Making Group Work Work

In a typical classroom, you might expect to see students working silently and independently at their desks as a teacher lectures from the front of the room. 

Not at Ellis.
Similar to how many new-age workplaces now favor flexible work environments that foster cross-functional cooperation (goodbye, cubicles!), Ellis encourages girls to get hands-on with their work. On any given day, you can see students brainstorming together in our physics lab or collaborating on Color Wars plans in their grade-level lounges. This is because group work is an integral part of the Upper School curriculum.

Ellis students are explicitly taught how to work within a team, build on other people’s ideas, and appreciate different solution paths when working toward a common goal. This happens by way of Ellis teachers who are purposefully creating opportunities and assignments that teach girls the skills necessary for collaboration, like accountability, communication, critical thinking, and time management.

In the Upper School, this begins in grade 9 within the Integrated Studies program—a scaffolded, interdisciplinary curriculum that challenges students to examine and untangle contemporary topics. In Voice & Vision, freshman students take the StrengthsFinder assessment to uncover skill sets and traits they can develop and utilize in a group setting. In Culture in Context, grade 10 students gain valuable inquiry, iteration, and response skills through long-term, client-based projects that prompt them to work collaboratively and find solutions within a team. In Introduction to Engineering Design, juniors apply the problem-solving skills they learned in grades 9 and 10 to create solutions to various real-world challenges, produce ideas, and communicate their findings within a team. The final culminating senior project combines all of these toolsets by requiring every senior to investigate an area of interest outside of regular classes and, in most cases, off campus with members of the local community. 

Throughout the program’s arc, faculty members teach strategies that bolster student-led, collaborative learning, such as using the design thinking process (a human-centered, creative problem solving approach) or utilizing scrum boards (a methodology that parses large-scale projects into smaller, manageable tasks) to keep girls on track and offer new ways of thinking.

But it’s not just the students who are taking part in this work; it’s the teachers, too. Ellis faculty members model collaborative techniques and teamwork for students as they themselves work cross-functionally to teach Integrated Studies classes. This year, Ashley Dotson, Dean of Students, will move into the classroom to co-teach the grade 9 Integrated Studies course, Voice and Vision, with Belle Moldovan, and Pam Gordon, Ph.D., Upper School Mathematics Teacher, will team up with Mr. Rauhala and co-teach Introduction to Engineering Design. 

“I have had the privilege to teach Introduction to Engineering Design with six different teachers in a plethora of different configurations over the years, and I know that the course only works because so many people have contributed to it,” said Sam Rauhala, Upper School Science Teacher. “We have run through our own design process time and time again, learning from our mistakes and pushing out a new prototype for the next attempt. Our efforts to balance tasks and juggle schedules mirror the challenges the girls face in working on these projects, and we strive to model the strategies we offer the girls in their journeys.”

Giving girls the space and time to iterate, learn, fail, try again, and work together as a team positions them to be sought-after colleagues and contributors in their future pursuits. As a result, Ellis students graduate to be the kind of women who enjoy accepting challenges, who collaborate well with others, and who seek to solve problems rather than simply waiting for others to step up.

“What we want to see at the end of the program are groups of students who have gone out into the world with the goal of making it better, one problem at a time,” said Mr. Rauhala. “We want them to use their voices and confidently share their results with the community at large, taking pride in their process and their results.”
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