Tiger Institute to Join Classes, Focus on Special Topics

If you’ve ever been curious about tea traditions around the world, or if you’re looking to plan an art installation or find a good read for your book club, just ask an Ellis middle schooler.

During the last four days of school, students in grades 6 through 8 will participate in Tiger Institute, a new program akin to the mini-courses that have long been held in Ellis’ Upper School at the end of the year.
“We looked at how minis have gone in the Upper School, and that’s become a trademark of Ellis, so we thought, ‘let’s try this,’” Middle School Science and Math Teacher Jaclynn Dame says. “The Middle School teachers worked together this spring to develop Tiger Institute courses based on student interests, mixed with wellness and leadership learning. There are courses in cooking, a mini-musical, and a zine workshop, as well as a book club and an art installation.”

Middle School Division Head Jenn Moynihan says the idea for Tiger Institute came out of a conversation during a deans meeting. Ms. Dame was tasked with coordinating the logistics of the program, which was developed collaboratively by Middle School teachers and leadership.

Tiger Institute will replace capstone projects, which previously took place at the end of the year. Teachers will pair up to lead the four-day courses; students can select their preferred courses, and then are assigned to the one they will take. Each course will include students from different grades, allowing for more collaboration across grade levels. The program will also incorporate health and wellness activities.

“We’re hoping this will let them have a little bit of agency over what they decide to do and they come away from that week feeling excited about it,” Ms. Dame says.

Culinary experience Tantalizing Tiger Treats teaches kitchen safety, such as how to use knives to chop and dice safely, as well as how to follow a recipe to make no-bake treats. The course will also focus on age-appropriate nutrition skills and will teach math in the form of calculating how to substitute ingredients and double recipes.

In another course, students will develop and publish a zine—traditionally, a small-circulation, self-published magazine—writing articles on the topics of their choice. They will also study the history of zines as a literary form and will look at the impact the rise of these publications has had on women’s rights movements.

During Installation Art and Sound, students will find a space on campus they want to transform and will create an interactive art experience in it. This course is inspired by a Middle School field trip to the Mattress Factory museum last year.

The Babysitters Club will focus on child care safety, All About Tea will explore the cultural and historical significance of tea in different countries, and a book club will discuss cultural themes in Karuna Riazi’s A Bit of Earth, a modern retelling of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. In Musical Madness, students will learn, stage, and perform a song from High School Musical

“It feels very much like a liberal arts study,” says Middle School English Teacher Amy Rigsby. “Students are taking all the thinking and learning they’ve had over the past year and applying it in a new way. It’s a great way to end the year with a passion for learning.”

Each day will be split into three sections: wellness activities such as yoga, mindfulness, coloring, or reading; course workshops with their group and House Games, including a flag football clinic and Middle School Olympiad; and a workshop expo where the students will showcase the work they did during the week.

The fifth graders will join in for wellness activities, but will spend these four days on a separate and long-standing project, the Ellis Earthkeeping Experience (E3). E3 helps students develop awareness of their importance to the environment and an understanding of the interrelationships on the earth. Content focuses on energy sources and human impacts on the water, air, and land, as well as ways to mitigate and lessen these impacts. The program will include speakers from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and from the Head of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Activities will include a field trip to the Tour-Ed Mine and a class trip to Lutherlyn Outdoor Center (in the fall).

Ms. Moynihan says Middle School teachers find ways throughout the year to have students make connections with classmates across grade levels, and this is another way to do that. It’s also a nice way to mix things up at the end of the school year.

“Holding Tiger Institute at the end of the school year is a great culminating experience. While these are courses that tangentially relate to their academic classes, these have a focus on just one thing,” Ms. Moynihan says. “We want students to sign up for the one that speaks to them the most.”

Ms. Dame says she’s looking forward to feedback from each class so that teachers can keep updating the program in ways that are interesting to their students. She hopes to reach a point in the future where eighth graders can propose workshops.

But for now, she’s excited to see how this year will play out.

“I’m really just excited to see how the students engage with it, to see them come together and collaborate on something, and to have the teachers be super excited about what they’re going to deliver this week,” she says.

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