Not Straight Up Learning, the Other Kind

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a panel of Middle School students answering questions from prospective parents. When asked what they liked most about Middle School Tiger Days, one of our students replied that she enjoyed that “we don’t always do straight up learning.” This candid and honest response elicited laughs from the other students and parents in the room, and she went on to describe her favorite activities on those days: electives, field trips, and interdisciplinary work.
This teenage interpretation captures the essence of our co-curricular programs. We emphasize an instructional approach in our classrooms that develops a strong understanding of content, critical math, reading, writing, and research skills in order to encourage the development of intellectual curiosity and confidence. Balanced with this “straight up learning,” are opportunities in Ellis Entrepreneurs, FIRST LEGO League, and Future City where students are guided by coaches and faculty advisors, yet they do the “heavy lifting” when it comes to deciding on a prototype or tussling with solutions and working out how to carry out their ideas.  

In Ellis Entrepreneurs, students in grades 5 and 6 are required to learn the entrepreneurial skills of project planning, negotiation, marketing, finance, and decision-making as they work to design, create, and sell items at the Ellis Parent Association's annual Holiday Shop. Whether negotiating for table space with another student vendor or deciding how to price items to sell quickly, students learn how to advocate for themselves, overcome obstacles, and seize opportunities. Many students delve into social entrepreneurship as they choose to donate proceeds from their sales to their favorite charities or organizations, particularly those that support animals.  

In our FIRST LEGO League elective, open to all Middle School students, team members harness their creativity and practice flexibility in order to solve a series of missions in a Robot game while learning to design, build and code LEGO Mindstorm Robots. While this provides them with important practice in collaboration and troubleshooting, such as when team members disagree and a robot mission goes awry, they are also asked to develop a research project of their choosing that addresses a real-world problem. This year, students will identify a problem related to long-duration space exploration, propose an innovative solution, and present their work to judges. Throughout the project, students embrace and illustrate the core values of the FIRST program: discovery, teamwork, and gracious professionalism.

Seventh and eighth-grade students are using the engineering design process to develop a solution for this year’s Future City challenge: designing a resilient power grid for their future city that can withstand and quickly recover from the impacts of a natural disaster. Students have tackled questions such as: What type of natural disaster should they choose given recovery methods? (Spoiler alert—they chose volcanic eruptions!) What do you do when your Sim City model is in jeopardy, you don’t have the budget necessary to build a firehouse, and you can’t put out a fire in another part of your city? As they design a power grid and ultimately their city, they learn to make responsible decisions around greener energy and prioritize who/what gets power first when they begin to restore it.

Ellis girls grapple with authentic problems in order to grow and develop into persistent and resilient problem solvers, ready to work for positive change in both imaginary and real communities. Experience with real-world problems on a smaller scale builds the foundational skills of tenacity and empathy and develops perspective and agency—essential for this group of budding changemakers.