Cultivating Changemakers on Tiger Days

Changemakers. The word hangs on banners adorning Ellis campus buildings and hallways, is more and more frequently used to describe catalysts for change, and holds a lot of gravitas. But what does it mean? How do we cultivate changemakers at Ellis?
Ellis teachers know their students will enter a world where challenges and opportunities are ever-evolving—a world in which they’ll need to solve problems that haven’t yet been discovered, to think creatively, to learn new concepts and skills they’ve never needed before. They want them to be ready to not only succeed but to excel in this world. 

This is why our Middle School teachers are in the midst of designing new programming for students in grades 5 through 8, aptly titled, “the Changemakers Curriculum.” Middle School teachers will implement and integrate this new, contemporary curriculum throughout the school year on Tiger Days, using designated co-curricular time to delve deeper into Integrated Studies projects and hone skills that prepare girls to be flexible thinkers, teammates, and contributors.

“In order to design excellent interdisciplinary and project-based learning, teachers must have time to plan and students must have time to explore, collaborate, and reflect on these projects,” shared Michelle Rust, Head of Middle School. “We began planning for this work in July with intention and purpose by establishing goals and a framework. This early planning will allow for teachers to look for and emphasize connections early and throughout the year, thus creating more meaningful content. “

During opening week for teachers, Middle School faculty members dispersed into grade-level teaching groups to brainstorm activities, analyze content areas, and develop lesson plans to build the curriculum’s framework. Amy Sidari, Grade 5 Dean and Teacher, challenged her fellow grade 5 faculty members to think of ways to incorporate the initiative into the Ellis Earthkeeping Experience (E3), grade 5’s Integrated Studies project that explores the basic tenets of environmental sustainability. 

“We want to introduce activities and experiences that empower the girls to know what’s possible even at age 10. The goal is for them to know that they can make a difference now and inspire them to continue that work as they get older,” shared Ms. Sidari.

The grade 5 teaching team plans to enrich the E3 sustainability focus by starting a compost collection and/or an electronic recycling day at Ellis, led by grade 5. During their upcoming overnight class trip to Lutherlyn Outdoor Center, girls will get a firsthand glimpse into what “going green” means as they visit a house with solar panels and discuss different forms of energy. 

Being a changemaker doesn’t just mean focusing on the larger world and enacting global-scale change; it also means learning the social and emotional skills needed to impact change on an individual level. 

In grade 7, girls will look inward at their own identities to enrich their understanding of themselves and their classmates in order to supplement the year-end Global Pittsburgh project. An exploration of Pittsburgh’s communities and people, the Global Pittsburgh project previously challenged students to investigate Jewish, Asian, Eastern European, Italian, and Latinx immigration histories and make connections to their own lives. This year, students will take ownership of the project by deciding which groups and topics to explore. They'll look at their own stories and nationalities, ensuring that all students’ backgrounds are better understood, discussed and represented. 

“We hope that by breaking down students’ identities, the girls will realize new things about one another and then use that knowledge to play to each other’s strengths,” said Jackie Prepelka, Middle School Spanish Teacher. “Relationships can be a really great basis of change, so that’s where we’re going to start.”

“The girls are really the ones who will shape the curriculum this year, and we [the teachers] will be learning right alongside them,” shared Ms. Prepelka. “It becomes a richer experience for everyone involved when we bridge the gap of collaboration between students and teachers. It’s a work in progress. Throughout this initial implementation, we’ll be modeling flexibility, problem-solving, and cooperation skills to the girls.”

In Middle School, girls begin to ask “Why is this important?” and “When am I going to use this?” as their abilities to consider perspectives and think abstractly develop. In the Changemakers Curriculum, students will see the relevance of their learning as they grapple with authentic problems and scenarios. They will see that in the real world you don't always encounter problems that have one, discipline-specific answer. To find solutions, they’ll need to be able to research, ask for advice, and collaborate in order to come to the best decision—and that’s what the Changemakers Curriculum will instill in them.