On the bookshelf in my office, I have a stack of over 100 colorful love letters, each sealed with a smiley face sticker. Some have been folded into origami sculptures. Others are tightly wound into a scroll. One is inexplicably shaped like a boat. And many are addressed to “My Future Self.”
Sara Frazer Ellis founded The Ellis School back in 1916 to prepare young women to attend the best colleges available to women in the United States at the time. While the country, and Ellis, have certainly changed significantly since that time, our school’s commitment to providing an outstanding education for girls and young women remains at the core of our mission. I couldn’t be prouder of the ever-evolving, thoughtful way in which we live out that commitment at Ellis.
One of our most closely held beliefs at Ellis is the importance of being a diverse and inclusive community. We know this benefits our students’ growth, as they learn in the company of classmates who bring different life experiences and perspectives, and as they build all the skills that will prepare them to work effectively and collaboratively in the ever-broadening workplace they will enter as young adults. We also know it is not enough for us to be a diverse community—we strive to be a truly inclusive one, in which each student feels known, welcome, appreciated, and has a sense of belonging.
It's an exciting time at Ellis as we launch the 2022–2023 school year. We’ve been working hard all summer to get ready for a great new school year, and I want to share some of the highlights of that work with you:
Last month, a ninth grader emailed me requesting a meeting in regards to her research for a Voice and Vision project. The class was tasked with designing a poster to advocate and educate on an issue of their choosing. Of course I was eager to meet with this student to learn more about their work, but I wasn’t prepared for the sophistication in which this student used our time. She was clearly prepared with her agenda, and not only wanted me to listen, but also talk through possible actions as a result of her research. I enjoy receiving homework from my students!
I have become an admirer of the writer and poet Mary Oliver, who wrote prolifically about nature, and love, and life. One of her quotes caught my attention recently, as I was reflecting on our year at Ellis:
"Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang."
Recently, I was looking through a folder that I had labeled "Talking about Ellis” and came upon my notes from a presentation I gave at an Open House for families who were considering Ellis for their daughters. At the top of the page I had written one word in all capital letters, COMMUNITY, and underneath were these words:
School by its very nature is a social experience. Every school is a collection of students. What’s different about Ellis is the degree of care and attention we give to creating our community. We aren’t just bringing children together in a space and hoping for the best. We act with intention to create a collective identity, to build supportive relationships with students, families, and teachers so that we come to see ourselves as a community of learners who have a strong sense of shared purpose.
Being in education is a lot like watching the movie Groundhog Day. In the film, the protagonist must relive the same day over and over again until he learns an important lesson about himself that makes him a better person and helps him fall in love, at which point he’s finally able to move on to February 3. (At least, I think that’s the plot of the film. I haven’t seen it since the 90s.)
The Lower School's production of The Aristocats brought the Ellis community together to watch the School's youngest students light up the stage. Lower School Music Teacher Jayla Griggs and Grade 4 Teachers Jessica Nolan and Patrick Fagersten share how the beloved Ellis tradition of the Lower School Musical teaches students the importance of teamwork.
I have always loved studying mathematics, and so I would consistently reference it as such because I felt it deserved respect—never math, always MATHEMATICS. I fell head over heels in love with this discipline during my junior year of high school because I realized that math was much more than what one learns in the classroom.
In today’s world where we rush about at a frenetic pace, taking time to think and reflect may seem like a luxury we can’t afford. Yet reflection is a critical component of how we learn. The American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” In the Lower School, we are mindful of integrating opportunities for reflection into the students’ learning experiences. Reflecting is also an essential component of our practice as teachers. By critically assessing lessons we deliver on any given day, a unit a class has just completed, or our interactions with students, we grow in our ability to positively impact our students’ learning and growth.
You know how most high school yearbooks include predictions about what each of the seniors will do in life, often humorously written? The prediction in my senior yearbook was that I would teach calculus to preschoolers. It turned out to be a surprisingly accurate one, as I did spend much of my early life volunteering with young children and many of my first years as an educational professional teaching calculus—albeit to high school students, not to preschoolers.
I spent my entire middle and high school career declaring, “I am not a math person.” I put in minimal effort and, in turn, received minimal reward. I opted out of taking math my senior year of high school and panicked when I was required to take statistics in grad school. And, as if to complete my arc of disdain for math, I became an English teacher.
Whenever I talk with Ellis alumnae, I ask them about the ways in which Ellis influenced them as students and what they felt were the greatest gifts they received by attending the School. Alumnae often talk about their deep friendships, their beloved teachers, and the breadth and depth of their learning experiences. Graduates almost always make a point of sharing their appreciation for the ways in which Ellis helped them develop their ability to think critically, empowered them to express themselves with confidence, and fueled their curiosity about the larger world outside of Ellis.
This title of a sixth grade history project gives me a good chuckle and a glowing sense of pride. As they study Japan in the Middle Ages, Ms. Dixon Bell’s history class spends a unit focusing on the rise of the warrior class and its impact on Japanese culture, culminating in an exploration of legendary female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Not only do they learn about this famous historical figure who has been immortalized in epics, stories, music, art, comic books, and pop culture in the centuries since, but our sixth graders also have the opportunity to creatively explore what life might have been like for this woman warrior after her famous battles and mysterious disappearance.
Within hours of my son’s birth in a hospital in Minneapolis, MN, a visitor came to our room and gave us a book called Do You Know New? by Jean Marzollo. A board book with simple drawings and short, rhythmic sentences, it was the first book I ever read to my son. Over time, we read it so often that we knew it by heart, and by age two my son could “read” it to us. The visitor who gave us the book was a volunteer from a literacy organization that had as its mission that every baby born in the city would go home with a book. As she was handing us the book, the volunteer stressed that we should read to the baby every day, several times a day.
During my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher assigned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye while we studied the Great Depression in History class. The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel which encourages readers to examine identity and race during the Depression. While my teachers didn’t explicitly explain that this was an attempt at interdisciplinary studies, I recall making such connections with my friends. I remember having lively conversations in both classes because I, and many of my peers, discussed what we were learning with our families, resulting in a diverse, multigenerational perspective.