In The Driver’s Seat: Introducing Self-directed Learning

From choosing electives to determining what sports teams and clubs to join, Middle School opens many new doors for students in grades 5 through 8. During this transformative time, foundations are laid to foster confidence, courage, and independence in girls—and one of the ways Ellis teachers build that framework is through choice.
For the first time, girls are given varying degrees of autonomy and agency over their schedules, extracurriculars, and time, effectively opening up an entirely new way of learning that they were not exposed to before. The days of staying with one class and teacher all day are long gone; now, Middle School girls become directors of their own learning, instead of just active participants. 

In grade 5, after reading books together as a class for the first half of the year, students are given the option of selecting one of five different culturally-relevant novels to read. The choices—It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas, Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weeks, Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai, The Jumbies by Tracey Baptise, and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia—are written by diverse authors and feature a wide-range of plucky protagonists and cultural themes, but ultimately all speak to the importance of representation and inclusion. 

This “choose your own adventure” assignment is the first of its kind in Middle School and allows students to relate to stories and characters that mirror their own lives, identities, and/or interests. This empowers them to engage with the material at a deeper level, grow a clearer sense of their own values, and use their voices to lead conversations about various culturally-relevant issues that are broached in the books. 

“I find the girls are more invested in what they're reading because many of them can personally identify with the novels,” said Amy Sidari, Grade 5 Dean and Teacher. “They’re invested in the plotlines and characters because they’ve put themselves in their shoes. Oftentimes, this makes them more excited about reading in general and leads to them reading more on their own outside of school.”

Creativity comes into play in grade 6 as girls continue to explore their interests and individuality through writing in English class. Students use the structure of the hero’s journey, a common storytelling template, to craft an original story of their own that fits the hero’s journey pattern. Once again, the parameters are put in place by teachers to guide students in the right direction, but the rest is up to the students themselves. With the decision-making power in their hands, students’ writing is often more honest and compelling because they’ve created their own narratives and infused their unique voices.  

“I try to give as much choice as possible for writing assignments,” said Natalie Dixon-Bell, Grade 6 Teacher. “I want students to decide where their story ends up. Whether they’re writing a whodunit or a fictional narrative, exposing girls to different types of storytelling offers them different pathways to success.”

Students build upon these communication skills and practice new supporting ones through the introduction of interpretive and persuasive writing in grade 7. Argumentative papers, literature discussions, and short essays offer alternative avenues for girls to share their perspectives and forge connections between their interests and the topics they’re studying. Student response journals encourage individual expression and reflection. 

“We’re moving beyond the typical in seventh grade,” said Amy Rigsby, Grade 7 Dean and Teacher. “My goal is for the girls to reach bigger takeaways from their reading and writing. We want them to think more abstractly, consider how characters change over the course of a story, and then challenge them to make connections to their own lives.”

These dynamic opportunities to develop voice through choice culminate in grade 8 when girls write a persuasive research paper. They can choose to research a historic scientific breakthrough, a landmark Supreme Court case, or a turning point in pop culture, but they must prove that their chosen event is one of the most important events of the twentieth century. In order to do so, students call back to the comprehension, writing, listening, and interpreting skills they learned in earlier grades to make their case. 

“The project is specifically designed to allow students to explore a topic of personal interest to them and study it in depth,” said Jeri Simon, Grade 8 Dean and Teacher. “It’s an opportunity for them to pursue a deeper understanding of an event or issue they may already be interested in, defend a thesis, and analyze their topic's impact on the world today.”

By giving girls the chance to exercise their decision-making muscles in Middle School, Ellis students gain a greater sense of purpose, independence, and confidence. They’re fascinated by new novels and unexpected characters, captivated by an author’s distinctive prose, and immersed in their own research because it harkens back to their own lived experiences. As a result, students leave the Middle School armed with the communicative, perspective-taking, and decision-making skills they need to speak up in class, argue their positions, and present their learning in a thoughtful and impactful way. 
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