The New Century School accepts students as young as age 2 years into the preprimary program. The teachers who instruct the toddler classrooms, therefore, must be very special people in order to start their young charges’ academic journeys off on the right foot. Joining Laura Noletto and Elizabeth Salas on the preprimary team, Donghui Song took over as lead Mandarin Immersion teacher for the 2017–2018 school year.
Song Laoshi came to the United States in 1996 with her husband, who took a position in Oahu, Hawaii in oceanography research. While there, she began volunteering in her son’s preschool. She soon realized how critical these early years are for optimal social and intellectual development and started thinking about taking classes in early childhood education.
But first, she moved with her family to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. After 6 years in beautiful Hawaii, her husband took a new research position at the University of Illinois. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree in music back in China, Song Laoshi saw Illinois as the perfect opportunity to get her early childhood education degree. She began working at a preschool with 2- and 3-year-olds. “The people are all so nice there,” she said, “and the preschool where I worked was very international, like here.”
Another move took her family to New York, where Song Laoshi’s husband was offered a position at Columbia University. In New York, she once again worked with toddlers. Three years later, in 2011, her family moved to this area.
Before joining TNCS, Song Laoshi worked at the McDonogh School, where she was a full-time substitute for 1st, 5th, and 6th grades. Now that she is at TNCS, she has a Chinese immersion classroom of 16 children. “The children we teach learn a lot and really remember, so I want to teach them more,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. I have two assistants, and we know what children need. It’s great.” She also says she has felt welcome and supported by her fellow teachers.
Her philosophy of teaching early childhood education is simple, but effective: “First, I think you have to make it fun and meet their needs. It’s very important for attachment, and you have to be loving, too.”
She also now has the opportunity to bring her music background back into play, as TNCS highly prizes music of all forms. For Chinese New Year last month, she brought her erhu to school and gave a performance. She also plays piano.
In addition, she has been teaching at the Howard County Chinese School for the last 3 years. Her students there are kindergartners and first-graders.
Her other pastimes include exercising with a group of friends who attend classes together. Her son, now college age, attends UMBC, and she also has a daughter in the 9th grade.
As for where oceanography will next take Song Laoshi’s family, she believes Baltimore is the last stop. “I think we will retire here,” she said. “Moving around was fun when I was young, but now I don’t want to move again.”
Laura Noletto is seen here dressed for Love Day, during TNCS’s Spirit Week.
The New Century School welcomed Laura Noletto as Pre-Primary Spanish Lead Teacher about a month ago. Although “Señora Lala,” as she likes to be known by her students, has been at TNCS only a few weeks, she is already well-loved by her students and their families and an integral member of TNCS faculty.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela to a Venezuelan mother and a Cuban father (she has dual citizenship), she visited the United States regularly growing up. “My family always vacationed in Maryland or nearby—D.C., Baltimore, Annapolis—(every summer and every Christmas), and I have very fond memories of these vacations. So, Maryland was, for me, a second home because my aunt lived in Bethesda for 50 years,” she explained. “My father and my aunt left Cuba in the 1960s. My father went to Georgetown University, and my aunt attended Maryland University and stayed here. During this time, my father met and fell in love with a Venezuelan, my mother, and returned to Latin America.”
She moved to Baltimore in 2016 from Eugene, Oregon, where she was a toddler therapeutic teacher for a foundation called Relief Nursery.
Sra. Lala originally studied law and was a practicing lawyer for 5 years before realizing that she needed something more creative. Her professional history, though amazingly varied, has always been in education or tangential to it in some form or another:
I was always teaching. Even in law school, I was assistant professor to a Roman law professor. So, I think my passion has always been education, even though I thought I wanted something more grandiose, and teaching might not seem so adventurous or glamorous (or so I thought when I was younger). As I get more and more mature, I see that it’s the most important profession that exists. I also did art research. I got Master’s degrees in curatorial art and Latin American studies.
But, I think that what lead me to early childhood was a seminar that I took on autobiographical books about childhood. We read writers who were exploring their first 5 years because that period contains the most profound memories that any human can have. The first 5 years of your life sets up the rest of your life—so, reading Wordsworth, Proust, Garcia-Marquez, they all tried to recover that first 5 years, those intense memories, such as the first time you try a different fruit, or you hear someone speaking another language, or someone teaches you a song. That seminar switched me to early childhood, although it took me a long time to realize it. I remember my first 5 years. I can remember being a 3-year-old living in the tropics, but coming to New York and opening my eyes to see snow. I wanted to eat it. These very simple memories are still there because of their impact. It tells me that we really do make a difference with these very young minds, these very young students.
She now knows that she prefers teaching this age group to teaching older kids. “I tried,” she says. “When I came to Baltimore, just to try it, I was teaching 4th- and 5th-grades and middle school at a public school. I was teaching about 75–100 kids a day 45 minutes of Spanish, again, just to try that age because each age is very different.” The workload was taking a toll on her, she reports, and she found herself exhausted at the end of each day. “After 2 months, I said, ‘I miss the little kiddoes.’ When I was in the Relief Nursery, I had already fallen in love with teaching the toddlers, but I thought it was related to being there, or something fleeting. I thought to myself, ‘Do you really want to change from college students to toddlers age 2 with nothing in between?’ So, I tried the in-between ages and realized, ‘Yes, I definitely love the extremes—either I teach college, or I go all the way down to toddlers.”
After some reflection, she realized how logical this seeming contradiction actually is:
In college, the students are there because they really want to learn. Students age 2 also really want to learn—how to put their jackets on, how to communicate with others, how to become a civilized human being, everything. So, it’s two passionate moments of human being. The other ages are in rebellion. They don’t want to learn in the same way. They either want to play, or they think they already know—they want independence from adults. At those ages, being a teacher is more about classroom management than about tapping into the fervor to learn.
She explains that when she saw the curriculum at TNCS, she felt an immediate kinship. Her sons (she has fraternal male twins, currently 19-years-old) not only grew up bilingual, but one of her sons even attended a Montessori school, which is not a common kind of school in Venezuela (there are only two or three in the entire capital of Caracas, despite its size):
My child blossomed in the Montessori environment. So, I already knew the program, and I thought it was fascinating how TNCS incorporates language learning within the Montessori curriculum. To allow language and culture to be a tool, a vehicle of learning. It’s not only that you’re speaking in Spanish, but the child is so eager to learn that he doesn’t care that he can’t understand the Spanish in the beginning, he’s open. He’s open to the culture, and sometimes language is not about only knowing language, it’s also about a different way of perceiving life because it’s cultural.
You know, the Chinese teachers, we Latin teachers, we have lots of similarities with Americans, but we also have our own approaches to early childhood education. You can see the differences with our approach to classroom management compared to that of the Chinese teachers. They are very different, but each very beautiful in their own ways, with very beautiful results, but it’s different. And the kids here in TNCS, they get to see both, and that’s preparing them for the 21st century and a global perspective. I think in the 21st century, all this culture will blend in—I hope so. It’s healthy to learn from each other.
She moved to New Orleans from Venezuela in 2014, where she lived for 1 year, working as an educator in the Degas House museum. “At this point, I had already changed careers twice (lawyer to college professor to art researcher), and I could see a point where I switch from art researcher back to educator. The Degas house was my transition. I was researching Degas and also teaching kids 3 days a week. Then, in Oregon, I was immersed full-time in teaching toddlers.”
Her husband is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is currently involved in the longest-running study on HIV, that began in the late 1980s. It was landing this position that brought them to Baltimore in 2016, although he formerly worked there for 5 years in another capacity.
Teaching takes a passion, and each teacher has an age-group that they love. I love the 2s and 3s. I was a college professor in Venezuela, which is big, big, big kids—almost grown-ups—teaching in a film academy, the School of Visual Thinking. Before that, I was in charge of developing art programs. So, I was in the education field, but I was always separated from little kids—I don’t know why. Then, when I came to the United States, maybe because my own kids are 19 years old now, I just fell in love with early childhood education. And there has been a lot of development in the area. So, 10 years ago, if you had a high school diploma and you loved kids age 2, you could be a toddler teacher. Now, you must study curriculum and learn about how they learn. I find it so fascinating. They learn so fast—like computers. They’re incredible; they’re sponges.
Being in Baltimore
Sra. Lala says she adores Baltimore for its history (especially relating to Edgar Allen Poe, whose entire catalogue she has read) and culture, with New Orleans also a favorite for similar reasons. “Baltimore and New Orleans have the most haunted history and the most beautiful historical buildings. They also have this connection with the Caribbean, and I’m Caribbean. They are port cities, so they are very culturally rich cities. I am amazed at how vibrant the art community is here. I do hope that it gets better as a city but not so overpriced that it kills the great energy it still has,” she says.
One thing that people might not know about her is that she created a historical graphic novel, published in Venezuela, about a 14-year-old princess living in an ancient (pre-Columbian) city and gifted with super powers—the ability to control mosquitoes, which acted as barriers to visitors by carrying yellow fever and other often-fatal diseases. She also wrote several short stories that won national competitions. “I really want to try now to write kids’ books,” she says. “I want to contribute to literacy in Spanish. I am inclined to that path. I now see Dr. Seuss as a genius!” (Who knows, maybe one day Sra. Lala’s graphic novel or one of her as-yet-to-be-written children’s books will grace the shelves of TNCS’s library!)
“I have to keep re-inventing myself,” she says. She points to a plaque hanging on the multipurpose room wall that reads, “You have to bloom where you’re planted.” “So, I’m blooming in Baltimore now.”
And we are so glad you are here, Sra. Lala! Welcome to TNCS!