I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes school communities really strong...what makes them exceptional places for children and adolescents. I hold a deep belief that one key element is for school to be a place where each student feels known, welcome, cared about, and able to be her full self. I was initially drawn to Ellis because it felt, from my first encounters, like a place where this was really true.
In my tenure as Head of the Upper School, there has been a significant shift in our health and wellness curriculum. Our initial offerings included only a grade 9 health class and a sexuality education seminar for seniors; we now provide wellness programming at every grade level and comprehensive sexuality education for all students in grades 9 through 12. We believe this expansion is important, as a student’s ability to succeed beyond their Upper School experience is not only an academic venture but one that encompasses the whole child.
When you think of health and wellness, you might first think of social and emotional well-being. In our physical education and athletics departments, it is our goal to encourage social and emotional health while also supporting our girls to learn about, and practice, healthy habits and fitness within our programs and teams.
On October 29 of this year, the Japanese government announced it had selected Shigeru Miyamoto, a pioneer of the video game industry, as a Person of Cultural Merit, the highest honor a person in a creative field can receive in Japan. Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and countless other Nintendo video games, is the first person in the video game industry to receive the honor.
Sometimes it’s critical for girls to hit the pause or reset button in the midst of a busy day so that they can refocus on their studies and school work. At Ellis, teachers are helping them do just that.
“If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation” – The Dalai Lama
There is plenty of research that supports the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness. Neuroscientists can pinpoint the different parts of the brain that are impacted during different types of meditation. Mindfulness practices can also increase attention, help manage stress, increase self-regulation, and give students a sense of empowerment over their strong emotions.
When I started teaching at Ellis, I taught fifth grade history and worked closely with the fifth grade team. I remember the excitement and joy with which the youngest members of the Middle School approached their learning and the many questions they asked in homeroom as they became familiar with a new division. After moving to the eighth grade team, I was surprised when we were out of homeroom very quickly with few questions. Instead, students were making announcements about sports and performing arts as captains and stage managers, and they were setting up meetings with faculty members to review assignments. This growth is partly due to developmental changes, but I believe that our comprehensive health and wellness and advisory programs––with their emphasis on self-advocacy––are key components to fostering independence and confidence.
When I think of Middle School, I think of authenticity. Ellis girls are authentic. Our students are genuine, vulnerable, and willing to say what they are thinking and feeling—even when it is challenging or difficult for them.
By the time you receive this, many of you will have heard me speak at our October 3 event about the four pillars of an Ellis experience that are at the heart of our new strategic plan. One of the four pillars speaks to our deep belief in the importance of girls developing a strong voice. This isn’t about being extroverted—although many Ellis girls are. It’s about students building confidence in themselves, growing a clear sense of what they value, and using their voices to speak up for themselves and others.
Throughout the Upper School academic program, we provide numerous opportunities for students to develop their voices. Whether it be discussing literature in English, debating concepts in science or questioning solutions in math, Upper School students are regularly encouraged to offer their perspectives.
True, authentic voice rarely comes from one-size-fits-all assignments. While there are standards and expectations of what I am teaching my Middle School English and history students, I find that there are often many different ways students can demonstrate their learning of these standards.
“Hello, Writers!” is the greeting heard at the beginning of writing time in the kindergarten classroom. This year, kindergarten teachers and writers are using an approach called Kid Writing where girls are honored and supported on their individual journey as writers from day one. This is a joyful time of drawing, writing, and sharing based on each girl’s own interests.
Every April, near the conclusion of the school year, Ellis seniors give presentations on the English research that has occupied them for several months. Unlike previous English projects, this one compels students to make intellectual claims that move fluidly between literary criticism and another area of scholarship.
In fourth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hall, introduced the class to a book series that let the reader choose his or her own adventure. I was instantly captivated by the idea that a story could careen off in many different directions and I could experience them all in one book by making different choices. My friend Julie was equally enamored with the books and in no time, we had moved on from reading the books to writing our own adventures. We often spent less time actually writing the stories and more time debating the plausibility of a character suddenly jumping from an airplane when moments before she was running through a rainforest.
I distinctly remember the first time I felt my opinion was heard and valued in school. It was during my senior year, and I was seated around a large conference table with several other students. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Guzikowski, was leading our seminar on Problems in Democracy. We were pretty intimidated by her sharp intellect and ability to dissect an argument, but her interest and careful consideration of our thoughts and arguments earned our respect and trust. She was the reason I decided to become a history teacher.
It's important to start the school year on the right note, which is why Ellis' Lower School teachers spend the first few weeks of the school year focusing on fostering relationships and encouraging collaboration between classmates.
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Sir Isaac Newton’s metaphor describes how knowledge grows by building on prior discoveries and ideas of others. It is one of my favorite quotes to share with our Middle School science students. It reinforces the belief that the best work often occurs within a community of learners who share ideas.
For those of us who care about teaching and learning, there is nothing quite as exciting as the beginning of a new school year. Some of that excitement comes from the wonderful energy students and teachers alike bring after a summer break from school schedules. But much of it comes from the freshness of launching new experiences. Whether they are new to Ellis or returning for their tenth year, girls and faculty come together in new configurations and new spaces to build their new learning communities for the year, and to experience new learning and growth together.
As someone who has lived my entire professional life by an academic calendar, I am always reminded of author Gretchen Rubin’s writings on “September is the other January,” as it brings new beginnings and a fresh start. For the past week, as students were adjusting to earlier wake-up times, gathering school supplies, and reconnecting with classmates, faculty members were designing classroom spaces and engaging with colleagues in planning for the new school year.
When you enter the Ellis Fine Arts building, the first thing you’ll notice is a beehive of activity. From the first day of school, our classrooms are ablaze with lively chatter and energy coming from students of all ages, across divisions. Something particularly unique about the Fine Arts Building: this space is the only place on campus where all three departmental divisions reside in the same building and teach in close proximity to one another.
August is a gradual transition between the long quiet days of summer and the murmur of a new school year. As students slowly return to campus for pre-season athletics, college counseling application workshops, and Touring Tiger orientation, we reshape and refine our Upper School community by inviting a new grade-level into the fold.
Seventeen years ago I moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles, CA. It was December. Day after day of gray skies, freezing rain, and icy streets left me cold—literally. I immediately regretted our decision to leave Los Angeles. I lost all memory of the reasons we had left California and could only recall our time there as a series of outdoor adventures under blue, sunny skies. To add to my distress, my three-year-old son was bouncing off the walls of our new home because he was not accustomed to being indoors. I headed to the parks with my two boys whenever I could, but found them empty. I went to the library for storytime and hoped another parent would talk to me. Then one snowy afternoon, I saw a man on our street herding what looked like three small bundles with snow boots into a minivan. Could it be? A neighbor with children? I decided to investigate.
One of my favorite hobbies is baking. Of course, I love to taste the resulting products, but what I love even more is watching ingredients meld together and evolve into something incredible that wouldn’t exist without that melding.
As we drove to school on one of the last days of the school year, my daughter remarked to me that she felt like the first day of school was not that long ago. When I completed second grade, I don’t remember feeling like the school years passed by quite as quickly as they do now! As Head of the Upper School, it continues to amaze me just how fast the school year goes, and also how quickly students move through their four years of Upper School; the end of each phase is always bittersweet.
When I came to Ellis for the first time in 2011, it was as a Kindergarten Teacher. I worked with the Queen of Kindergarten, Ms. Carol Krescanko, and the wonderful Ms. Karen Chambers was Head of Lower School. I experienced that year as if I had boarded a speeding train that took off on the first day of school and zoomed along non-stop until it came to a halt on the last day of school.
As I contemplate a phrase to describe this school year, I am reminded of a political science professor I had in college. One day, attendance was light in his lecture. Very frustrated, he spent a good deal of class that day emphasizing that to succeed in life you need to put in the work every day, show up, turn in assignments on time, and keep your promises.
As advisor to the Upper School Student Council (USSC), I have observed firsthand the pivotal role our officers and representatives play in creating a strong sense of community and school spirit at Ellis. These students have worked hard all year long to set a tone of positivity and warmth in the Upper School.
In the spring, grade 2 students construct a model of a metropolitan community. Throughout the year, girls practice cooperative learning skills, collaboration, and the fine art of compromise. They use these skills, along with their creativity and problem-solving to tackle the task of creating a city that reflects the real-life elements of a community: downtown, neighborhood, suburbs, and industrial area.
One of the pillars of an Ellis education—being a positive community member—extends to our faculty as well. The Middle School teachers have started a more intentional journey to dialogue, listen, and reflect on their practices so that they can demonstrate for students what it means to positively contribute to the classroom environment and to the larger school community.
During the course of the year, there are many ways in which our programming encourages students to become good people and inspires them to want to do something that impacts the world. Most often, I see these moments of goodness demonstrated in the ways in which students interact with one another. It is in these unplanned, spontaneous moments of kindness that I know just how wonderful our students are.
“It’s important to talk with people who have different opinions.” “We need to include student voices in conversations.” Last week, I listened to our students at The Big Table Pittsburgh event I had the opportunity to attend with several of our Middle and Upper School student leaders as well as Ms. Young, Ms. Boyer, and Ms. Dotson. The event, hosted by Winchester Thurston School, gave students and faculty a chance to engage in conversation over a meal.
In the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans make their homes in the trees. A century ago, the orangutan population flourished. Today, rapid deforestation has decimated the population and orangutans are considered endangered species. Over 9,000 miles away from these Southeast Asian Islands, on a playground in Pittsburgh, Ellis students are worrying about orangutans.
In thinking about the anecdotes we often share about Ellis students, I began to think about these as stories of Ellis girls “saving the world.” Of course, that’s way too heavy a task to ask of young children and teenagers, and yet our girls do make a real difference in the world in so many ways, whether it be class book drives, science projects, or social justice work.
In early December, six Upper School students attended the Student Leadership Diversity Conference (SDLC) in Nashville, Tennessee, and they have been sharing their stories with the Ellis community as a panel in multiple settings: an Upper School Assembly, a Middle School faculty meeting, an Upper School faculty meeting, a meeting with the Ellis Parent Association, and a meeting with the Ellis Board of Trustees.
The Friday before Spring Break, I had “outside” lunch duty. While it was a bit blustery, the majority of Middle School students were in the courtyard enjoying the sun and blue sky. Walking around, I noticed a large group of students playing kickball on two multi-grade teams and a group of grade 8 students enjoying lunch on Arbuthnot porch. I spoke with some grade 5 and 6 students eating lunch near the porch swing, asking how the transition to Middle School had been.
I believe one of the most unique and compelling aspects of the Ellis experience centers on the many ways in which girls develop confidence here. However, just as we celebrate there being no one way to be a girl at Ellis, and no one way to be successful here, growing confidence is not a “one size fits all” journey for our students.
It’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you get back up. Lower School Physical Education Teacher Michelle Sauer-Cook discusses the role perseverance plays in her class and why she decided to include football in her curriculum.
Growing up, I lived on a dead-end street. There were only nine houses on the street, but there were 16 kids among the families on Glen Road. On a summer day, with the windows open (nobody had air conditioning), you could hear a steady hum of children’s voices punctuated by shouting, laughter, and crying. Another noise that carried through the windows was the sound of piano music.
In Liz Gray’s Public Speaking class, freshman students learn far more than how to sharpen their presentation skills. In this video, Ms. Gray explains the importance of accepting mistakes, the value of being vulnerable, and how both help build confidence.
When Cara LaRoche reflects on what it means to be a changemaker, she doesn’t only think of the outspoken leader in her classroom, but also recognizes the quiet, reflective student who leads by example. To her, this alternative style of leadership also embodies what it means to be a changemaker.
Using math is an essential skill in many fields to bring about change. Scientists, engineers, and other professionals apply mathematics to aid and clarify research. I teach math to grade 4 students as being comprised of two main components.
I had the wonderful experience earlier this winter of returning to Philadelphia for a second visit with our alumnae there. My first visit took place back in June 2017, one week before I was to start in my role as Head of School at Ellis. I remember returning from that June trip and telling my husband Peter that I was more excited than ever about starting at Ellis after meeting those Philadelphia alumnae.
I recently sat down with seniors Katharine Ference and Sydné Ballengee, who led the Upper School Varsity Basketball team to the playoffs for the second time in four years. Now co-captains, Katharine and Sydné joined the team in ninth grade and felt no pressure that year as five starting seniors led the team to the playoffs; they were there to enjoy the ride, but not as contributing members of the team.
In September, grade 1 teachers Betsy Gianakas and Caroline Lynett introduced their students to a classroom routine they would continue for the whole year: recording the titles of each book they read at school in a book log. Each girl was given her own book log, and the teachers demonstrated how the students would record the title and date after completing a book. I imagine that as the girls looked at the piece of paper with one empty line after another running down the page, they had different reactions.
In 1999, U.S. journalists and scholars selected the top 100 news events of the 20th century. As part of the grade 8 history curriculum at The Ellis School, students write their first scholarly research paper about one of those events.
Back in 1990, Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor at The Ohio State University, wrote profoundly about books being both windows and mirrors. The metaphor is elegant and true, and it has been used ever since to help articulate why diversity in literature is so important.
Last week I chatted with a grade 8 student working in the Middle School lounge as she was exploring some possibilities for her history research paper. She mentioned several topics she was considering, but noted that she knew she had found her #1 topic choice because “I feel like I’m reading a novel I can’t put down when I research this topic!” This anecdote illustrates the critical importance of a strong curriculum that emphasizes academic knowledge and skills and integrates rich opportunities for exploring individual interests and emerging passions.
I have always believed that all children are born with a great deal of natural curiosity, and one of the most important, and joyful, jobs for parents and schools is to feed that curiosity as children grow and develop. For those of us who enjoy campfires or wood-burning fires in our homes during these very chilly months, I think of our jobs as taking the small beginnings of a fire and continuing to stoke it with just the right fuel at various moments to create a strong and durable source of power, warmth, and beauty.
When my children were little, one of their favorite books was Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day. This mostly wordless book features Carl, a responsible rottweiler, who takes care of the baby and the house while the parents are out. As soon as my kids were able to string sentences together, they took over “reading” the book, using the pictures to tell their version of the story. I was reminded of the Carl book the other day when I went along to the Carnegie Museum of Art with the Lower School students.
In their senior year at Ellis, students expect to gain privileges, apply to college, and graduate ready for the next phase of their life. Beyond these rites of passage, students are also prepared to launch through several formative senior year activities: the Senior Project, Senior Thesis, and Senior Seminar. It is because of their engagement with these intellectual ventures that our students walk across the commencement stage well equipped to tackle their collegiate careers.
In third grade, we start off the year by reading a book about a young girl who meets an astronaut. The astronaut gives her this advice: “Big things are really little.” The girl comes to understand that this means she can tackle any big issue or problem if she takes it one step at a time. It is a great analogy for third grade.
The profile of many Ellis girls is that of a decidedly successful girl used to achieving at a high level. This makes these students wonderful to teach: they are motivated, want to move forward, and love to understand. Finding ways to challenge them in the classroom on a regular basis is a fascinating problem, but an important one.
There are many unique experiences and approaches at Ellis that foster the growth of self-confidence in our students. I believe this is one of the most important, and distinctive, aspects of the Ellis experience. We are particularly committed to this aspect of our work because we know it is vital to a girl’s sense of self-worth and happiness. At the same time, the larger culture does not always support this kind of growth, meaning we have an even more important role in this dimension of a girl’s development.
As I watched the Ellis Tigers approach the robot table a couple weeks ago at the FIRST LEGO League Grand Championship, I was impressed with their excitement and self-assurance. They couldn’t wait for their turn to run their mission in this coed challenge, and they were calm under pressure when their robot experienced some difficulty.
Recently, a group of fourth graders came to my office with a letter describing their dissatisfaction with the ice cream treats served in the cafeteria. Additionally, the letter included suggestions for improving the ice cream selection. This is not the first time I had heard complaints about ice cream.
One of my favorite times of the school year is the window of time right before winter break. I love the traditions of the Young Alumnae Ice Cream Social, advisory holiday parties, and Ellis Idol, our annual Upper School talent show. During this time, I’m sure to see recent graduates walking through the hallways, and their comfort in and familiarity with the Upper School makes it appear as if they never left.