Ellis History Helps Second Graders Learn About Themselves

A lot has changed at The Ellis School since its founding in 1916. The school doesn’t sit in its original location. The uniforms have changed over the years. And much of the programming students enjoy today would look like science fiction to Ellis students 107 years ago. But a lot of things—the spirit of camaraderie, the celebration of differences, the pride students feel in the school and in each other—have stayed the same. And change is a good thing.
This is all part of what Ellis second graders learn in their Ellis History Unit, which they study in the fall. The unit includes learning about their own family histories and thinking about who they are in the context of their families and their communities within and outside of Ellis. But students said one of the most interesting things about the unit is learning about the history of the school, and of Ms. Ellis herself.

"I like that we learned about what Ellis was like when Ms. Ellis was the principal and that I learned something new about where she really grew up in Johnstown and the Johnstown Flood,” said second grader Sloane G. She added excitedly, “And I’m glad that she made the school!”

The students also liked getting a close-up look at a recently restored portrait of Ms. Ellis, which has long hung in the school.

"I think she looked like the Mona Lisa,” second grader Margalit K. said.

Second Grade Teacher Katie CILLO Jordanoff ’95 said that an important focus in second grade is thinking about and celebrating who we are, how we are the same as other people, and what makes us unique and different from others. It helps the students build confidence in themselves, while also stoking an intellectual curiosity about history—their own, and the School’s.

"We start the year talking about who we are, and about respecting each other's differences,” she said. "We talk about who we are as a class and how we are a team, and we make hopes and dreams for the year. We also talk a lot about our families and how they make up who we are.”

The students each make a collage of their families, and then they talk about what their names mean; some families visit to share traditions and treats from their heritage. Ms. Jordanoff said it’s an important piece of the grade’s diversity and inclusion goals to make sure students have an understanding of different cultures, many of which are represented by their classmates.

"We celebrate our differences but there are things that bring us together,” Second Grade Teacher Harry Frazee said. "Who you are matters to us. Your family traditions matter. And we talk about the things that bring us together, like that we are all second graders and we’re all Ellis students.”

The last step in the unit is for students to consider how being an Ellis girl defines them. Ms. Jordanoff and Mr. Frazee tee up the conversation by talking about the history of the School, and then special guests visit to share their personal connections to Ellis and teach its history in the process.

Charles Altman, who was a drama teacher at Ellis for many years and voluntarily serves as the School’s historian, has visited in each of the last two years. He teaches students about the school’s founder, Sara Frazer Ellis, and her youth in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in the years after the Johnstown Flood, as well as her career and how she founded the school.

Mr. Altman’s daughter, Sarah ALTMAN Bumsted McSorley '95, and Sarah's daughters Anne Bumsted, Class of 2027, Mary McSorley, Class of 2028, and Katherine Bumsted, Class of 2029,  joined him to share their experiences as a multi-generational Ellis family (Mr. Altman’s wife, Liz SUCCOP Altman ’70, has joined the presentation in past years). Whitney OKONAK Sunday ’98, whose daughter and nieces are currently Ellis students, also joined the conversation about what has changed and stayed the same at Ellis over the years.

The students then took a tour of the school, where they saw each of the headmistress's portraits, and a piece of the mantle from the second location of The Ellis School at Fifth and Negley Avenues; it now hangs in the Upper School. They wrapped up by drawing themselves as Ellis girls and creating a bulletin board with the theme "Ellis girls are…” They will also write essays about Ellis.

“I really liked going on the tour,” said second grader Lana D. "It was cool how we got to see Ellis, but my favorite part was when a lot of people came in to tell us how it was when they were here and hearing how Ellis has changed over the years.” Lana said she also liked learning about Ms. Ellis’ childhood and why she started the school. "I like learning about how she grew up and about how even though there was a big flood in her town she still went on to do something really big, and I also like how she persists. Instead of just stopping when she went to college she made a school only for girls and it turned out to be a big success.”

And what do students like about Ellis today? Sloane, Lana, and Margalit, along with classmate Vera O., agree that it’s the teachers, and all the things they get to learn together.

"My favorite part of Ellis is probably the teachers,” Vera said. "And my favorite thing I’m learning is probably like…well…all of it!”

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