The New Century School expanded its administrative structure this year, allowing each team member to fully engage in their respective roles. As Shara Khon Duncan become year-round Head of School, Alicia Danyali became Head of the Lower School as well as schoolwide Dean of Students. Immersed will do an annual check-in with each Head, and this post represents the first such piece.
As Dean of School, Ms. Danyali’s responsibilities range widely. She circulates through classrooms, teaching and mediating with students as well as advising teachers, all with the goal of maintaining, or, when necessary, restoring, the community. (This is in addition to day-to-day duties like drop off and dismissal and such administrative ins and outs, of course.)
In her 6 years’ tenure at TNCS, Ms. Danyali has always been interested in what she calls an “invisible curriculum,” which is her way of referring to the soft skills (norms, values, and beliefs) that children need to develop to grow as human beings. Nevertheless, as Head of the entire school before the reorganization, she did not have the breadth to undertake as many initiatives as she might have liked. She feels confident, though, that she began “planting the seeds” among the student body, and expectations were established. The TNCS student models the school’s four Core Values, Courage Compassion, Service, and Respect.
With her now more specialized role and inspired by an education conference hosted by the National Network of Schools, she hit the ground running when the school year began, immediately putting some programs in place. “I’m starting some partnerships with and among teachers. For example, I am doing yoga with the K/1st cohort, which is designed to help them understand feelings. We started with the feeling anger, just tensing our muscles and going through some six or seven poses and then talking about how breathing affects how we react to things. That is a really big concept for them and an adjustment, to just sit and breathe.”
In preschool, which is also her Head of School focus, she did not launch any big initiatives to allow them the first quarter to settle in and acclimate to their new environment. “We have some plans later in the year when the primary students are a little bit more mature and they can partner with organizations and understand the meaning a little bit more,” said Ms. Danyali. As for preprimary, they will partner up with the primary classes. “They’re not going to do service learning, per se, but they will learn how to socialize in a group—to feel comfortable around other people and pick up on social cues as well as learn how to be a little independent,” she said. Thus, Sra. Lala’s class teams up with Mrs. Bowling’s class, Sra. Salas with Ms. Mosby, and Song Laoshi with Mrs. Reynolds. One example is making hummus as a group (Sra. Salas’s and Ms. Mosby’s classes), mixing all the ingredients and smelling, touching, and tasting.
“Song Laoshi and Mrs. Reynolds have partnered on a lot of creative initiatives, explained Ms. Danyali. “They’re both extremely creative people and share lots of ideas for making art and decorations, like for the recent Fall Festival. All of the preschool classes came together, and parent volunteers set up different stations, like bowling and face painting and different fun things. It was really nice how the kids have started to notice and recognize each other. The 5-year-olds are really feeling like they are mentoring the 2-year-olds, which is exactly what we want to see.”
The class pairs also had their Thanksgiving feasts together for another opportunity for those partnerships to solidify as well as to bring the parent communities together. “The primary mentors love to be good role models for the younger students. They make decorations together, they set the table together . . . all of those things that are a big part of the Montessori philosophy of practical life—of taking care of self, of taking care of our community,” she said.
Of course, the mentor–mentee relationship reaches the other way as well. Thus, the primary classes get their own chance to be taken under the wing of older students. The non-nappers in Ms. Mosby’s class, for example, will join Ge Laoshi’s K/1st students to be video pen pals with a class of Chinese Montessori students, who are taught by former TNCS teacher Yang Yang, who is now back in China. They communicate in Mandarin and English.
They also get a chance to have stories read to them by their older reading buddies.
Here again, the partnerships will work both ways, with Ge Laoshi’s students also partnering with Ms. Sharma’s 4th- and 5th-graders on a weekly basis, to help take care of the school grounds as well as taking out the trash and the recycling from classrooms. The older students showed the younger ones the ropes and also made sure they stayed safe as they progressed about the campus. They will help make sure the TNCS environment looks its best! Meanwhile, Ms. Shaffer’s K/1st class will work with Ms. Madrazo’s 6th- through 8th-graders in reading groups—in students’ choice of language.
Another ongoing initiative is having the middle schoolers act as “Car Line Safeties”—they volunteer for service on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to escort younger students safely into the school. “The little ones are always very receptive,” said Ms. Danyali. “They look at a 6th-grader as really important!”
Ms. Danyali is working hard to instill the deep sense of community that is essential to any successful organization. “We’ll be mixing up the opportunities, so when a student sees someone not in the same division on the playground or around school, he or she has that friendship in place, and the community supports each other as we grow academically and socially.”
Back to that conference mentioned earlier, one thing that Ms. Danyali really appreciated about it was that it included early childhood education. “It’s important that we understand how vital a part of education that is. We’re planting the seeds of who they will become—developing self confidence, taking risks. I’ve sought it out for years, so it was encouraging to see such a big focus on preschool.” The conference also covered how to find what resources are available and how to collaborate with other schools. Ms. Danyali is now networking with other early childhood classrooms that are also language immersed to build some external relationships. “I want to take all of the preschool teachers on a field trip to visit another school to see how other people do it, maybe in the spring. What are best practices at other places and how can we get involved?”
Social and Emotional Learning
As part of the invisible curriculum, Ms. Danyali has been doing workshops on social and emotional learning using nonverbal cues. Pairs of students decide on a sound and a movement they will make together, then they find another pair and combine the two sounds and movements into one. This keeps growing until everyone has been gathered together making one big sound and movement. “It shows how much there is to be said for nonverbal communication and what that means in our place in the world. How we can go anywhere and understand each other if we have a common sound and movement—nonverbal cues,” said Ms Danyali.
“I focus a lot on navigating emotions and feelings and identifying what they are. In the 2nd- and 3rd-grade classes, in particular, the social dynamic has been really interesting. It seems like this is when social cliques start, and exclusion can happen. So, we will really be working on inclusion with them before we set them out into the world,” she said.
In elementary and middle school, service learning really ramps up. In weekly meetings with the older students (Grades 4 through 8), Ms. Danyali discusses possibilities for class partnership activities and wider school initiatives as well as planning for future endeavors. Based on a recent presentation from a student from McDonogh School on her experience with grant-writing for charities (blog post on that to come!), the older group is going to take on their own grant-writing initiative, for example.
Ms. Danyali is not new to service learning, having been the Service Coordinator at other schools, and service itself is an intrinsic value for her. “Service has always a big part of my life personally, and it helps put things in perspective about what’s really important,” she said.
It comes from my parents, my grandparents—that feeling like it’s part of your makeup, that’s just what you do. Of course, it has served me well because I feel like it’s a huge benefit to me to appreciate what I have. I find it really fulfilling when I know it’s made a difference. But I also have a hard time saying no sometimes, so it’s important also to keep a balance.
Two service projects were recently completed: the annual non-perishable food drive for United Way of Central Maryland/Beans & Bread and a collection of men’s socks and underwear for Baltimore Rescue Mission. “The older grades will be helping to organize the items collected, and I asked for a cohort of student volunteers to deliver them. They need to make that connection—this is where it’s going and this is who it’s serving. I want to have those conversations,” said Ms. Danyali. “It just has to be a big part of your life that you’re not just thinking about yourself all the time. And kindness too.”
The 2nd- and 3rd-grade classes did the annual Linus blanket initiative. “That is such an amazing project.”
Being Head of Lower School
“I feel like we’re really off to a great start this year,” said Ms. Danyali. “We’ve had some great workshops and a lot of parent partnership in the preschool. Classes are running like well-oiled machines. The preprimary classes can take a little bit longer, but they are now on a schedule and regimen.”
Another aspect of her position is working with the preschool teachers. “They are so dedicated, loyal, and loving. They really understand the psyche of that age, and I enjoy working with them, planning with them, and supporting what they think is best for their students,” she said. The cohort can be so different from year to year, she explained, keeping the teachers in their toes. “For example, one of the preschool classes has 14 boys, and one of the classes only has 4 students who are verbal, so there’s a lot of navigation, adjusting, and adapting.”
She is pleased that her new role affords her more time with her colleagues, including the assistant teachers. “They are a big part of the equation and our philosophy here because of the language they bring, and I’ve had the opportunity to get to know them better. I have aspirations for them to grow professionally here, and I have been able to give them bigger responsibilities and more structure. They now report to me weekly on how the students are progressing in the language.”
What’s in the Offing
Elementary and middle school students will have quarterly field trips that are service or community oriented in one way or another. The 8th-grade students will embark on the first-ever TNCS international trip, which is still being planned. Book fairs will take place, as usual, including an online Mandarin book fair. These and other school fundraisers will make use of parent and student volunteers, as appropriate. Ms. Danyali also works closely with the TNCS Parent Council who host their own set of initiatives to raise money for the school. Even initiatives with a clear fundraising bent help contribute to the TNCS thriving sense of community.
“I feel really proud that we’re not even halfway through the school year, and we have already done so much as a school community,” she concluded.