Though it was two years ago, I still remember every detail from my first Culture Jam. I recall shuffling across the scuffed gym floor, scarlet autumn leaves decorating the trees outside. I can still recall the deafening buzz from the voices of unknown students and the towering mass of unfamiliar faces. But most of all, I recall the pounding of my heart and the fear coursing through my veins. My then timid freshman self yearned to be far away from the people surrounding me, who seemed more educated and bold than I could dream of being.
In my first article of the year, I shared four hopes and dreams I have for Ellis students, one of which is for them to develop into the kind of women who are completely undeterred by challenging situations, who enjoy finding creative solutions to tricky problems, and who will leave us ready and committed to effect positive change in the world.
I have had the opportunity to build a lot of things over my years at The Ellis School. There are the things you might expect: lasting relationships with students, a new FIRST LEGO League (FLL) table to accommodate our second FLL team, a Van de Graaf generator (although, I suppose I didn't build this as much as I electrocuted myself trying to fix it). There are things I lent a hand to in building: a handful of aqueducts over the years, a few coats of paints on scenery for the theater (and a light spackling on a pair of shoes I still quite fancy), and the occasional Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science project. At the end of the day though, I think the creation I might treasure most is our Introduction to Engineering Design course, and I'm excited to get to share this with our whole junior class this year.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a panel of Middle School students answering questions from prospective parents. When asked what they liked most about Middle School Tiger Days, one of our students replied that she enjoyed that “we don’t always do straight up learning.” This candid and honest response elicited laughs from the other students and parents in the room, and she went on to describe her favorite activities on those days: electives, field trips, and interdisciplinary work.
Every other Wednesday, all Upper School students engage in CoLab day, a break from the regular cycle schedule which allows them to delve deeply into topics with which they might not otherwise engage. Classes range from Coding, to Health and Wellness, to Financial Literacy.
Recently I received an email from a parent of a current fourth grade student. The subject line read, “The impact of an Ellis education” and the message she shared ended with these words, “We are very proud, and wanted you to know that the education and leadership skills that Gracie receives at Ellis reach far beyond the classroom, even at a fourth-grade level. Thank you for helping us raise a strong, fearless, and empowered girl.”
When I am asked about my profession and tell people that I am the Head of an Upper School (or principal for those not familiar with independent schools), I typically hear one of two responses: people either tell me that they are sorry for me or that they don’t know how I do it. At this point in the conversation, I have the opportunity to explain that my role as Head of the Upper School at Ellis is not typical. Unlike other high school principals, my job does not revolve primarily around discipline and student management. Instead, I have the privilege of spending my time supporting student learning, listening to ideas borne out of ingenuity and initiative, and helping girls find their purpose. It is because I am at Ellis, in a strong community of Upper School women, that my job is not typical.
A few weeks ago, I joined a group for a run. Due to the shorter distance planned for that day, a few people brought their older elementary or middle school children with them. Prior to running, we always have a warm-up, and this day a father and his young son were in front of me. When the instruction was given to skip, the father turned to his reluctant son and encouraged “C’mon, skip like a six-year-old girl and enjoy yourself!” I was surprised by the comment, and it has stuck with me through the opening of school. To be fair, I wasn’t able to ask this parent as to whether he meant a negative comparison such as “running or throwing like a girl,” or if he was encouraging the child to be himself, to let go, and get caught up in the moment without worrying about what others think.
If you have ever asked a five-year-old girl what she wants to be when she grows up, you know that her answer can range from a doctor to a unicorn. And if on Monday, she tells you that she wants to be a zookeeper, by Friday she is certain that she will be a bus driver in outer space. During this stage of life, when a young girl holds such optimistic views of herself and her abilities, the possibilities for who she will be and what she can do are bound only by the limits of her imagination. She is blissfully unaware of the ways gender stereotypes have restricted opportunities for girls and women and the voices she hears the loudest are those of her parents who encourage her to believe in her own worth.
I came to Ellis just over a year ago, excited about the many strengths of the program, the diverse and multi-talented students, faculty, and staff, and the welcoming and warm nature of the School community. I was also excited about the School’s commitment to remaining all-girls, but I was, admittedly, new to all-girls education and curious to experience it for myself. After a year of listening, watching, and learning—of hearing why it matters to our students, faculty, parents, and alumnae and after seeing for myself the spectacular ways in which our girls are growing and thriving—I have become a complete convert to our all-girls mission.
Welcome to the 2018-2019 school year at The Ellis School. It is such a delight to see our beautiful campus brimming with life now that all our students have returned. Families tell us that one of the main reasons they have chosen Ellis is because they are looking for a school where their children will grow truly vibrant intellects. This is one of my very favorite aspects of our school community.
Did you know that famed children’s author Roald Dahl invented over 250 words? This ‘splendiferous’ inventor of snozzcumbers and frobscottle has inspired young readers for nearly 60 years. Fantasy literature encourages creativity and curiosity as readers form mental pictures of the fantastical worlds, zany characters, and action-packed adventures authors like Dahl use to make this genre of literature distinctive.
Middle school is a time of tremendous growth and change for students. They arrive at science class each day eager to share their thoughts, ideas, and questions—increasingly complex questions—about their lives, their communities, and their world. In Middle School science, we celebrate students’ deep curiosity and help them build independence as learners. The starting place is their wonderings, the questions that bubble up as new ideas are encountered.
The start of the school year has always seemed the true new year for me, and I enjoyed spending time last week visiting classes to observe students and faculty prepare for the year ahead. Students in all grades received a syllabus in each class, reviewed procedures for turning in work, and recorded homework in brand new Squibbs or on Chromebooks.
It is wonderful to have Upper School students back on campus and to hear their voices and laughter fill the hallways. As they start a new school year, students speak with excitement about what they will learn in each class and how they will engage actively in a wide range of content.
Past, present, and future collide in the first grade during our exploration of The Ellis School community. Before we begin to discover the story of Ellis’ past, we spend the first month of the school year coming together in supportive play and work to build connections between our team of learners. The positive energy is contagious as students transform a once empty classroom into their home for the year. A stained glass mural appears on a window as girls work together to create something beautiful for a corner of the room meant for quiet and reflection. A class agreement signed by all of the students appears on the wall. It proudly announces the girls’ intention to learn and have fun together this year. Mathematics manipulatives appear on the desks and voices can be heard exchanging strategies about multiple ways to make the sum of ten. First drafts of small moment stories appear that will later become a polished piece of writing worthy of Writer’s Museum.
When my oldest son was five years old, he asked if Santa Claus was real. I answered him by saying that Santa is the magic of Christmas. He replied with another question, “Is magic real?” As a girl who grew up with an Irish grandma who filled my head with stories of fearsome creatures, fairies, and ghosts, this was an easy question. “Yes,” I answered.
I hope you and your daughters have been enjoying the summer and are finding time for rejuvenation, laughter, and joy. The time seems to be flying by! Our Division Heads will soon be sending you all the information you and your daughters need to be ready for the start of school, and I look forward to seeing you all back on campus.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year listening—to students, faculty and staff, parents, alumnae—as a way of gaining a clear understanding of what we value as a community, what we are doing well, and opportunities for becoming an even more remarkable school. Many thanks to those of you who attended one of the community conversations we hosted last fall, or who completed the brief survey of parents we distributed early in the year. Today, I want to share some of the highlights of that feedback and some of the steps we are taking at The Ellis School in response.