Although the start to the 2020–21 school year has been unlike any other in my tenure at Ellis, there are facets of the experience that remain unchanged: the excitement of students seeing each other after a long break, the refresh in campus spaces as we prepare to welcome those students back, and the faculty collaborating on pedagogy and curricula. As we learned this past spring, what brings us together as an Ellis community is much more than our physical campus. It is, however, so wonderful for us to be back together in person, even though it looks different than it has in the past.
As I write this, we are just wrapping up our fourth week of school, with the vast majority of our students attending on campus and others connecting with their classes from home. Given the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus, every day that we can operate on campus this year is a gift. I am so thankful to all the members of our school community—teachers, staff, students, families—who are working hard to make this possible. If we do have to shift to fully remote at any point, these first weeks together have provided a wonderful foundation of relationship building between teachers and students, enhancing our ability to learn together all year long, regardless of any shifts in our modes of operation.
I typically address my letters to you as “Ellis Families” but today I’m writing you as the Ellis Family for a reason. The last months have required a lot of all of us as individuals, and I’ve been so impressed by the stories many have shared with me about how they have weathered this unprecedented time. Most of those stories have involved reliance on families—small or large, nuclear or extended, related by blood or bonded by friendships. When we function well as families, we stick together during challenging times, we stay committed to each other even when we see things differently, we watch out for each other, we think as much or more about the needs of others in our family as we do about our own. And we laugh and play together, celebrate our successes together, and learn and grow together.
On behalf of the Ellis Parent Association (EPA), it is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2020–2021 school year. It is an extraordinary year and will prove to be a memorable one. As a parent-led organization, we are making a few transitions this year. We anticipate these changes will help us to serve you better and help to create enjoyable memories for you, your family, and our community.
I’m no Pollyanna but I have been reflecting on the benefits that have come from our remote learning experience. While this may not be the preferred way for students to learn and teachers to teach, the experience has certainly brought some things into sharp focus. As the Chair of the Performing Arts department and a member of the Visual Arts and Integrated Studies departments, my vantage point has been through a wide-angle lens.
As a middle and high school student, I liked mathematics because, as I saw it, there was one clear path to the correct solution. I thought that if I followed the prescribed steps correctly, I would come to the correct conclusion. As my knowledge and experience with mathematics deepened, I realized I was mistaken in my assumption of “one clear path.” Now I see that the beauty and joy of mathematics come from the huge variety of approaches that a group of creative minds can produce.
One afternoon when I checked my calendar for the following day, I noticed an entry that looked unfamiliar. It read “meet with JLA.” After checking with Mrs. Sunday, I learned that three third graders, Julia, Lena, and Amelia, had stopped by and requested a meeting with me. I noticed it was scheduled during recess and thought it must be something important if the students were giving up their recess to meet.
As we conclude the second trimester and begin to look towards 2020–21, we begin to work through the course selection process. Through this process, I have many conversations with students about their schedules for the following year. As they think through their options, there are inevitably competing priorities (number of APs vs. extracurriculars, for example) and many varied paths a student can take.
How do you solve an open-ended problem? Should you follow your gut and go with your first idea? Or take the time to plot out multiple outcomes before you commit? Grade 11 engineering students are learning the power of the process. Dr. Gordon and Mr. Rauhala share more.
Janet’s Gym will be abuzz with creative problem solving on Sunday, April 26 from 1:00–4:00 p.m. when Ellis hosts our second Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival (JRMF). Students in kindergarten through grade 8 will collaborate, share ideas, and investigate multiple solution paths as they play games and solve a variety of puzzles under the guidance of Ellis’ wonderful faculty, staff, and Upper School students.
Third grade students are natural innovators at play, quickly repurposing items to find workarounds for problems they encounter. In the classroom, though, the same child who knows a hundred uses for a jump rope believes there is only one way to solve a problem and that the faster they answer, the better. The goal of math instruction during this year is to bring the flexibility of thinking seen during play into the classroom. We do this with puzzles, games, small group work, and lots of challenges.
One of the most rewarding parts of my work is spending time with students and faculty members in classrooms. Recently, I was visiting a sixth grade art class as students were learning how to create illuminated letters as part of their year-long study of medieval history. They were given a wide variety of choices as they designed their letter, were provided with demonstrations by Ms. Tonetti Dugan, and were given access to materials and tools.
One of my favorite things about the latter half of December and the early part of January is the homecoming of our alumnae. Almost every day, we have groups of young alums who return to campus to visit with their former teachers, younger students, and each other. Throughout these visits, the one resounding theme is how well-prepared they are for their life beyond Ellis.
The Holiday Shop is one of my favorite days at Ellis, as it gives our Middle School entrepreneurs the opportunity to share projects that they have worked on for several weeks. As a parent of two former Ellis Entrepreneurs, I remember the weeks leading up to the Holiday Shop as filled with laughter, excitement, doubt, and, sometimes, tears.
Why is it important for our students to learn about themselves, their neighbors, and their communities? Ms. Rigsby and Ms. Prepelka share how grade 7 students are looking both inward and outward as part of the Global Pittsburgh Project.
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
This quote from Anne Frank started a recent fourth grade team meeting. Immediately students connected the message and began to think of how they can help make the world a better place—as they are today. One student exclaimed, “I have lots of things that I don’t really need that I can share with others.” As in all grades, fourth grade students regularly put their good intentions into action through service learning projects, and like one fourth grade student said, many of us have more than we need and we can share to help others.
One of the things I most appreciate about my job at Ellis is the curiosity of my students. Even with lessons where I feel like I know the subject inside and out, I’m no longer surprised when a student raises a new thought or idea. Often, their questions are ones I’ve never thought about and require us to learn together. Learning with my students makes me a better teacher, Spanish speaker, and, surprisingly, a more knowledgeable Pittsburgher.
In my Gender and Power seminar, I have made it a priority to not only teach students about the history of gender in modern history, but to create a class that pushes students to apply their knowledge to the present. Rarely do my students read or hear something just for its own sake. Instead, our studies of the past serve as a first step to develop an informed awareness of the contemporary world through the lens of gender.
It’s Friday morning and the Lower School is gathered together in the auditorium for our weekly assembly. Two fourth grade students stand on the stage with a wall of colorful blocks separating them. They try to reach up over it to take each other’s hand and their fingers barely connect. Each block has a word or phrase written on it volunteered by the students in the audience.