The New Century School‘s reading buddies program has long been a popular activity on the TNCS campus, uniting younger and older students and enhancing camaraderie among divisions. The social and emotional benefits are enormous; additionally, the mentor–mentee dynamic has other built-in advantages like instilling confidence in participants on both sides as they develop together. The cognitive benefits are likewise tremendous. The increasing confidence in burgeoning readers, for example, allows them to take bigger and bigger risks such as with trying out new words and so on—just believing they can do it is huge. Let’s face it, it’s also just the cutest thing ever. (But don’t take our word for it—check out Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers for details . . . and adorable photos.)
Together, Ms. Danyali and Ms. Beachley coordinated on a plan to team up TNCS and WSA students for a new Reading Buddies trial. Ms. Beachley explained that many of her students speak English as a second language, and their ELA reading skills can lag behind the expected proficiency for grade level. She has been working on ways to close this gap since she came to WSA 3 years ago. Adult volunteers from the community have come to WSA to practice reading with the students, but Ms. Beachley sensed that a more effective plan was possible. “With adults,” she explained, “WSA students were not as comfortable and would show that by losing focus and disrupting the sessions.”
So, on March 6th, TNCS 5th- and 6th-graders accompanied by homeroom teacher Ms. Sharma took a walk to WSA to try out the new Reading Buddies program. They arrived at 1:30 pm and were given a brief orientation and tour of WSA’s lovely building and grounds by Ms. Beachley.
TNCS students met with WSA 1st- through 4th-grade students until 2:30 pm. They brought along books they thought would make good read-aloud choices and were also given access to WSA’s library. In their 30 minutes of reading, some students had to make multiple trips to the library to re-up!
Interestingly, TNCS students seemed to gauge their particular situation immediately and adapt to what it called for. For example, some WSA students preferred to absorb the experience of being read aloud to, whereas others preferred to take the reins and do the reading themselves but appreciated the ready support.
The initial Reading Buddies trial was an overwhelming triumph, with WSA and TNCS students alike enthusiastically reporting positive feedback. Several WSA children didn’t want the session to end! Said Ms. Beachley, “I am so happy to report that we had such a successful Reading Buddies session today! I spent some time with our Wolfe Street students at dismissal and they were gushing about how much fun they had with their TNCS buddies!” Ms. Beachley also noted how well her initial match-ups of TNCS and WSA students went and has decided to use the same pairings for future sessions. All students wore name tags, too, and became very friendly with each other.
Ms. Sharma was in complete agreement: “Thanks to you, [Ms. Beachley] for making such a perfect arrangement for the reading buddies service opportunity. The TNCS grade 5,6 students were also very satisfied and happy with their experience! They will definitely be bringing more books to read to their buddies next time. We can’t wait to be back to greet our new friends!”
Ms. Beachley summed up the experience perfectly:
The Reading Buddies activity is extremely valuable to the Wolfe Street Academy students. Not only do the WSA students receive literacy support from an older student, but they also have the unique opportunity to form a friendship with a student close to them in age. During the course of the Reading Buddies meetings, I observed Wolfe Street and TNCS students bonding over their favorite books, and I saw the WSA students growing in their confidence to read aloud. After TNCS buddies left, the WSA students already began to ask when they would be back next! We hope that our continued collaboration will grow the bond between WSA and TNCS students so that they can learn from each other, learn about their different school settings, and share their love of reading!
TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders will also take a turn at this marvelous example of service learning, although that may be delayed due to Baltimore City school closings related to the COVID-19 outbreak beginning March 16th.
On Friday, September 27th, Ms. Danyali introduced her vision for Q1’s service learning project for TNCS 5th- through 8th-graders: making soup kits for food insecure citizens of Baltimore. She found this opportunity through an organization called Live with Purpose, whose mission is to [engage] volunteers to meet vital community needs and live with purpose through meaningful service.” The soup kits will be distributed to Living Classrooms and other local organizations like Paul’s Place who will distribute them to identified families in need to provide them “a hot and hearty meal.”
Before the kit assembly began, though, Ms. Danyali provided some context:
I know you’ve been partnering with other classrooms on some school-related service initiatives, but, today, you get to do a service activity with a focus on human dignity. No matter what anybody’s background, everybody deserves to be respected. We have to have meaning in our lives, which means that we have to take care of ourselves but also other people here in our school community and even beyond. I think it’s a really important value to serve. So, today we’re going to work on soup kits for people in Baltimore who are facing food insecurity. Food insecurity means that a person may not have the means to get enough food. When I reached out to Live with Purpose, they said they needed help making soup kits, and I said, ‘I have the perfect helpers!’
She next shared some sobering facts:
The USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
A quarter of Baltimore residents live in a food desert (an area where fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods are difficult to find due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers).
Nearly half of Maryland’s hungry are working—people who don’t make enough to provide both healthy food and a safe home for their families.
1 in 4 children in Baltimore City’s schools are hungry when arriving to school, having not eaten a full meal since they left school the day before.
These are terrible truths that are difficult to fathom—25% of school-aged children go to school hungry? And 25% of all Baltimoreans don’t have access to healthy food?
These soup kits could make a real difference in our neighbors’ lives. So, during Teacher’s Choice time, first middle schoolers then elementary students spent 30 minutes putting together bean and barley soup kits to serve 4 to 6 people each. Stations were set up for pairs of students, and they got right to it!
“I think this is a great way to give back to the community,” said one TNCS 6th-grader. “This is fun, and it makes me feel good because I know I’m helping,” echoed a 7th-grader. They worked very carefully and neatly to produce attractive, quality kits.
Thanks to TNCS students and TNCS Dean of Service Learning Alicia Danyali, some Baltimore residents might feel a little less insecure this fall. “I’m confident that knowing you’re helping other people, you’ll be very happy,” said Ms. Danyali.
The 2018–2019 school year has been an epic year for The New Century School in so many ways, but certainly not least for having the Middle School in full bloom—now all the way through 8th grade! TNCS has anticipated this moment for years, growing closer and closer to a fully fledged Middle School, and, in a few weeks, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade class.
But not before we take a peek at another first they pioneered—TNCS’s first-ever international service-learning project. In March, three girls and one boy (known here as Z, F, B, and J), ages 13 and 14 years, went to Puerto Rico for 6 days! This trip has been in the works all year, and fundraising efforts, such as twice monthly pop-up hot beverage shops, toward travel expenses really paid off.
Why Service? Why Puerto Rico?
Service is a TNCS Core Value, and, throughout the year, students take on various initiatives toward their service-learning goals, from intra-campus projects to broader, community service–oriented endeavors. To really bring home what service learning means, though, TNCS students should experience how their efforts can have farther-reaching impacts.
Puerto Rico was the natural choice:
The island is readily accessible—no passports are required for TNCS students, and it’s relatively easy to get to.
Availability of resources and advice from TNCS community (staff, parents) with knowledge of Puerto Rico was an enormous help for planning.
It’s a Spanish-speaking country for students to use their developing Spanish skills.
There’s a clear need: The island is still restoring itself after hurricane damage.
Puerto Rico: Here We Come!
Adriana DuPrau escorted the group and said just prior to their departure: “They are very excited—this is the trip of a lifetime for some of them!” She facilitated getting them school IDs, helped create packing lists (hats, bug spray, closed shoes for hiking, beach gear, etc.), and generally did all of the planning with advice from Ms. Madrazo and a very helpful TNCS dad who hails from Puerto Rico. You might be wondering how Mrs. DuPrau got to be the sole chaperone, but you’d have to look no farther than back at the past school year, during which she has grown very close to the middle schoolers, such as while helping them prepare for their big transition to high school, and has discovered that she really enjoys that age group. Mrs DuPrau also spent 6 weeks in Puerto Rico in college, teaching English. “Traveling is a big part of who I was, but I haven’t been able to do that with three small children. I think this will be good for us.”
In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a one-two punch that ravaged the island, we saw an opportunity to help affected communities, and in doing so, to deliver an unforgettable experience for our 8th graders. I got to be the lead organizer of the trip, and got to team up with multiple members within the Puerto Rican community to maximize the relief effort and add an interdisciplinary scope to the students’ experience! It was such an awesome experience and I never, ever thought I could be away from my family for 7 days . . . but I did it, and I’m so happy I did. The four 8th-grade city students completely stepped out of their comfort zone and completely killed it! I’m so incredibly proud of them!
Now, let’s break down their itinerary day by day, interspersed with some additional debriefing from Mrs. DuPrau.
The group left on Sunday, March 17th at 5:00 pm, departing from BWI airport and arriving in Puerto Rico at 9:00 pm. After they picked up their rental minivan, they drove to their digs in Luquillo, a small beach town close to the rain forest that was recommended by TNCS English Language Arts teacher Ilia Madrazo, who is from Puerto Rico.
B was like the mom of the group; she wanted to make sure everybody was okay. She always made sure that everything was tidy. I had them wash their own dishes and clean up, so our living space was always very organized. J was also so helpful, carrying the groceries in, for example. I got to see a really nice side of him, very kind and respectful.
The group kicked off their first full day with a sail on a catamaran and snorkeling, both firsts for most of them.
As urban children, not accustomed to being around the ocean, this thought made them nervous, but we went to a very secluded spot to give them the space to get comfortable in the water. And they did it! It was really beautiful; the water was crystal blue and warm.
After their big days, they all ended up usually falling asleep watching a movie on the couch. We would have breakfast at home and usually packed lunch. They didn’t really love going out to dinner; they were more into coming home and chilling.
The group’s main plan on Tuesday was to explore El Yunque rain forest on the “Off the Beaten Path” tour. They also walked to waterfalls and got a chance to swim and goof off.
It was a really good trip. The kids got to see something really different, and they experienced this trip on many different levels—yes, it was service learning, and that was definitely the focus—but they got to experience so many other things, and now they all want to keep traveling. So that’s also important. We always had a full day planned, and when you’re traveling it’s important to take advantage of the fact that you’re somewhere new. This group was just so relaxed. I loved that they got to do more than just service learning because they had so much fun. I never had to calm them down. They never had any anxiety about all the new things they were doing.
On Wednesday, the group had planned a trip to Camuy River Cave Park, the third largest underground cave system in the world and formerly among the top 10 attractions in Puerto Rico. However, the caves have not been open to the public since the twin ravagers Irma and Maria paid them visit. So, they did some sightseeing San Juan and Ponce instead. “We had a good time visiting the forts and shopping around and seeing all the architecture of old San Juan,” said Mrs. DuPrau.
I loved seeing them speaking Spanish. I think it’s important to visit places that are Spanish speaking. All the kids practiced their Spanish—they ordered food in Spanish and tried to speak Spanish to any of our tour guides. They’d also help each other, and that was really nice.
This being Math Kangaroo day back at TNCS, the travelers took the Math Kangaroo exam in a conference room where they stayed and then mailed in their scantron sheets. Afterward, it was time to hit the beach!
They opened up a lot as well, sharing the emotions they go through in middle school. We’d have these conversations while we were driving in the van, and they’d have all these questions. They started talking a lot about how what they go through when they’re feeling down, and I think it’s so important to equip them with how to handle those emotions. They think no one understands, but we do understand even if we’re not all in the same set of circumstances. I think community within the class is how we have to move forward and doing things all together, even though it’s 6th through 8th grade. It will help them with the social and emotional part of being a middle schooler. We can definitely add more of that in our curriculum.
The service-learning stint took place in Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve in Fajardo, which is “a bioluminescent lagoon, mangroves, coral reefs, dry forests, sandy and rocky beaches set between headlands.” “We went to what used to be a coconut palm conservatory, but those trees are not native to Puerto Rico,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. “They were planted there and were completely wiped out after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So the nature conservatory wants to now plant native trees, which are stronger and better able to withstand any future hurricanes.”
Este día de las madres, sorpréndela con una membresía AMIGOS Para la Naturaleza. Pon al alcance de tus seres queridos la posibilidad de disfrutar durante todo el año de nuevas experiencias transformadoras en lugares históricos y ecosistemas únicos en Puerto Rico.
Working in pairs (they had to share shovels), the overall group planted more than 100 native trees of various species up and down the beach and into the forested area, with the TNCS contingent responsible for a large fraction of that number. The tour guide spoke only in Spanish.
The service learning part of it was awesome. It was really physical, and I’m hoping that it impacts them in a way they’ll remember. We were working with a whole bunch of other people of all ages to plant these huge trees. It was hard, but the students didn’t complain because they knew it was their community service. One thing that I’d like to change about the trip is having them do a little bit more community service, such as with animals. There were so many homeless dogs and cats, and the students really wanted to help them. I reached out to a few places but it was hard to find any that would accept younger than high school age. We met a lot of older students, who were very nice to our students.
As they were departing Puerto Rico at 3:00 pm, they used their last hours to have some down time and enjoy the beach!
I definitely want to do it again. I was just so proud of the kids again for stepping out of their comfort zone. There was no homesickness or complaining, and, in fact, they all got along great. One of the things that I pulled away from the trip is that they all got to know each other on such a deep level. They walked away calling each other best friends. They were all really respectful of one another, yet they’re all very different. It was was also great to see how open they were to meeting new people. I felt like I saw who they really are. Z, for example, helped an elderly man across a stream without any prompting. It was nice to see how many people thought that they were such great kids—I was told multiple times that this was the best-behaved middle school group they’d ever seen.
Interview with Students
Along with Mrs. DuPrau’s great overview of the trip, let’s hear about it from the students’ perspective.
Immersed: What was your overall impression of your trip?
Z, F, and J (as a chorus):It was fun; it was amazing, great, awesome, exciting.
F: It was full of opportunities to get out of your comfort zone.
Z:Oh yes. All three of us jumped off a cliff! I was so scared to do it because I thought I was going to drown! But Carlos, our guide, made us feel more comfortable.
J: I was scared of heights, but I did it.
Immersed: What other experiences did you have?
Z: I liked planting trees.
Immersed: Planting trees—was that the service project?
Z: We planted more than 16 native baby trees altogether.
(B joins our chat. Which was really more like their chat :).)
J, F, B, and J (all completing each others’ sentences): There were a lot more trees before the hurricane, but they were palm trees. They want to get rid of those and replace them with native species because they are stronger and will be less likely to blow over in a hurricane. We planted them in the rain forest.
Immersed: Tell us more about being in the rainforest.
Z: It was very dry, surprisingly, and there were so many vines and roots snaking out.
Immersed: Tell us what you learned about your service.
F: I felt like I was helping out after the hurricane.
Z (with lots of support from F): Yeah, there are still a lot of houses that are torn down or without roofs, and they’re still fixing everything to this day. I feel like I was doing something really good by planting trees because when the next hurricane comes, they won’t be the kind of trees that knock down houses!
(Many inside jokes ensue, none of which were comprehensible to an outsider.)
Immersed: What was the best part of your trip?
Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): The rainforest! Not where we planted the trees but where we went hiking—El Yunque.
Z: Then there was the catamaran. It was good! We went snorkeling. We saw a sea urchin.
J: I almost fell over from trying to walk in the flippers.
(Cascades of giggles.)
Z: The flippers were so hard to walk in; we looked like penguins.
Immersed: What other wildlife did you see?
Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): We saw a huge snake! And some huge iguanas at the old fort in San Juan. They were really big.
Immersed: Wow. You guys really did a lot.
Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): We did; we did. We went to a lot of beaches, too.
Immersed: Tell us about meals—did you cook in your apartment? Did you mostly eat out? What kinds of new foods did you try?
Z, F, B, and J (as an excited but unintelligible chorus except for a few words): Good, non-spicy, eggs, guacamole.
Z: On days that we went to the beach, we would return to the apartment and make spaghetti or pizza or cereal or something. On days we were out, we would eat out.
Immersed: What else do you want readers to know about your trip?
Z: If you go there, bring a lot of sunscreen.
F: Don’t go to Wendy’s or Burger King.
(Lots of agreement from the gang.)
Immersed: How do think this experience changed you?
Z: It made me have a closer bond with these three. It helped us understand each other more. Before we went on the trip, I was probably the only one who really spoke to J, and I was one of his first friends here. Now we all hang out.
F: This changed me in so many ways. I go to know those three better, and we have a better bond.
J: It made me appreciate them a lot more. Because honestly B and F and I weren’t that close. But once we got to Puerto Rico, and I actually got to spend time with them, it was just all fun.
(Next the group reflected on their changing dynamics back at school and how other students also have begun respecting them more.)
F: Even the teachers see us differently. We may be more mature.
Immersed: Think about the service aspect of your trip. Did it make you want to do more?
Z: I now look around at things and see what I can do at the moment.
J: I’ve been helping out more around the house and saying hi to strangers when I pass them on the street.
(After several attempts to wrap things up, it soon became clear that the group was stalling in order to miss science class. Ahem.)
Immersed: Did the trip awaken the love of travel in you?
Z: I like travel—I just don’t like airplanes!
F:I enjoyed my first airplane ride.
J: There was a lot of turbulence, but it was fun to be on a plane.
(Next we had a bittersweet conversation about where they are going to high school. Sniff.)
Immersed:Okay, any last thoughts? Anything at all?
Z: We are very grateful for all of the people who came to our fundraising and also to the private donors—other TNCS parents. We wouldn’t have been able to go without them.
Immersed: What will your next service projects be? Anything over the summer?
Z: I’m coming to volunteer here as a camp counselor over the summer.
The energy the four students had as they reflected on their international service-learning trip was so tremendously positive—this was clearly a very wonderful experience for them. Interestingly, they took away from it exactly what we would hope: expanded horizons and a broader outlook on life and on people as well as a deepening sense of the beneficial impact they can have on the world.
Souvenir from the group.
Well done, you four—you’ve made an indelible mark on 724 S. Ann St. We will miss you next year but know that you will make your respective high schools all the nicer for your presence!
The group reflects on a wonderful experience . . . and looks ahead to the amazing adventures awaiting them.
At The New Century School, service to the community is a core value. Dean of School/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali has integrated service learning throughout the school year in many ways (read last week’s “check-in” with her for more on specific initiatives).
Last month, she took it to the next level when she invited 11th-grade McDonogh School student Laya Neelakandan to present on her impressive experience with grant writing to support several charitable projects. She learned of Ms. Neelakandan last June after having collaborated with one of Ms. Neelakandan’s teachers (Mary-Catherine Irving) on a service project for her son’s school. Ms. Irving told her about Ms. Neelakandan’s remarkable accomplishments in service initiatives, and they discussed the possibility of a visit to TNCS. “I am excited that the students will have this opportunity, which the 6th- to 8th-grade students can use as a ‘jumping off point’ to initiate their own grant writing to support and fund service,” said Ms. Danyali.
Even this early in her sure-to-be illustrious career, Ms. Neelakandan has already received 11 grants from five different foundations—she has been awarded every grant she has ever applied for!
After introducing herself, she began her presentation by describing her first grant-writing experience for The World We Want Foundation (WWWF). This organization promoted philanthropy among youth all around the world and was introduced to Ms. Neelakandan by Ms. Irving. Her proposal was designed to teach the importance of giving back at a young age, so she recruited groups of 1st-graders to make blankets, hygiene kits, and bags of trail mix to distribute to Baltimore’s homeless citizens.
With her written grant proposal, she was first awarded enough to fund a couple of such projects. She next wrote a follow-up proposal to fund all of her projects and received three $1,000 grants over a 3-year period. This allowed her to expand her philanthropic efforts to include the India Project, which is a school supplies drive for Indian schools. She made and sold friendship pins to buy dictionaries and other supplies that she delivered in person in India.
After a very successful run with WWWF, which closed down in 2015, Ms. Neelakandan went in search of a new project to support and came across Karma for Cara (K4C), which is based in Baltimore and is dedicated to “Empowering Youth to Repair Our World.” Following the online instructions, she applied for and won four $1,000 microgrants. With these, she was able to keep her already successful WWWF projects thriving as well as add a backpacks drive. She continues to support K4C.
Ms. Neelakandan’s work has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Orokawa Foundation (a grant-making organization in Towson, MD) approached her about funding her projects. She is using the money to establish a library at a domestic abuse shelter. TNCS students may be assisting her in this endeavor in the near future.
And—breaking news–in the days since she presented at TNCS, she has been awarded yet another grant in the amount of $150. Kindness Grows Here is a new foundation that awarded its first Annual Kid Kindness Grants this month! “[They] want kids with awesome ideas to submit applications for ways in which they can help spread kindness in their school, community, town, or neighborhood.”
Ms. Neelakandan closed her TNCS presentation with some hard data (which has since been updated, given the new grant she just won):
She has raised $10,478 in the 6 years she has been doing these projects.
She has delivered over 150 handmade fleece blankets, 800 bags of trail mix, more than 1,200 sweet treats, 750 hygiene kits, and 300 backpacks.
She has directly helped over 1,250 less fortunate men, women, and children.
She has also been invited to speak at fundraisers, won awards, and influenced fellow students. With these mantras in mind, this is how she has done it:
There is no such thing as a small act of kindness.
Find your passion and use it to change the world.
Keep applying to different places and never get discouraged if it does not work out.
You have the power to change the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
Ask questions, be a leader, be kind and empathetic.
Interview with Laya Neelakandan
Because the visionary Ms. Neelakandan had to return to school immediately following her presentation, she kindly agreed to an email interview for this piece, transcribed here.
How did you become interested in grant writing?
“When I was in 4th grade, my mentor, Mrs. Mary-Catherine Irving, asked me if I wanted to lead her class in service projects. She introduced me to the concept of microgrants, and, at the age of 10, I applied for and received my first grant. Since then, I have continued to immerse myself in grant writing to get support for the projects that I make for the homeless.”
Do you plan to go to college? What will you major in, if so?
“I do plan to go to college after I graduate high school. Though I’m not completely certain yet exactly what I want to major in, I’m very interested in English and writing and aspire to be a journalist.”
What future career do you plan to pursue?
“I want to pursue journalism as a future career and use the power of my words to make a difference in my community and highlight social justice causes.” [Ed. note: You go, girl!]
Can you describe your experience of presenting at The New Century School?
“Presenting at The New Century School was an amazing experience for me. I had never presented about my grant writing before, and I loved seeing the students’ earnest and engaged faces as I told them how they have the power to change the world. Their interest shone through especially during the Q&A, where they asked me some of the most intriguing and introspective questions I had ever received, including what inspired me to keep giving back and if my school supports my work.”
Will you be doing additional work with TNCS students?
“The TNCS students are going to be conducting a collection drive for gloves, mittens, scarves, and socks for families at a shelter that I have been working with this past year (this is the Family Crisis Center shelter where I built the library for the children). I am excited to see what other ideas the students come up with.”
What are your hobbies (or, what do you enjoy doing in your free time)?
“In my free time, I enjoy playing piano, classical Indian flute, practicing classical Indian dance, singing, reading, and writing.”
What do your parents think of your work?
“My parents are extremely supportive of my work. They help drive me when I go out to distribute the items to the men and women who need them. They have also instilled in me the importance of using this gift of life to help others.”
Ms. Neelakandan is pictured below right with a woman outside a homeless shelter last January. “I had just given her some handmade fleece blankets. It was below freezing outside,” she explained.
Ms. Neelakandan drove home two primary points for TNCS students: First, youth have the power to do good, and, second, write from the heart when seeking a grant—“If you really care about something, it will show through in your writing,” she said.
“She was inspiring and wonderful,” said Ms. Danyali. It certainly will be wonderful to see just how she inspires TNCS students and what great things they will make happen in the coming months!
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.
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!