For Ellis Second Graders, “Fighting for a Cause” Begins in the Classroom

“Mary McLeod Bethune!” “Susan B. Anthony!” “Rosa Parks!” “Ruth Bader Ginsburg!”

These are just a few of the changemakers’ names that Ellis second graders shouted out when asked who they’re excited to learn about in their Fighting for a Cause unit, a Discovery Unit that focuses on people in history who stood up for positive change and advocated for the rights of others.
The students are only a couple weeks into the six-week study, but their lessons have already been hugely impactful.

“It’s important to study changemakers so that we can become changemakers,” said Kalea L. “Without them, we wouldn’t have Ellis. If we didn’t have changemakers, we wouldn’t have a school for girls.”

“I like Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Margalit K. “Did you know she was actually a lawyer that helped people pay the bills? I read that!”

Second grade teachers Harry Frazee and Katie CILLO Jordanoff '94 said this is a wonderful unit about American civil rights heroes—one that they like to teach, in part, because it’s so much fun to see the students develop passions for causes that are meaningful to them.

“We do read-alouds about people like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, and many others,” Mr. Frazee said. “We especially talk a lot about women’s history and the right to vote, teaching them about Susan B. Anthony.”

“They get really emotionally invested in the unit because we talk about how women didn’t have the right to vote. Coming from an all girls school, of course, they’ll say, ‘That’s not right!’” Mrs. Jordanoff said. “They get passionate about it for sure.”

Discovery Units, part of Ellis classes from Pre-K through Grade 2, focus on a specific topic for the purpose of taking a deep dive into an area of interest while learning about the larger impact of that topic and broadening students’ perspectives. These units also provide background knowledge and texts at a higher grade level that expose students to vocabulary that will help them with their reading comprehension.

An important part of this unit is teaching students what fighting means when you’re fighting for a cause, Mr. Frazee said. He and Mrs. Jordanoff stress that it’s not about getting into a fight, or about trying to fight with someone. Rather, it’s about having the courage to do something difficult—especially when you know that the thing you’re fighting for will help other people. Studying certain people in this unit, such as Jackie Robinson, also opens discussions about injustice, discrimination, and racism. Mr. Frazee said these are opportunities to teach students about the power of words, why it’s important to be aware of sensitive language and outdated phrases once used to describe people, and why we don’t use that language now.

At the end of the Fighting for a Cause unit, students will choose a changemaker and write a short biography about that person. This is framed as a research project and teaches students to use multiple sources and learn to rephrase what is written into their own words—the basics of the research process that they will use in classes throughout their time at Ellis.

“It’s a pretty big project for second graders, but they’ve really impressed us with how much they’ve learned,” Mrs. Jordanoff said. “They really become experts on their changemaker.”

At the end of the year, the students will be asked to think about a cause that’s meaningful to them and create a presentation for their peers about that topic. In the past, students have talked about climate change, recycling, and homelessness, among other topics.

“This is a pretty bold unit,” Mr. Frazee said. “We’re mindful of the students’ age, because there can be some hard history here, but the stories we study are hopeful. It complements the mission of our school, looking at how we become a better society where everyone has a voice and there’s equity.”

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