ESSA Helps Ellis Middle Schoolers Build Advocacy Skills

You’ll hear it from fifth-grader Samantha Schiff, and from many other Ellis Middle Schoolers to follow: kids are powerful.
It can be challenging to find outlets for Middle School students like Sam and her peers, who care deeply about current events and social issues, to learn about these larger topics in age-appropriate ways, to build valuable advocacy skills, and to make their young voices heard. This is where ESSA—Ellis Students for Social Action—comes in.

Guided by School Counselor Karen Boyer and Mathematics Teacher and Department Chair Cara LaRoche, ESSA meets every other week. Students talk about current events, climate change, cultural traditions, advocacy, and allyship around student areas of interest with Ms. Boyer and Ms. LaRoche, who work with them to learn more about the topic, develop perspective, and think about how to share their knowledge with others.

“The first morning Ms. LaRoche talked about it was in the first few days of school and we were deciding what clubs we wanted to be in,” Samatha said. “I’m also really passionate about climate change and that was one of the main focuses they were talking about at the start of the school year. I think that’s why I decided to join.”

Fifth grade is the earliest a student can join ESSA; the club is open to students through eighth grade. Samantha said she has also enjoyed learning about the holiday traditions of different cultures, but that she especially appreciated the group’s conversation—led by Middle and Upper School History Teacher Kolby Rudd as a two-part informational discussion—about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Ms. Boyer and Ms. LaRoche said that co-advising ESSA allows them to dig deeper into students’ topics of interest than they often can in their day-to-day work. It also allows them to do that in fun, meaningful, and developmentally appropriate ways, helping students build on skills—especially presentation skills—they gain through classroom instruction.

“They’re learning that they can feel passionate about something, and how to communicate what the issue is to other people in a way that’s understandable,” Ms. LaRoche said. “It just dovetails nicely into what they’re learning in their classes, and supports those presentation skills. We also work with them on the softer skills of listening, and learning that having more information can help build empathy and understanding around things they might not be familiar with.”

ESSA has given Middle School students a place to learn about their own identifiers, including religion, country of origin, disability, and more. In past years, students have taught their peers about their own experiences with ADHD and speech disorders. Those presentations were both empowering for the student presenters, and educational for their classmates, who then had a safe space to ask questions and learn more. Upper School students sometimes visit to talk about the work their clubs are doing, and ESSA students work with younger grades, too. Last spring, ESSA developed a program about recycling for Lower School students and presented it to those classes.

“I got to play a little recycling game with them and others read books to the pre-kindergarteners. This is my favorite experience because I got to interact with the audience that I was speaking to,” said seventh grader Roxie Fink, who has been in ESSA since fifth grade. “It was also a learning experience because I had to explain a difficult topic: how long it takes plastic to decompose. ESSA had to do this with easier words and ideas that younger kids could comprehend.”

Ms. Boyer said it speaks to the power of the social milieu in Ellis that so many students want to be part of ESSA. She said that she and Ms. LaRoche have designed the club to be a safe space, so that when something is happening out in the world that is dysregulating, students can ask questions and learn more.

“To me, one of the big things that comes out of this is helping them realize knowledge is power,” Ms. LaRoche said. “We try to take [the students’] lead on what they’re curious about based on what they’ve heard in the news, or what they hear others talk about, and we put parameters in place to make sure we’re having a good discussion where everyone feels safe. The more informed you are, the more you can decide what you want to do about it.”

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