school, a primary part of TNCS’s mission. Another benefit of cooperative learning is simply that the Upper Elementary and Middle School students would not have another opportunity to get to know their younger schoolmates without this special time together. The upper and lower classrooms are situated in different buildings, and even lunch and play spaces are kept separate, as appropriate. Thanks to Reading Buddies, though, younger students recognize their role models around campus and can wave hello. It’s so nice to see, and these relationships can extend beyond the reading partnership. They can even have a positive impact on disruptive behavior. Younger children yearn for the respect of their older heroes and tend to comport themselves with more self-awareness in their presence. Older children develop a sense of protectiveness and want to nurture their adorable young friends. It’s easy to imagine how these SEL moments take root and flourish in a child’s character.


The practice of sharing a book is a delightful gift in and of itself; Reading Buddies deepens the enrichment exponentially. Now that’s a happy ending!

Meet the Teacher: Leslie Shaffer Joins TNCS Lower Elementary!

This fall, The New Century School welcomed Leslie Shaffer to teach kindergarten/first-grade for the 2018–2019 school year. Immersed had the pleasure of interviewing her recently and brings you the highlights in this post.

Meet Leslie Shaffer

tncs-k-1st-teacher-leslie-shafferMs. Shaffer is originally from New York state and graduated from Hamilton College in upstate New York in 2015 with concentrations in Government and English. She went on to get a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

Once she was out of college, Ms. Shaffer moved to Connecticut to take a position teaching pre-K and kindergarten at Greenwich Country Day School, in what she says was similar to an apprenticeship program. After 2 years, she returned to New York City to teach kindergarten at the all-girls school Sacred Heart and reports that she thoroughly enjoyed that 1-year experience.

So far, she has not merged her undergraduate Government concentration into her teaching, because once she realized later in college that reading books for fun could be a major, she was hooked. “I took an English class by accident and wound up loving it. It’s now something I use a lot in the classroom, and I’m so excited that I get to do so,” she said.

This past summer, she moved to Annapolis to be closer to family, who have a business on the Eastern Shore. When asked what inspired her to apply to teach at TNCS, she says: “I think a lot of it was the neighborhood. I knew I didn’t want to teach in Annapolis, even though I would be living there. Having just come from New York, I wanted to be in more of a city environment, with more going on. I wanted a little bit of excitement. Annapolis is a lovely place, but it’s not a city.”

The 15 students in her homeroom class plus the 14 students she co-teaches from Pei Ge (“Ge Laoshi”)’s homeroom are contributing to that excitement Ms. Shaffer enjoys. “I love it here,” she said. “I really do. I think what I’ve liked most is that the parents are so interesting, and so the kids are, too. Everyone is traveling to different places, has family in different countries . . .  I think it’s fascinating.”

Ms. Shaffer’s primary subjects are Math and English Language Arts, and she does the Daily 3 or 4 rotation for both (including a snack rotation). Her homeroom students spend the first 1 1/2 hours of the day with her, and then they move to Ge Laoshi’s classroom for Global Studies and Science. The two classes also switch for part of the afternoon. Many of her first-grade students came up through the TNCS primary program, and many of her kindergarteners are new to the school, but everyone has adjusted beautifully, thanks to the built-in differentiation that rotations afford. Says Ms. Shaffer:

I think my favorite parts about being a teacher have always been the small group work and working one on one with a student. I think that the day lends itself so well to having rotations, and although I enjoy my time with them, I make sure they stop at a good amount of independent stations, too. But also there’s always one more, and that’s just with me. I love that part of it.

English Language Arts Class

“In ELA, differentiation is crucial,” explains Ms. Shaffer, “because some of the students coming in could not yet identify all of the letters of the alphabet, while many of the 1st-graders can completely read on their own.” Thus, her ELA class will typically have a rotation that includes her reading with a small group in the “library” (pictured below) and another with her listening to a student reading independently as well as various exercises involving more intensive focus on individual letters. “For those who are still working on letter recognition,” she said, “each week we focus on a letter. For those who can read on their own, this becomes more like coming up with a list of how many words they can spell with the letter of focus.” Most of the books in the K/1 classroom are “decodable,” meaning that there are no tricky sounds or silent letters, to give young learners the chance to gain some confidence before encountering the many exceptions to the rule that comprise the English language.

The best part of the day for Ms, Shaffer takes place in ELA class, with her students circled around her:

My favorite part of the day is always doing a read-a-loud, which, for the past 2 months, has been a Marcy Watson book. They are chapter books, which seems like a lot for kindergarteners to listen to, but because the books are so funny, the students are really, really attentive, even from the beginning of the year.  I think it’s been a good place as well for the kids who are very comfortable reading. Every once in a while, they’ll want to read the next chapter, and the other students still listen to them, which is so nice.

Math Class

The Math curriculum for all TNCS elementary students is Singapore Math. For K/1 students, many who are transitioning from preschool, math class includes manipulatives, but, albeit quite similar, these are from Singapore Math rather than Montessori materials the students would have used in primary.

“The students have mainly been using the base 10 block so far, explained Ms. Shaffer. The 1 is represented by a tiny cube, 10 is a stick, 100 is a block of 100, and 1,000 is a cube. “This system works really well, especially for the 1st-graders, who are doing addition and subtraction, but also for the kindergarteners who are just starting to figure out what the numbers represent.” She is also incorporating bead rings, another way to represent smaller numbers, as shown below.

“They’re doing very nicely,” said Ms. Shaffer, “and we had a professional development training in Singapore Math earlier this year that really helped us understand how to use the materials most effectively.” (More on that in a future post!)


Ms. Shaffer is very much at home at TNCS, and her fascination with people and culture—and learning—makes her an ideal fit for the school. There is one aspect of the day in which her students have the upper hand over her: “They love it when they come back from Chinese class, and they know all these words that I don’t,” she laughed. But even here, she is picking up vocabulary and enjoying the fun of learning right alongside her wonderful students.

Welcome, Ms. Shaffer! Huānyíng (欢迎)!

MD Secretary of State Visits TNCS!

On Wednesday, October 17th, The New Century School welcomed some very illustrious guests. Maryland’s Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith, Director of International Affairs Mary E. Nitsch, and intern Rosanna Mantova (Intern, International Division, Maryland Office of the Secretary of State) visited the TNCS campus to see the Mandarin Chinese program firsthand. Secretary Wobensmith met TNCS Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux earlier this year, who told him about TNCS. Based on her description of how Mandarin Chinese is taught at TNCS, he was eager to see it for himself. As part of the Maryland Sister States Program, Secretary Wobensmith and his team find ways to promote the connection between Maryland and Anhui Province of China, and education is a key area.

Ms. Nitsch explains:

Anhui Province, China, is one of 20 Sister States that Maryland has around the world. It is also the state’s oldest Sister State partnership, having been established in 1980. The program was established to provide a forum for the promotion of international cooperation and understanding. Through broad-based citizen participation in a wide variety of exchanges in areas of mutual interest, like education, arts, and culture, and economic development, the Sister States Program offers countless opportunities to develop partnerships around the world.

Mandarin Chinese Program at TNCS

It was easy to showcase TNCS’s program, owing to the amazing teachers and students who participate. The members of the Office were met at reception by Ms. Faux, TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, TNCS Dean of Students Alicia Danyali, and staff member Monica Li. After a brief welcome, the group began a tour of the school, starting from the ground up with Donghui Song’s preprimary classroom of 2- and 3-year-old students. Song Laoshi’s class is immersive; students are spoken to in Mandarin Chinese throughout the day. They are expected to understand and respond with the appropriate action to instructions given in Mandarin—and they do so beautifully. Not long after entering the classroom for the first time, they begin speaking a few words and singing songs.

The group next visited Lisa Reynolds’ primary classroom on the second floor. At ages 3 through 5 years, primary students are no longer in an immersion environment but are taught both Mandarin Chinese and Spanish (in addition to the Montessori curriculum representative of the primary program) and have native-speaking assistant teachers rotating through the classrooms and conversing with and instructing students in their native languages. At these ages, students are not just responding to instructions but are rapidly increasing their verbal skills. They demonstrate perfect intonation and pronunciation. They begin to recognize Chinese characters.

They charmed the visitors, saying “hello” and “welcome” in Mandarin.

Hope to see you again!

The group continued their climb through building south, headed next to Pei Ge’s kindergarten/1st-grade classroom on the third floor. The members of the Office of Secretary of State were very impressed by what they witnessed here. The entire classroom was bubbling with eagerness, a testament to Ge Laoshi’s teaching skills, and their Mandarin is nothing short of amazing.

Throughout the tour, Ms. Faux explained details about the school and its approach. “It’s less about being a linguist,” she said, “and really more about becoming a global citizen.” Thus, culture is an important emphasis and taught alongside the target language. So the visitors could get the full picture, the group also visited Barbara Sanchez’s 2nd-/3rd-grade Spanish classroom. These students also learn Mandarin, but, at the mid-to-upper elementary level, core subjects are partially taught in the target language, so, in addition to Spanish Language Arts, Sra. Sanchez integrates Spanish into her Math and Global Studies lessons.

Ms. Faux gave a quick powerpoint overview of the school, including the background, history, and overall ethos, and then the group finished up their classroom tour in Wei Li’s middle school lesson. Li Laoshi led the 6th- through 8th-graders in a conversation in Mandarin, then had them write sentences using Chinese characters and finish by making a presentation.

The group wrapped up the tour in TNCS’s beautiful Union Box space inside building North, which provided a chance to talk about the history of St. Stanislaus Cathedral and the Mother Seton Academy, and how they became part of TNCS’s campus.

Said Ms. Nitsch in a follow-up email: “One of the nicest parts of my job is having the opportunity to personally experience so many of the wonderful international programs and projects that are taking place around the state. As a former ESL teacher, I truly appreciate how important multilingualism and multiculturalism are to our state and country’s future success. And, as a Baltimore resident, it’s inspiring to know we have such wonderful resources like TNCS here in the city.”

For his part, Secretary Wobensmith declared himself “totally smitten” with TNCS. “Your enterprise. . .  is a remarkable effort, and it struck me that you have done it exactly right in all aspects. Congratulations!” he said. When he asked Ms. Faux about the possibility of expanding to other locations, she thought for a moment and then replied, “We have built a very strong community here, and that might be hard to replicate somewhere else.” It’s true—that foundation of families, teachers, students, staff, and everyone else who is part of the TNCS community is integral to the school’s continued success.

The visit by the members of the Office of the Secretary of State will not soon be forgotten. TNCS will cherish the memory of this great honor!

md-secretary-of-state-visits-tncs-mandarin-program

Meet the Teacher: Pei Ge Rejoins TNCS!

IMG_0082

Pei Ge first joined The New Century School as an assistant in 2016 after earning a bachelor’s degree at Towson University. She then decided to pursue a master’s in early childhood education also at Towson. On graduating this past January, she returned to TNCS in an enhanced role.

“Peggy,” better known as “Pei-Pei Laoshi” to her students, is originally from Shanghai, in China. There, she taught children ages 3 to 6 years. In 2012, she came to the United States and taught in the English program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Now, living in Towson and back at TNCS, she assists as a floater among the primary classrooms during the mornings, and then teaches the Mandarin Chinese language each afternoon to the lower elementary classes. In fact, the kindergarten/1st-grade level is her favorite grade, but she is certified to teach toddlers up through 3rd-graders. “I’m kind of flexible for the grade,” she said. “My hope is that, maybe next semester if they have a position available for me, I can take the whole class. The Chinese immersion program would be perfect for me.”

Pei-Pei Laoshi is really a perfect fit for the TNCS approach to education. “I really like it here because they have a lot of choice for the language,” she explained. “Teaching Spanish and Chinese provides children with a really great opportunity to learn new languages at a young age. I really think that’s a good idea for young kids, especially with Chinese, because they are able to correctly reproduce the tones when they’re that young. When they’re older, there will be no problem for them.”

She also appreciates the TNCS emphasis on meeting each child at the child’s level: “Because in my class I know there is a Chinese level difference, I try to make sure that I meet everyone’s needs. I use differentiation for each one to make sure that they can learn based on their level.” She works with Li Laoshi to get an idea of each student’s learning profile, as many of her current students were formerly taught by Li Laoshi. They communicate regularly.

Her own style also aligns with TNCS’s overall approach:

For me, my goal is that students can play while learning—not just sitting there while I say, ‘you have to remember this and remember that’—we play and have fun, but we learn something, too. They enjoy it more and learn more when they have hands-on activities. For example, instead of rote memorization of vocabulary words, they might create their own books and vocabulary charts, which will be fun for them as well as being something they created.

For the Chinese Lunar New Year, she and her students made dumplings together. Pei-Pei Laoshi is a lucky rat in the Chinese zodiac.

In her spare time, she enjoys listening to music, reading, and painting. She also likes to relax at home and favors Towson for being a small, quiet town. When she feels like being social, she watch movies with friends and scouts out new restaurants to try (for good, authentic Chinese food, she recommends Orient Express, near the Hopkins campus).

Traveling is also important to Pei-Pei Laoshi. So far, she has visited San Diego; Los Angeles; Seattle; Las Vegas;IMG_0910 and, of course, Orlando.

In closing, she affirmed, “I want the students to want to come to my class everyday, and happily. Then, parents will feel the same, and that’s my goal, too.”

Well said, indeed, Pei-Pei Laoshi!