TNCS’s Annual Elementary and Middle School Back-to-School Night!

back-to-school-night-2017Now that summer has officially ended, and school is back in full swing, The New Century School kicked off the 2017–2018 school year with its annual Back-to-School Night. The focus of the evening was to meet your student’s teachers and to present the student’s daily schedule, a curriculum overview, and school policies.

Welcome!

The evening began in the gymnasium of building north with Head of School Alicia Danyali warmly welcoming parents, new and old, and introducing TNCS’s teaching staff. “They make the school an amazing experience for the students everyday, with their nurturing and professional expertise that enables a professional learning community,” said Mrs. Danyali. She also reminded the packed audience about the school’s Core Values. As the school’s foundation, these values of compassion, courage, respect, and service are displayed throughout the school and emphasized daily by all at TNCS, as well as during classroom lessons, assemblies, and restorative circles.

As TNCS enters its 11th year, it’s worth noting how the school and its programs have expanded and grown to what they are today. Changes each year are inevitable, but TNCS has stayed true to its identity and has successfully weathered those changes, transforming would-be obstacles into opportunities and growing the student body to more than 200 children. (To get a look at past year’s back-to-school nights or just to reminisce about the school’s early days, read TNCS-Back-to-School Night, 2013Back-to-School Night, 2014Back-to-School Night, 2015, and Back-to-School Night, 2016.)

Elementary/Middle School Break-Outs

Once the initial introductions and welcome message concluded, parents moved on to spend time with their child’s teachers. This was the opportunity to learn about what the school day looks like, what the educational goals are for the year, and what the expectations are of both parent and child. Upper Elementary and Middle School was jointly hosted by veteran Math and Global Studies teacher Beatriz Cabrera and new English language arts and Science teacher Jon Wallace. Mr. Wallace introduced himself, saying:

This is my 15th year teaching, 13 in private, and 2 in public recently. I’m very happy to be here with this amazing bunch of students who are all so diverse, and it’s wonderful working with the parents. I became a teacher because I really enjoy seeing the students learn. It’s a great thing when you see the light bulb go on. When I child first realizes a concept or becomes good at doing something, learning skills, to see that happen is just amazing. I come from a family of teachers and I’m working hard to give the students the best education I could possibly give. I’ll be here early, and I’ll be here late to try and give the best to your children.

Sra. Cabrera handled many of the practical details, reminding families of the importance of being on time. Class begins promptly at 8:25 am with key information and planner assignments, all things you don’t want your child to miss. “Check the planners and make sure to sign them. You will receive four quarterly report cards, we and will have two parent/teacher conferences, one in November and one in February. We are always available to meet with you and discuss anything you want,” she said.

A deeper dive into each subject’s curriculum followed.

tncs-back-to-school-night-2017

Specials

New art teacher Eunhee Choi made a cameo appearance (she had several classrooms to visit) and told the group, “I was born and raised in Korea—South Korea,” she clarified, to audience laughter. “I’ve been teaching 17 years. I’m very happy to teach here, I feel very comfortable in this school,” she finished. Students have music, physical education, and art twice a week.

English Language Arts

ELA uses the Daily 5, which consists of: Read to Self, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading, Work on Writing, and Word Work. Reading themes will include realistic fiction, fantasy, biographies, mystery, immigration/migration, historical fiction, and folktales. Writing will focus on a variety of skills including narrative, informational, persuasive/opinion, and poetry. We will continue using Lucy Calkins in the classroom throughout the year as well. (See State-of-the-Science Elementary Writing at TNCS for more on her acclaimed approach.)

In spelling, Wordly Wise 3000 and Spelling Workout will be incorporated. Wordly Wise 3000, focuses on improving students’ vocabulary by furthering their understanding of new words and concepts. Spelling Workout is a more traditional spelling program to help improve on identifying spelling patterns. “Our goal is to focus on vocabulary development, which will enable students to read increasingly challenging texts with fluency and improve their chances for success in school and beyond. Spelling will be focused on helping improve student writing,” explained Mr. Wallace.

Science

The major science themes throughout the year that will guide learning and understanding will include electricity and magnetism, chemistry, the Scientific Method (Science Fair), and oceanography.

Math

In math, students will work in small groups and independently everyday as well as do Khan Academy—the Daily 3. “They will do different math games and once again participate in Math Kangaroo, said Sra. Cabrera. “We will practice these problems in class and continue to use Singapore math. I will work with them in small groups mostly. I think it’s better to help them gain confidence.” Middle school students will be introduced to the Go Math curriculum.

Global Studies

Global studies will comprise both United States history and World history. The Elementary and Middle School programs will focus on the same unit of study but we be differentiated based on grade level:

  • Quarter One, Ancient World Cultures
  • Quarter Two, World Cultures and Geography
  • Quarter Three, Civics
  • Quarter Four, American History

Mandarin

As for language immersion, we are fortunate to have two wonderful, enthusiastic teachers in Wei Li, Mandarin, and Fabiola Sanzana, Spanish. Chinese will be learned through various activities and projects with assessments being mainly performance based. “Better Chinese will continue as our backbone curriculum as well as our Daily Four,” said Li Laoshi. In Daily Four, students are divided into small groups and use different levels of books according to their language proficiency. The students rotate among the four centers, which are meet with teacher, computer, reading, and games. “Friday will be the weekly Activity Day featuring various activities that integrate Chinese culture, such as calligraphy, Tai chi, Kung Fu, Chinese games, and cooking Chinese food,” she continued.

Students will be assessed the traditional way (pencil and paper); however, the main approach of assessment will be performance-based. For every new unit, formative assessment will be used daily and summative assessment will be used at the end of each unit.

Spanish

Spanish learning will be taught through the use of different games, dances, and songs. I was born in Chile, and this is my second year as lead Spanish teacher,” said Sra. Sanzana. “Spanish class is a little bit of everything—grammar, vocabulary, talking, reading, and listening,” she said. As in other subjects, teaching is differentiated. “I divided students into groups based on levels,” she explained. “Don’t be afraid of whatever comes; I will be here helping them.”

Homework

The question on BTS attendees minds’ was, “what’s up with homework?” Here is the breakdown:

  • Chinese: Grades 3–7 will work on a small packet the 2nd and 4th weeks of the month.
  • Spanish: Grades 3 and 4 will work on a small packet the 2nd and 4th weeks of the month; 5th- 6th, and 7th-graders will have homework weekly.
  • Math: Homework will consist of 15 minutes of problem solving or Workbook completion.
  • Language Arts: Each week, there will be one lesson in Wordly Wise, a list of vocabulary words to know, and various assignments to complete.

Forging Ahead!

Although BTS night is over, know that “teachers and administration are always available to answer any questions regarding your student’s development as we partner throughout the school year,” as Mrs. Danyali put it. Also know that you’ll be meeting teachers new to TNCS in Immersed profiles throughout the coming year as well as hear more from staff who are adopting new roles and taking the school in new directions! Stay tuned!

TNCS Hosts a Special 10th-Anniversary Back-to-School Night!

This special Immersed blog post was written by first-time Guest Blogger as well as first-time Class Parent Michael “Mike” Horvath. Mr. Horvath explains Back-to-School Night from the perspective of a TNCS elementary parent.

tncs-back-to-school-night-elementary

Welcome Back to School!

It’s that time of year when the summer ends and new seasons begin. At The New Century School, the 2016–2017 school year kicked off with its annual Back to School Night. The evening began in the gymnasium of building north with Head of School Alicia Danyali welcoming parents, new and old, introducing TNCS teaching staff, and recognizing Executive Directors and Co-Founders Jennifer Lawner and Roberta Faux.

It’s worth noting that this is the 10th anniversary of TNCS! What an amazing job they have done to expand the school and its programs to where it is today. Roberta Faux then addressed the parents, sharing some of the positive changes that have happened since the end of the spring semester. One such change was turning the previous school office, located inside the main doors of building south, into an additional classroom. The school office is now located on the second floor of building north, where soon there also will be a snack bar…more news on that to come. Also new to TNCS this year is the introduction of the school’s Core Values. As the school’s foundation, these values of compassion, courage, respect, and service will be displayed throughout the school and will be emphasized daily by all at TNCS, as well as during classroom lessons, assemblies, and restorative circles. You can find more information about these pillars of TNCS in the Family Handbook and in last week’s blog.

tncs-back-to-school-night-elementary

Second- through sixth-grade STEM instructor Dan McGonigal welcomes parents and gives them a snapshot of what they can expect from the 2016–2017 school year in his classroom.

Once the initial introductions and welcome message concluded, parents moved on to spend time with their child’s teachers. This was the opportunity to learn about what the school day looks like, what the educational goals are for the year, and what the expectations are of both parent and child. One of these break-out groups was helmed by Mr. Dan McGonigal and Sra. Beatriz Cabrera for grades 2–6. With about 15 parents attending, it was a cozy, informal gathering with returning parents reconnecting with one another and meeting new ones, too.

One very important takeaway message from the evening was to be on time. The class begins with key information and planner assignments, all things you don’t want your child to miss. As for the planners themselves, well, there was overwhelming parental excitement when Mr. McGonigal brought up the topic. Remember to initial them each night and remove any papers from the take-home pocket.

All homework is individualized, with Spanish and Mandarin alternating every other week, reading 20 minutes each night, and Math will consist of problem-solving or Workbook completion. At the end of each quarter, students will receive a report card, and parent/teacher conferences will take place twice during the year. Mr. McGonigal made it a point to mention that he and Sra. Cabrera are always available via email if you have any questions or concerns, and they will be prompt to reply. Throughout the year in Global Studies, students will be learning about Ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman Expansion, European and Asian Progress, as well as The New World and the Industrial Revolution.

The major Science themes throughout the year will include Microbiology, Energy Concepts, Geology and Changes to The Earth’s Surface, and Simple Machines and Programming Innovations. Students will also begin to learn how to use microscopes. These microscopes were provided to TNCS thanks to its partnership with Towson University. As for language immersion, we are fortunate to have two wonderful, enthusiastic teachers in Wei Li, Mandarin, and Fabiola Sanzana, Spanish. Chinese will be learned through various activities and projects with assessments being mainly performance based. Spanish learning will be taught through the use of different games, dances, and songs. On top of all of this daily learning there will be a number of field trips throughout the year, with the first one being a return to the popular Milburn Orchards, also visited last year. There will also be planned trips to the Baltimore City Library each month.

So hold on to your hats, the 2016–2017 TNCS school year is shaping up to be one exciting, action-packed year of learning!

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 Celebrates Chinese New Year!

The Chinese Lunar New Year is always a big event at The New Century School, a time to reflect on all that has happened during the prior year, connect with family and friends, and eat delicious foods, all to start the new year off in a positive way. This year is Year of The Fire Monkey, and it starts Monday, February 8th. To gear up for this special occasion, TNCS elementary students attended a presentation on China On Friday morning.

Given by a TNCS parent volunteer, the presentation was intended to not only celebrate Chinese culture and customs, but also to invite the elementary attendees to compare and contrast what primary and secondary education looks like in China to their own experiences here as U.S. students. Please excuse generalizations (of both schooling styles), which were made simply for the purposes of the exercise and not to pass judgment on either.

Although at first glance, Chinese and U.S. schools looked pretty similar to the audience, with lots of smiling faces and a happy sort of hubbub going on around campus, the differences became more evident once inside the classroom. Discipline and respect are highly prized in the Chinese classroom, meaning that kids are not permitted to fidget and must sit quietly—on their hands, in point of fact—until called on by the teacher. TNCS students, by contrast, are given the license to sit, stand, or recline where and how they wish at many points during the day so long as they demonstrate that they can handle this freedom and attend to their scholastic pursuits.

Advantages and disadvantages are evident in both approaches. TNCS students get to relax a little as well as not have to constantly fight their very natural instincts to move around, but the Chinese way allows up to 50 students per class to attend to a lesson without potential distractions from surrounding students.

Another point that TNCS students were asked to consider involved what are called “specials” at TNCS and include The Arts and physical education. In China, students are asked to replicate crafts and artwork from a model as well as exercise in perfect unison, and they are held to a very high standard of performance. This can mean that they are not given much opportunity to be creative or exhibit individuality in a given school day, although the skills they master are certainly impressive. U.S. students, by contrast, are frequently encouraged to find their unique identity and then express the heck out of it. However, they may not develop technical mastery of what inspires them at as young an age as do their Chinese counterparts. So, again, one approach might work for some, another for others.

The outcomes of these different approaches are, in some ways, “worlds apart.” While it’s certainly true that Chinese students command a large body of information and demonstrate their capacity for retention at test time, some of their teachers commented on their inability to think for themselves in non-academic environments. Many Western students experience nearly the exact opposite, following their individual paths of inquiry wherever they might lead and employing critical thinking and creative problem-solving to get them down the road. However, the United States ranks far below China (and 20 or so other countries) in measurable scholastic skills like math. This might matter a lot to some, less so to others, but once more the point is in exploring the two styles. Ultimately, it’s probably true that neither educational approach is perfectly ideal across all settings or contexts.

Nevertheless, TNCS students enjoyed teasing out both the differences and the parallels, and it was gratifying to see them imagining themselves in the shoes of a Chinese student. Their observations were insightful and even sometimes incisive. It’s a good bet that many of them would like to visit China for themselves in the near future.

In the meantime, they can content themselves with the video below of the slides presented today in addition to turning their thoughts to the approaching lunar new year, which Li Laoshi and Yangyang Laoshi are sure to help them celebrate with a bang! We hope that this Monkey Year brings you and yours health and happiness!

TNCS Middle School: Opening the Window of Awakening

As we approach the end of 2015, our thoughts naturally turn to what lies ahead in the coming year. For The New Century School, one thrilling near-future event looms very large: the opening of the TNCS middle school in fall 2016.

One of the more unfortunate American societal trends is that middle school–age kids are in a slump. Forgotten in the interstices between elementary school and high school, these kids are victims of what has been termed the “lost years.” Multiple factors contribute to this problem, but a key issue is that kids are still maturing yet are confronted with the many pressures and challenges of young adulthood. Many do not yet have the tools they need to face down these challenges and become confused and overwhelmed, which all too often leads to poor decision-making with potentially life-altering consequences, such as teen pregnancy or drug abuse. Another unfortunate consequence is that kids show less interest in learning, with correspondingly lower academic performance.

The good news is, these problems are preventable, and TNCS is leading the charge to revolutionize middle school education. Rather than view the middle school years as inevitably unproductive, TNCS sees them as a Window of Awakening—flipping the entrenched notion that kids at this age are a lost cause on its head. Middle school becomes an opportunity, not a wasteland. A juncture, not a dead zone.

So how will TNCS make middle school a positive experience for students? Of course, the scholastic piece will maintain continuity with TNCS’s core identity as a progressive, inquiry-based learning institution that emphasizes global citizenship and community spirit. TNCS administration is in talks with a middle school curriculum expert to ensure that the curriculum will be rigorous and engaging, meets or exceeds state standards, and is relevant and therefore meaningful for students ages 10–14 years. Mixed-age classrooms, individualized instruction, and language acquisition will remain vital components in effecting this specialized middle school curriculum.

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 9.55.23 AM

The real difference will be in embracing the oft-squandered opportunity that these years present to keep them invested in their learning. It’s an opportunity to really set them up for success in high school and beyond with the explicit practical skills they will need. These include physical and mental organizational skills (e.g., keeping track of materials; time management) and developing the habits of successful students (to study smarter, not harder). And, more than that, it’s an opportunity to guide them in their search for their identity to who they really are—to help them actualize their innate potential and goodness.

Akin to the preschool years in some ways, during the middle school years, kids need parents more, not less. Despite their kids’ outward physical growth and the biological changes that seem to propel them to adulthood, parents retain more influence over kids at this age than they might realize. Although kids test out rebellion and throw up opposition every chance they get, these might be requests for attention and help. They are navigating a huge new world, and sometimes they want their hands held along the way.

TNCS is a small, close-knit school. Many among the student body have known each other since toddlerhood. While many preteens and teens are crumbling under peer pressure, pressure to conform, and the pressure to make good choices about huge decisions with their as-yet limited knowledge and experience, TNCS middle school students will benefit from being a part of this protective community where they will be free take things at their own pace.

At the same time, an integral school value is the courage to take risks—not to be confused with condoning risky behavior. This risk-taking is about creativity. Problem-solving, conflict resolution, trying new things, innovating . . . all of these are hallmarks of happy, successful, self-possessed individuals. TNCS middle school will create frameworks for possibility, in the words of The Art of Possibility, a groundbreaking book comprising 12 practices for bringing creativity into any endeavor.

True to TNCS’s mission, fostering compassion and its logical consequence, altruism, the middle school will broaden and deepen the mentorships begun in the younger divisions such as elementary students reading to the pre-primary and primary students. Here, these mentorships might take the form of actual instruction, which will benefit both groups, the younger  kids by the content of the instruction and the older kids by the act of instructing. The “Learning Pyramid” posits that we retain 90% of what we learn when we teach it to someone else. Leadership skills will be further cultivated through proposed formation of a student government.

They will reach out to the larger community as well with targeted “service learning.” In the words of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The possibilities for specific programs are endless, but partnering with Habitat for Humanity is one example of ways TNCS middle school students might participate. Maryland, by the way, was the first state to require service-learning hours as a condition of graduation from high school. (Click here to read some of the many academic, personal, and social student benefits of community engagement.)

Field trips will also take on a service-oriented hue. The upper elementary students are already taking excursions with teachers Kiley Stasch and Dan McGonigal that are connected to their in-class study. By applying what they have learned to the real world, they are then invited to reflect on their experience to reinforce the link between their service and their learning. Given their status as ever-maturing young people, these trips may take them farther afield than where they have so far gone, in keeping with TNCS’s global vision.

Why a middle school? TNCS Co-Founder/Executive Director said it best: “At the end of the day, what we want for our kids is for them to be happy with who they are and what they are doing.” And that’s what TNCS middle school will be all about.

Happy Holidays, TNCS Community! See you next year!

 

Happy Birthday, Immersed!

Dear Readers, this is a proud day, marking the end of Year 1 of The New Century School‘s blog. That’s right, 52 posts later, here we are (this is #53). To celebrate, let’s take a look back at what your favorite posts have been—after all, we’re here for you.

Top 10 Most Popular Posts

  1. Preschool Conundrum Solved: Research Demonstrates Benefits of Montessori Education  (224 views so far)
  2. Achieving Balance in Education at TNCS  (215 views so far)
  3. Sustainable School Lunch: Garden Tuck Shop Program Part I  (199 views so far)
  4. Elementary Science Fair!   (175 views so far)
  5. Top 10 Reasons to Attend Montessori Kindergarten  (171 views so far)
  6. Inside the Montessori Classroom  (156 views so far)
  7. Exercising That Mind–Body Connection  (146 views so far)
  8. Elementary Program Merges Montessori and Progressive Education at The New Century School  (130 views so far)
  9. A TNCS Original  (128 views so far)
  10. Language, Math, and Science—Montessori Style!  (125 views so far)

Because a little analysis is just irresistible, let’s draw some conclusions. It’s pretty clear that Montessori and Elementary are the  commonest themes on this list, which is entirely appropriate. TNCS is achieving something entirely unique in education in meshing a progressive, rigorous curriculum with the gentleness and humanity of the Montessori approach. TNCS students learn the standard academics but also get a firm grounding in foreign language and an abundance of the arts, movement, and technology. Perhaps most important and often overlooked in conventional schools is the attention to social relationships and building mutually respectful interactions with peers and with the administration.

So thank you, readers, for your following and your support. What would you like to read more about in future?

Standardized Testing: It’s Time to Talk About It

The heartbreaking paradox exists in U.S. public education that conscientious teachers want students to think and to learn during the time they spend together, yet those same teachers must produce a sufficient proportion of students who can pass standardized tests. As the ill-starred students graduate without having learned much beyond how to choose A, B, C, or D, it’s becoming increasingly evident that real learning and overemphasis on test-taking are mutually exclusive. In “Warnings from the Trenches”, originally published in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, former Maryland public school Social Studies teacher Kenneth Bernstein describes it like this:

“We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.”

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Federal policies such as 2001’s No Child Left Behind and 2009’s Race to the Top squeeze teachers into ever narrower pigeonholes while the students languish uninspired before seas of multiple choice bubbles waiting to be filled in (No. 2 pencil, please). NCLB mandated that states implement reading and math standards then measure student progress in those areas with annual testing in grades 3 through 8. Schools, moreover, are also measured against each other and “graded” on number of students meeting the standards. Due to the rigors imposed by these well-meant (insofar as originally intended to help disadvantaged students by leveling the academic playing field) but ultimately disastrous policies, teachers often face no choice but to “teach to the test.” If it’s not on a standardized test, it will probably fall to the wayside. Goodbye, foreign languages. So long, art. See ya later, music.

Those three things just listed have other important common characteristics besides being unlikely to show up on standardized tests: first, they are emphasized at The New Century School; second, they are noted for cultivating higher-order creative and critical thinking skills. Standardized tests, by contrast, are widely criticized as setting impossibly high stakes, creating a climate of cheating, and being of such poor quality and design that they don’t allow students to demonstrate what they may have actually learned. Some say these tests threaten to turn kids into a generation of mindless drones rather than intellectually curious, well-adjusted people who can think on their feet—you know, human beings.

Standardized Testing’s Negative Effects

Stemming from such adversity, “Warnings from the Trenches” was written as an address to college-level educators. Bernstein says to them,

“The structure of [elementary] testing has led to students arriving at [high] school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge . . . Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”

Reading this lament is unsettling enough, but the distress only grows when you consider the clear implication that the problem originates in elementary school but impacts a student’s entire academic career. When Bernstein’s article was reprinted in the Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet last month, comments poured in from instructors who had similar experiences. One college professor writes:

” . . .Within the first two weeks of each semester, I can identify students who were home-schooled or who attended private high schools. Why? Because they participate in class discussions. Because they can apply theory in meaningful ways. Because they can find examples that exemplify those theories in the world at large. Because they can write a proper sentence and a proper paragraph. Publicly schooled kids, for the most part, can’t do any of those things.”  

It’s clear: uncritical use of standardized testing has deleterious effects on both teacher and student. A pilot study compiled by the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing reported that at their worst, standardized tests:

  • Narrow and trivialize the curriculum. The focus of instruction shifts to easily assessed fragments of topics and away from significant or broad knowledge acquisition.
  • Exclude topics and skills not likely to appear on the test. Computer skills, long-term or collaborative projects, and even science at the lower grades get pushed out of curricula. (Notably, this finding was specifically from Maryland schools.)
  • Reduce learning to rote memorization of basic facts. Higher-order thinking skills get short shrift insofar as multiple-choice formats don’t require organization and composition of ideas or words to be answered.
  • Demand too much classroom time for test preparation. One study found that test prep occupied 10% of overall elementary class time.
  • Restrict how teachers teach. To prepare students for the testing environment, teachers often evaluate in-class work with a test-like, worksheet-like format—drilling.
  • Reduce time spent with individual students as well as instructional differentiation. One size fits all. It’s standardized, after all.
  • Exclude the student’s say in his or her own education. Gone is choice, guided exploration, and intellectual curiosity. Kids (and teachers) have to “stick to the program.”

And that’s not even taking into consideration the mental and physical health problems brought on by the stress of high-stakes testing. Kids exhibit gastrointestinal upset and regressive behavior, while teachers fight stress headaches in the days and hours leading up to the dreaded Test Time. NCLB also precipitated a rather ironic outcome: 19 states lowered their academic standards in order to show better test scores. No wonder, then, that in 2012 the United States ranked only 17th out of 49 countries in education. Worse, most other countries were showing improvements in academic matrices, whereas the United States’ performance was described as “hardly remarkable.” Ouch!

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized math test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized math test.

TNCS’s Approach to Standardized Testing

At TNCS, as the elementary program grows, standardized testing looms in the near future. The 2013–2014 school year will accommodate students through 4th grade. Public schools starting at 3rd grade in our state are subject to the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) to comply with the federal NCLB act. Being an independent school affords much more flexibility as well as choice in this matter, fortunately for TNCS.

Lest we throw the baby out with the bath water, it’s important to remember that schools need a means of assessing their curricula and the implementors of those curricula as well as student performance. The above criticisms apply to the worst-case scenario. What a carefully considered assessment situation can offer is a reliable way to evaluate academic achievement and to maintain school accountability without sacrificing core values. So, although we’re probably stuck with standardized testing in some form, rest assured parents—school administrators vow that TNCS elementary instruction will never deteriorate to teaching to the test. Though the standards are certainly covered, “[We are] committed to providing each child the opportunity to become an independent, secure, and balanced human being. Each child cultivates his or her natural intellectual curiosity while developing leadership skills and the ability to think critically. We embrace the individual and design developmentally appropriate activities and lessons to engage and enrich.” Many such engaging and enriching activities have been profiled in this blog, such as learning Mandarin and Spanish. Learning foreign languages is key to developing the problem-solving skills that so many students currently lack (see Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function). Providing art instruction is another way TNCS cultivates those character skills that some public school curricula sadly can’t begin to address (see The Importance of Being Artistic).

Hope for the Future

It’s also possible that the the current federal administration will continue taking steps to reverse some of the harm to public education done by NCLB. In 2010, the blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB is an offshoot) was released but stalled in Congress. The Obama administration countered by giving 34 eligible states plus D.C. the flexibility to expand academic performance measures, such as writing and social studies proficiency. Maryland is one of the states no longer suffocating under the restrictive NCLB measures. We can hope, right?

In the meantime, an “A+” goes to schools like TNCS, committed to providing a well-rounded, progressive education that benefits the whole child, not just the test score.

What do you have to say about this important subject? Please contribute thoughts, questions, and comments. Your participation in this discussion will help TNCS forge the way to a brighter future for elementary education in Baltimore. Our thanks once again to TNCS Enrollment Coordinator Robin Munro for suggesting this worthwhile and very relevant topic.