Learning in Community

A great deal of time leading up to each school year is spent thinking about the many dimensions of learning—how do students build knowledge, how do we structure learning experiences so that students with different learning styles can be successful, how do we optimize student engagement and participation, how do we maximize all the benefits that come from learning in a group rather than learning in isolation?
Learning in community is an underlying principle of this approach. As a school, we believe deeply that student learning and growth is enhanced when students are surrounded by, and working with, a wide variety of other learners. They benefit from hearing different perspectives and approaches, they build valuable skills as collaborators and teammates, they form strong friendships, and they gain an important sense of being known, respected, and loved. The 2021–2022 school year afforded Ellis the opportunity to return to tried-and-true ways of learning in community as well as new chances to explore ways to be in community together on campus—something we all missed during the pandemic.

Counting and Community: The Lower School Dances as a Team
A group of enthusiastic fourth graders spring into action when they hear the count, "5, 6, 7, 8!” Caught up in the music, they clap, twirl, sway, and point their fingers. Their Lower School classmates cheer them on, stamping their feet on the gym bleachers in excitement. A brief dance party ensues, with even the teachers and Ms. Finley showing off their moves. What exactly is happening? The Tiger Dance, of course—and also a master class in teamwork.

What the Lower School team worked on over the next few months of the school year was the Tiger Dance, a Lower School Assembly project that was built upon each Friday morning when the students met as a school community. After teaching all students in pre-kindergarten through grade 4 an 8-count of dance moves, Lower School Head Ann Martino tasked the fourth graders with creating the next 8-count. The students worked together on their dances throughout the next week, and the fourth graders taught everyone their new 8-count at the following week’s Lower School assembly. This same process happened week by week until each grade level had a chance to contribute and the full Tiger Dance was complete.

"Everybody got to present what they designed and everyone got to be a part of the process of creating something,” says Ms. Martino. "At Ellis, we teach our Lower School students that their brains (along with their voices, hands, and hearts) are tools they can use to be positive community members. When we put our brains together to work on something and share ideas, we have greater brain power and can create things that are greater than what one person might come up with by herself.”

For Ellis’ youngest students, the Lower School community may be the first group they’ve been a part of aside from their own families. Through the Tiger Dance, they learned not only what it means and how it feels to be a part of a team, but how they can be positive and productive members of a broader community. And while students may have felt like they were just dancing with their friends, there was significant skillbuilding at play. The girls practiced how to express their own ideas, listen to and learn from the ideas of others, and navigate conflict when there are differences in opinion—all vital components of being an effective team member. There was self-exploration as students identified their strengths and what they could offer to their team, and also, Ms. Martino noted, the realization that perfection was not the goal.

"The main concept that I wanted the Lower School students to take away from this experience was that one person can’t do it all; you need to be able to rely on others and have others rely on you. By framing Ellis’ Lower School community as a “team,” we’re creating feelings of security and belonging amongst our students, as well as cultivating responsibility. I want them to know that their classmates and teachers are looking out for them and have their backs.”

After working on their part of the Tiger Dance, the fourth graders were eager to share tips with the other students about how to work together on the project. Ms. Martino gave students the microphone at one assembly so they could offer their younger classmates advice such as "ask around for everyone’s ideas,” "use each other’s strengths,” "be flexible,” and "make sure no one feels left out.”

By the time the dance was complete, Ms. Martino hoped the students felt inspired and excited to see what they’ll do together next. "I hope they felt so proud of themselves,” she says with a smile. "I just love the level of joy and excitement they have to be together here at Ellis and how they are willing to give anything a try.”

Middle School: Bookending the Day with Moments of Community
Place yourself in the shoes of an Ellis middle schooler and you’re in for a whirlwind of a day. The schedule is action-packed, with students bouncing between core classes and club meetings, rehearsals and electives, check-ins with advisors and catch-ups with classmates— and, of course, lunch and snack. For many middle schoolers it still feels very new to dive into an abundant agenda, brimming with lessons to be learned and assignments to be completed; however, there’s a calm not only before the storm of activity, but after it. When Middle School students returned to in-person learning this year, they also returned to a schedule bookended by grade-level homerooms in the morning and advisory study halls in the afternoon four days a week, ensuring that students, their peers, and their faculty advisors started and ended each day the same important way: together.

Every morning (aside from Wednesdays when students had CoLab), Middle School students met by grade for homeroom, along with their grade-level advisors. Once everyone was gathered, students and teachers alike participated in a unified centering activity (such as breathing exercises or yoga stretches), bringing the class community together and starting the day off on a positive, mindful note. Focused and ready to plan for the day ahead, students then had time to share class announcements, receive helpful reminders from their advisors, and ask questions they may have had about their schedules, assignments, or anything else on their minds. Though the structure of this communal time was the same throughout grades 5–8, the morning routine varied slightly by grade to fit the needs of the students.

"You can notice a progression of maturity and independence in how the students start their days, along with an incremental development of organizational and time management skills,” says Jenn Moynihan, Head of Middle School. "Younger students may require more time for making sure they have all the materials they’ll need for their classes, whereas the eighth graders might be working together to plan a fundraiser or reminding their classmates about an upcoming field hockey game. However they need to prepare for their day, we provide space for them to do so. We want to make sure all the students feel included, centered, and called together as a grade before launching off into first period.”

At the end of the day, once the aforementioned whirlwind of classes and activities had subsided, Middle School students were brought back together once again for study hall, but this time in small advisory groups, each supervised by their faculty advisor. Designed to be a calmer, more personalized time, the study hall experience was driven by the students, who could choose to use the period for group projects, independent work or study, or visiting teachers if they needed clarity about what they were learning in class. Most importantly, this was also a time when advisors could have a personalized checkin with each student, which could include anything from working through a social issue to coaching them on how to balance academics with their commitments outside of school. Having this more open access to both their peers and their teachers at the end of the school day encouraged students to talk about and reflect on all they'd learned and feel pride in their accomplishments before transitioning to whatever athletic practice, music lesson, or family function might be coming next. It was a welcome pause, as well as one that built community.

Upper School: Strengthening the Community, One Homeroom at a Time
Looking toward her first year as Ellis’ Head of Upper School, Amanda Finigan aspired to spend as much time as possible getting to know her students and school community. She also wanted to find a way to amplify student voices, giving all students the opportunity to speak and be heard both in and out of the classroom in respectful and constructive ways. One key to achieving both of these goals has been the transformation of community homeroom, an initiative that strengthened the Ellis Upper School community this year one morning at a time.

Formerly a once-a-week affair, community homeroom evolved into a daily part of the Upper School schedule. Even when the school year was at its busiest and Upper School students found their calendars peppered with exam dates, athletics practices, and after-school commitments, community homeroom granted them something they may not have had otherwise: time together. Grades 9–12 united for community homeroom four days a week, meaning they had four chances to see and connect with peers in other grades with whom they didn't share classes or activities.

In a traditional school setting, it’s the teachers who do the teaching. During community homeroom, however, students had not only the opportunity to talk but to listen—and, in turn, learn from each other. A shared experience beyond the classroom, community homeroom gave students a platform to use their voices and speak about subjects that are important to them.

"Announcements don’t always have to be about school,” says Ms. Finigan. "Students used the space to speak about whatever was relevant in their lives at the moment, whatever might have been meaningful to them that they wanted their classmates to know about. Students shared stories about their families, taught us about their heritages and the holidays they celebrate at home, and gave all of us a chance to know them better. More and more students signed up to speak as they saw that others were sharing— how it came together was really beautiful.”

When it came to making an announcement in community homeroom, there was no winging it. Students signed up to take their turn at the podium in advance via email, as well as shareda script of what they wished to say and any slides or additional materials. This provided students with plentiful opportunities to exercise their planning and preparation skills, as well as gain experience and confidence presenting. Though it can be daunting to speak in front of a crowd, by doing so consistently—and in an encouraging environment where friends were there for support—the intimidation factor faded and students focused on getting their point across clearly. Making an announcement might only entail speaking for a few minutes, but from getting comfortable using a microphone to practicing their diction, students improved their public speaking savvy with every word.

It was also an opportunity for younger students to look to older girls as their role models, a responsibility that students in higher grades, such as Student Council President Anna Balich, Class of 2022, took seriously. Anna, who helped emcee community homerooms between student announcements, especially appreciated that the new homeroom structure gave her the opportunity to connect with students in other classes more consistently. "Being alongside all of your peers in the morning and, in a way, getting to wake up with them is a great way to bond without having to specifically plan something during or outside of school,” Anna shares. "As a senior at Ellis, I can genuinely say that our Upper School is like a family. We love each other and are so close with one another. Coming into homeroom each day, looking out at my sea of classmates, and seeing everyone smiling and laughing and pounding the backs of the pews is the best feeling.”

Looking Forward: Continuing Together in Community
Looking ahead, the focus on community extends beyond each classroom as Ellis continues to be a place where every student and family feels welcome, appreciated, and respected. While navigating a pandemic was certainly a challenge for many schools, it proved to be an opportunity for the Ellis community to refocus on one of its beliefs: that relationships are key to learning and growing. Because of our close-knit, all-girls environment, Ellis girls develop uniquely strong bonds with their classmates and teachers, the kind that our alumnae regularly tell us last a lifetime and that provide real mentorship and support for decades.