Ellis Entrepreneurs Back in Business

Earlier this spring, Joy’s Gym came alive with an exuberant energy that echoed across campus. The entire Middle School community gathered to see the creativity of Ellis’ fifth and sixth graders on display, filling the space with the hustle and bustle one might find at a real-world artisan market. Festive booths showcasing unique products lined the gym’s perimeter, and students excitedly demonstrated their creations, rattling off sales pitches and counting stacks of brightly colored “Ellis bucks.” Following a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and after undergoing a strategic refresh, Ellis Entrepreneurs has made a triumphant return.
A highlight of the Middle School curriculum, Ellis Entrepreneurs is an interdisciplinary program in which each fifth and sixth grader designs a product of their own choosing. To decide what they will make, students first conduct market research by comparing their own product ideas to what’s currently being sold, taking note of what similar products cost, and thinking about how they could make their own model different. Once they’ve chosen which product they’ll create, students take inventory of what they think they’ll need to make their item, draft their materials list, and dive into the iterative design process, eventually landing on their final prototype. The fifth and sixth graders then calculate their unit price (based on the value of the materials used to create their product and how long it took them to make it), minimum selling price (what they need to sell their item for to cover their production and labor expenses), and the final selling price they want to assign their item. 

At this point in the program, the students are ready to open for business and put their creations up for sale, and it’s this aspect of Ellis Entrepreneurs that Head of Middle School Jenn Moynihan and Middle School Math Teachers Cara LaRoche and Kristy Tomashewski most wanted to target as they reimagined it for the 2021–2022 school year. Though in past years students would mass-produce their creations and offer them for sale to their peers, who would in turn pay for those items with real money, it was decided that this year's sale would instead take place as a more streamlined simulation. Each fifth and sixth grader produced one prototype of their product to exhibit in a mock marketplace set up in Joy’s Gym, and all middle schoolers were invited to attend the market to browse the items on display, offer feedback, and use pretend money to indicate which items they would buy or invest in if they were actually being sold.

“With this being the first time in a few years that we’ve been able to hold Ellis Entrepreneurs, the Middle School was presented with an interesting opportunity to look at the goals of the program, determine what worked well in the past, and identify what could be improved,” explained Ms. Moynihan. “There were some aspects that we wanted to be more thoughtful about in order to make the experience more equitable and accessible for everyone, both in terms of what the students were creating as well as the ‘buying’ part of the market. This is why we decided to shift from using actual money to doing it as a simulation where all middle schoolers would be given the same amount of ‘Ellis bucks’ ($50) to spend. We also put a $20 cap on how much real money students were allowed to spend in order to create their product, and we asked the students to only make one prototype so they could better manage their time and focus more on other elements of the project.”

Another noticeable change to Ellis Entrepreneurs for this year came in regard to timing. Instead of having the program lead up to students selling their items at the Ellis Parent Association’s Holiday Shop in December as was done in prior years, Ellis Entrepreneurs shifted to the second half of the school year for 2021–2022. The May Market was then introduced as a standalone spring marketplace event dedicated to showcasing the craftsmanship of the fifth and sixth graders. Each student was assigned their own booth to display their product and any marketing materials or signage they may have created to accompany it, some of which was created as part of a graphic/advertising unit in their visual arts class. Moving the event to later in the year granted students more time to work on their projects without the interruption of Thanksgiving Break, and it also proved to be valuable in how the timing of Ellis Entrepreneurs aligned with what the students had learned so far or were currently learning in their math courses.

“It’s really beneficial that Ellis Entrepreneurs happened later in the year because by the time the students were really getting to work on their products and the May Market happened, more of the math curriculum had been covered, including all of the decimals content,” explains Ms. LaRoche, who serves as Math Department Chair and has co-advised Ellis Entrepreneurs alongside Ms. Tomashewski for the past five years. “Especially when they were cranking out unit prices, it was nice to be able to reinforce the skills they had already learned in class.”

Ms. LaRoche shares that though there was early talk about transforming the May Market into a fully digital experience, she felt some lessons that the Ellis Entrepreneurs program offers are best learned in person.

“We felt it was important to have the students practice how to count money, make change, and conduct a sale, so we left it more similar to what they would have to do if they were selling their items at a real market,” she shares. “To me, this is the epitome of problem-based learning. They’re getting hands-on experience that can help them solidify their understanding of math concepts now that they’re being provided with this specific context. They’re also hopefully gaining an appreciation for how and why items are assigned certain prices and the time that goes into creating something.”

Though Ellis Entrepreneurs may have changed in some ways, the ingenuity and creativity of the students remain the brightest hallmarks of the program. The May Market offered an especially diverse array of products ranging from “Snail Polish” (scented nail polish) to custom pet clothing to handcrafted stuffed animals and beaded jewelry. The student creators of the top three best-selling and top-earning products each received a gift card reward, but the true value of Ellis Entrepreneurs goes far beyond anything money (whether real bills or Ellis bucks) could buy.

“My own biggest takeaway of Ellis Entrepreneurs was the sheer giddiness of the whole experience and how much energy, joy, and pride in the work the students presented,” remarks Ms. Moynihan. “They learned a ton, they worked really hard, they had so much fun doing it—and it was not for a grade or a specific class. It was learning for the joy of learning, and I think that really speaks to what our interdisciplinary program is all about. When learning is meaningful and students have choice and can be creative in how they can demonstrate their comprehension, I think that’s when the absolute best outcomes occur.”
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