Tackling a New Normal Together

One of the hallmarks of the Upper School is the focus on interdisciplinary, project-based learning. From partnering with external clients on engineering projects to learning about antibiotic resistance by participating in a nationwide research campaign, Ellis students learn about themselves and their interests from each other, their communities, and the world around them. And while the world and school in 2020 look different, the reality is that Ellis students are gaining more practical, real-world skills than ever before. They’re taking on new challenges with courage. They’re practicing flexibility at every turn. And, notably, they're tackling their new normal together as one school community.
Maintaining the richness of the academic program has been of utmost importance to Upper School teachers and administrators. Ashley Dotson, Interim Head of Upper School, and Lauren Laschon, Director of Teaching and Learning, have worked to establish new routines that incorporate hybrid learning, beginning with a new 10-day schedule. This updated schedule allows for more flexibility for students and teachers if they need to shift to virtual learning, and it also moves all classes off-campus every Wednesday.  

On Remote Wednesdays, the entire Upper School begins their day together in community homeroom to share announcements and news. Periods five through ten are then dedicated to Integrated Studies and CoLab classes so that entire grade-levels can collaborate and complete group work as a team. This designated virtual learning time also allows Ellis to continue partnering with external experts like Sam Bushman for sexual health literacy and Mike Goldstein for standardized test preparation. 

Integrated Studies teachers are finding creative ways to adapt their coursework to the digital landscape. Voice and Vision students in grade 9 will explore podcasting, and Introduction to Engineering Design students in grade 11 will work with on-campus clients instead of external ones. Engineering teachers are also considering a focus on CAD software to allow for 3D printing, laser etching/cutting, or milling for prototyping projects on campus.

“It has been really interesting,” shares Sara Sturdevant, who teaches grade 10’s Integrated Studies course, Culture in Context. “The remote scenario puts a lot more on our students to problem-solve and generate workarounds on their own. Since we won’t be there to hold their hands, we are asking them to take on more responsibility and make it work.” 

In the theater arts space, Ellis musicians and thespians are quite literally banding together as they reimagine what performances will look like in 2020. Glee Club members have taken up residence on the patio outside of Alumnae Hall for choral practice; the Ellis Orchestra has been rehearsing (in special-made masks designed for musicians) as an ensemble from the green space next to the faculty parking lot on Fifth Avenue; and the cast of the fall play is rehearsing, staging, and recording their first-ever masked production. Together with their teachers, Ellis students are managing these new restrictions on performances by learning as they go, adapting as best they can, and refining their skills over time. 

As for clubs, the annual Upper School club fair has moved from Alumnae Hall to an online format, but the enthusiasm for these special interest groups is as strong as ever. In-person learners will host supervised meetings on campus, and remote learners will Zoom in to join their club communities. They will still be student-centered, run, and led and offer space for students to find commonalities and create connections. For Abi Zimmerman, President of Upper School Student Council (USSC), her number one priority as a club leader this year is to ensure that everyone feels welcomed and included, whether they’re remote or on-campus. Alongside her fellow USSC officers, Abi is rethinking beloved Upper School traditions like Color Wars and Homecoming, and considering new ways students can show their school spirit in safe ways.

By establishing routines that address the challenges of learning and collaborating in a pandemic, students and teachers alike can feel a sense of community with one another regardless of their location. No matter the scenario we are required to navigate, our mission of educating girls and young women to become bold, authentic, and intellectually vibrant changemakers remains the same. Everything that makes Ellis, Ellis, is still happening, it’s just being presented in a different way—and with lots and lots of hand sanitizer.