Raising Her Voice

The Ellis Auditorium is never really empty. Even when its seats are vacant and the stage is bare, the air tingles with excited, eager energy, left over by the generations of girls who have made their musical debuts, presented speeches in front of peers, and shared big, imaginative ideas within its walls.
Just as communities the world over gather in town halls, students in the Ellis community come together in the auditorium, fittingly located in the heart of campus. Upon entering, anything from an inspiring career panel to a thought-provoking play to a renowned diversity speaker can be found gracing the stage, sparking enthusiastic conversations that spread like wildfire throughout the School. As any alumna knows, the development of a confident voice is an Ellis education trademark. The auditorium serves as Ellis’ epicenter, where girls learn to leverage those voices on behalf of themselves and others to impact positive change.

Starting as early as Lower School, students are encouraged—and even challenged—to voice their perspectives and have opinions about the world around them. One instance of this occurs weekly, right on schedule at 8:45 a.m. on Friday mornings, when girls in pre-kindergarten through grade 4 meet in the auditorium for a Lower School assembly. At any given gathering, you might hear grade 1 students giving a prepared, group presentation—complete with rehearsed lines and coordinating posters—about overcoming fear, or perhaps a  pre-kindergarten class leading the audience in song. Visit on a different occasion and there may be grade 3 students performing a skit, a group lesson in American Sign Language, or a student-led discussion about what it means to be a friend. You might wonder what confidence-building progress could possibly happen in the span of thirty minutes, but according to Ann Martino, Head of Lower School, you would be surprised.

“Getting together once a week in an auditorium may seem unremarkable, but something extraordinary happens here,” says Ms. Martino. “Whether students spend that time celebrating birthdays, listening to stories, sharing ideas and knowledge, or singing, they are growing in their understanding of who they are and what is important to them.”

Ms. Martino also describes the assemblies as vital to building a strong, connected community of learners. “Students learn how to present information—each grade is thinking in advance about what they want to share with the group. They’re preparing and practicing what they want to say, and how. All of this contributes to an understanding of having courage, how to be self-assured, and how to connect with those listening to you. We’re teaching girls that their voices are a gift they can—and should—share with others.”

Of course, it’s not just what you say but how you say it that’s important, a lesson that students learn well as they advance at Ellis. A foundational grade 9 course focused on preparation and presentation skills, Ellis’ required public speaking class is taught by Elizabeth Gray. A formally trained actress, Ms. Gray’s experiences at the Royal Academy in London, the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and on theater and film stages across the country uniquely position her to showcase the importance of speaking with poise and confidence when addressing a crowd, and how to do so in a way that empowers others. An unexpected tool she uses to help students accomplish this and think on their feet? Improv. 

“I try to open every class with a few improvisational acting exercises, guided by the two magic words ‘yes, and...’,” says Ms. Gray. “Improvisation is the quickest way to get students comfortable with themselves and with others, and I think Ellis is such a ‘yes, and...’ environment. It’s a space where students say ‘yes’ to propelling a mission forward but also add their own ideas and individuality to it so that, somewhere down the line, someone else can say ‘yes, and...’ to them.”

This “yes, and...” mentality is on full display at the year-end public speaking competition, where girls have just 45 minutes to research and prepare a five-minute address that they then deliver solo in front of an oftentimes packed auditorium. The points the students defend range from silly (Instagram vs. Snapchat) to serious (changing a foundation of the U.S. government), but regardless of the topic, students must develop a thesis statement, form an argument backed by various talking points, and voice their opinion to the crowd.

“Sometimes you only have a short amount of time to get a big point across,” Ms. Gray explains. “They have everyone’s full attention as they talk about their own beliefs and how they feel, and they receive immediate feedback on their involvement in creating an oratorical space. My hope is that students will take what they learn and use it to become future changemakers who know both how to speak and how to listen. We want to build powerful, empathetic thinkers.”

Admittedly, holding the attention of a room can be intimidating, and being able to speak your mind in front of a crowd takes time and careful practice. At Ellis, participation in the theater arts encourages such rehearsal, empowering girls across all three divisions to express themselves through singing, dancing, and acting. By trying on different performance identities, reading scripts aloud, and learning to tell stories through music and movement on stage, girls become comfortable having their voices heard and develop skills and confidence that are transferable to various aspect of their own lives.

“As teachers, the question that we ask ourselves throughout the pre-kindergarten through grade 12 performing arts program is, how do we get girls to have a sense of voice?,” says Sara Sturdevant, Performing Arts Department Chair and Upper School Visual Arts Teacher. “As the students get older, we also start asking, how do we give students tools to be able to express themselves and to make their voices clearer, stronger, and more specific? We are always trying to improve technique and skills, but also allow pure expression and build confidence in doing so.”

With the Lower School Musical, Grade 8 Operetta, and Upper School Play and Musical taking place each year, in addition to individual grade performances and an original play created by grade 5, Ellis girls have plenty of opportunities to experiment with a variety of roles. Oftentimes, they come face to face with characters whose experiences, opinions, and identities are very different from their own, opening up conversations about everything from gender to behavioral psychology. “It’s very terrifying, especially for younger students, to be asked to express things that they normally wouldn’t do or feel,” says Ms. Sturdevant. “When I have students play characters whose point of views they don’t agree with, that’s always a moment of incredible growth. They examine what the difference is between their own perspective and their character’s, and then they try to find the commonality. It’s a challenge, and it makes students more firm in their own beliefs because it forces them to identify what exactly their own beliefs are.”

Echoing Ms. Sturdevant’s sentiments, Ms. Gray notes that while Ellis performers are eager to get inside the minds of characters they don’t immediately relate to, they also don’t shy away from making changes to their characters or lines when they feel it’s necessary to do so. 

“There’s no one right way to do an Ellis theater production,” she says. “The students actively change dialogue and cut things that they feel are non-inclusive or don’t fit our community.”

She explains that multiple grade 8 students—including Corinne Krimmel (Harold Hill), Amelia Reines (Marian Paroo), and Rowan Cain (Marcellus Washburn)—pointed out some problematic stereotypes and plot points they noticed while preparing The Music Man, Jr. (a musical written in 1957) and voiced concern about them. Their solution was to take creative liberties with their characters and play them in ways they found more empowering. “Time changes art,” remarks Gray. “Being able to have reflective conversations with students about what it means to be a woman playing a man or what about a character doesn’t fit you and how to change it to be Ellis appropriate and today-appropriate is important.”

As much practice as students can have using their voices and discussing complicated ideas, there are some events in life you simply can’t prepare for, or that can feel beyond words. As Ellis students returned to school following the tragic shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill on October 27, 2018, emotions ran high. But, as faculty braced themselves for a day of difficult conversations, they were inspired to find that students genuinely wanted to talk about all that had unfolded, not only to move toward healing, but to move toward change.

“The Counseling Office provided grade-level forums and forums by division,”says School Counselor Karen Boyer. “Students shared what they knew, any concerns that they had, and what they were feeling, and in each forum, every single girl who wanted to talk had a chance to, and was respectfully listened to. Almost all of the forums organically became discussions about how the girls could use their voices as Ellis students to advocate for peace-making and more inclusive dialogue.”

The results of such talks were seen and felt at Ellis immediately. The halls became a sea of blue as students dressed to reflect their solidarity with Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Students of Jewish heritage began using Middle School meeting time to gather and talk to their peers about what it means to be Jewish today, their personal connections to Judaism, how their families observe Jewish holidays, and a plethora of other topics. The Middle School Student Council set to work developing a bracelet sale in partnership with the Wakefield School in Massachusetts that raised funds for Tree of Life, and the sophomores reorganized an Oreo sale originally meant to benefit their class fund so that all proceeds would instead go to Tree of Life as well. In addition, before the end of the first week following the shooting, members of the Class of 2019 had designed custom t-shirts and started selling them to support HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. After just three weeks, word of mouth had spread and over 275 shirts were purchased, raising over $5,100. 

“We had to do something,” says senior Sydne’ Ballengee. “It was really inspiring to see how far the sale reached outside of Ellis.”

“The whole process showed us how powerful community can be when you lean on each other to make things happen,” senior Katharine Ference added. “The act of creating and selling the tees brought the seniors together toward a common goal.”

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the actions that took place at Ellis following the Tree of Life tragedy is that all of them, from smaller group forums to wide scale fundraisers, were student- run. Sometimes all it took to bring their ideas to fruition was having someone else to hear them. 

“We, as the adults, didn’t do much except be present and listen,” says Ashley Dotson, Dean of Students. “We let the students take the lead, and from that came this unanimous desire to get out there and do something.” 

“What’s important for people to understand is that so much of this empowerment, through which students were able to stand up and speak about their identities in front of their peers and call for change, started first as one-on-one conversations with an adult,” remarks Ms. Boyer. “It’s incredible how the girls use their voices when knowing they will be listened to and supported when they do.”

The auditorium, the hallways, the classrooms—they all give witness to the transformation students make as their voices flourish. They develop their own perspectives in Lower School; learn various ways to put their voices to work in Middle School; and focus on being eloquent, empathetic communicators with more fine-tuned beliefs in Upper School. By commencement, graduates are prepared to walk across the stage and confidently proclaim how they’re going to make their mark on the future. Through efforts ranging from weekly assemblies to seasonal plays, public speaking competitions to community activism, plus so many more, Ellis girls come to internalize a very important message: my voice matters, and the world is counting on me to use it.

The Ellis Auditorium is never really empty. It’s filled with the echoes of student voices, passed down from class to class, to strengthen those of Ellis girls yet to come. If you listen hard enough you can almost hear them, along with the thunderous, unmistakable sound of generations of hands, pounding on the backs of the pews.

Kindergarten Class Play: Under the Sea
Grade 1 Class Play: A Walk in the Park
Grade 2 Class Play: Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Remembering Mr. Rogers
Grade 3 Class Play: Show Me The Money
Mini Candlelight Recital (Pre-kindergarten–Grade 1 solo performances)
Candlelight Recital (Grades 2–4 solo performances)
Solo Recital (For students who study a performing art outside of school)
Lower School Musical: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jr.
Grade 5 Play: All Sugared Up
Grade 6 and 7 Play: The Tempest
Grade 8 Operetta: The Music Man, Jr.
Middle School Winter Concert
Upper School Winter Concert
Upper School Play: Men on Boats
Upper School Musical: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Mini-course Production: In Her Shoes
Fine Arts Festival Performances
Performance by Design Summer Camp Production