Immersed Hits 300 Posts!

We’ve turned a major corner, folks. Not only is this the first post of 2019 (and, Happy New Year, by the way), but it’s also the 300th.

The three-hundredth. El trescientos. Bǎi fēn zhī sānshí (百分之三十).
300!

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Since Hello World! published on October 12, 2012, that’s 300 updates on school happenings on and off campus, meet-the-teachers, check-ins and catch-ups with faculty, and photo collections of adorable students. So, to honor this momentous achievement, let’s review some stats.

  • Number of followers: 95. We need to do something about that! Hello?!
  • Most popular day and time to read Immersed: Fridays at 1:00 am (hmmm).
  • Average words per post: In 2012, it was a succinct 861. By 2017, that number had risen to a loquacious 1,137! Last year, editing skills got a bit better, and we got it down to 1,024. Whew!
  • Best views ever: November 9, 2018. That was the day that Meet the Teacher: Leslie Shaffer Joins TNCS Lower Elementary! published, making it the most popular post of 2018 and of all time! Congratulations to Ms. Shaffer!
  • Most popular post on Facebook: Catch-Ups with Aftercare Stars Ciera Daniels and Nicole Marshall!, so congrats to those two as well!

All in all, 2018 proved a fantastic year for Immersed, which demonstrates that we’re getting better as we go. To prove it, Immersed is getting a makeover. Stay tuned—we’ll be debuting our new look very soon!

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Catch-Ups with Aftercare Stars Ciera Daniels and Nicole Marshall!

Vital to the successful operation of The New Century School are the staff members who work somewhat behind the scenes—including those who provide extended care and assist in the classroom. Students might require care before the school day begins, after it ends, and during school holidays. Though not always directly in the spotlight, the individuals who supervise these extended care opportunities, therefore, have the immense responsibility of keeping the children who participate safe, entertained, and happy. Likewise, those who support teachers in the classroom as assistants are similarly tasked in addition to having other classroom-associated responsibilities. These dedicated people deserve recognition for the care they so generously provide.

This is where Ciera Daniels and Nicole Marshall come in. These two wonderful human beings are long-time TNCS employees and fulfill their duties with obvious pleasure. It’s rare, if not impossible, to encounter either of them not smiling. Immersed sat down with them to find out what makes them so particularly well suited to their work. (Why together? They not only work together, but are now besties and are almost never apart!)

Ms. Daniels began at TNCS in 2012 so has been at the school almost from the beginning. Ms. Daniels joined 5 years ago. Both are from Baltimore, MD, born and raised. They both work in aftercare at TNCS and either are currently serving as a classroom assistant (Ms. Marshall) or have done so in the past (Ms. Daniels), but, as you’ll see, they approach their job(s) as a team—and are all the more effective for this synergistic collaboration.

About Ciera Daniels

tncs-aftercare-instructor-ciear-danielsMs. Daniels recently graduated college with a communications degree from Bowie State University and is currently working two jobs. She says she applied at TNCS as a sophomore in college, just looking for a side job for some extra income. “Honestly, it was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said.

She next announced the big news that she is going to law school next semester to pursue a dual degree with a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. “Since I was in fifth grade I knew I wanted to go to law school,” she said. “Then, 2 years ago, I did an internship with planned parenthood. We did a lot of lobbying and collaborating for gay rights and minorities, so I want to lobby for gay rights and minorities as a lawyer. That’s where I am.”

But that doesn’t mean she will no longer be involved in child care. She’ll continue at TNCS to support herself while she pursues her law degree and even feels that these two fields are not incongruent. “My work at TNCS is awesome,” she says, “and has taught me a lot. I have gained a lot of important skills here that I will use throughout my career.”

She seems to have the nurturing instinct built in. Her first job at the age of 14 years was in a daycare center, she currently works at TNCS in aftercare, and she wants her life’s work to be elevating the lives of others.

And that’s not all. Remember that second job mentioned above? She works mornings at the middle school at Kennedy Krieger Institute, and she says her two jobs complement each other well:

It’s a good shift from there to TNCS. I like the fact that I get to go there and be a bit more hands on, because I work with people with mental and physical disabilities. The kids here at TNCS are a lot more independent. So, I like that I can go there, be hands on and help those students with almost everything, and then come here and help these students do certain things and then step back and watch them go.

About Nicole Marshall

tncs-aftercare-instructor-nicole-marshallMs. Marshall also came to TNCS somewhat serendipitously. She has established a career as a nanny and cares for children up to age 2 years. One year, when her position was reduced to just the morning hours, she applies at TNCS to work here in the afternoons. “I knew I wanted to be in a school setting,” she explained, “but I really didn’t expect to be here so long. It’s hard to leave. You just fall in love with it. It’s beautiful.”

Like Ms. Daniels, Ms. Marshall also started her work life in a daycare and also at age 14. She has now been working in early childhood education for more than half of her life. “I helped out at my godmother’s home daycare until I turned 18, and then I became a nanny. I also got a 90-hour preschool certificate but continued to nanny. And then I came here.”

TNCS’s Dynamic Duo

So what does their TNCS life entail? For one thing, they both express gratitude for what they have learned during their time at the school. Ms. Daniels came to really appreciate the Montessori aspect, which she had not been familiar with before coming to TNCS. “Montessori has opened my eyes a lot. The way it works is amazing,” she said. For her part, Ms. Marshall appreciates the experience: “When you take the 90-hour class, you only learn a little bit. You can’t really know it until you are doing it.”

They primarily work with the preprimary students, currently, which is by choice. “We want to provide structure. Having a routine is much easier for the kids,” said Ms. Daniels. Ms. Marshall says this is also hard in some ways because, once the students move up to primary, that routine gets disrupted, dissolving the bonds they had established: “When they go upstairs, they don’t want to say ‘hi’ anymore.”

Another thing they appreciate is the language aspect. “I took Chinese for 4 years in high school,” said Ms. Daniels, “and when I came here it helped strengthen my Chinese so much, especially working with Yu Lin when she was here. Working here has also helped me learn Spanish. I’ve had teachers give me homework to help me learn.”

Ms. Marshall is amazed by how independent the students are: “It’s been just great to see how well they do. I love being able to see them make their journey.”

Back to their approach, they really prefer handling aftercare as a unit. Ms. Daniels says, “It’s not the same without each other.” Ms Marshall says, “You’ve got to prepare yourself when one is not here.” She explains, “In aftercare, we like to give them a lot of different choices, and we learn what they like and don’t like. So we know what works, and they just love it. They don’t want to leave sometimes when their parents come.”

Some afternoon activities they might do together include listening to music, playing games, or sometimes just “running around.” Their teamwork pays off in that it also models cooperation for the students. Says Ms. Marshall, “they kind of all agree on what we decide to do each day. They all work together. Most of the time they just want to run around. They have so much energy at 5 o’clock.”

“We’re just big kids, too,” joked Ms. Daniels. “And we adore the kids.”

The most important thing they wanted to convey, though, is the value of their partnership with parents. Said Ms. Marshall: “We appreciate the parents. If we go to them and tell them anything about what’s going on with the kids, they fix it, they try, they’re very cooperative. They respect our opinions, even though we’re just aftercare.”

“We’re so appreciative of their cooperation because with potty training, new languages, learning new life skills, all the parents are so cooperative and understanding. It’s just great,” agreed Ms. Daniels.

And, let’s back up a second, “just aftercare”? More like, “just about the best thing that ever happened to aftercare”? Thanks for all you do, ladies!

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Ed. Note: Just after this post published, Ms. Daniels and Ms. Marshall announced that they are writing a children’s book together. More great things to come from these two in 2019!

Thoughts on the First Half of the Year from TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan

Although it may be hard to believe, the first half of the 2018–2019 school year at The New Century School has just drawn to a close. Boy, did the last 3+ months fly by!

However, when we look back at everything that TNCS students have done since August 27th, the real surprise becomes, wow—how’d they squeeze so much active learning into such a short time span?! So, Immersed sat down with TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan to get her perspective on how the school year is progressing so far as well as how she is settling in to her role.

The Skinny from Señora Duncan

SONY DSCIt’s clear right off the bat that Señora Duncan has embraced her position as TNCS Head of School. But that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing all the time. “It seems like just when I feel like I’m starting to cruise a little bit, a new event pops up, or something new is about to happen, or I have to prepare for something coming up down the road. But that’s expected; it’s the first year,” she said smiling. So many things are happening, many simultaneously, that she’s pretty much on her toes all the time—“good thing I danced as a kid,” she joked. She ticks off a partial list of some of the events she either kept track of or oversaw in the preceding weeks, both during and outside of the school day, and each with its own particular set of needs: Observation Week and the Fall Festival for the Primary program, whole-school Book Character Dress-Up Day, Elementary and Middle School Information Night and Open Houses for prospective families, Winter Concerts . . . and the list goes on. “They come so fast, yet they seemed so far off back in June. Now June seems far away, and here we are in December,” she said. “So sometimes it feels like I’m just about to take a breath, but we have to keep moving to get ready for the next thing. It’s great because I either learn something new about the school, or I get to meet some more people, which is even better.” Speaking of new people, she recalls the Maryland Secretary of State’s visit, saying, “Important visitors to our campus brings even another level and layer of excitement and preparation, which makes it all so interesting.”

She means it when she says that she finds all the hubbub exciting:

I’m loving it. I’m really loving it. My friends and family ask, ‘how do you like it?’I tell them, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some challenges. It’s not like it’s all sunshine and roses, but it’s so exhilarating to have a new challenge in my life at this stage of my career.’ To be able to do this is wonderful. All of these things that have been in me that I’ve been gathering in my career backpack for education over the last 25 years, I get to pull them out and really use them. It’s all coming to bear. At the same time, I’m still learning, which is just wonderful. I have not taught all of the subjects we teach here, so learning about those I was previously unfamiliar with and listening to our teachers and to our parents about how we can make them better really helps. It gives me an idea of where we need to go.

A Day in the Life

When asked for a description of a typical day as TNCS Head of School, Sra. Duncan laughed. “See, that’s another thing I like about education, there are no typical days!” She explains that some days she visits classrooms to keep track of what’s going on in those environments, whereas other days might find her confined to her office, conducting meetings, handling all of her communication, and the myriad other tasks her position demands of her. “I don’t like those days as much,” she admits. “Not that what goes on in there isn’t important, it is, but I’d rather see what’s going on in the classrooms. There are so many wonderful things going on during the day—I love to sit and listen and watch. I find it utterly amazing.”

Being a linguiphile (she grew up in a household where her mother encouraged all forms of language exposure), she finds Pei Ge‘s (“Ge Laoshi’s”) classroom particularly difficult to tear herself away from and is starting to pick up some Mandarin with Wei Li’s (“Li Laoshi’s”) help.

I want to sit there and be with the kids and go right along with them as they go through the daily routine in Mandarin or talk about fruits in Mandarin. It’s amazing to me that even students who just joined the program this year can become so proficient so fast. It’s magical to see live what happens with the students and their brains. You can talk about studies, you can see them online, you can read all the papers—but when you actually see children speaking the language and then turn around and start speaking English to me or speaking Spanish to Sra. Sanzana . . . it’s just amazing how their brains switch effortlessly to the very next thing.

Another interesting aspect of her role is that not only did she assume it this year, but it is itself new, or maybe refurbished, this year. The school administration expanded to include a Head of School as well as a Head of Lower School/Dean of Students, which position Alicia Danyali took over. Both roles are well defined and eliminate the guesswork that can plague an organization when chain of command is unclear. When asked how this new division of roles has worked out so far, Sra. Duncan wasted no breath: “I don’t know what I would have done without her, and I don’t know how she did it all these years by herself. I mean this is a big job, a really big job!” She also appreciates how well they work together, not just alongside each other: “We’re very like-minded in our philosophies about school, which is ideal. It’s great to be with her,” said Sra. Duncan. And, their strong suits complement each other:

Ms. Danyali has done wonders with handling preschool, which admittedly is not my bailiwick, so having her really cover that has been so wonderful. And having her experience and institutional knowledge has been invaluable. If I have a question about a situation, she can tell me how it was handled last year, 3 years ago, and so on. I feel so lucky to have that. How many people get to work with their predecessor? It should almost be required because it’s so helpful.

Work–Life Balance

Apart from enjoying a new position and being able to handle it, any big career change also has to fit into an individual’s broader life. Fortunately, that, too, is working well for Sra. Duncan. With her two daughters away at college, the daily demands of raising children have largely evaporated, leaving more time, space, energy, and nurturing that Sra. Duncan can direct elsewhere. Also, her husband has been very supportive. Even when she needs to stay late, such as for a school potluck, he will sometimes join her or make sure she has what she needs to get through a long day (“He packs fruit for me everyday”). “But, even though this job does fit into my life pretty well at this stage, I have learned long ago that I have to make a separation between home and work. So, I really try to make sure that I leave TNCS at TNCS, and, when I get home, I’m at home. That’s something I’ve really worked hard to do,” she said.

Her ability to achieve this work–life balance serves her well, but it also serves TNCS and the TNCS community of students, teachers, staff, and families. Sra. Duncan has already earned our love and respect for her unflagging composure, ready smiles, and judicious leadership. We can’t wait to see what the second half of the school year brings!

 

It’s Time to Catch Up with TNCS Preprimary Teacher Elizabeth Salas-Viaux!

Immersed‘s “Catch Up With the Teacher” series continues with preprimary teacher Elizabeth Salas-Viaux (“Señora Salas”).

Getting to Know Elizabeth Salas-Viaux

tncs-preprimary-teacher-elizabeth-salas-viauxSra. Salas started at The New Century School in 2014 when she joined Maria Mosby‘s primary classroom as an assistant teacher. The following year, she took over as lead teacher of a preprimary classroom with six children. She says she enjoys seeing her former “wonderful, beautiful” students around the school. Now in her third year as lead teacher, her Spanish Immersion class has grown to 18 2- and 3-year-olds.

Sra. Salas’s story is one of perseverance, of setting goals and sticking to them. She is originally from Santiago, Chile and came alone, speaking no English, to the United States in 2012 at 23 years old. “I had this dream of learning English so I started as an au pair,” she related.

We had an exchange experience. I was taking care of a 7-month-old, a 2-year-old, and a 4-year-old. I would speak only Spanish to them and they would speak only English to me, so that’s the way I learned English. I learned a lot about being flexible, being independent, and other things about myself. I was always open and happy to teach them about my Chilean culture. It was a rich experience.

That experience has stayed with her: “Those 2 wonderful years taught me that if I could learn English, and I did, then I can teach a Spanish immersion program and the students would pick it up.” She has also stayed in contact with her Virginia family, even having her wedding reception at their home.

So where did her dream of learning English come from? Back in Chile, she studied administration in hospitality and went to work at a Ritz Carlton Hotel. “That opened my eyes,” she explained. “I realized that I needed to learn English, to explore new cultures. I needed to go to another country and get better at this if I want to continue with this career.” Obviously, some parts of her plans underwent some change. She says that she had not planned on remaining in the United States at all but was going to return to Chile and resume her work in the hospitality industry, being so ideally suited for that role. “I have a lot of energy, and I always liked customer service, to focus on the client. And that’s why I came here, so I could improve my English and get a 2-year experience, then go back home and be with my family. Chilean people are very family oriented,” she explained.

As will happen, though, Cupid intervened. She met her now husband in Virginia, and, when he got a job in Baltimore, they moved here, right after tying the knot. Completely new in the area but still eager to practice her English and continue learning, she attended Northern Virginia Community College. She realized that she wanted to continue working with children and decided to apply to TNCS, having seen a job posting. “I would like to work hard and see if there’s something available here for me,” she said. “I fell in  love with the school, and I also love the Montessori philosophy.”

As for her family? “My parents come here every year, and I go there for Christmas or whenever I have a chance.”

In (and Out of) the Classroom

Fortunately, she seems to have made the right adjustments to her original life plan, both in terms of geography and of career. She loves teaching, as it turns out, which does have a lot in common with hospitality. “This is an environment that every time you come here you have people excited for the new day, excited to learn. It’s not like an office job. Everyday you see happy faces, and everyday is like a fresh start. They are always happy, like it’s going to be a good day. I love working with those little souls,” she said.

And those little souls are doing beautifully in the language immersion classroom, she reports. “Everything is just sort of natural’ it happens organically. [Sra. Lala and I] are very consistent with our routine and the way we express ourselves with the Spanish language, and it’s amazing to see how much the students have absorbed so far. We are super happy to see them already speaking the language and trying to communicate with us.”

She admires this unique aspect of TNCS as well as the other features that set it apart:

This is something I’ve never seen before, neither in Chile nor the United States. I really like the fact that the students have the chance to think for themselves and to reflect on their own actions is. Also, we take advantage of the city, the community. It’s nice to go for a walk, pass by the coffee shop and say hi to people. At TNCS, they can be children, experience lots of things through activities and getting out and seeing things. I like that we teachers can learn so much from each other. We have Chinese, we have English, we have Spanish. We have different food, and we have different cultures. We have different people. We all look different, I like that; I like that a lot.

Sra. Salas is happy teaching at TNCS and has thrown herself into it. Every day, we teachers try our best. We try to give the best of us every single day—to have good energy and a positive attitude and lots of patience. We are always there for the children.” She also says that she actively enjoys going to work every day. “I love what I do, and I’ve never had a moment where I wish I could stay home. Once you find your true passion, you never feel like you have to go to work everyday. I think that’s my motto, I truly believe in that. I’m very happy here.”

And TNCS is happy you’re here!

Catch Up with the Teacher: Lisa Reynolds!

Immersed is thrilled to announce a new series happening for the 2018–2019 school year! Similar to how we interview new teachers who join The New Century School in the “Meet the Teacher” series, starting with this very post, we will be circling back to profile long-standing veteran faculty members, who also deserve this chance to tell readers a little more about who they are. Let’s call this long overdue series, “Catch-Up with the Teacher”!

Getting to Know Lisa Reynolds

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Lisa Reynolds with the latest addition to her family!

The thing that anyone who encounters Lisa Reynolds immediately notices is that she always seems happy to be where she is, which is in a classroom brimming with the adorable energy of preschool-age children. Ms. Reynolds joined TNCS in 2013 as a primary teacher. After a stint with the preprimary students, she is now back up on the second floor of building south—that is, in primary, and many would say that’s precisely where she belongs. She’s a natural with the 3- to 5-year-old set!

A lifelong Maryland native from Baltimore County, she received her Montessori certification in 2013 from the Maryland Center for Montessori Studies. Calm, patient, and loving, she exemplifies the Montessori teacher.

Inside Ms. Reynolds’ Classroom

tncs-teacher-lisa-reynoldsHer class comprises 19 students, and Xiu (“Nina”) Laoshi is an in-class intern teacher. Their shared goal is to instill a sense of community in their students, to socialize them. “I concentrate on the social aspect of the group,” explained Ms. Reynolds. “I’m seeing how they respond to one another during group activities. I want them to feel like a family—to see themselves as individuals as part of a family, a larger group.”

Such group activities usually involve making things, and, even apart from her innate creativity, there’s a very good reason why, according to Ms. Reynolds. “We do a lot of fun cooking, for example. One of my instructors used to say that the steps in the process really are not the work, but the conversation is, the cooperation. Being able to communicate with one another and work together, that’s the work.” They started with potatoes and plan to make some very communicative, cooperative muffins next quarter.

As appropriate for the Montessori method, her 19 students are a mix of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. Ms. Reynolds says the mixed ages is going very well. “The children I’ve had for 3 years are really big helpers so they help the younger children a lot. The younger students really appreciate that, and some bonds have become very strong.”

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As reported in a recent post, it’s important that the mixed-age dynamic is bidirectional, so the older students who mentor their younger classmates also get the chance to be mentored, such as when students from upper divisions pay the class a visit to read together.

As mentioned, Ms. Reynolds loves to be creative and finds lots of ways to incorporate art into class time. For special occasions, like the recent Thanksgiving Feast, students make decorations and place settings. And, teaser, mothers of children in her class may see some other beautiful decorations and more this coming May!

Language Learning

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Students have the benefit of a native-speaking Mandarin assistant teacher. Xiu Laoshi is quiet and soft spoken and prefers teaching one to one or in small groups of students. Chen Laoshi also comes in to assist, and she likes larger-group activities, like making carrot and spinach noodles from scratch.

For Spanish, the class has one-on-one teaching and large-group instruction twice a week. “In the larger groups, they might read a story, sing a song, and have a large group lesson. Then we break down into smaller groups, and they do little individualized lessons based on where the child is at,” explained Ms. Reynolds.

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Señora Sanzana leads the students in a song and dance around the classroom.

Primary Workshop

At the fall parent workshop, Ms. Reynolds’ topic specialty was the outdoors. She said:

I was basically giving parents ideas about what they can do outdoors. How to focus more on their gross motor skills and letting them explore, for example. Having certain boundaries but not hovering over them and letting them experience the fresh air, the smell of the grass, the sound of the leaves. Being able to absorb all of those sensory aspects of the outdoors and the importance of connecting with nature.

One terrific suggestion she has is going on a scavenger hunt. Collect paint swatches from a building or hardware store and then ask your children to find something in nature that matches the color. Try it during different seasons to show them the spectrum of natural colors and how they shift through the year.

Takeaway Thoughts

“I love my job!,” said Ms, Reynolds. “I love being with the children. It is the best part of my day. I have so much passion for the Montessori philosophy and the care of the children.”

TNCS is so glad to have you as a teacher!

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TNCS Middle School Students Learn Grant Writing!

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.

Grant-Writing Presentation

tncs-grant-writing-presentationEven 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.

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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.

tncs-grant-writing-presentationAfter 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.

She then learned about Disney and Youth Service America (YSA)’s 2017 Summer of Service Organization Grant and, to her surprise, won the $500 grant 2 years in a row. She says the experience “proved that I should be confident in myself and that I can change the world (and you can too!) and showed me that there are people out there who believe in the power of youth.”

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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.”

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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.
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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!

Time for a Check-In with TNCS Dean of School/Head of Lower School!

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 StudentsImmersed will do an annual check-in with each Head, and this post represents the first such piece.

Being Dean

IMG_0109As 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.”

Class Partnerships

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Service Learning

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.