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Principal Blends the Arts and Common Core With a Dose of Mindful Breathing

By Rosa Goldensohn | February 1, 2015 4:50pm
 Victoria Armas drew up a proposal for City Knoll after years as a teacher and school quality reviewer. 
Victoria Armas drew up a proposal for City Knoll after years as a teacher and school quality reviewer. 
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

HELL'S KITCHEN — City Knoll, M.S. 933, a brand-new Manhattan middle school with an artistic bent, opened its doors in September 2014.

Principal Victoria Armas conceived the plan for the school after decades as a teacher and a stint as a quality reviewer for which she observed lessons and graded public schools around the city. She prizes the arts, diversity, and rigorous standards, she told DNAinfo, and is building the school from the ground up with interdisciplinary projects, teachers who are “really smart,” and a daily dose of mindful breathing for kids and teachers alike.

Armas says her strength is in developing curricula that work. This fall, the students took part in an interdisciplinary project centered around the High Line, which one student whose work was hanging in the hallway summed up with a project titled, “The High Line: Is it really that great?”

A sixth grade entered in the fall, and the school will add an incoming class in 2015. Currently housed at P.S. 51’s building on West 44th Street, the school will move down to 33rd Street, the St. Michael’s campus, next year.

Armas sat down with DNAinfo New York and told us about the school’s first fall, class trips to the High Line and her golden rule of lesson-planning.

[This interview has been edited for clarity.]

Tell us about what’s going on here at the school.

We just finished our first interdisciplinary unit on public spaces. The case study was the High Line.  We kicked it off with a field-work trip to the High Line, where we gathered information and built some background knowledge about the High Line and what it actually is.

The High Line was chosen as our case study for that unit because we’re going to be living very near the High Line when we move downtown to 33rd Street. In ELA, they did an essay about public space and there were certain criteria that they looked at, why the High Line is or is not a good public space. In social studies, they looked at some public spaces from early civilizations, the Roman Baths, I think the Coliseum, and they compared those to modern-day public spaces and made some newspapers. Science and math did some lessons, science was about how the High Line was built … And then art is doing some work around public spaces, kids are designing their own public space. And there’s also some work that kids are doing around the use of words as art in public spaces, and they’re going to be making some stickers that they have permission to put around.

Cool. Kids love stickers.

They do. So we’re really proud of that unit, because it’s something that we developed it’s all standards-connected to the Common Core.

Louis C.K. recently tweeted out something negative about the Common Core.

Well, the Core is really rigorous. It’s challenging and I really believe in the Common Core, it kind of standardized the standards across the U.S., so a child that’s studying in New York is going to have the same standards if they go to Denver, Colorado, and I think that’s a good thing.

So it doesn’t mean more tests, necessarily?

No. Harder? Yes. Because it’s definitely more rigorous. But I feel that our youngsters to be able to compete in the global society that we live in need to be exposed to these kinds of standards.

What do you do to mitigate all the testing?

Well, we do a couple of things. We embed test sophistication strategies in our everyday learning, so kids are exposed to that. We monitor how kids are doing, we also use a program that’s very test-like, and teachers assign that for homework. They’re ready for it by the time they do it.

We use a program called MindUP, which is based on brain theory, and a component of that is mindful breathing. So four times a day, we do three minutes of mindful breathing.

Everybody does mindful breathing?

Everybody. Including teachers. We do it first thing in the morning when we arrive, we do it after break because we have a break in the morning where everybody gets breakfast…after lunch, we do mindful breathing, and before we go home we do mindful breathing. It’s three minutes where kids focus on their breath, so it’s essentially a meditation...It helps them to focus, it helps calm them down, they’re getting more oxygen to their brain, and they’re practicing that focus for three minutes that helps support concentration. So tests will just be another day, you know, in our school.

So why did you choose the teachers you chose, what do you think makes a great teacher? 

We didn’t hire anybody that we didn’t see in action, so that person connection, that kindness, that affinity toward the middle school age. All of our teachers also had to have some connection to the arts. So our ELA teacher came from the book arts. Everybody had to have some kind of love of the arts or at least the willingness to use the arts in instruction. As well, they had to be really smart.

And instruction, I think is my forte, you know I’ve developed a lot of instruction over the years. And just the development of curricula. Having been a quality reviewer, you know that’s kind of the whole ball of wax. I have a lot of materials that I’ve developed personally that I’ve been pulling out for teachers to use. But you know, I’m able to support teachers in ways that sort of make sense around instruction because that’s what I love. I love teaching, I think I’ll always consider myself a teacher. Let me see your lesson plan, what’s the unit look like, are your learning plans aligned to your assessments?