Agents of Change: Transforming the Classroom

Led by its innovative faculty, The Ellis School is committed to implementing programs and teaching practices that position girls to master core competencies that are essential for success in a 21st century world.
The North Star of The Ellis School has always been to provide a cutting- edge education to girls in the Pittsburgh region. This priority is so interwoven in the fabric of Ellis that it can be traced back to its founding when Ms. Ellis established the School to prepare girls for “the rigorous admission requirements of the Eastern women’s colleges”—a cutting-edge idea itself at a time when it was not typical for girls to attend college. This beacon of innovation continues to guide the School today as it transforms its programs and experiences to support new strategies and principles of girls’ education.

The rapid pace of change today challenges teachers to take full advantage of new opportunities to bridge disciplines and incorporate emerging research, best practices, and technology into their classrooms. In response to the extraordinary speed of innovation, the academic program at Ellis, as it has always done, continues to evolve in response to research about how girls learn best.

For years, Ellis’ program has been steadily moving away from skill- and-drill methods of teaching and towards a model of exploration, real-world problem solving, and collaboration as foundational learning methodologies. As the experts in girls’ education, Ellis faculty are deeply involved in developing this evolving learning experience, reimagining what this looks and feels like across campus.

This iterative process was recently bolstered with a new professional development opportunity for faculty interested in expanding their classroom practice. In the summer of 2018, teachers in all three divisions of the school participated in the first-ever Summer Institute at Ellis where they both ran and attended a week’s worth of workshops focused on sharing best teaching practices and curricular ideas. In these workshops, faculty members led sessions that delved into topics like collaborative learning and group work, team building, educational technologies, and more.

But the innovation didn’t stop there. Even as teachers welcomed students back into their classrooms, they continued to partner within their departments to audit the arc of the academic program from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Throughout this process, they identified and implemented new and future-focused projects, programs, and practices that develop the kinds of girls who positively impact the world around them.

For instance, the English faculty are pushing students to engage in intellectual dialogue and participate in deep analytical thinking about social constructs. This led the faculty to review the novels that they chose for students to read each year. For example, teachers in grade 6,
introduced the book Refugee, a young adult literature revolving around three main characters from different eras: Nazi Germany, 1990s Cuba, and modern Syria. Refugee was chosen for its relevance to timely real- world issues and its power to cultivate understanding and empathy for
the lived experiences of people around the world.

The STEM program at Ellis is another area of curricular innovation, ensuring that students will be prepared for technically sophisticated college curricula and the ever-evolving requirements of modern workplaces. Computer science and coding opportunities are central to the experience of all Middle School students. Fifth grade students take Creative Programming I, and students in sixth grade take Creative Programming II & Robotics, a composite course that solidifies all students’ understanding of core programming concepts and encourages hands-on experimentation with programs in action. 

Offerings in computer science don’t stop there. The course, Computer Science Seminar, is now required for all ninth grade students while Upper School electives such as Introduction to Computer Science, Computer Science II, and AP Computer Science Principles provide more robust, in-depth offerings. Extracurricular opportunities in coding and robotics are also growing in popularity. Just this year, the Middle School FIRST LEGO League program recruited enough girls to field two teams for the first time ever.

In addition to looking at the curriculum within subject areas, curricular reviews are also being done within each division. In the Lower School, faculty are focusing on four areas that support the idea of learning within a community: strengthening project-based interdisciplinary learning, fostering a growth mindset, prioritizing communications between faculty and families, and focusing on the relationship between academics and social-emotional learning—also known as Responsive Classroom. 

“Creating a sense of cohesion and common purpose allows the entire Lower School community to focus on what we know works for young children,” says Lower School Head Ann Martino. “These strategies and pedagogies are all happening now to some degree in our classrooms,
but the goal is to become even better at them. We want everything we do to reflect our purpose with the goal of every girl, and every family, having a strong sense of belonging at the School.”

Within faculty-led study groups, teachers are conducting research on current strategies employed at Ellis, seeking professional development to introduce and incorporate new ideas, and sharing techniques across grade levels in service of the idea of learning in community. Grade 2 Teacher Rachael Deiner is a member of the Responsive Classroom group. Her team is looking into classroom management techniques that promote inclusivity, socialization, and consistency. “We are looking to ourselves and our peers as experts so we can improve upon our current practices and offer even more dynamic experiences to our students,” she says. “If we’re teaching the girls to be collaborative, lifelong learners, we need to be able to say we’re doing that as teachers, as well.” This growth within their own craft positions Ellis teachers to better support and celebrate each girl as an individual and as part of the whole. “Together, girls will grow in their understanding of who they are because they are doing it as a team, with one shared goal,” says Ms. Martino.

This new approach to community building in the Lower School is rooted in the belief that education is inherently a social experience, through which girls cultivate strong relationships with one another, and develop an understanding of themselves as a result. “Understanding ourselves to be working in common purpose with each other contributes to each student’s ability to connect with others and learn valuable lessons about listening, presenting, and developing confidence and courage,” says Ms. Martino.

Girls who develop a strong sense of self and a sense of belonging to their Ellis team are well positioned to take on the exciting challenges that await them in the Middle School. Looking ahead to next year, one such exciting opportunity will be within the Global Citizenship elective.
Middle School students in grades 7 and 8 will use the educational software Generation Global to video conference and blog with schools across the world after piloting the program this year with girls’ schools in Pakistan, India, and Jordan. Through these interactive sessions, girls will learn the difference between dialogue and debate, how to be an active listener, and the importance of seeking out another person’s experiences. The opportunity to converse with girls in different parts of the world will not only give students an understanding of international cultures, but will help them gain an awareness of their own identities and privileges.

“We don’t want the girls to think ignorance is an excuse for misunderstanding other cultures or people,” says Jackie Prepelka, Middle School Spanish and Global Citizenship Teacher. “That’s why we’re introducing lessons from Generation Global: We want them to see discussions and dialogue as opportunities to be more competent and prepared. As they gain a broader perspective of the world, they will use that newfound knowledge to educate others and affect change in their own lives.”

While students step outside of themselves in classes like Global Citizenship, they will also be challenged to reflect and look inward as part of the Middle School’s updated health curriculum. School Counselor Karen Boyer will lead the new wellness initiative that honors the whole girl, including her social, emotional, and mental well-being. “I believe that our students can develop their capacity to be confident learners, compassionate community members, and changemakers when they are also focused on their physical, social, and emotional wellness,” says Ms. Boyer.

Ms. Boyer, alongside grade-level deans and sex educator Sam Bushman, will implement the program to strengthen students’ support systems as they navigate puberty and Middle School. Grade 5 will explore body systems, conflict resolution, and how to make healthy choices; grade 6 will delve into social thinking skills, yoga and relaxation, and healthy sleep patterns; grades 7 and 8 will cover eating disorder prevention, leadership, and brain development. All grades will focus on drug and alcohol use prevention, mindfulness and stress management, and social media and self-image. 

“Girls who can regulate themselves in their body can problem solve, attune to their academics across the school day, and interact with more difficult subject matter. We’re setting girls up with skills for the future because we know when girls are healthy in their bodies, they’re healthy in their minds,” said Ms. Boyer. The Ellis Middle School continues to set itself apart with innovative programming such as the Ellis Entrepreneurs elective where girls prototype, create, and market their own products. For the upcoming academic year, the course will focus on teaching students what it takes to build a business from the ground up. Middle School girls will connect with Project Olympus housed in the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship while utilizing resources from CMU’s Olympus Center to better craft and market their final designs.

The Upper School is in the midst of evolution as well, as teachers review and overhaul the Integrated Studies program to make it even more dynamic and innovative. This scaffolded, interdisciplinary curriculum challenges students to examine and untangle contemporary topics—from climate change to digital identity and globalization—in ways that echo real life.

The new arc of these courses intentionally widens the lense of study as girls progress through the Upper School, beginning with a focus on self in grade 9 and expanding to the Ellis community in grade 10, then broadening to the Pittsburgh community in grade 11 and culminating with senior projects in grade 12 where students choose their own areas of study.  “These unique courses provide students with powerful opportunities to practice empathy, gather knowledge and resources in an intentional manner, and develop well-thought-out action plans to implement change in the world around them,” says Lauren Laschon, Assistant Head of School and Head of Upper School. 

These types of real-world experiences extend into core subjects, as well. Partnering with Dr. Vaughn Cooper from the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Department at the University of Pittsburgh, students were able to see the evolution of a bacterial population as it mutated over the course of two weeks in a hands-on lab. “By learning about evolution through bacterial mutations, students are able to see and understand connections between the concept and current, real-world applications. While they are using a strain that is safe, knowing that it’s close relative is a harmful strain that is currently studied by professional researchers, allows students to imagine themselves as scientists solving real problems out in the world,” says Ms. Wadsworth. 
All of these examples culminate in Ellis faculty pushing the boundaries of girls’ education by continuing to create innovative programs that prepare girls for a future that is ever-changing. A result of this approach is that Ellis girls are engaged with their learning at a deeper level. In the company of other genuinely curious students, and guided by committed teachers, Ellis girls are thriving in our forward-thinking, progressive academic environment. They are academically uninhibited, delighted by learning, and equipped with all of the skills necessary to be successful, independent learners.

While reimagining the academic program is enough work to keep a school busy in any given year, the Ellis community did not stop there this year. One of the ways in which schools have the ability to induce change is through equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives, and Ellis is at the forefront of this work in the Pittsburgh region.
It starts with challenging what it means to be a girl and what it means to be an Ellis girl in particular. In classrooms from pre-kindergarten to grade 12, you can witness teachers modeling and reinforcing the message that there is no such thing as a typical Ellis girl because there is no one way to be a girl. By committing to pursue, support, and embrace diversity of all kinds, recognizing the collective strength derived from individual differences, Ellis girls can be themselves. Quirkiness and individuality are valued, girls are not expected to fit into a box, and a warm, welcoming, and inclusive community is established across campus.

By grounding students’ education around self acceptance and identity at a young age and then introducing experiences and programs that challenge them to accept the authentic identities of their peers, faculty lay the foundation for students to be comfortable and confident participating in culturally responsive learning opportunities. As they develop their understanding of cultures that are different than their own, students develop their own opinions about what is just in the world and how to take social action when they see injustice. 

Affinity groups—which bring together students who have something important in common, e.g., race, gender, religion, or special interests—support ongoing identity development and are available to students at Ellis starting in grade 5. Affinity groups provide a safe environment in
which girls who share a specific identity can come together for building community, empowerment, and positive self-awareness. In Middle School, affinity groups include the Asian Student Union, Middle School Alliance Group, Multicultural Club, and Sisterhood Junior. In Upper School, affinity groups are student-run and include: Asian Student Union, Black Student Union, Feminist Student Union, Gender Sexuality Alliance, Jewish Student Union, Latin Cultural Union, Multicultural Union, and Muslim Cultural Union.

The Families of Students of Color affinity group also gathered regularly this school year. The group, now in its second year, aims to facilitate ongoing small-group discussions and to solicit feedback from parents and guardians of students of color that is used to inform future initiatives, programming, and planning at Ellis. The group gathers periodically for topic discussions, research exploration, parent networking, and needs identification relevant to the group’s focus.

Middle School English Teacher Gina Kilpela and Director of Equity and Inclusion Ciera Young have also reimagined the faculty-led Ellisians for an Inclusive Community (EFIC) group where faculty and staff gather to engage in dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion at Ellis. To reinvigorate this long-standing Ellis group, Ms. Kilpela and Ms. Young shared with the faculty various articles to read throughout the year and then provided the opportunity and space to come together to share insights and discuss how the articles and relevant research could be applied at Ellis. Persistent professional development equips faculty and staff with the awareness, reflection, vocabulary, and bravery that it takes to ensure that Ellis is a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for all members of the community.

Many of the conversations held by EFIC focus on access, opportunity, culturally responsive instruction, and advancement for all students while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent full participation. Ms. Kilpela says, “EFIC work is about creating time and space for faculty and staff to dialogue—to speak up, listen, and reflect.” The group also focuses on creating environments in which individuals or groups feel welcomed, respected, and valued enough to participate fully on campus.

Research shows that diverse groups are more successful and innovative than homogeneous groups and force members to think creatively and critically and better anticipate and incorporate alternative viewpoints. Many examples of this can be seen playing out among Ellis girls both on and off campus this year. By empowering students to embrace their full identities and the identities of their peers, and learning how to use their voices not only on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of those who are marginalized, an Ellis education fosters girls who are prepared to take action.

Ellis girls spoke up and took action in support of empowerment, equality, and inclusion in a variety of ways this year. From participating in Ellis’ first-ever Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Celebration and Service to open forums about the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh hearings and #MeToo movement, from planning and hosting the fifteenth annual Culture Jam student diversity conference to attending and then educating Ellis community members about their experiences at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), Ellis girls are taking an active role in important conversations and implementing efforts to affect change in ways that are meaningful to them and their communities.

The administration, faculty, and staff of Ellis are more dedicated than ever to growing girls who are genuinely curious, intellectually ambitious changemakers—the kind of young women who are committed to making the world a better place for themselves and others. Changes in place for the 2019–2020 school year and beyond serve this vision moving forward, and, at their core, are designed to instill the confidence, empathy, and skills girls need to reach for their goals without inhibition.

While you can always count on a few constants—a steely resolve that “snack” is the most important meal of the day, celebratory pounding on the backs of auditorium benches as a sign of support, and a fierce competitive spirit whether you find yourself at WPIAL championships, science competitions, or even the ever benevolent Green and White games—the only other constant at Ellis is change. From updates to the curriculum or revamped daily experiences, at Ellis, spaces, activites, and programs are continually being reevaluated, renovated, and revised in order to best serve girls.

By implementing meaningful, sustainable changes in a purposeful, intentional manner, Ellis will continue to prepare girls for challenges and opportunities that don’t even exist yet. Guided by our goal of developing confident, resilient young women who are empowered to lead lives of purpose, Ellis will continue to evolve, while staying true to its roots of being a place where girls delight in learning, take risks, test hypotheses, and become courageous and independent—leaving campus ready to be brave, bold changemakers in the larger world.