TNCS Dean of Students/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali Presents at AIMS Learning to Lead Conference 2020!

On March 3, 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Alicia Danyali, the Dean of Students and Head of the Lower School at The New Century School, presented at an important and now exponentially more relevant conference: The Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools (AIMS) annual Learning to Lead event, this one on the theme of “Handle the Pressure: Building Social Media Leadership in Our Students.” The impetus behind the conference was this:

Social media continues to transform the educational landscape in our schools, as well as the emotional development of our students. These young people are being asked to grow up faster, and the implications of their decisions now have grand consequences that can affect their social lives, mental health, academic performance and, in some cases, college matriculation and career path. Never before have our young people been faced with such pressure to be perfect … in every way.

Now, with shelter-at-home orders in place across the state, many students are spending even more time online to varying degrees, whether it’s for entertainment or educational purposes. TNCS students, for example, are attending virtual classrooms, which is a wonderful thing (read all about it here). But this often dramatic increase in screen time has some parents wondering, “Are my children practicing safe online habits? What is their level of social media literacy?”

The Social Institute

The 2020 conference was hosted by the Severn School in Severna Park, with Laura Tierney as the keynote speaker. Ms. Tierney founded  The Social Institute, whose mission is to “. . . empower 1 million students nationwide to navigate social media and technology in positive, healthy, and high character ways. As a team of digital natives, we bridge the digital divide between students and adults by offering schools a comprehensive, student-led curriculum and presentations that students respect and embrace.” The Social Institute is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of social media, Ms. Tierney “has created a dynamic curriculum that inspires leadership and reinforces smart-decision making through a positive, growth mindset.

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“The audience was about 80% middle and high schoolers, and our focus was to give them tools to be school leaders,” said Ms. Danyali.

Self-Care, Self-Discipline, and Self-Reflection: Three Principles to Guide Your Online Presence

“Ms. Tierney and her group basically talk to students about healthy relationships and what character means as well as how that translates into their everyday lives,” explained Ms. Danyali. Three concepts she focuses on are self-care, self-discipline, and self-reflection. “She emphasizes that how they present themselves on social media can affect them long term, such as when it’s time to apply for college or get a job. Regarding attitude in general, how do you send positive messaging? How do you still remain friends with people that you don’t agree with on social media? All of those things that they’re going to face challenges with.”

After the keynote presentation, the audience broke out into four groups to workshop some of these concepts related to social media. They were given a quiz about their habits and privacy, which Ms. Danyali hopes to replicate for TNCS 7th- and 8th-graders to help them investigate, for example, what their habits are and what habits they might be looking to change, what has benefited them or improved their lifestyle.

WE Schools

One of the benefits of attending a conference like this is networking. During one of the breakout sessions, Ms. Danyali describes connecting with a representative of WESchools, “an innovative series of experiential service-learning programs that engage educators and youth globally to empower them with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to bring positive change in themselves and the world.” Sound like something Ms. Danyali would be interested in? In fact, she plans to partner with them in the near future, possibly for extracurricular activities.

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“Generation Z and How to Forge Accountability”

Ms. Danyali, who has been teaching TNCS elementary and middle school students about social media literacy for years, was an ideal presenter—one of only two, in fact. Her talk was titled “Generation Z and How to Forge Accountability.” Although she has spoken on this topic before, this time, she says, she approached it a bit differently. “I started out asking whether anybody was able to cultivate accountability from somebody else, whether it was a personal or professional relationship. How did that play out?” She got a lot of response, and students shared their school social and emotional learning experiences. She explains, “Where I was going with this is, most of these independent schools, including TNCS, use four or five words to describe what they hold as their Core Values—but how do you actually cultivate those and how do you hold the community accountable for upholding them? How are they represented in your school in a way that contributes to people taking responsibility for their actions?”

For example, one of TNCS’s core values is Service. Ms. Danyali recounts how Ms. Lee’s 2nd- /3rd-grade class assembled hygiene kits to donate to the Baltimore Rescue Mission, an authentic and worthwhile service initiative. But they took it a step further and shared their experience of why they undertook the project and why it was important with the much-younger students in Ms. Mosby’s primary classroom to help establish this concept with them, so they can build on it meaningfully as they grow. That’s how TNCS brings it full circle. “But some educators confessed that they never talk about the actual words,” said Ms. Danyali, “and I think they now see why they should perhaps start doing so, such as by relating the values back to books the students are reading. It can be that simple.”

In some schools, such as the Park School, social and emotional learning even becomes part of the student’s assessment. Although it’s certainly subjective to evaluate someone’s degree of, for example, empathy, Ms. Danyali says that’s how you not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk.”

“I wanted my talk to open the door for more conversation, which is how I presented it,” said Ms. Danyali. “This is just planting a seed that maybe resonates with you as relevant or so that you can pick the conversation back up in your school house with your colleagues or with your family at home. I want the conversation to be ongoing.”

Speaking of ongoing, Ms. Danyali will bring many of the valuable insights she gained by attending and presenting at the conference home to inform new initiatives for TNCS students. One example is the One Love foundation, which also focuses on healthy relationships. She wrote 20 words on a chalkboard and asked members of the TNCS 3rd and 4th grades to circle which ones signified a healthy relationship. “We talked about the words,” she said, “but what was striking is that they were able to do it without picking any of the wrong ones.” After this “test drive” of One Love, she will undertake some of these initiatives with the older students as well.

To bring all the various threads in this post back together, in this time of increased socializing via screens, let’s make sure we—and our kids—are being who we want to be, both in real life and on social media.

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Cooperative Learning at TNCS: Reading Buddies, Budding Readers

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

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

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

Reading Buddies at TNCS

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

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

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

Benefits Abound

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

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

Strengthening Community

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


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